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Red Rock, Texas
Three days after the Spring Fling
How in the name of God had it happened? Frannie Fredericks wondered as she stared through the visitor's window in the Red Rock County Jail. One minute she'd been riding horses that golden summer, the next she'd been pregnant, the next, married.
And the next, she'd been bent over her husband's dead body at the town's Spring Fling, the blood on her hands black in the moonlight.
Suspicion had slid into interrogation, and, impossibly, arrest, the giddy shrieks of the kids on the carnival rides fifty yards away still ringing in her ears. And now, she was here in the county jail on the wrong side of the barrier, accused of Lloyd Fredericks' murder.
Lily Fortune, Frannie's sort-of aunt, sat as calm and poised as an aristocrat, her dark hair up in a twist, her hand holding the black telephone receiver that linked them. From the rows of windows to either side they heard angry accusations, plaintive whispers, false bravado as people visited sons and daughters, spouses, lovers, friends. The temperature in the room rose with the closely packed bodies.
"You really don't have to come here," Frannie said into the handset.
Lily gave a serene smile. "Of course I do. You forget, I know what it's like."
Almost ten years before, Lily had been the one behind bars, wrongly accused of the murder of Ryan Fortune's then wife. She'd been freed, though, freed to finally marry Ryan, her lifelong love, freed to find happiness.
Frannie could barely remember what happiness felt like. "How did you make it through?" she asked, her voice barely audible.
"I knew I was innocent. The same way you're innocent. Ofcourse, it would help matters if you told that to someone. Or if you told them anything else that you know."
Anything else that you know. Frannie looked down at the floor. "My lawyer said we shouldn't talk about the case."
Lily was silent for a long moment, then let out a quiet sigh. "All right. We're behind you, Frannie, whatever you decide. And we're doing our best to get you out of here. That DA makes me so mad, holding you without bail as a campaign stunt. We'll have you out of here soon, though. William's working on it."
William Fortune, Frannie's uncle. Something flickered in Lily's eyes when she said his name, a light that had been missing in the four years since she'd lost Ryan to cancer. Frannie's life might have been in turmoil, the lives of all of the Fortunes of late, but at least one good thing had come of it.
"You like him, don't you?"
"Well, of course," Lily answered too quickly. "He's been very helpful since he came out from California."
"I don't think it has anything to do with being helpful," Frannie countered. "And you're blushing."
Lily straightened. "I am not. It's just warm in here."
For the first time since that nightmare moment of discovering Lloyd's body, Frannie found herself smiling. "You've always been so good to me," she said.
"You make it easy."
The two women had hit it off from the day they'd met, despite the twenty-five-year difference in their ages. Maybe it was that they were both outsiders of a sortLily because she'd just married into the Fortune family and Frannie because, well, the children of a family's black sheep always were.
Growing up, all Frannie had ever wanted was a normal lifea home instead of a succession of apartments and hotels, a father instead of a parade of uncles. She would have traded anything she had for a stable, loving mother. Instead, she and her brothers had been stuck with the brash, temperamental, self-destructive Cindy Fortune, which had been better than being raised by wolves, but only marginally. Cindy operated on three levels: derision, manipulation and indifference.
She'd been working on husband number five when a few too many drinks and some ill-advised behavior had wrecked it. Short on moneyher trust fund was long goneshe'd had to go to plan B. For housing, a stay on a yacht in the Mediterranean with some of her jet-setting friends. And if she couldn't marry for money herself, she'd marry her daughter off, instead. So she'd dumped seventeen-year-old Frannie with Ryan and the rest of the Fortunes at the Double Crown, taking care to introduce her to the wealthy Fredericks family and their eligible son before heading out to Santorini.
How strange it had been to be with people who didn't make a lifestyle of making scenes, Frannie remembered. Adults who were responsible. Cindy might have infuriated and appalled them, but they never gave a hint of it to Frannie, just loved her and encouraged her and gave her the space to discover who she really was.
"Cindy dropped me at the ranch like extra baggage." Frannie shook her head. "No one ever said anything, not Uncle Kingston, not Uncle Ryan."
Lily frowned. "You weren't extra baggage, you were family. Kingston offered to let you stay from the time you were a toddler, you know."
"What?" Startled, Frannie stared at her.
"Every time Cindy showed up angling for money and talking about what a burden motherhood was, he'd offer to take you, all of you kids. When you were about five, Kingston demanded that she let him adopt the lot of you." Lily looked down. "She said no, of course. Ryan said it was the worst fight they'd ever had."
"I had no idea. She never said "
"She wouldn't, would she?" Lily put her hand to the clear barrier between them. "Frannie, you're dear to all of us and we all want you out of here. Whatever you think it's doing to help your case by staying quiet, you're wrong. Don't make a mistake that you're going to pay for forever."
But she already hadthat long-ago summer when Lloyd Fredericks had come around flirting. Lloyd had been a junior at Rice University, sophisticated and handsome and initially irresistible.
Until she'd gotten to know Roberto Mendoza, the dark-eyed ranch hand with the smile that flashed like hidden treasure. She'd lost her heart. He'd walked away.
And then things had changed shockingly quickly. One moment she'd had all the possibilities in the world. The next, only a single option had remaineda night's misjudgment becoming a life choice. The years had gone by, her world shrinking around her until she no longer recognized that girl she'd been. And now she was here, accused of Lloyd's murder, unable to deny it.
Unable to even bring herself to think about the alternativethat the one who really belonged in the cell might be Josh, their son.
Roberto Mendoza stood in the afternoon sunlight of the empty field, watching a line of ants weave a path through the grass. Ticket stubs and bits of litter fluttered in the breeze, scudding along to catch around the bottoms of the row of honey mesquite that lined the field's edge. They were almost finished blooming now, showering the grass with their pale yellow petals and infusing the air with a faint hint of sweetness. It was the scent that always made him think of home.
He shook his head. How the hell had he wound up back in Red Rock? Eighteen years before, he'd started walking away and just kept going. Time was, he'd figured it would take an act of God or a funeral to get him home. In the end, it had only taken one phone call, a call he'd been powerless to ignore. His family needed him, it had been that simple. And he, who had resisted all ties for so long, started the long drive back.
He'd figured it would be quick and over; he'd hit town planning on it. He'd figure out who was threatening his family and put an end to it. He'd never expected to be sucked into the middle of someone else's mess.
Or that he'd be powerless to walk away.
At the sound of an engine, Roberto turned to see a dark blue sedan pull off the highway and crunch down the gravel road to park beside his truck. The doors opened and two men got out. He didn't move, just watched as they adjusted their jackets and walked over to him, taking their time. They came to a stop before him.
"I guess you'd be Roberto Mendoza," said the older of the two. He was heavyset with thinning, brownish hair, but the man who made the mistake of thinking he was soft was the one who'd wind up on the losing end of the fight.
Roberto nodded. "And you'd be ?"
He flipped out his badge in a practiced motion. "Lieutenant Len Wheeler, Red Rock PD. This here's Investigator Bobby McCaskill. How about you show us some ID?"
Roberto's brow rose as he brought out his wallet. "You always card citizens offering information?"
Wheeler glanced up from the driver's license. "The job's about paying attention to details," he said mildly, and handed Roberto's license back. "Now, how about you tell us why we're here?"
"There's something I think you need to see."
Wheeler's washed-out blue eyes studied him. "I checked the files. The units on the scene interviewed you the night of Fredericks' murder. Said you reported an unspecified person dressed in a black hoodie walking away from the scene."
"Black and red. Maybe."
"Whatever this thing is, why didn't you tell the on-site officers then, when the scene was fresh?"
"It wasn't until I was running it over in my mind later that I realized there was something else that might have mattered."
"And you couldn't just call it into the hotline?" McCaskill asked sourly.
Roberto shot him a glance. "I left a message on the hotline a week and a half ago." A week and a half. A week and a half that Frannie had been sitting in the county jail for Lloyd Fredericks' murder when he knew damned well she was innocent.
And no matter how little he thought of the faithless woman she'd proven to be, he couldn't leave the golden, laughing girl from the hilltop to that. "You didn't do anything about the tip. I figured I needed to take things into my own hands," he said aloud. Clear his conscience and be done with it.
Wheeler shook his head. "We got ourselves a good two hundred pages of notes from that fool hotline. Something about the murder of a guy like Fredericks brings out all the bedbugs."
Like you, was the unspoken subtext. Roberto's jaw tightened. "Do you want to solve this case?"
"Already have." Wheeler smiled. "We got us a guy calls every day swearing Ronald Reagan appeared in his bedroom to tell him Dr. Phil did it. Another one who says it was all a plot by the arugula-eating elitists." Abruptly, the smile vanished. "You live in Denver. Long way from Red Rock. You mind telling us what you were doing in town and all the way down here that night?"
It shouldn't have taken him by surprise. It did. "I was at the Spring Fling."
"Spring Fling was going on a good twenty, thirty yards away from here." Wheeler glanced around. "This area would have been back away from the booths, out in the dark. So maybe you want to explain just how it was you happened to be around to see your mysterious person. And there was a whole line of outhouses over by the dance, and in the opinion of our officers you were stone-cold sober when they talked to you, so if I was you, I'd think twice about wasting our time with any stories about needing a bathroom." And that quickly, the affable exterior fell away to show the cop beneath.
Whether or not to tell the truth was an easy decision. Figuring out how much to tell was harder. "I came back from Denver for family reasons."
"That's right, someone burned up your dad's restaurant." That was McCaskill, reaching down to pluck a ticket stub off the ground. "I guess they didn't like their combination platter."
It was a clumsy attempt to provoke a reaction. Roberto wasn't about to rise to it. "You've been doing your homework."
"Yep, we've done a lot of studying." Wheeler squinted at the trees. "Funny thing, the Fortunes have been having their share of fire trouble, too. What was that note Lily Fortune got? 'This one wasn't an accident, either'? You know anything about that?"
"Why would you think I would?" Or about the other cryptic notesOne of the Fortunes is not who you think.
"Oh, maybe on account of you worked at the ranch about twenty years back."
Roberto shot him a look. "You investigating the murder of Lloyd Fredericks or you investigating me?"
"Lloyd Fredericks. Although you're becoming an interesting sideline. So what were you doing creeping around back here, Mendoza?"
Funny how sometimes your entire life could hinge on chance. He hadn't planned to attend the Spring Fling, wouldn't have.
Except for the message.
"I got a call to meet someone. They said they had some information for me."
"What was it?"
Roberto shrugged. "I never saw them." The caller hadn't bothered to show up. Instead, Lloyd Fredericks had.
McCaskill flipped the ticket stub away. "No mystery caller, just you standing here when Lloyd Fredericks got his head staved in twenty yards away. Oh, and your imaginary hooded avenger running away"
"Yeah, sure, walking away. Except no one else around here saw them. You really expect us to buy that?"
"Take it easy, Bobby," Wheeler said. "Who was it you were supposed to meet?"
"I don't know."
"I don't know," Roberto repeated. "It was a cell phone message, a bad connection with a lot of noise in the background. Look," he snapped, patience finally evaporating. "I came here to show you something that could be important to your investigation, not get grilled. You got any more questions to ask, I want a lawyer."
Wheeler looked mild again. "No need to lawyer up, we're just talking here. Why don't you show us whatever it is that's got you so excited?"
"Over there." Roberto pointed over at the line of bushes at the field's edge. "I told your officers about the guy hurrying off a couple of minutes before the screaming started. I wasn't watching all that close, just figured he was swinging his arms, but the way he was swinging them was funny. I got to thinking maybe he tossed something away. That's why I called the hotline. I figured you'd check it out, but you all seemed a lot more interested in railroading Frannie Fredericks."
Wheeler looked interested. "You got some kind of acquaintance with Miz Fredericks? Or the deceased?"
Roberto cursed himself silently. "I told you, no more questions without a lawyer. And if you don't look in that honey mesquite over there in the next two minutes, I'm going to fish the damned thing out and haul it to the lab myself."