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Murder didn't happen on Ocracoke Island. But with a gunshot wound in the center of Jake Morgan's back, Hyde County senior deputy Kate Michaels knew it had to be murder.
She glanced at Grady Teach, self-proclaimed island historian, who had discovered the body. "What were you doing at the beach so early this morning, Grady?"
Before he could answer, the police equipment bag she'd placed in the sand beside Jake's body exploded in a rush of air followed by the crack of a rifle. She pulled her service revolver from its holster and whirled to determine the shooter's position. The second shot kicked up sand inches from her feet.
Kate lunged for a stunned Grady and shoved him to the ground as another rifle report echoed across the quiet beach. The bullet sailed over their heads. "Stay down. Someone's shooting from the beach ridge dune," she screamed. She turned her mouth to her lapel mic. "Shots fired. Officer needs assistance at beach ramp."
"Ten-four." The reply crackled in the crisp morning air.
Another shot whizzed over their heads, and then silence.
A car engine roared and tires squealed on the pavement of the road that skirted the beach. Kate jumped to her feet and bolted across the two hundred feet of sand and up the hundred-foot-long wooden ramp toward the top of the dune ridge that ran parallel to the coastline. When she reached the road on the other side of the dunes, she looked in both directions, but the car had disappeared.
She ran toward the spot from where the shots had seemed to come—the overwash pass where storms had cut a low section into the dunes. She stared into the sea oats that covered the area. The tall, drooping clusters of seedheads had provided good cover for the shooter.
Kate squatted and parted the long stems to get a better look at the ground around their base. The shooter had also cleaned up after himself. There were no spent shells on the ground.
A siren wailed in the distance, and a squad car, its blue lights flashing, came into view from the direction of the village. Deputy Trainee Doug O'Neil, his gun in his hand, was out of the vehicle almost before it stopped. "What happened, Kate?"
"Somebody took some shots at us. Did you meet any cars on your way here?"
Doug shook his head. "No."
Kate stared in the opposite direction. "He must have gone that way. See if you can catch up to him."
The words were hardly out of her mouth before Doug was back in the car and speeding down the beach road. Kate watched until he disappeared into the distance before she slipped her gun back into its holster and headed down the ramp to the beach.
Grady still lay on the ground where she'd left him. He pushed to his feet as she approached. "I ain't never been so scared in my life, Kate. I thought we was dead for sure."
Kate had known Grady all her life and often laughed about his tendency to make everything that happened on Ocracoke his business. This morning she was sure he had gotten more involved than he'd wanted.
She reached out and gripped his shoulder. "Are you all right, Grady?"
He picked up his straw hat from where it had fallen in the sand and slapped it against his leg. He wiggled his finger between the matted gray hairs that hung over his ears and scratched his head before he deposited the hat back on his head. "Yeah, I'm all right. But I never thought finding Jake Morgan's body would almost get me killed."
Kate glanced back at the body and sighed. "I warned Jake he was going to end up like this. And we almost did, too."
She squatted beside the man lying facedown on the beach and shook her head. Jake Morgan—island bad boy, thief, drug dealer and a thorn in the flesh of law enforcement officers in three counties—had finally met someone who got the best of him. Even when she and Jake started first grade together in the old island schoolhouse, he was a troublemaker, challenging every boy in the school to a fight at one time or another. Regret for the wasted life of a childhood friend welled up in Kate, and she bit her lip.
"Okay, now where were we before the shooting began?"
Grady Teach shifted from one foot to the other. "Ain't you gonna call the sheriff about us almost gettin' killed?"
Kate shook her head. "I'll report this to Sheriff Baxter later, but right now he'd expect me to take care of the investigation. You know there are only three deputies assigned to this island, and one's off duty today. Doug's pursuing the shooter's vehicle. Maybe he'll find something. But whoever shot at us isn't going anywhere. There isn't another ferry off the island until noon. We'll stake out the line of boarding cars and see if we can find anything. Until then, I still have a murder here."
Grady's leathered skin wrinkled into a frown. "You're the law. I guess you know what you're doin'."
Kate sighed. "Now, tell me what happened this morning."
"Before the shooting started, I was just about to tell you that I seen him a-layin' here when I went for my mornin' walk."
"Did you touch anything, Grady?"
"Nope. I called you the minute I seen him. Knew there warn't nothing I could do to help him."
Kate pushed to her feet, propped her hands on her hips and glanced around. With the exception of the dead man at her feet and a shooter loose on the island, it looked like any other morning on the beach. It was still too early for the tourists to spread out across the sand for a day in the sun. The only person she could see was a jogger who approached from the south, his feet splashing a misty spray in the surf.
On the water the sun glinted on the white hull of a lone fishing skiff that cruised up the shoreline. It slowed and anchored about eight hundred feet offshore, its hull bobbing on the waves like the cork on a fishing line.
She turned and studied the jogger, who had come closer. A frown wrinkled her forehead, and she narrowed her eyes in order to get a better look. Something about him appeared familiar.
He reminded her of a movie she'd seen about athletes who trained by running on the beach. With his straight back, arms bent at the elbows and legs stretched in a lengthy stride, he could very well have been trained by her college track coach.
He drew closer, and his gait slowed. She opened her mouth to tell him to move on down the beach, but the words froze in her throat. Surprise flashed across his face as he stumbled to a stop a few feet away and stared at her. Her heart skipped a beat at the sudden revelation—he had been trained by her college track coach.
Kate glanced from the corpse to the runner. Two men she knew well. At her feet lay Jake Morgan, a guy who'd spent several years in prison for stealing. Facing her stood Brock Gentry, a thief of another kind. He'd once made her a victim by capturing her heart and trampling it in the process.
This couldn't be happening. Brock? After all these years, why was he here?
Brock, a surprised expression on his face, stopped a few feet away. "Hello, Kate. Is everything okay? I thought I heard shooting."
Kate opened her mouth to speak, but the words lodged in her throat. She swallowed and tried again. "Somebody took a shot at us. Did you see anybody down the beach?"
"No." He took a step closer. "Are you all right?"
His gaze raked her from head to toe. A slight smile curled his lips as he took in her deputy's uniform. "You're a police officer here?"
Kate bristled at what she interpreted as cynicism in his voice. Before she could offer a retort, Grady laughed. "She's not just an officer. She's the chief deputy on the island."
Brock smiled. "Good for you, Kate. Just like your father."
She opened her mouth, but the words didn't want to come. "Wh-what are you doing here?" She clenched her fists at her sides and berated herself for stammering.
A frown flickered across his face. "I guess you could call it a vacation." He stared past her at the body. "Do you think your shooter had anything to do with your victim?"
"I don't know." She narrowed her eyes and stared at him. "You sound like a police officer."
His face flushed. "I'm a detective with the Nashville Police Department now."
Nashville, Tennessee? He'd traveled over eight hundred miles to vacation on the North Carolina barrier island where they'd spent so much time together? Her instinct told her he had to have an ulterior motive for coming back, but she couldn't imagine what it might be.
She glanced back at Jake's body. This was insane. She was standing at a murder scene making small talk with the man who had broken her heart. She took a deep breath. "Good for you. That's what you always wanted."
He nodded and turned his attention back to the body. "Do you have much crime on Ocracoke?"
Kate pushed her sunglasses up on her nose and straightened to her full height. "No. Mostly drunk and disorderlies." She tilted her head to one side and struggled to regain her professional composure. "You're headed toward the village, so that must mean you ran past this spot earlier. Didn't you see the body then?"
He shook his head. "I jogged down the road coming out here. Then about a mile down the road I decided to run in the sand on the way back and detoured down onto the beach." He glanced up toward the road. "I guess I didn't look this way when I passed by."
"So you didn't see anything?"
Kate took a deep breath. "That seems strange."
His eyes narrowed. "Not really. If I'd seen him, I probably would have thought he was a drunk sleeping it off on the beach." He took a step backward. "If you don't have any more questions, I'll go and let you get on with your work here."
Her fingers curled in her palms. "That's a good idea."
He turned and jogged away. He'd only gone a few yards when he called over his shoulder, "I'm going to be on the island for a few weeks. I'll come see you. We have a lot to catch up on."
A lot to catch up on? Brock Gentry was the last person on earth she wanted to sit down with and relive old times. She was happy. She had her sisters to care for and an island full of residents and tourists to protect. She didn't need an ex-fiancé to remind her of another time in her life.
She watched him jog up the beach before she turned back to the body. A big grin covered Grady's mouth, and she frowned. "What?"
Grady shrugged. "He seemed like a nice feller."
A nice fellow? Kate supposed Brock appeared that way to most people, but she knew another side to him. How long had it been since she'd last seen him? Six years, but sometimes it seemed like yesterday.
It had been hard to get over him, but she'd done it. Lately weeks and sometimes months would pass that she hardly thought of him. The love she thought they'd shared had begun to fade from her memory, and for the first time she felt as if she could live again.
After all this time, he'd returned. But why? Knowing him as she did, he must have a good reason. It didn't matter why he'd returned. While he was here, she'd just have to make sure their paths didn't cross.
Although Brock wanted to glance back at Kate, he clenched his fists and willed himself to stare straight ahead as he jogged away. This wasn't how he'd planned to let Kate know he was on the island. He had wanted to call her and ask if he could come by her home and talk. Instead he had run into her at a murder scene.
He'd tried to act surprised that she was still on the island, but he was sure she didn't believe him. He knew she'd still be here. Ocracoke held a fascination for her, and she never could understand why it didn't for him. He wondered how many times he'd asked himself in the past six years what his life would have been like if he'd given in to Kate's wishes and agreed to live on Ocracoke after they were married.
At the time, all he'd wanted was a career in a large city police department, and he believed if she loved him she would support his choice. In the end, though, the lure of the island had won out, and she had stayed while he left to follow his dream.
Now he was back, and they had met again on the beach where they'd spent so much time arguing about their future six summers before. Meeting her at a murder scene had hardly been what he'd envisioned.
And she was chief deputy on Ocracoke. It appeared the island had a greater hold on her now, and she had moved on with her life. He rubbed the stubble on his chin. Too bad he hadn't learned how to do that.
He wondered what she would say when she found out he'd come to Ocracoke on a mission to find peace for his battered soul. When his life had fallen apart three months ago, the only thought that had saved his sanity was that he needed to talk to Kate, the one person who'd always understood him. But was he being selfish? After all this time, would she care about the problems in his life?
He had asked himself those questions and had come to the conclusion that whatever the cost, he had to try. He needed cleansing for his soul, and he wanted that elusive peace that hovered just out of his reach. He hoped he could find forgiveness here in the island paradise that she always said God created, but now Brock wasn't so sure. If there was a God, He had more important things to do than worry about somebody like him.