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FBI Special Agent Laurel Gillespie rang her friend's doorbell for the third time.
"Come on, Misty," she muttered. "Answer the door."
She rested her hand on her Glock .23 and eyed the carved, wooden front door. No way could she break it down. But she remembered from childhood that the Wallers' back door was half glassone quick whack with the butt of her gun and she could be inside.
She rubbed the back of her neck. It had been prickling ever since she'd driven into Dusty Springs. She didn't want to be here. Didn't want to run into anyone she knew from high school.
"Come on, Misty. Where are you?" Laurel knew Misty Waller as well as she knew herself. Her best friend from grade school was dependable to a faultpractically obsessive-compulsive. It wasn't in her nature not to be where she said she'd be.
Laurel had called her as soon as she'd landed in Memphis, just like they'd agreed. But Misty hadn't answerednot her home phone or her cell.
So Laurel had picked up her rental car and driven the forty-five miles south to Dusty Springs, Mississippi, in record time. She'd called several more times, but Misty had never answered.
Something was wrong. And that was why she'd tucked her paddle holster into her waistband at the small of her back before she'd approached the door.
She rang the doorbell one last time. The chime echoed hollowly throughout the house.
She drew her weapon and carefully turned the doorknob, expecting resistance. It turned!
Instinctively, she flattened her back against the door facing as her boss's voice echoed in her ears. Every suspicious circumstance is a crime scene until you prove it's not.
And right now, too many things weren't adding up. Misty never left a door unlocked.
Carefully, she nudged the door open, cringing when the hinges creaked. She angled inside, leading with her weapon, her senses on full alert. The sight that greeted her in the foyer sent alarm thrumming through her.
Scraps of paper littered the floor, lit by the blue glow that flickered from the living room to her left.
TV with no sound. Another habit of Misty's from high school. She'd always studied in front of the TV with the sound turned off.
But not with the lights off.
Laurel pressed her back against the wall, prepared to lead with her gun. A muffled thud sent her heart rate soaring.
"FBI," she called. "I'm coming in. Identify yourself."
A plaintive yowl echoed through the doorway. A cat. Of course. Misty had always had a cat.
Taking a deep breath to steady her pulse, Laurel stepped around the door facing, her Glock at the ready. The cat bumped her leg.
On the floor in front of the couch, silhouetted in the TV's eerie glow, she saw a crumpled form. Her fingers tightened on her weapon and her heart rate doubled. "Misty? Is that you?"
She fought to keep her breathing even. Training had taught her that danger sent the pulse sky highthree-hundred beats per minute or more. But training also taught her how to control it. She had to keep her cool.
She felt for the light switch but couldn't find it. Swinging her weapon around one more time, she squinted in the dim blue light. The living room looked like the day after a ticker-tape parade. Photos and scraps of paper were scattered everywhere. No sound reached her ears except the discordant hum of an ancient window air conditioner.
She eyed the body on the floor with growing apprehension. "Misty?"
Nothing. She crossed the room, careful to keep her back to the wall and her finger on the trigger. One glance at the woman's pale face and hair told her it was her friend. Blood blackened the left side of her head.
She held her breath and watched Misty's chest. There a faint flutter.
Thank heavens. Misty was alive. Laurel hated to leave her friend lying in her own blood, but neglecting the basics could get them both killed.
So, gripping her weapon more tightly, Laurel edged her way through the dining room and into the kitchen. She quickly and efficiently cleared the house.
Whoever had attacked Misty was gone.
Back in the den, she knelt beside her friend. "Misty? Honey? Can you hear me?"
She didn't answer. Laurel reached for her cell phone to call 9-1-1.
"Damn it." She'd left it in the car, plugged into the charger. She glanced around. An old-fashioned dial phone sat on a side table, but from her position Laurel could see the naked wires. Whoever had attacked Misty had jerked the phone out of the wall.
She moved to stand, and the toe of her pump touched something. It was a baseball bat that had rolled partway under the couch. Laurel nudged it with her foot. There was wet, shiny blood on the end of it.
She hated to leave Misty alone, but she had to get to her phone. She had to report an assault with a deadly weapon.
Someone had attacked her friend and left her for dead.
Police Chief Cade Dupree turned onto Misty Waller's street and parked near the corner. He'd been investigating a report of a break-in at the Visitor Center of Dusty Springs' brand new convention complex when the call came in.
Mrs. Gardner, Misty's neighbor, was frantic, because someone was lurking around their street. That was the word she'd used. Lurking. To hear her tell it, people had been lurking all afternoon.
A break-in and a lurking in one eveningthat was more crime than he'd seen since he'd left the FBI to take over his dad's job as chief of police of Dusty Springs. His mouth curved into a wry smile as he walked down the sidewalk toward the Wallers' house.
Not quite what he'd pictured himself doing after completing his training at Quantico. Still, at least this job wasn't dangerous.
A curtain fluttered in Mrs. Gardner's window. Cade resisted the urge to wave at her as he spotted a rental car parked in front of Misty's house.
That was what he'd figured. The lurker was a friend of Misty's in town for the high-school reunion.
He pushed up the brim of his cap and squinted in the bright sunlight. The driver's side door was open, and a well-rounded backside above long shapely legs faced him. Not Misty. This bottom was skinnier, sexier. And those legs
"Evening, ma'am," he said, as he approached the front of the car.
The woman tensed, then straightened. The car's interior light glinted off blue steel.
Gun. Cade rocked to the balls of his feet and moved his hand to his belt holster. "Hold it right there."
"Now set that gun down on the car seat and straighten up slowly."
She obeyed. As she straightened, the car's light caught coppery highlights in her collar-length hair. She held out her hands in a nonthreatening gesture.
Her brows lowered and her mouth dropped open for a split-second, but before he could wonder what she found surprising, she composed her face and looked him straight in the eye.
"It's all right," she said. "I'm FBI." She slowly pulled her jacket aside to reveal the distinctive badge pinned to her waistband.
"FBI?" Unwelcome memories assaulted his brain. The excitement of making it to Quantico. The sense of purpose that the FBI had chosen him. But then his older brother had died, his father had suffered a stroke and he'd had to give up his dream and return to Dusty Springs.
Cade forced his attention back to the woman. "What's going on?"
"Misty's hurt. I need to call 9-1-1. I left my cell phone in the car."
"I'm 9-1-1. Do we need the EMTs?"
"Yes. She's got a blow to the head."
Cade didn't stop to ask any more questions. He sprinted up the steps and through the front door.
"The living room," the woman called out.
He rounded the doorway and saw Misty crumpled on the floor. He crouched beside her. There was blood matted in her hair.
"Misty, you all right?" Damn, that was a lot of blood.
Misty stirred and moaned. Relief loosened his tight neck and shoulders. "Lie still. I'm calling an ambulance."
He punched a preset number. "Get the EMTs over here," he barked. "The Wallers' house. Misty's hurt. And no sirens. Don't wake all the neighbors."
The FBI agent's heels clicked on the hardwood floor, but Cade kept his attention on Misty. "You're doing fine, Misty. Hang in there another couple of minutes." He patted her hand, then spoke to the agent. "I don't think the injury is serious. She may have a concussion."
"The weapon's right under your feet."
"So you found her like this?"
"You didn't see anyone leaving the area? Didn't pass a vehicle?"
"How'd you get in?"
"The door was unlocked."
Cade swiveled and eyed her. He hadn't taken the time to examine the door. "Unlocked?"
She nodded, looking past him at Misty. "Yes. Definitely. And no sign of forced entry. It doesn't make sense. She has an obsession about locking her doors."
He heard a truck pull up outside. Within seconds, heavy footsteps on the wooden porch announced the arrival of the EMTs.
"Here we go, Misty. They're going to take good care of you." He rose from his haunches and moved out of the way so the EMTs could check her out.
He met the FBI agent's gaze and found her watching him with a pensive expression.
She blinked, and then held out her hand. "I'm Laurel Gillespie. You don't remember me. I was a year behind you in school."
"Gillespie?" he repeated absently.
Laurel saw the blank look in Cade's eye and her heart sank. She knew he wouldn't remember her, but that didn't make it any easier.
He stepped aside as the EMTs lifted Misty onto a gurney. He was closetoo close. She could smell his aftershave. It was fresh and subtle. Sexy.
Dear heavens, she was really standing next to Cade Dupree, her high-school crush. She'd thought that by now, ten years after she'd graduated from high school, she'd have forgotten his confident stance, his broad-shouldered, slim-hipped silhouette.
Now that the threat of danger and her worry about Misty were over, she was practically shaking with reaction. Partly from finding Misty collapsed and bleeding, but partly from seeing Cade.
She turned her head. His handsome, familiar face was only a few inches from hers, his thick lashes lowered as he watched Misty. He hadn't changed except that his face had more character and his body had filled out with lean, hard muscles.
Her pulse fluttered as his gaze met hers and roamed over her face. How could she still remember that voice, those long powerful legs, that lanky frame? And his sky-blue eyes. She'd swooned over those eyes in high school.
He sent her a taste of his killer smile. "SoLaurel Gil-lespie," he drawled, "FBI agent."
Despite the unwelcome return of her adolescent jitters, Laurel bristled at his patronizing tone. She'd thought she was prepared for Cade Dupree. She wasn't.
He straightened, and rested his hand on the butt of his gun. He was chief of policethe job his dad had held for as long as she could remember. And he was taking charge of the crime scene.
Laurel took a deep breath. She wasn't about to wait for him to order her out of the house.
"I'll take charge of the front. Keep people out." She turned on her heel without waiting for an answer.
Great. She'd put herself exactly where she didn't want to be. In full view of the entire town of Dusty Springs.
She felt like a threshold guardian as a parade of curious neighbors tried to get inside. She had no trouble flashing her badge to turn away the owner of the hardware store and his wife, or a young mother with a toddler in her arms, or a couple of teenage boys, all of whom gasped in awe when she informed them that the house was a crime scene. But she dreaded running into any of her former classmates.
Her memories of high school were of not fitting in, of the nightmare of braces and glasses, unruly red hair and painful shyness.
Within a few minutes, a familiar man in his early fifties, wearing a badge and a gun, walked up to her. Behind him, a younger man in a misbuttoned police uniform shirt carried a roll of yellow crime-scene tape.
"Evening, Laurel. That is, Special Agent Gillespie. I didn't know you were an FBI agent."
"Officer Evans, hi."
"CadeChief Dupreecalled us to tape off the scene. He said you might need some help." He punched a thumb backward through the air. "This is Officer Shelton Phillips."
She nodded at Phillips and smiled at Officer Evans. "Thanks," she said gratefully.
Just like Cade's dad, Fred Evans had been a police officer since she could remember. His daughter Debra had belonged to the snootiest clique in school.
Officer Phillips quickly cordoned off the front of the house and then headed around back.
Laurel turned toward the dwindling crowd just as a tall woman with skinny legs and a haughty air walked up. Kathy Hodges.
Speaking of snooty. Kathy and Debra and a couple of other girls had named themselves the Cool Girls. The rest of the class called them the CeeGees. They'd made it their mission to target certain classmates, usually the shyest ones, to humiliate and embarrass.
Laurel's confidence drained away as scenes from the most embarrassing night of her life swept through her head with the clarity of a high-definition movie.
Afterward, she'd kicked herself for not seeing through the cruel prank. But on the night of the Homecoming Dance her sophomore year, she'd really believed that senior football captain James Dupree, who was the Homecoming King, wanted her to dance the traditional first dance with him. Although she was smitten with James's younger brother Cade, there was no way she would pass up the biggest honor in a sophomore girl's year.
Remembered excitement and apprehension swirled through her as she relived that awful moment. Standing on the dance floor in a brand new gown, clutching the note from James in her hand.
Please do me the honor of dancing the first dance with me.
Her heart fluttering as James's cocky gaze swept the room, stopping to wink at her.
Then he held out his hand and smiled. And Laurel had started climbing the stairs to the stage.
Still smiling at her, James named another girl. Everyone's laughter still rang in her ears. By the next morning, it was all over school and Laurel was humiliated.
Now here she was, facing Kathy for the first time since she'd graduated and moved away with her parents. Despite her success, she suddenly felt like the plain, shy girl she'd been ten years ago.
Kathy's blond hair was sleek and newly colored, her makeup was perfect, but her eyes were bloodshot, and not even expensive makeup could hide all the tiny veins visible around her nose. A lit cigarette smoldered in her perfectly manicured hand. She looked thin and pinched and miserable.
Laurel stood straighter as Kathy walked purposefully up the steps.
"Pardon me," Kathy said, waving the hand that held the cigarette. Even with the cigarette smoke, Laurel could smell whiskey on her breath.
"Sorry, Kathy. This is a crime scene. No one's allowed inside."
Kathy's perfectly shaped brows drew down as she eyed Laurel. "Nonsense. Misty's my friend."
Doubt it, Laurel thought.