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The sun shone brightly, setting the white bricks of the church aglow. It was a great day for a wedding. But Logan Payne couldn't forget that a funeral was also taking place today. He'd thought it might finally bring him some peace that his father's killer was dead. But it seemed more like an injustice that the man had lived for only fifteen years of his already too short sentence.
Maybe it was that sense of injustice that had made Logan uneasy. Or maybe it was the recent attempts on his life.
But he pushed aside that uneasiness and focused instead on the bride and groom. He lifted his hand, with birdseed stuck to his palm, and waved off his younger brother and his new bride. Nobody deserved happiness more than the two of themespecially after the hell they had endured to be together.
His sister, Nikki, glanced up at him through the tears glistening in her warm brown eyes. "Getting emotional, big bro?" she teased. Their family relentlessly teased each other.
The tears were all hers, but he played along. "Birdseed got in my eye," he said with an exaggerated blink. But then he squinted at a random glare and glanced toward the street where his brother's decorated SUV sat on the curb. Nikki had written Just Married across the back window and tied strings of pop cans to the rear bumper. A car slowly passed it, and as it did, a barrel protruded out of the dark tinted driver's window.
The SUV shielded the bride and groom, but Logan and his sister and his twin were exposed on the steps of the church. As the shots rang out, he knocked Nikki down and lunged at Parker, knocking him over the railing.
The shots weren't meant for any of his siblings. He knew that. But he had been standing too close to Nikki. And his twin was identicalsame black hair, same blue eyes, same features. Today they were even both wearing black tuxedos. Logan covered Nikki's petite frame, shielding her with his body. And he tensed, waiting for the bullets to find their target in his flesh.
Tires squealed as the car rounded the corner and drove off. After a glance over his shoulder to make certain the shooter was gone, Logan helped his sister to her feet. She trembled with fear in his arms, but she was unhurt. Miraculously, Logan hadn't been hit, either.
The bride, Tanya, turned away from the SUV and ran back to the church. The groom, Cooper, was right beside her, yelling the name of his missing brother. "Parker!"
A hand rose above the shrubs on the side of the church's wide front steps. Cooper clasped it and pulled Parker from the branches and foliage.
"You okay?" Cooper asked him.
"Yeah, yeah," Parker replied as he brushed off his tux. "Logan knocked me over and pushed down Nikki." He waitedprobably for Logan to make some smartaleck comeback. That was the way the Paynes handled stuffemotional stuff, dangerous stuff with gallows humor.
But Logan couldn't find any humor in this situation. The grudge he'd been carrying, and how he'd acted on that grudge, was what had nearly killed his family. And these weren't the first attempts made on his life and Parker's, who must have been mistaken for him then, too. "I'm sorry," he said.
His new sister-in-law's voice trembled with concern as she said, "I thought it was over. Mr. Gregory is dead."
Logan had been the one who'd taken the shot that had ended the life of her grandfather's lawyer. The man had been trying to kill her so that no one would discover that he'd embezzled her inheritance.
"This isn't about you," Logan assured the beautiful blonde bride. Guilt twisted his guts into knots. He hated that this shootingthat his problemhad marred what had finally been the perfect wedding for Tanya and Cooper. "This is about me. And revenge "
Cooper's eyes, which were the same blue as his and Parker's, narrowed with suspicion, and he accused him, "You know who it is."
Anger, more intense and overwhelming than his guilt, surged through Logan. He knew who was behind all these cowardly shootings. He knew and he was damn well going to put a stop to it.
For the first time in fifteen years, Stacy Kozminski didn't have to go through prison security to see her father. All she had to do was walk up the aisle of the dimly lit church to where he lay in a casket before the altar. But that walk was the most difficult she had ever taken. Her knees trembled with each step she took, shaking more the closer she got to the altar. To the casket.
The lid was open, but she needed to take a few more steps to see past the flower arrangements. Her knees shook even harder, threatening to give out beneath her. Maybe she would have crumpled right there, but a strong arm wrapped around her waist in support.
She uttered a sigh of relief that at least one of her brothers had showed up because she had been the first and only family member to arrive at the church. With a smile on her lips, she turned her head, but the smile froze when her gaze collided with Logan Payne's.
His blue eyes icy hard with anger, he stared down at her.
He was mad at her? She was the one who should be angryfurious even because he had no right to show up at her father's funeral at alllet alone wearing a tuxedo. Her heart skipped a beat before the rate sped up. He looked damn good in the black tux with the pleated white shirt. The black bow tie had already been undone and the once-white silk shirt was a little smudged and rumpled. But still.
She hated him; she reminded herself of that as she jerked away from the unsettling warmth of his long, hard body. "What the hell are you doing here?"
And why had he put his arm around her? He was the last person from whom she would ever expect supportespecially today.
"I think you know," he replied, his deep voice vibrating with anger.
She shook her head. "I have no idea unless you want to make sure that he's really dead."
With a trembling hand, she gestured toward the casket and toppled over one of the flower arrangements. The vase rolled across the tiled floor, leaving a trail of multicolored petals and water behind it. She gasped at what she'd done.
But Logan Payne didn't react. He was staring at the casket. Maybe she had been right about his reason for coming.
She followed his gaze to her father's corpse. She'd already seen it when he'd died. She had made it to the prison in time to say goodbye. Wasn't that supposed to have given her closure?
Stacy felt no calm acceptance. No gratefulness. She felt nothing but angerall toward Logan Payne. So she turned back to him, and then she turned on him. Literally lashing out at him in her anger, she swung her hand toward his unfairly handsome face.
The man had some crazy reflexes, because he caught her wrist, stopping her palm just short of one of his chiseled cheekbones. Despite not slapping him, her skin tingledmaybe with the need to slap him yet. Maybe because he was touching her, his long fingers wrapped easily and tightly around her narrow wrist.
"I can't believe even you are such a heartless bastard that you'd show up at my father's funeral," she said, lashing out now with her words. "And in a tux, no less."
He glanced down at himself, as if he'd forgotten what he was wearing.
"But then I guess this is a celebration for you," she continued. "Do you intend to dance on his grave at the cemetery, too?"
She would make damn sure of it that he never got the chanceeven if she had to throw him out herself since no other mourners had arrived yet. Where the hell were her brothers?
They had always been there for her when she needed them most. Until today.
"I've already been dancing," Logan replied.
She struggled against his grasp; she didn't want a man capable of such a hateful comment touching her.
"At my brother's wedding," he continued.
That explained the tux.
"But then somebody tried to kill me," he said. "Again." That explained his white shirt being smudged and rumpled and his thick black hair disheveled, as if he'd been running his hands through it. What would it feel like? Coarse or soft? Not that she cared to ever find out. She didn't want to touch Logan Payne, and she sure as hell didn't want him touching her.
So she tried again to wriggle free of his hold. "Why are you telling me this?" she asked. "Do you think I care?"
"I think you're behind it," he said.
"Me?" She hadn't even been able to slap him. "How am I supposed to have tried to kill you?"
"You shot at me," he said.
"I don't own a gun." Her brothers had tried to give her one for protection, but she'd refused. Her protection had a threatening growl and a mouthful of sharp teeth to back up his threats. Too bad she hadn't been able to bring Cujo to the funeral.
He snorted derisively, as if he doubted her. Of course he doubted her; Logan Payne doubted everyone.
"You're doing it again," she said. "Accusing someone of a crime they didn't commit." She turned back to the casket. Her father was only in his early fifties but he looked much older. Prison had turned his brown hair white and etched deep lines in his tense face. Wasn't he supposed to look peaceful, like he was sleeping? But even in death, her father had found no peaceprobably because of Logan Payne.
"I didn't accuse your father," he reminded her. "He was caught at the scene. He was tried and convicted."
"Of murder," she said. Shaking her head yet at the injustice, she added, "My father was not a murderer."
Patek Kozminski had been a lot of thingsby his own admissionbut he could have never taken a life. The judge and jury had come to the wrong conclusion.
"He killed my father," Logan said with all the rage and anguish as if it had just happened yesterday instead of fifteen years ago.
She shook her head again.
"My father caught him in the commission of a felony "
Logan Payne was no longer a police officer, but he still talked like one. His father had been a police officer, too, who'd caught her father robbing a jewelry store.
"He resisted arrest," he continued, "they struggled over the gun. And my father wound up dead."
"My father did not kill him." The man she'd known and loved wouldn't have resisted arrest; he wouldn't have fought with a police officer. He wouldn't have wrestled the gun away from him and shot him with it. There had to have been someone else there that horrible day, someone else who'd really committed the crime.
"My father is dead," Logan said.
"And now so is mine," she said, gesturing again to the casket, but this time she was careful not to knock over any flower arrangements. "Are you happy?"
Logan sighed. "No."
"No, of course not," she hotly agreed. "You would have rather he lived many, many more years and spent every one of them behind bars. That's why you showed up at every parole hearing to make sure he didn't get out."
"He killed a man!" Logan said.
Tears stung her eyes, and she shook her head. "No, no, he didn't " There had to have been someone else
"The judge and jury convicted him," he said it almost gently now, as if Logan Payne had any concern for her feelings.
He hadn't, or he would have stopped showing up at the parole hearings; he would have let her father get out of prison. If not for Logan fighting it, her father would have been granted parole. He had been a model prisoner.
He had been a model father, tooeven from behind bars. Now she had no father at all. She could almost relate to Logan's rage, but hers was directed at him.
"He wasn't convicted of murder, though," he said, correcting her earlier comment. "It was manslaughter."
"Which is why he had been up for parole already four times." And why he would have been released if not for Logan Payne.
"It should have been murder," he said. "The charge was too light. So was the sentence."
"The sentence wound up being death," she said. "You gave him that sentence."
"If you hadn't showed up at those hearings, he would have been released. He wouldn't have been there for that crazy prisoner to stab. He wouldn't have been behind bars with animals like that!" She swung her other hand now. But his damn reflexes were so fast that he caught her wrist again. She struggled against his grasp and cursed him.
But Logan didn't even blink at her insults. His gaze remained steady and intense on her face. He was always so damn intense. Despite her rising temper, her flesh tingled and chilled, lifting goose bumps on her skineven skin that was covered by her new black sweater dress.
"What the hell's going on?" a familiar voice demanded to know.
"Get your damn hands off her, Payne!" another voice chimed in.
Her brothers had finally arrived. She'd wanted them earlierto be there for support over her father's funeral. But now she felt a rush of fear as they ran down the aisle toward her and Logan. She was actually afraid for Logan because her brothers were very protective of herto the point that they had even killed for her. Were they about to do that again?