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Lily Cantrell opened her front door and stared at the man who had his hand raised to knock again. He was tall, dark-haired and wore a yellow button-down shirt and jacket with jeans. His shoulders were broad and his eyes were still the most beautiful shade of blue she'd ever seen. Despite the years that had separated them, he'd been the only man she'd ever loved, even after he'd rejected her so ruthlessly. Even after
"Hello, small fry," John said, his voice deeper than she remembered. "It's good to see you again."
The years had perfected his masculine frame. He'd gotten bigger. Broader. The strong angles of his cheeks and jaw provided a rugged framework for the dark slash of his eyebrows above his pale blue eyes, and the prominent thrust of his nose and the sensual line of his wide mouth proclaimed him to be a bit of a barbarian. Fine lines gathered at the corner of his eyes, telling her without a doubt the boy she'd loved had grown into a man to be reckoned with.
John pushed back his hair in a familiar gesture that twisted her insides with longing and pain.
"You going to invite me in, Lily?"
Invite him in?
Instinctively she raised a hand to her cheek. Fifteen years ago, her mother had slapped her for the first and only time. All because Lily had insisted on going to see him, this man, the boy her mother had warned was too old for her and would only end up hurting her. She'd been right, but Lily never had a chance to tell her so. She'd never had a chance to say she was sorry for the terrible things she'd said. And she'd never had a chance to say goodbye.
Before any of that could happen, her mother had died. Now, days before the man responsible was to be executed, John suddenly showed up?
Her first instinct was to slam the door. To hide. To run. But she couldn't.
She'd acted like an ungrateful, selfish child once and soon afterward her mother had been murdered. She wouldn't disgrace her mother's memory any more than she had. She wouldn't run from this man now.
She stepped out onto the porch, shutting the front door behind her. "What do you want, John?"
He didn't smile, but she could swear his eyes did. "Good to see you, too, Lily. Can I come in?"
She shook her head. "Answer my question."
"I'd really like to talk about it inside"
"And I'd really like you to tell me why you're here before I call the cops."
"No need. They're already here." He pulled out a thick black leather flasher wallet and showed her a shiny badge and accompanying picture ID.
"You're a cop?" She couldn't disguise the shock in her voice.
He'd been the ultimate bad boy. Accused of doing drugs and worse.
"I'm a detective with El Dorado County Sheriff's Department."
"El Dorado County? But why" Realization made her eyes widen. "Is this about the execution?" The execution of her mother's murderer wasn't something Lily was taking any pleasure in. In fact, with the dreams having started up again, she'd been trying not to think about the execution at all. She just prayed that afterward she and her family would find some measure of peace, peace that had been eluding them. Her work with her art-therapy patients helped a lot, but
John's jaw tightened. "I'm not here to cause trouble. This doesn't have to be a battle between us, Lily."
He's changed. Still intense, but more controlled. Confident. He didn't need to play the bad boy anymore. He was prime alpha male, sure of himself, not caring what others thought about him.
Well, she'd grown up, too. "This is about the execution, isn't it?"
He blinked and cleared his throat. "Talking to the victim's family isn't unusual during the last stages of the appeal process. Chris Hardesty's claiming innocence, so"
"I don't understand." The calm facade she'd adopted cracked slightly. "Who cares what he's saying now. You have the evidence. You have the trial transcripts. His confession. Why are you reopening my mother's case?"
"We're not reopening the case, Lily, but the Attorney General's Office wants me to follow up on some leads. There's been a series of murders in El Dorado, murders I've been investigating, and the modus operandi for all of them are similar to your mother's. At first we thought they were copycat murders, spurred on by news coverage of the approaching execution, and they probably are, but."
When he hesitated, her heart beat in a furious rhythm, pounding in her ears. His words left room for doubt and for a second it shivered through her.
No. No matter what I dream, the evidence shows Hardesty killed Mom. But if these murders were similar, that meant "Someone's been stabbed?"
He didn't say anything and a wave of dizziness hit her.
"Look, I'm not saying Hardesty's innocent. Just that it needs further investigating. Hardesty says"
A laugh burst from her, raw and ugly. It horrified her. Made her sound like she was on the verge of hysteria. She knew exactly how convincing Hardesty was. "The police investigated. I don't know why you people are doing this."
He narrowed his eyes and shifted the bag on his shoulder, a black satchel she noticed for the very first time. "You people?"
"Yes. Hardesty and his attorneys. The D.A. Now you. All you do is cater to the criminals. In the meantime, forget about the victims"
John shook his head. "I never forgot about you. And somehow I don't think you forgot about me, either."
The innuendo in his voice shocked her. So did the tugging in her stomach. She remembered telling him she loved him. She remembered kissing him at his partythe party to which she hadn't been invited. And she remembered what he'd said in response.
Here's some advice. Lose the makeup. It makes you look trashy. And whoever taught you to kiss didn't do a very good job.
The memory still hurt and she clung to that pain with all her might.
Fes, remember how he hurt you. Remember what happened that night.
"Diddid you know I get letters from them just about every week?" she asked. "Begging me to visit him in prison so he can convince me of his innocence. And the D.A., he hasn't even"
Anger lit the flame in his eyes to a bonfire. "His attorneys had no right to ask that of you." He stepped closer. "Stay away from them, Lily."
Involuntarily, she crossed her arms and stepped back until she hit the front door. "I don't need your advice."
"I'm giving it to you anyway. I let you down before, but I swear, I'll help you through this. Trust me."
"Why? What's in this for you?"
"Nothing. I gave up what I wanted a long time ago."
Her pulse quickened. "What do you mean?"
"You have to know it wasn't easy for me to turn you away that night. In fact, it was one of the hardest things I've ever done."
Feeling sucker punched, she couldn't believe he'd actually brought that night up. Humiliation filled her as she remembered what she'd said to him. How she'd clung to him, devastated that he was leaving town, begging him to wait for her. The way his friends had laughed at her.
"I threw myself at you. You mocked me. You kissed Stacy in front of me!"
He advanced on her so fast she couldn't have run even if she'd had room. Bracing his arms on the door on either side of her, he leaned down until she could smell his spicy cologne and sun-kissed skin.
She suddenly had the feeling he was fighting to keep his hands off her. She shivered in fear and unwanted desire.
"You were sixteen! Even if I wasn't too old for you, your father thought I was a petty thug. You already hated him because he'd left your mother. I was causing nothing but problems for you. What did you want me to do?"
Love me! she almost shouted. Like I loved you. But she choked back the words, dropping her voice to a harsh whisper. "All I want is for you to leave us alone. Leave me alone. Assign someone else to the case. You can work the recent murders without having to interact with me or my family."
The flare of anger in his eyes dissipated. He pushed away from her and shook his head, pity flooding his eyes. "I'm not going to do that. I can help. This isn't just about your mother anymore. It's about you. Two of the three girls look"
"I don't want to hear it." She looked at the ground and felt the fight leave her body. She'd beg him if she had to. She raised her gaze to his and forced herself not to look away. "Please, John. I fought with my mother that night. And then afterward, when I found hershe was lying therekilled by a man II'd befriended"
Her voice broke and she struggled to breathe.
"Your mother's death wasn't your fault, Lily. And it wasn't mine. But this isn't going to just go away. And neither am I."
Propping her hands on her hips, she thrust out her jaw, the words coming out before she could stop them. "My father's a judge now. I'm sure he can arrange to have this reassigned to someone who didn't know the victim or the witnesses."
John's eyes narrowed and his smile made her shiver. He dropped his bag with a thump and once again moved toward her. "I don't like being threatened, Lily. And I'm sure your father wouldn't do something so foolish. Let the experts do what needs to be done, small fry."
She tried to shove him away, but he grasped her wrists, easily holding her hands against his chest. Her fingers flexed, wanting to sink deeper into his taut muscles. Wanting to pull him closer.
Whimpering, she pulled away and he released her. Jaw clenched tight, he glanced down a split second before his horror-filled eyes met her own.
She looked at the bloody images. Her mother. Her beautiful mother. Nausea rushed straight into her throat.
John cursed. "I'm so sorry, Lily"
Backing away from him and shaking her head, she whispered, "Why are you doing this?" She fumbled for the doorknob behind her.
Finally, she got the door open, stumbled inside, then stared at him one last time.
"I just want to help, small fry."
"Then leave me alone." With bone-shattering control, she closed the door and engaged the lock with a quiet click.