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Any coward can fight a battle when he's sure of winning; but give me the man who has pluck to fight when he's sure of losing.
George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
English novelist 1819â€“80
They hadn't meant to kill him. That should've mattered. It probably would havein a different time, a different place. But this was Stillwater, Mississippi, and the only thing smaller than the town itself was the minds of the people living in it. They never forgot and they never forgave. Nineteen years had passed since Reverend Barker disappeared, but they wanted someone to pay for the loss of their beloved preacher.
And they'd had their eye on Clay Montgomery from the beginning.
The only bit of luck that had gone his way was that, without a body, the police couldn't prove Clay had done anything. But that didn't stop themand othersfrom constantly poking around his farm, asking questions, suggesting scenarios, attempting to piece together the past in hopes of solving the biggest mystery Stillwater had ever known.
"Do you think someday he'll come back? Your step-daddy, I mean?" Beth Ann Cole plumped her pillow and arranged one arm above her head.
Annoyance ripped through Clay despite the beautiful eyes that regarded him from beneath thick golden lashes. Beth Ann hardly ever pressed him about his missing stepfather. She knew he'd show her the door. But he'd let her come over too much lately and she was beginning to overrate her value to him.
Without answering, he kicked off the blankets and began to get out of bed, only to have her grab hold of his arm. "Wait, that's it? Wham, bam, thank you, maâ€™am? You're not usually so selfish."
"You didn't have any complaints a minute ago," he drawled, glancing pointedly over his shoulder at the claw marks she'd left on his back.
Her bottom lip jutted out. "I want more." "You always want more. Of everything. More than I'm willing to give." He stared at the delicate white fingers clutching his darker forearm. Normally, she would've recognized the warning in his expression and let him go. Tonight, however, she went straight into her "how can you use me like this" mode, an act she put on whenever her impatience overcame her good sense.
The cloying sound of Beth Ann's voice bothered Clay more than usual. Probably because he'd so recently had bad news. The police chief's daughter, Allie McCormicka police officer herselfhad returned to town. And she was asking questions.
Swallowing a curse, he rubbed his temples, trying to alleviate the beginnings of a headache.
The pounding only grew worse when Beth Ann's voice rose. "Clay, are we ever gonna move beyond a physical relationship? Is sex all you're interested in from me?"
Beth Ann had a gorgeous body and occasionally used it to get what she wantedand he knew what she wanted right now was him. She often wheedled or pouted, trying to coax him into a marriage proposal. But he didn't love her, and she understood that, even if she liked to pretend otherwise. He rarely made the first move, hardly ever asked her out, never made any promises. He paid her way if they went anywhere, but that was a matter of courtesy, not a declaration of undying devotion. She initiated most of their contact.
He remembered the first time she'd come to his door. From the day she'd moved to town nearly two years ago, she'd flirted with him whenever possible. She worked in the bakery of the local supermarket and did her damnedest to corner him the moment he crossed the threshold. But when he didn't immediately fall and worship at her feet, like all the other single men in Stillwater, she'd decided he was a challenge worthy of her best efforts. One night, after a brief encounter at the store, during which she'd made some innuendo he'd purposely ignored, she'd appeared on his doorstep wearing a trench coatand not a stitch of clothing underneath.
She knew he couldn't ignore that. And he hadn't. But at least he didn't feel guilty about his involvement in her life. Maybe she liked to act as though he was the sex fiend and she the benevolent provider, but after experiencing her voracious appetite over the past several months he had his own opinions about who'd become the provider.
"Let go of my arm," he said.
Obviously uncertain, she blinked at the edge in his voice and released him. "I thought you were starting to care about me."
Presenting his back to her, he pulled on his jeans. Sexrelaxed him, helped him sleep. Which was why he'd let his relationship with Beth Ann continue for so long. But they'd just made love twice, and he felt more wound up than ever. He couldn't stop thinking about Officer Allie McCormick. His sister Grace had told him she'd been a cold case detective in Chicagoa damn good one. Would she finally bring an end to it all?
Beth Ann was getting on his last nerve. "I think maybe it's time we quit seeing each other," he said as he yanked on a clean T-shirt.
When she didn't answer, he turned to see her gaping at him.
"How can you say that?" she cried. "I asked one question. One!" She laughed in a manner meant to suggest that he'd completely overreacted. "You're so jumpy."
"My stepfather is not a subject I'm prepared to discuss." She opened her mouth, then seemed to reconsider what she was about to say. "Okay, I get it. I was tired and didn't realize how much the subject would upset you. I'm sorry."
She should've told him to go to hell and walked out. He scowled. Although he'd tried to make it clear that he was the most emotionally unavailable man she'd probably ever meet, she was becoming attached. He didn't understand how, but there it was, written all over her face.
He had to make a change. He wasn't even willing to admit he had a heart, let alone open it to anyone. "Get dressed, okay?" he said.
"Clay, you don't really want me to leave, do you?" He used to send her home as soon as they were finished, so there could be no confusion about the nature of their relationship. But the past few times they'd been together, she'd faked sleep and he'd let her stay the night.
Softening his stance had been a mistake. "I've got work to do, Beth Ann."
"At one in the morning?"
"Come on, Clay. Stop being a grump. Get back into bed, and I'll give you a massage. I owe you for that dress you bought me."
She grinned enticingly but with enough desperation to make his neck prickle. He should've said goodbye a month ago. "You don't owe me anything. Forget me and be happy."
Her eyebrows shot up. "If you want me to be happy, that means I matter to you."
Determined to be completely honestor at least retain his hard-ass imagehe shook his head. "No one matters to me."
As tears slipped down her cheeks, he silently cursed himself for not seeing this coming. Perhaps he'd relied too heavily on the fact that BethAnn wasn't a particularly deep person. Anyway, she'd get over him as soon as some other man strolled through the Piggly Wiggly.
"What about your sisters? You love them," she said.
"You'd take a bullet for Grace or Molly, even Madeline."
What he'd done for his sisters was a case of too little, too late. But BethAnn wouldn't understand that. She didn't know what had happened that long-ago night. No one did, besides him, his mother and his two natural sisters. Even his stepsister Madeline, Reverend Barker's only natural child, had no clue. She'd been living with them at the time, but as fate would have it, she'd spent that night at a girlfriend's.
"That's different," he said.
Silence. Hurt. Then, "You're an asshole, you know that?""Better than you do, I'm sure." When he wouldn't give her a target, she drew herself up onto her knees. "You've been using me all along, haven't you!"
"No more than you've been using me," he replied calmly, and pulled on his boots.
"I haven't been using you! I want to marry you!"
"You only want what you can't have."
"That's not true!"
"You knew what you were getting into from the start. I warned you before you ever peeled off that trench coat."
She glanced wildly around the room as though stunned to recognize he was really through with her. "But I thoughtâ€¦I thought that for me you might"
"Stop it," he said.
"No. Clay." Climbing out of bed, she came toward him as if she'd wrap her arms around his neck and cling for dear life.
He put up a hand to stop her before she could reach him. Not even the sight of her full breasts, swinging above her flat stomach and toned legs, could change his mind. Part of him wanted to live and love like any other man. To have a family. But he felt empty inside. Dead. As dead as the man buried in his cellar. "I'm sorry," he said.
When she saw how little her pleading affected him, her top lip curled and her eyes hardened into shiny emeralds. "You son of a bitch! Youâ€¦you're not going to get away with this. Iâ€¦I'm going toâ€¦" She gave a desperate sob and lunged toward the nightstand, grabbing for the phone.
Because Beth Ann was so prone to histrionics, Clay guessed she was playing some kind of dramatic game, possibly hoping to get one of her many male admirers to drive over and pick her up, even though she had a carparked outside. He watched dispassionately. He didn't care if she used the phone, as long as she left right afterward. This was a blow to her pride, not her heart, and it couldn't have come as a surprise.
But she pressed only three buttons and, in the next second, screamed into the receiver: "Help! Police! Clay Montgomery's trying to k-kill me! I know what he did to the rev"
Crossing the room in three long strides, Clay wrenched the phone from her and slammed down the receiver. "Have you lost your mind?" he growled.
She was breathing hard. With her gleaming, frantic eyes and curly blond hair falling in tangles about her shoulders, she looked like an evil witch. No longer pretty.
"I hope they put you in prison," she said, her voice a low, hateful murmur. "I hope they put you away for life!"
Scooping her clothes off the floor, she hurried into the hall, leaving Clay shaking his head. Evidently she didn't grasp that she already had her wish. Maybe he wasn't in a physical prison, but he was paying the price for what had happened nineteen years agoand would be for the rest of his life.
Officer Allie McCormick couldn't believe what came through her police radio. Pulling onto the shoulder of the empty country road she'd been patrolling since midnight, she put her cruiser in Park. "What did you say?"
The county dispatcher finally swallowed whatever she had in her mouth. "I said I just got a call from 10682 Old Barn Road."
Allie recognized the address. She'd seen it all over the case files she'd been studying since she and her six-yearold daughter had moved back to Stillwater and in with her parents several weeks ago. "That's the Montgomery farm."
"There's a possible 10â€“31 C in progress."
"That's what the caller said."