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The memorial service and funeral for William Jefferson Nichols II drew everyone who had ever met him or was interested in his highly publicized though short-lived pro-ball career—or was connected to the Harrells either socially, through business, or politics. With a crowd that size, the memorial service was forced to move to the high school gymnasium. Lyon had his entire department working and still had to ask for assistance from the Fannin County sheriff's department and the Texas state police.
Making things all the more challenging was the weather. Another drenching rain system was producing strong winds and adding to flood conditions. Culverts were overflowing from swelling streams and ditches making their countryside a maze of water and mud to navigate through—a challenge for locals, and a near nightmare for visiting out-of-towners in designer wear. So far, however, no deadly lightning had added to the situation, but after successfully navigating through town to the cemetery, Lyon knew better than to think they were out of the woods yet.
From his vantage point on the terrace, one block above the gravesite, he scanned the crowd below. He stood dressed in his summer uniform, the yellow rain jacket all but a fixture this week. His arms were crossed over his chest, so his right arm could serve as a rest for his bandaged left one. The tight fit of the jacket sleeve pressed on the bandages and added to the headache that had stuck with him since the night of the accident. But he couldn't complain and he had resisted the pain prescriptions written to him at the hospital. Things could have turned out much worse, and he wanted to remember that.
Only a fraction of those who'd been to the memorial service had continued over to the cemetery, but that was still too many to fit under the double tent tied to extra stakes due to the forty mph wind gusts. All four lanes surrounding the site where Will was about to join his parents, grandparents, and an aunt, created a vehicular fortress reminiscent of western movie scenes when wagon trains circled to protect the settlers from Indians. Having been born to a mother who was full Cherokee, Lyon saw the humor in that—especially since a number of these "wagons" were limousines, BMWs, Mercedes, and so forth. Lyonhadn't seen so much wealth centered in one place since Ellis had held a fundraiser for the current Texas governor.
He was doing his best to stay out of sight as much as possible and had been since the night of the accident when Rochelle Sims had burst into Emergency at Cedar Grove General and thrown her keys at him, slicing open his lower lip, which had earned him three stitches. Her subsequent tirade spread around town as quickly as the news about the wreck. As is always the case with gossip, there were a number of people willing to believe her accusations that he hadn't done enough to save Will, and by the funeral, a conspiracy theory had gained root—especially with Clyde and Mercy Nichols, Will's uncle and aunt, the closest remaining family he'd had left. There were several reasons for Clyde to show how devastated they were about Will—all of them having to do with financial profit—and so he was vowing to have Lyon's badge.
That didn't mean Lyon didn't feel some responsibility for what happened. No one could be harder on him than he was himself. If only he had made it outside of the grill in time to see it was Will behind the wheel and stopped him. While he hadn't felt a pulse when he'd reached for his old schoolmate and was fairly certain Will had broken his neck in the crash, the idea of him burning to death added to his sleeplessness. Making that all the worse was thinking how close beautiful Hope had come to dying, too. No, he wasn't going to make himself a target today for additional venting. Nevertheless, staying away hadn't been an option.
As he continued to scan the crowd, Lyon's gaze finally locked on Hope slowly working her way through a group of latecomers, thanking them for coming. She had been doing that since people had begun to arrive at the school gym almost three hours ago. Today her attire was tailored but sensible for the weather—black raincoat and tailored slacks, and boots that would have won his nod of approval if it hadn't been for the stiletto heels. She still stood out, though, among the silks and out-of-season leathers; she always did. Her other bit of fashion besides the sexy boots, was cultural, a black lace mantilla—no doubt her mother's—gracefully draped over her long black hair, the ends whipping in the wind behind her shoulders.
When the minister began to speak, she did not join Clyde and Mercy seated on the first row under the tent, unlike Ellis, who had unabashedly placed himself on their left. Instead, she stood out in the open, the wind alternately trying to push then pull her off her feet. Even from this distance Lyon noted her paleness. He fingered his radio, tempted to tell his people to get someone closer in case she needed their assistance. But knowing the audio noise would attract too much attention, upsetting her in the process, he sweated through the next few minutes, willing her to keep breathing and to stay on her feet.
Once the last prayer began, Lyon tensed. Hope started circling behind the crowd and walking toward him. With her every step, he felt a growing tightening in his abdomen as, one-by-one, people noticed her direction.
"What are you doing?" The question was whispered for his ears alone. It was pressure-relief for emotions reduced to scar tissue grown bow-tight by dread and desire for wanting the wrong woman.
Hope could have been homecoming queen, county Miss Whatever, Miss Texas and probably Miss America or Universe if that's what she'd wanted. She had what a movie producer would typecast as a smoldering sexuality, balanced by gentleness and sensitivity. What Lyon knew was that she was no stereotype and was as intelligent as anyone he knew and twice as smart as most. That made her highly attractive to ambitious men looking for more than a trophy wife. Her one weakness, however, was always siding with the underdog. Today that was apparently him.
When she stopped before him, he was unable to keep the tenderness out of his voice or the warmth from his gaze. "Trying to earn me some loose teeth to go with this split lip?"
"I was suffocating down there. The air reeks with overpriced perfume and bad breath from money cancer." She took a deep cleansing breath. "Please don't be annoyed with me. I'm sick about what happened at the hospital, and speechless that you let Rochelle get away with it. If I'd been within hearing distance at the time, I'd have gladly decked her for you."
Lyon struggled against a choking laugh for that impossible image, as much as for her creative medical diagnosis. "I appreciate the support, Mighty Might, but you let me deal with the rabble-rousers in this town."
While his rarely-voiced pet name for her drew a smile from her, it vanished as quickly as it appeared and she was all seriousness again. "Don't joke. We need to talk."
What he needed was for her to get home and go to bed and take better care of herself than it looked like she was doing. "Not today, Hope." He nodded to the scene below. "Your father has just noticed your whereabouts."
Without bothering to glance over her shoulder, she said, "He'll recover. He has plenty going on himself not to waste time figuring out what I'm up to."
For his sanity's sake, Lyon tried a different tack. "From the itinerary we received, the Nichols' reception follows this. Aren't you expected there?"
"I'm not going. I've extended my regrets to Clyde and Mercy. I've fulfilled my obligations to them and I don't think I can stomach one more minute of him pretending he's sorry for what's happened or watching her already putting on airs. I suspect my father will skip the reception, as well—or stop by only long enough to cull the people he wants to join him at the estate for aged liquor-of-choice and illegal cigars."
"Sounds like the place to be."
Looking like she didn't believe him for a second, Hope tilted her head as she studied him and replied, "If you're into buying favors, fixing elections, and various other offensive objectives during such grim circumstances. On the other hand, I've made my mother's tortilla soup, and we both need out of this weather."
While he'd never tasted the soup, Lyon had heard enough to know Hope had inherited Rebecca Alessandro Harrell's talents in the kitchen. Add that to his unwillingness to leave her to the vultures that had been salivating over her since learning she was a free woman again and he circled the white patrol car to open the passenger door for her.
Once he was seated behind the wheel, he finally noted, "What were you doing cooking when you look like I should take you back to the hospital instead of home?"
Hardly intimidated, she replied, "You're one to talk. How's the arm?"
"Most of the bandages should come off by Monday." He knew that before they'd entered the car, she'd been eyeing his singed hair and was kind not to bring up the lingering second degree burns on the left side of his face, some third degree ones particularly on the outer shell of his ear.
"You're still a quick healer, I'm grateful."
Was she remembering when he'd suffered a concussion trying to reach his parents after the tornado that had killed them, or thinking further back to when he'd cracked a rib during a football game at the beginning of his senior year in high school and continued to play through the pain?
Either way her compassion stirred a different hunger in him and he needed relief from it.
"Could we redirect this conversation to the person who matters?" Lyon replied just as concerned. "How are you—really? I'm sorry that I haven't been around as much as I should have…as much as I intended."
"You've been inundated with job responsibilities and the press when you should have been home recuperating and avoiding infection."
Her voice was naturally soft and soothing, not quite in the second soprano range, and yet more lilting than what an alto could achieve. If she had any free time, she could easily be an in-demand voice for audiobooks; a child with a scraped knee would yearn to sit on her lap. In that way she reminded him of her mother, and his.
"Stop. It's over. Now tell me if it was as bad as it looked?"
"Being insulated by shock helps. You lost both of your parents, you know. One operates on automatic pilot waiting for privacy to come to terms with things—in my case, too many things that should already have been dealt with. But all that aside, I know I can't pretend that what was broken could be fixed."
Hoping that she intended to expand on that, Lyon eased out of the cemetery and headed for Hope's mini-ranch, a twenty-acre oasis barely six miles south of town, three if you were traveling by crow or buzzard. Although the property was just outside of Cedar Grove city limits, Lyon passed by there often enough to know that Hope worked hard on it when she wasn't busy with her small but increasingly prestigious consulting-investment firm that also involved some social service work, as well as arranging for legal advice for landowners trying to keep their property out of greedy opportunists' hands, including her father's.
There was virtually no traffic on the road for the moment, and except for calling into the station to tell his dispatcher that he would be taking a lunch break for an hour, there were no interruptions. That made the extending silence between them palpable.
"Okay, I'll start," Hope said. "As far as I'm concerned, you should have been the one to give the eulogy."
Something good had come from this mess—he didn't have to. "Kent Roberts did a good job."
"Kent's been the mayor for longer than you've been chief of police and he could eulogize every dog put asleep by the animal shelter. But you were Will's best friend."
"Not lately. Not for a good while."
Hope took a deep breath. "Thank you for opening that door. Did the trouble between you two have anything to do with what I witnessed that night between him and Rochelle?"
Lyon didn't want to add to her mental anguish. "You've been through enough, Hope. And, really, what does it matter now?"
"More than you know."
He didn't care for that answer, but since she shifted her gaze out the passenger window, he took the delay—undoubtedly a temporary one—as a welcome reprieve.
When he turned into the driveway of her property, she triggered the remote she took from her purse to open the electronic gates. The property was framed in front by wrought iron and in back by ranch wire for the quarter horses she stabled there. As a child, Hope had been trained to be an equestrian rider, but quit at eighteen after the death of her mother. Some said a fall during a cross country part of a competition had caused the heart attack that had claimed Rebecca's life. In any case, five years ago, her love of horses too strong to reject, Hope turned to the western saddle form of riding. At least she stayed out of any kind of competition, Lyon thought.
Her house was a white brick hacienda-style building complete with a stucco roof. The front courtyard was framed by a cactus garden on the west, and a rose garden on the east that the house itself protected from the killer Texas sun by midday. Beyond the back fencing, he could see a vegetable garden and behind it, a peach orchard.
"You've turned this into one of the prettiest properties around," he told her driving up the concrete driveway.
"I'm glad you think so. I've been trying to talk my neighbors into letting me buy another twenty acres, but my father has been doing his best to get their whole seven-hundred acres in a lot sum, so negotiations are in limbo."
Lyon didn't understand a parent doing such a thing—especially to his only child—but Ellis was a commodity known only to himself. "It seems to me that your father has gotten progressively worse since your mother passed away."
"Only at first glance. The truth is that while she was clever and could only curb a fraction of his ego trips—as she called them—she was better at keeping his missteps and embarrassments under the gossip radar. The robber baron impulses were there all along." Hope took out another remote and triggered the third garage door. "Pull in there if you don't mind."