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After talking to the fire chief about final plans for this week's Fourth of July celebration, Ford McCall tucked his cell phone into its holster and looked with dread toward the front doors of Samuel Grayson's lavish three-story community center. Marble-trimmed, tinted windows and swooping gardens full of color accented the stone monolith. This was Inspiration Central at its finest, cloaked in danger and deception. The whole town was infected with its cultish poison.
Ford sighed and ran his fingers through his windblown blond hair, annoyed that he had to deal with another woman who'd caught Grayson's fancy. The Chief of Police had assigned him to question a "very special lady." She was special, all right. Grayson always took an interest in anything that put a ripple in his perfect town, and he used the police chief to take care of the problem. Gemma Johnson had moved here after divorcing her ex-husband, Jed, who hadn't taken her leaving well and found and beat her. Now she was scared and vulnerable.
She must be vulnerable. Otherwise, Ford would not have found her here, attending one of Grayson's early-evening, soul-perfecting seminars.
With the summer sun low in a clear blue sky, the doors to the Cold Plains Community Center opened and a throng began to emerge. He spotted her almost immediately. She wore white cropped pants with a dark blue-and-white sleeveless blouse. All he'd seen of her was a picture, but it was enough. She walked slowly beside the taller Lacy Matthews, the owner of the posh and trendy Cold Plains Coffee.
The two must have struck up a friendship, thanks to the seminars. Another bad sign for the newcomer. Lacy was well on her way to no return. Ford wouldn't be at all surprised if she already had a D for Devotee tattooed on her hip. Grayson liked to brand his truest followers that way. If Gemma wasn't careful, she'd be drawn into his secret tattoo parlor just like the others.
As the women drew closer, Ford couldn't help noticing Gemma in a very different light from the one that brought him here. Small-boned, almost fragile, she had a tiny waist, slender hips and breasts a little larger than a handful. Lean and sexy. Though her lower lip and nose were still swollen and the cuts and bruises on her face were still clearly visible, he could see she was a beautiful woman. Silky dark hair waved gently as she moved and she had the softest brown eyes he'd ever seen.
Putting a stop to his wandering fascination, he circled back to his purpose here. His job was to question her about her ex-husband and then find and arrest him, not ask her out on a date.
The first of the attendees to leave the building passed. Some greeted him warmly, others looked over in suspicion. Why was Police Deputy Ford McCall dressed in uniform and standing beside his flashy, department-issued Escalade, in front of Samuel Grayson's community center? Was he waiting? Who was he waiting for? Ford found it ironic that no one batted an eye over the higher-ranking officers driving such pricey vehicles. This was Cold Plains, the city where beauty and prosperity thrived. It was only natural that city officials suited the culture while they worked to keep the town safe. If the Chief of Police, Bo Fargo, wanted to spend that kind of money, who was Ford to complain? He was more concerned with the unsolved murders and mysteriously disappearing residents, all occurring in the time frame Samuel Grayson had been here.
"Ms. Johnson?" he called when Lacy and Gemma were about to pass.
Gemma stopped, and so did Lacy.
The seminar attendees who'd heard him paused with curiosity. An older woman ornamented with diamonds smiled her approval. The police are doing their job, he could almost hear her thinking. Gemma had obviously been accosted, therefore, justice needed to be done. Someone had to purge the town of the thug who'd done it. Clean out the trash, as it were. Grayson would love that. But his reasons were different than Ford's. Much different.
"Gemma Johnson?" he said to the woman's stunned face.
Stepping closer, he saw that he towered over her small frame as she gazed up at him with those lovely, uncertain, flighty eyes.
"Deputy McCall, Cold Plains Police. I'd like to talk to you about Jed Johnson. Is now a good time?"
After blanching slightly, she stammered, "O-oh II of course."
Ford turned to Lacy. "Ms. Matthews."
Lacy bowed her head congenially. "Deputy McCall." Then she turned to Gemma. "Stop by Cold Plains Coffee tomorrow morning. I'll make you a vanilla latte and we can talk more."
Gemma's smile was big, tripping Ford up with its dazzling warmth. "I'd love that."
She'd fallen so easily into Lacy's magnetic personality. Or was it the smile itself that had grabbed him? Yes. It was the smile. Beautiful. Guileless. Full of innocent delight. Wide, white and toothy. It lit up her face and wiped away all the vulnerability and fear.
Lacy walked away.
Given Ford's suspicion of Lacy's affiliation with Grayson, he didn't trust Gemma's friendship with her. Lacy had her priorities, and they centered around Grayson.
That smile transfixed him all over again, now softening as she regarded him. The way it made him feel reminded him too much of the past, back when initial sparks led to heartache. He briefly glanced away, only to catch another seminar attendee eyeing them speculatively.
"Would you like to go somewhere to talk?" he asked her.
"Oh " She glanced across the street to a brick diner with a bright green sign that said Fleur de Sel's. It was immaculately clean and modern.
"All right. Yes."
He offered his arm to her and she looped hers through it, leaning a little of her weight against him. She'd be sore for a while but she'd recover. He helped her across the street and they entered the French diner beneath several curious gazes. It was getting late in the evening so there were a few tables open. Unfortunately, most of the patrons had come from the community center.
After Ford asked for a booth along the front windows, the hostess led them there. He wanted something relatively private. Sitting across from Gemma, he pulled out a pen and a little notebook.
"Have you ever been here before?" she asked.
Realizing she was referring to the restaurant, he answered,
"It's very good. I like to find the best, and this is definitely one of those."
He didn't really care about that. But he suspected she was only nervous. "Why don't we start with what happened?" She'd have to face it sometime.
Her eyes lowered to the table. "How did you find out? I didn't call the cops."
A waitress appeared, interrupting them.
"Are you hungry?" he asked.
"No. Lacy and I had dinner before the seminar." She looked up at the waitress. "Just water for me." And then to Ford she said, "They do have a chocolate croissant here that stands apart from all others. You should try it for breakfast some time. It's really good. The best."
"Everything is in this town," he quipped, only half kidding, then to the waitress, "Just black coffee for me."
The tall and slender, beautifully groomed woman in a green apron embroidered with a Fleur de Sel logo snapped her order book shut and turned away.
Gemma's nervousness eased and she smiled at his sarcasm. He grinned back at her and offered no explanation.
Relaxing even more, she settled back against the bench seat and studied him as though trying to figure him out on her own. Her gaze fell down over his chest, spending more time on his badge before rising again. Her light brown eyes sparkled with health and vitality, and the same fascination that had overcome him. None of the frailty he'd sensed when he'd first announced he wanted to talk to her about Jed remained. The change in her was magnificent. And she was so beautiful he couldn't stop staring at her. The more he stared, the more he wanted to make Jed pay for marking her with cuts and bruises.
Suddenly aware of the heat that had risen out of nowhere, he reeled it in. The quicksilver reaction came without welcome. She'd struck him right away, at first sight. That was unusual. When a woman caught his eye, he normally had time to assimilate whether he wanted to pursue her. With Gemma, it slam-dunked him, thrust him right in the middle of an unexpected attraction.
Not understanding why she did that to him, he tapped his pen on the notebook. "The Chief of Police told me to come get your statement."
As he'd hoped, her demeanor cooled.
"That's how I know your ex-husband came after you," he answered her previous question. He didn't tell her that Doctor Rafe Black had also spoken to him, voicing his concern over Grayson's interest in her after he'd treated her at the hospital.
"Ah." She nodded and averted her gaze.
"Would you mind telling me exactly what happened?"
She glanced at him and then down at the table again, the vulnerability he'd noticed before returning. He could understand how this would be hard for her.
"Did he break into your home?" he helped her out.
She lifted her eyes. "No. II left the back door open. I know I should have locked all my doors, but I'd been feeling so safe here. He walked right in."
Lots of people felt safe and secure here at first. He could tell she felt like a fool for that and hoped it had shown her not to trust her impression of Cold Plains as an idyllic town. It was, but not with Samuel Grayson in it.
"You were surprised to see him?" he asked.
"Oh, yeah." She nodded a few times. "He was really angry. He sent me a few emails before coming to find me. I ignored them all, of course. He wanted to reconcile and I wasn't about to do that. The divorce was already final and I've moved on. When he came here, he kept asking me if I thought I could just walk away from him. I told him to leave or I'd call the police and then he that's when he attacked me. He hit me and kicked me until I thought I was going to die. He broke my Tiffany lamp when he threw it at me and it hit the wall. I loved that lamp." She pouted.
She sounded more upset over the lamp than being attacked. Did she favor material things or was the lamp something special to her? "You fought him off?"
"No. I mean, yes, I fought him, but he stopped beating me and said he'd be back and I could either go with him or he'd kill me. It's like he was giving me time to think about it." She shook her head incredulously. "I thought he was going to kill me then, but he only wanted to warn me."
Ford finished jotting down some notes. "So he said he'd be back for you. Did he say when?"
"No." She took a deep breath and looked away.
"Do you have any pictures of him?"
"No. I burned them all."
"I should be able to come up with something. Can you describe him for me?"
"He's tall." She surveyed him. "Not as tall as you. He might be as big but he's not as fit."
Every man probably seemed big to her, as tiny as she was.
"Dark hair. Hazel eyes." She shuddered.
Clearly she didn't like his eyes. They probably scared her.
"He wore jeans and one of his Armani Collezioni dress shirts. It was dark blue. He always spent a lot of money on his clothes. He hoarded his money for them, even though he had plenty for both of us to shop like that. He was furious if I ever spent money on anything other than clothes I needed to be seen with him in public. He made me go to consignment stores, where I'd find used brand names. He kept me from seeing my friends and never let me out of his sight except when he went to work, and even then he checked on me constantly to make sure I didn't go anywhere. It's a miracle he didn't feed me dog food."
Ford had to stifle a chuckle. The tone of her voice told him how much she hadn't liked the way her ex-husband had treated her, but she was able to inject some humor into it. Jed had lavished himself with luxurious items and forced her to cut corners. Was that why material things were important to her? No one was going to stop her from doing what she wanted now? From spending money the way she wanted to? He liked the hint of rebellion in her. Innocent rebellion. She could have decided to run a key down the side of her ex's car, but instead she treated herself to shopping sprees. Bo had told him she'd come to town with money, her ex-husband's money. Her money now.
The waitress returned with the coffee and water. He put down his pen to sip, seeing Gemma do the same.
"Bo said Jed followed you here."
She lowered her glass and answered solemnly, "Yes."
"Where did he come from?"
"Casper, Wyoming." She provided an address, putting her elbows on the table.
"How long were you married?"
"Not long. Three years."
"Did he beat you before this incident?"
"Yes. It started around the first year of our marriage. By the end of that last year it got really bad. At first he didn't get physical very often and he always apologized. I think he genuinely was sorry and just couldn't help himself, you know? It gradually got worse." She shook her head in disgust and slipped her hands down to her lap. "This time was worse than ever, though. I had never required a doctor until now."
"How did he find you? Did you tell him where you were going?"
"No. No way. I don't know he probably found out through my old job." She rubbed her hands on her pants, which fitted her body perfectly, he recalled.
"We'll get a restraining order going, and I'll arrange for some scheduled patrols to watch your house."
Smiling her appreciation, she stopped nervously rubbing her pants. Her smile derailed his train of thought again.
"Samuel said you would," she said, snapping him out of his trance.
"Really? He said I would?"
"No, I mean he said the police would."
The fondness in her voice didn't go unnoticed. "How did he find out?"
"I don't know. He came to the hospital to see how I was doing. He was very nice."
That's what he wanted everyone to believe. But Grayson was anything but nice.