Read an Excerpt
Present day, late October
Brianna Kane shivered as the ocean breeze sliced through her black dress. The hillside cemetery in Angel’s Bay overlooked a restless sea, whitecaps crashing against the boulders below, dark clouds blotting out the sun. The ocean was angry, and so was she. This should have been just another Monday morning. Lucas should have been in preschool. She should have been in her own classroom, teaching French to middle-schoolers. And Derek—Derek should not have been dead. Everything about this moment was wrong.
Five years ago, she’d come to Angel’s Bay to marry Derek Kane. They’d planned to wed by the edge of the sea. She’d pictured the moment a thousand times. She’d wear an off-the-shoulder white satin dress with a lacy train that went on forever. The wind would blow through her long blond hair, and the sun sparkling off the ocean would light up Derek’s face, his hazel eyes always so beautiful and eager for her.
But she hadn’t married Derek on a windswept bluff. She’d said her “I do’s” in a cold, sterile room at a prison a hundred miles away, and her husband hadn’t been wearing a tuxedo but an orange jumpsuit.
Despite the bad start, she’d believed that one day their lives would get back on track—that Derek’s innocence would be proven, his appeal would be granted. He’d be released, and they’d have the life they were supposed to have.
That dream had died five weeks ago, along with Derek, leaving her with nothing but frustration, anger, and a lot of questions.
As the minister prayed for Derek’s soul, she glanced around the small group of mourners. They’d waited to have the memorial service until she could pack up her apartment and move to Angel’s Bay, where Derek’s parents lived. Over the past month, she’d kept herself too busy to think beyond immediate plans. Now she was here and forced to confront what she’d been avoiding—Derek’s death and the end of all her dreams.
Her mother-in-law, Nancy, a short, plump brunette, sobbed in her husband’s arms. Her father-in-law, Rick, so tall and lean, had lost even more weight in recent weeks and was now almost gaunt as he tried to comfort his wife. Nancy’s sister, Margaret, stood across from them, surreptitiously wiping tears from the corners of her eyes with a delicate handkerchief. Wyatt Kane, Derek’s grandfather, stood next to her, a grim, forbidding man with fierce brown eyes and shocking white hair that was long and wild. Wyatt, an internationally acclaimed artist, had once been Derek’s biggest supporter, but their relationship had been shattered by Derek’s conviction. Brianna was surprised he’d come to the funeral. He’d certainly never visited the prison.
Neighbors and friends of the Kanes filled out the group. Most of the mourners were of Derek’s parents’ generation, with only a few former friends in attendance. The rest had vanished long ago.
“Mommy,” Lucas whispered loudly as he tugged on her hand. “How can Daddy fit in that box? Won’t he be scared to go into the hole?”
Her stomach turned over at the earnest, worried question. Derek’s ashes were enclosed in a small wooden box that would be buried in the family plot. She squatted down, putting her arm around Lucas’s shoulders as she tried to think of an answer that wouldn’t scare him. How did one explain death to a four-year-old?
“Mommy?” Lucas’s curious light eyes were so like his father’s it made her heart hurt.
“Daddy’s in heaven,” she said gently. “He’s with the angels now. He’s not scared, and you don’t have to worry about him.”
“Then what’s in the box?”
“It’s just a symbol, something to remember him by.” She hoped the answer would be enough for him.
“Do you think Daddy is looking at us right now?”
“He’ll be watching over us wherever we go,” she assured him.
Lucas lifted his gaze to the sky, his eyes searching. She’d seen the expression on his face before, and not just since Derek had died. Lucas had always been looking for his father. He’d never understood why Derek didn’t live with them like the other daddies did. He couldn’t understand why his father stayed in the big ugly house with the bars.
She’d hoped that when Derek got out of prison, he could explain what had happened in a way that Lucas would understand and that after a while the prison years would be forgotten, replaced by happier memories. But Derek had died just before he was due to be released.
When the minister ended his prayer, the mourners filed by, each placing a white rose on the box of ashes. The Kanes took Lucas back to the car to give Brianna a moment of privacy, but Derek’s grandfather lingered behind.
“Derek was a damn fool,” Wyatt said abruptly. “He could have had everything, but he threw it all away for greed and ambition. He didn’t want to work for success. He just wanted to take it.”
His harsh words caught her by surprise. “That’s not true. Derek was innocent. He didn’t steal those paintings from the museum, nor did he assault the security guard. He was set up to take the fall for someone else.”
Wyatt gave her a scornful look. “If you still believe that, you’re a damn fool. Derek was the best liar I ever met. It might have been his best talent—his only talent. You should forget about Derek, concentrate on your son, and make sure he doesn’t turn out like his father did.” Wyatt tossed his rose onto the grass and left.
Brianna drew in a shaky breath and slowly let it out, rattled by his harsh words. Her fingers began to sting, and she realized she was gripping the thorny stem of her rose. A drop of blood appeared, bright red against her pale skin, and she stared at it in fascination.
Derek had brought her a lot of pain in recent years, but she still remembered the man she’d fallen in love with, the one who had been outgoing, charming, and handsome, with blond hair and eyes that changed with the colors of the season. Derek had made her feel special and important, as if she were the only one who mattered. He’d swept her off her feet with his big dreams—the places he wanted to go, the life he wanted to lead. And that was the man she mourned now, the one with so much unrealized potential.
Stepping forward, she laid her rose on top of the others. “I guess this is it, Derek,” she whispered. “It’s hard to believe you’re really gone. We should have had more time—a lot more time.” She swallowed hard, a knot growing in her throat. “But we have a beautiful son. I’ll make sure that Lucas knows who his father was. He’ll see where you grew up, and he’ll walk in your memories—at least for a while.” Tears blurred her eyes. “I’m going to keep fighting for you, too. I won’t stop until we get to the truth.”
The wind brushed against her face like the caress of a man’s hand. She touched her fingers to her suddenly warm cheek and raised her face to the sky. There was a small break in the clouds, a whisper of blue sky . . . then the wind blew, and the dark clouds returned.
As two men began to bury the box of ashes, she stepped back, unable to watch. She turned to move toward Nancy and Rick and caught a glimpse of a man standing just beyond the trees.
Her heart jumped into her throat. He wasn’t wearing a police uniform today, but she recognized him all the same—Jason Marlow.
He was the one who’d built the case against Derek and sent him to jail. And he had the nerve to come to his funeral? She was halfway across the grass before she even realized she was moving. She’d kept a tight rein on her emotions for years, but now she couldn’t hold them in for one more second.
Jason straightened when he saw her coming. He wore jeans and a black sweater that emphasized his broad shoulders. His hair was sandy brown, his eyes dark and wary. He stood by a dusty Jeep, and judging by his stance, the way he held his keys, he was considering making a run for it. Too late. If he didn’t want to talk to her, he shouldn’t have come.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she demanded.
“I came to pay my respects.”
“To the man you sent to prison? Why?”
She didn’t bother to fake politeness. She’d wanted to yell at someone for a long time, and he was the perfect target.
“I grew up with Derek,” he said. “You know that.”
“Your friendship didn’t matter when Derek begged you to help him. Do you really think he’d care that you were here now, after what you did to him?”
Anger flashed in his eyes. “I did my job.”
“You sent an innocent man to jail. Now he’s dead.”
Jason swallowed hard, a battle going on in his eyes. She willed him to try to refute her statement, because she wanted a fight. She needed to release the unbearable tension in her body. Her hands clenched into fists, and it took all of her willpower not to take a swing at him. She’d never hit anyone in her life, but damn if she didn’t want to punch him.
Before Jason could speak, Lucas ran over, interrupting them. He threw his little arms around her hips and gave Jason a curious look. “Who are you?”
Jason’s face paled; her son was the mirror image of his father.
“He’s no one, Lucas,” Brianna answered. “Go back to the car.”
“Grandma Nancy says to come,” Lucas told her. “People are waiting at the house.”
“I’ll be right there. Go on.”
Lucas gave Jason another look and then ran back to his grandparents.
Jason’s lips tightened as his gaze met hers. “This must be rough on him.”
“Don’t pretend to care.” She refused to soften at the pain in his eyes. “I can’t believe you’re here. Did you really think you’d be welcome?”
His gaze burned into hers. “It was probably a mistake. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Derek—and about you.”
She stiffened. “I’m not interested in what you think about.”
“Then why are you still talking to me?”
“I’m not.” She turned, then glanced back at him. “I’m not leaving town. I intend to find out what really happened five years ago.”
“You know what happened.”
“Derek swore he was set up.”
“Not by me,” Jason said flatly. “You need to let it go, Brianna.”
“That would certainly make things easier for you.”
“And for you. Be realistic. Your private investigator couldn’t come up with any new information because there’s none to be found.”
She shook her head. “No. You were wrong about Derek, and I’ll prove it.”
She walked quickly back to the car, feeling Jason’s gaze follow her every step.
“What was Jason doing here?” Rick asked, concern etched across the deep lines of his face.
“He said he wanted to pay his respects.”
“Maybe after all these years, he’s finally sorry for not believing in Derek,” Nancy suggested.
Brianna watched Jason drive away. He wasn’t sorry at all, but she would find a way to change that.
Brianna’s words echoed through Jason’s head as he sped through the black iron gates of the cemetery. No way in hell had he sent an innocent man to jail, and there was no possibility that Brianna would be able to prove otherwise. Derek was guilty, and Brianna was blinded by love. He’d thought after all this time she might have come to accept the truth about her husband, but it was clear she was still living in denial—and in pain.
He blew out a breath, thinking about how much she’d changed in the past five years. Her stunning blue eyes were now haunted and weary. Her curves had thinned, and she’d cut at least six inches off what had once been a glorious mane of thick blond hair. She wasn’t a girl anymore but a woman, a wife, a mother . . . and a widow.
His gut clenched with anger and sadness, not just for her and her son. Derek had once been his friend, and he missed that happy, carefree, do-anything-once guy who had died at the age of thirty-two, which was a tragedy no matter what he’d done. Contrary to what Brianna thought, he’d never wanted to send Derek to jail. He had looked hard for other suspects. There hadn’t been any.
In the eyes of Brianna and the Kanes, he was the enemy, the one to blame for the destruction of their family. He’d always believed that putting the guilty behind bars was a noble cause, but even the bad guys had people who loved them.
Too restless to go home, he headed across town to Kara and Colin’s house. The Lynches had been his best friends since elementary school. If there were two people he could count on in life, it was them.
As he pulled up in front of their home, he smiled at the pumpkins lining the porch rail and the cobwebs strewn across the hedges. Halloween was one of Kara and Colin’s favorite holidays. Last year, he’d helped Colin turn the garage into a haunted house. This year, he suspected things would be a little tamer. Colin was only five weeks into his recovery from a head injury that had left him in a coma for three months. And Kara was busy taking care of her husband and their newborn, Faith, who’d made her arrival just a day before Colin had woken up.
He got out of his car and was halfway to the porch steps when Kara came through the front door carrying a skeleton door decoration. She wore blue jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, and her dark red hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She didn’t have on a speck of makeup, but she didn’t need any. She still had that baby glow.
“Jason, how are you?” she asked, setting down the skeleton to give him a big hug. “I didn’t know you were coming by.”
“It was a spur-of-the-moment decision.”
“Your timing is perfect. Colin just got back from physical therapy, and he’s in a bear of a mood. Maybe you can get him out of it.” She cast a quick look back at the house to make sure they were still alone. “I don’t know what’s going on with him. He’s extremely irritable, and no matter what I do, I constantly annoy him. I wasn’t expecting this, Jason. I thought once he woke up, he’d be ecstatically happy.”
Colin’s fuse did seem shorter, but wasn’t that to be expected? “He just needs time to adjust. He’s confused, Kara. Three months passed for us while he was frozen in time. He doesn’t even remember being shot. Nor does he realize how close he came to dying. He expects to be able to do everything he did before, but he can’t, and it’s frustrating him.”
“You’re right. I need to be more patient. It’s just not one of my strengths.”
“No kidding.” He looked past Kara as the door opened and Colin stepped onto the porch, wearing navy sweatpants and a white T-shirt with the Angel’s Bay Police Department insignia.
Colin gave Jason a quick nod, then told Kara, “The baby is crying. She’s probably hungry, and I can’t do anything about that.”
“I’ll get her. Thanks.”
As Colin moved toward the porch bench, Kara gave Jason a pointed look and then disappeared into the house.
Colin let out a sigh as he sat down and stretched his legs out in front of him. He’d regained some color in his face the past few weeks, but his clothes still hung loosely on his big frame.
“How are you feeling?” Jason leaned against the porch railing. “I have to tell you that you look like shit.”
“I had a workout this morning. I’m a little tired.”
“Maybe you should take it slower.”
“Did Kara tell you to say that?” Colin demanded, a fire in his usually calm green eyes.
“I can speak for myself,” Jason replied, unintimidated by Colin’s bad mood. They’d been friends since the third grade. Neither of them had siblings, and in each other they’d found a brother. They’d grown up together, joined the force, and worked side by side. They’d shared good times and bad. He’d hoped the bad was over, but it looked as if there were still some issues to work through. At least Colin was alive. Everything else could be figured out.
“I don’t want to take it slower,” Colin continued with a frown. “I need to get in shape, so I can go back to work and support my family.”
“You will, but in the meantime you can be home with your daughter and with Kara. What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing is wrong with that.” Colin ran a hand through his hair in irritation. “I’m not complaining.”
“Look, I know I have a lot to be thankful for. I just want to be the man I was. I need to take care of my wife and my child. It’s bad enough that Kara had to go through labor without me.” He shook his head, anger etched in every line of his face. “I don’t want her to worry about money and working part-time at the quilt store or the real-estate office. I want her to stay home with Faith, the way we planned.”
“You’re the one who needs to stop worrying about money and work. All Kara needs right now is you at her side.”
“She needs more than that,” Colin argued.
“No, she doesn’t. She’s tired, Colin. She sat by your bed every damn day for three long months and prayed for you to wake up. The whole town thought she was chasing a dream, but she wouldn’t give in. She wouldn’t even go to the hospital when she went into labor; she was so damn determined to be with you when she gave birth to your daughter. She put you first, above herself. You’ve got a hell of a woman for a wife.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Colin asked, clearly pissed off. “You think I don’t wonder if I’ll be enough for her now? I’m different. My mind is muddy. I can’t find words. I forget things. I don’t feel like myself, and who knows if I ever will? I hate feeling weak, out of control. I saw Kara taking out the trash earlier. I always took out the trash. It’s my job, not hers.”
“I’m sure she’ll be happy to give you back that job. Stop pushing yourself so hard. You’ll be the man you were and more. Kara has been in love with you since you were kids. She’s seen you at your worst. She’s not going anywhere.”
“I don’t want her to stay because she feels sorry for me.”
“From where I sit, you’re the only one feeling sorry for you.”
Colin sucked in a sharp breath. “Why don’t you tell me what you really think?”
“Fine: I think you should get your head out of your ass.”
“If I wasn’t so tired, I’d take a swing at you.”
Jason grinned. “You’d probably fall over.”
“Yeah, probably.” The anger faded from Colin’s eyes. “You’re the only one around here who isn’t afraid I’ll break. Everyone else treats me like I’m fragile.”
“If you didn’t break after what you went through, I think you’re good to go for another fifty years. I have every confidence that you’ll return to normal. So take a breath and enjoy the day—because in spite of everything, you’re still alive.”
Colin nodded. “I hate to admit that you’re right.”
“I usually am.”
Colin rolled his eyes. “So what’s up with you?”
“Just checking in,” he said with a shrug.
Colin’s gaze sharpened. “Wait a second. Today is Monday. Tell me you didn’t go to Derek Kane’s funeral.”
“I drove by the cemetery,” Jason conceded.
“Why the hell would you do that?”
“I couldn’t stop myself. It was a remarkably small group for a guy who once had more friends than I could count. It was just his parents, a few relatives, some of the neighbors. Charlotte and her mother were there. Andrew Schilling did the service. I didn’t go close enough to hear it.” He paused. “Brianna and her son, Lucas, are moving here to be close to the Kanes.”
“I heard something about that.”
“Did you also hear that Brianna intends to prove that Derek was innocent, that I railroaded him to jail?”
“Who told you that?”
“I thought you didn’t get close enough to talk to anyone.”
“She saw me and came over. She was furious that I was there.”
“How did you think she would react?” Colin paused. “Brianna won’t be able to prove anything. You double-and triple-checked your facts. The chief rode your ass every step of that investigation, and you didn’t do it alone. Everyone in the department was involved. No one wanted to believe Derek was responsible, but the facts were the facts.”
“That’s what I keep telling myself.”
“Then start believing it.” Colin’s gaze was pointed and direct. “You’ve always been your own worst critic. Frankly, I’ve never understood why everyone was surprised by Derek’s behavior. He always had his eye on the prize. Even when we were kids, he was hustling at the poker games in the Murrays’ garage. Art was his ticket to the top. With his grandfather’s connections and his own personal charm, Derek had an entrÉe into a world of money filled with celebrities and power brokers. There was temptation everywhere he looked.”
What Colin said was true, but there was one big question they’d never managed to answer. “I just wish we’d found the paintings.”
“Stolen art is rarely recovered; you know that.”
“Derek had to hand those paintings off to someone—an accomplice or a buyer, maybe both. I never understood why he’d take the fall. Why didn’t he implicate anyone else?”
“He probably never thought he’d actually go to prison. Derek always believed that he was the exception to the rule.”
Jason cocked his head, hearing an undertone in Colin’s voice that he hadn’t noticed before. “Doesn’t sound as if you liked him as much as I thought you did.”
“He was entertaining. I never thought he had much substance, but you knew him better that I did. I always thought Derek took the easy way out.”
“Well, there was nothing easy about serving time. And now he’s dead.”
“Not because of you,” Colin met his gaze. “You need to get a grip. You didn’t send an innocent man to jail, and you are not responsible for his death. Derek’s case is closed. Let it stay that way.”
“It won’t stay closed if Brianna has anything to say about it.” He jerked upright, filled with a restless adrenaline he couldn’t seem to shake. “I can’t believe she’s come back here at all, much less that she’s going to go on some crusade to clear Derek’s name. It’s been five years. The investigator the Kanes hired came up with nothing. I thought by now Brianna would have finally figured out who Derek really was.”
“So this isn’t about Derek at all—it’s about his beautiful widow,” Colin said with a speculative gleam in his eyes. “You can’t stand that she believed him over you. You’re used to being the hero with women, but with Brianna you’re the bad guy.”
“That’s not it,” he denied quickly, though there was a grain of truth in Colin’s words.
“You don’t think you’ll change her mind, do you? Because it won’t happen. You need to let this go, move on, and stay away from Brianna Kane.”
It was good advice. Jason just didn’t think he could take it.
© 2010 Barbara Freethy