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The afternoon wasn't just hot. It was choking hot. Gasping hot. Suck-your-brains-out hot.
Lily Campbell stepped off the curb, feeling the pavement fry her feet even through her thick, cork sandals. It was only two more blocks to the sheriff's office.
She could make it two more blocks without dying, couldn't she? Surely?
She wanted to laugh. She'd been so certain that this trip home to Pecan Valley after twenty years would be horrendously traumatic. Instead, every view so far had provoked a gush of hopelessly happy memoriesof her dad pushing her in a creaking swing. Of her sisters shrieking and dancing through sprinklers. Or her being snuggled between her mom and dad on a porch swing, watching the fireflies at dusk.
Somehow, she always remembered the fire. Not the idyllic childhood before it. And for darn sure, she had no memory at all of this killer Georgia summer heat.
She pushed a heap of heavy chestnut hair off her neck, thinking she'd either have to get her long hair cut off or suffer heatstroke, but her real attention focused on Main Street. She passed Annabelle's Bakery, Susan's Secret Treasures, Belle Hair, an insurance office. On the other side of the road, hugging the corner, was Debbie's Diner and a shoe store.
None of the names latched in her memory, yet somehow she remembered other things. A woman with big hair and a white ruffled dress passed by her, nodding a polite hello. An old gentleman snoozed in a white rocker outside a storefront. A couple of giggling girls, sucking on popsicles, window-shopped across the street.
She knew this town. It smelled and tasted and looked like home, even if she hadn't been back since she was eight, even if she couldn't imagine living here ever again. She'd given herself exactly eight weeks to solve a twenty-year-old crime.
Complicating that problemjust a wee bitwas that no one twenty years ago believed there was a crime. Not the police. Not even her sisters. No one.
She'd plotted and planned this trip for almost two years, but back in Virginia the idea had made such sense. She needed to do this. She'd needed to forever. Now that she was here, trudging through this blazing, baking sun, she fully realized that everything about the plan was complete and total lunacy.
A red truck, older than her, stopped at the corner to yield the right of way. The next block echoed the last one. The storefronts were different, but the sleepy, Southern town mood was the same. First up was an old-fashioned pharmacy, then a crafty-type jewelry storeshe had to gallop past that one, shielding her eyes, knowing how readily she could sucker into a new pair of earrings. Right now, she'd likely sucker into any conceivable sales pitch to postpone her visit to the sheriff's office.
Lily figured that if a woman was determined to be stupid, there was no point in hanging out half a flag. Might as well go for it all the way. Still, she knew darn well that walking into that old brick building was going to be traumatic times ten.
She ducked under a candy-striped awning, kept going for three steps, then hopelessly, helplessly, backed up. For sure, this place hadn't been around when she was a little girl, because she'd have remembered it. Griff's SecretFresh Churned Ice Cream, claimed the sign in the window. The list of flavors for the day included Peachy-Cream, Blueberry-Drizzle, Chocolate-Miracle, Baby-Blue and "as always", Griff's Secret.
She wasn't hungry. And darn it, she hadn't traveled all this way just to back down on a streak of cowardice.
But her right hand seemed to reach out and open the door. Her right foot seemed to step inside. The air-conditioning alone was enough to make her sink to the floor in a grateful puddle. She'd work up her courage again in a few minutes. Right now, nothing in life seemed more important than getting a taste of that ice cream.
* * *Griff was just trolling the sports section for ball scores when the stranger walked in. Granted, he was always prone to noticing a good-looking woman, but this one snared more than a swift once-over.
The long sweep of lustrous chestnut hair caught his attention first, then the Yankee-white skin that looked softer than a baby's butt. Soft pretty much described all of her. She was wearing a pale pink tee, white jeans, cork sandals. He guessed her height around a respectable five-five, nothing heavy about her, but she had distinctly soft edgesplump boobs, a definite cup to her fanny. Lips softer than butter.
Still, it wasn't the prettiness that captured his interest, but the greed. On a scale of one to ten, she was easily a nine, every texture pure female, something about her that radiated sensuality, kindness, gentleness. Offhand, Griff would have pegged her as too goody-good for him, but then her blue eyes narrowed on the ice cream counter. And there it was. Right in her eyes.
A hefty dose of lusty greed.
She didn't notice him. Griff suspected she didn't notice much of anything. Good thing no small children stood between her and the ice cream, because she sprinted across the room faster than a thief in a bank vault.
"Can you tell me what this flavor is?"
She directed the question at Steve behind the counter. Griff had hired the kid when he had no place to go, which was pretty much how he found most of his workforce. Steve was gawky-thin, had two eyebrow rings, a tattoo on his neck and the generic scowl of a delinquentwhich he was. He had been kicked out of school three times last year alone. Oddly enough, the stranger with the Virginia accent looked at the boy as if there was nothing unusual about his appearance.
"We call that one Griff's Secret, ma'am. It's everybody's favorite. If you never tried it "
"well, let's just say, once you've tried Griff, you never go back."
"Hmm. Okay. Could I have a small cone? It has to be the smallest. I don't even have time for that, but it looks so"
"Yeah, it is, ma'am. Beyond good. Everybody says so."
"How much?" She buried her head in a purse the size of a small country, emerged with a change purse barely big enough to hold a half dollar.
He'd have gone back to his paperreally. Except that, once she got a hold of the kid-size sugar cone, she sank into one of his fountain stools, closed her eyes, and took a single, long, slow lap.
The town claimed no one ever moved slower than Griff Branchard, but it wasn't true. He just believed that speed required motivation. Seeing that soft, pink tongue curl around that cone propelled him across the room in maybe three seconds flat.
"I was hoping you might like that flavor," he said, deliberately making his voice honey slow, because she looked like a lady who could be spooked easilyand he sure as hell didn't want to do that.
Her eyes popped open, and for a whole, long second, she treated him to a dazzling smile. Griff had seen it before. Sometimes he only had a small window of opportunity before a woman slammed on the caution brakes, but invariably, females initially liked what they saw.
Some days, that struck Griff's sense of humor, since it made no sense to him why women would be attracted to scoundrels. When he looked in the mirror he saw nothing particularly interesting, just an ordinary six-three guy who shaved every other daywhen he remembered had his dad's chiseled bones and his mom's sloe eyes, and a head of black hair that never stayed brushed. He owned the small-scale ice cream parlor, as if he didn't have a serious ambition in the universe, never publically got involved in anything meaningful or troublesomeexcept for women, of course, but a guy had to have some vices. Yet, without knowing a single good thing about him, the women flocked. It was an amazement.
This particular soft sweetie, though, took the dazzle off the smile faster than most. Still, she didn't send him packing altogether. "I take it you're a fan of this icecream flavor?" she asked.
"I've kind of been hired by the owner to do the focus group thing. You know. Find out why a customer chooses a certain flavor. Then, whether they're happy they made that choice. And I know what pretty much every kid in town thinks, so it's nice to have someone new, get a fresh opinion." He was in the chair across from her before she could object, and once he'd put out that agenda, she seemed to relax again.
"Well.I chose the flavor because it sounded interesting. And looked interesting. And so did all the others, so I just figured I couldn't go far wrong. But the first taste of this" Alarmed, she saw a drop of ice cream start to slide down the cone. Her tongue found it faster than a soft little whip. He was in love. That fast.
Not for the first time. He always fell in love fast, got over it just as fast, but manshe was adorable.
"This taste," she murmured, and hesitated. "You just can't know if you haven't tried it. But"
"Tell me," he coaxed.
"Well.there's a hint of dark chocolate. And vanilla bean. Then a little burst of fruitlike sweet cherry, maybe, or that sweetness in the skin of a ripe purple grape? But there's still something else." She took another lick, closed her eyes, thought. "A crunch. Like maybe just a pinch of almond. It's all there, in the smells, the tastes, the textures. Like putting every fabulous flavor in the universe together in one ice cream. Yet it's subtle."
She looked at him, as if to make sure he wasn't bored by her analysis. He wasn't remotely bored. He was beyond interested. He was prepared to listen to her all afternoonat least until the kids started piling in.
"Are you in town for long? " he asked.
"Just the summer. I used to live here when I was a little girl. I just came back.to see what I remembered."
"Bring your husband and kids with you?"
She wagged a finger at him. "You're good."
"Beg your pardon?"
"You already looked, so you know I don't have a wedding ring. But I'm only here for eight weeksfor absolute sure, not a minute longer. And I think you'll find, after a few days, that I'm not a friend you'll want to have."
"I strongly suspect people won't appreciate my being in town. Still. Unless you ask me not to, I'll be back for more ice cream." She stood up, pulled the strap of her purse to her shoulder. "Can I ask your name?"
"You bet, cher. Griff Branchard."
Her eyebrows lifted. "So it's yours? Griff's Secret?"
"All mine. And I'm easy to find, so when you get the urge the next timewell, the next one's on me." He couldn't imagine her doing anything that would offend people. Her eyes were as honest as sunshine; the way she walked and moved was characteristic of a woman easy within herself. Except for the greed and lust thing of course, but that was about temptation. "And you are ?"
"Lily. Lily Campbell."
"You're welcome here any time. Might as well know now that I'm real likely to ask you to dinner one of these days."
"I won't hold you to it," she promised him, and with a smile, aimed for the door.
He almost followed her out, wanting to ask a few more questionsshe'd raised more curiosity and interest than he could simply let go ofbut then Jason showed up from the back room. Jason was scruffy and scrawny and looked chronically underfed. The kid worked harder than a dog, never back talked, never looked up if he had a choice. The shiner on his right eye was new since yesterday, and he was walking too careful, like something hurt out of sight.
Griff turned away from her and aimed for the kid.
The stranger was pretty and puzzling and appealing, but when push came down to shove.well, there just wasn't a choice. The kids had to come first.
By the time he had a chance to glance back, Lily Campbell was already out the door and had disappeared from sight. But he knew damn well he'd track her down and find out the story before another full day passed.
Recharged and renewed, Lily felt as if she'd gotten her pluck back. Even heading outside into the furnace heat and humidity didn't dent her determination this time. She jogged across the last street and headed up the steps to the old, redbrick police station. Only then did her heartbeat catch up with her, and she had to suck in a gulp of air.
She'd felt alone before. She'd been alone before. When it came down to it, she'd felt alone ever since she was eight years old. Her two sisters meant the world to her but this was different. Either they didn't remember the fire, or they didn't remember the tragic events of that long ago night the way she did.
She was tired of being haunted.
Quietly, she pulled open the door. The view inside might not be familiar, but it seemed triter than truth, nothing unexpected. Likely, every small-town police department had a similar long counter, a range of battered gray desks, linoleum that was always going to look scuffed. The place smelled vaguely of disinfectant and perspiration.
"Yeah, honey, what do you need?" The uniformed woman behind the counter had amazingly bleached hair, old eyes, and a printed tag that read Martha. Even though she looked buried in paperwork to the gills, she took the time to offer Lily a patient smile.
"Hello. I "
"well, I don't know who the sheriff is now, but I was hoping to talk to whoever may have replaced Herman Conner"
"Chief Conner's right here, honey, nobody's likely to replace him until he gets around to retiring which he said he was gonna do five years ago and still hasn't. Chief," she hollered, "pretty lady's here to see you."
"I've tole you and tole you, not to shout like I'm working for you. You buzz the phone or you come here to get m"
Lily never expected to recognize himand heaven knew, he'd agedbut one look and she was transported back in time. The sheriff probably never noticed her that night, but her memories were mirror-clear.
She and her sisters had been huddled on the curb; someone had dropped a scratchy blanket over all of them, but still they all shook. The sheriff's face had been backlit by fire as he was talking to the firemen. The sirens, the heat, the cold, the fear, the smokeLily remembered every taste, sound, texture. She wished she didn't. Her sisters had been mute like her, in shock like her. Cate, the oldest, had an arm tucked around Lily. Sophie, the youngest, was crying her heart out.
And Lily couldn't stop looking at the sheriff's face, because she'd identified him as the one adult who could give them some hope. Herman Conner was skinny as a blade back thensharp nose, sharp bones, a fast, sharp decision-makersome said impulsive.