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The smell of stale air and cleaning chemicals lingered as Lily Masterson left Montana State Prison. Sunlight made her blink a few times, bringing her out of a fog of hugely unsettling emotions. She couldn't even begin to categorize them. Her nerves were a jumbled tangle of friction. Her stomach still churned. Her heart still beat heavily. A sob lodged in her throat. She hated that.
"Maybe you should wait a few minutes before you drive back to Honey Creek," the victims' officer said.
Lily didn't know what a typical prison worker was supposed to look like, but this one resembled more of a schoolmarm with her short, curly brown hair, round glasses and short, plump frame. The woman had met her at the prison entrance when she'd first arrived and stayed close through the parole hearing.
"I'm fine." It was a lie, but all she wanted was to get away from this place.
"Are you sure? Most victims don't come to these hearings alone. We usually meet them somewhere in town and drive them here."
Well, Lily wasn't like most people, then. She refused to succumb to that kind of weakness. It made her helpless, and she wasn't.
"Yes, I'm sure. Thanks for asking."
The truth was she'd barely made it through the hearing. While one part of her struggled with the reminder of the trauma she'd suffered, the other was mad as hell. She'd thought she was over this by now. Facing Brandon Gates shouldn't have been as hard as it had been. That's the part that made her mad. Why was she crumbling after she'd worked so hard to be strong? She'd gone through extensive therapy and aggressive self-defense classes. She'd picked herself up and started a new life and damn it, no one was going to take that away from her. Not again.
But being that close to Brandon Gates for the first time in fifteen years had thrown her. Crushed her. Talking about how he'd violated her and its devas tating effect on her while he stared across the room like a dead deer was even worse. He hadn't looked at her, but his demeanor, his presence, still bothered her.
The victims' officer kept pace beside her. Lily thought she'd walk her to the exit and then let her be on her way, but apparently the woman was going to escort her all the way to her truck. Lily didn't want that. She'd talked to the woman before the hearing and they'd had a nice conversation, but it was time to leave.
"I can make it from here," she told the woman with a forced smile.
"Sometimes seeing them after so long is more disturbing than you think, and that's okay. It's perfectly natural to feel that way."
Lily was sure the officer had seen a lot of women break down after testifying at their rapist's parole hearing, but she didn't want to be one of them. "I'm fine, thanks."
Lily walked with the officer a few more steps and then stopped. The officer stopped, too, and seemed to understand Lily's growing impatience.
She handed her a business card. "All right, but if you need to talk to anyone, just give me a call. I can help you find someone good."
Lily took the card even though she had no intention of using this. She'd already gone through therapy. She refused to depend on that again. She'd moved on. This was just a minor setback. Chances were he wouldn't be released anyway. What board would do that after hearing her testimony?
"You'll be notified of the board's decision in about a week. Maybe less."
Lily nodded with another forced smile and started walking again. "You take care now," the woman called after her.
Lily kept walking, glancing back once to make sure she was finally rid of the woman. Seeing the officer heading back toward the prison settled her nerves a notch.
Reaching her Dodge Ram pickup truck, she kicked the front tire on her way to the driver's door to vent some of her frustration. It wasn't supposed to be like this. She was supposed to go to the parole hearing and hold her head high, show that dirty rat how strong she was. Climbing into the truck, she sat there for a minute, unable to shake her tension. She couldn't let her daughter see her like this. Not on top of all the talk flying around Honey Creek. She'd expected some talk around town, but she hadn't expected it to be as bad as it was. That was two things she'd underestimated.
Starting the engine, she wiped an escaped tear and backed out of the parking space. She drove toward the end of the row a little faster than she should have. Okay, a lot faster. She couldn't wait to get away, to put the prison behind her and out of sight. The residual image of Brandon's face lurked in her mind, the way he stayed focused on the parole board and ignored her. Would it have been better if he had acknowledged her?
Her stomach churned with nausea. Maybe once she returned to Honey Creek she'd recover.
A black SUV crossed in front of her. She didn't see it coming and didn't have time to avoid a collision. She slammed on her brakes, but her truck hit the SUV broadside. Her airbag exploded and her mind blanked for a second.
When she could think again, she saw that she'd sent the SUV head-on into a light pole. Its front end was crushed. So was the passenger side. Her truck didn't appear to have sustained much damage and the engine was still running. Her heart hammered and the shock of the wreck intensified the tremble in her limbs.
A man stepped out of the driver's side of the SUV. He was tall and muscular but lean. Lily opened her truck door and hopped out, steadying her wobbly legs as she approached the man.
"I am so sorry. Are you all right?" she said.
Rubbing the back of his neck, he stopped when she did, his eyes full of annoyance.
When he didn't answer, she asked, "D-do you want me to…call for help?" She'd left her cell phone in the truck. She started to turn.
"No. Don't do that. I'm okay."
She faced him again. He'd lowered his hand and now his gaze took her in, a slow and observant once-over.
She stiffened a little. At least he wasn't as annoyed anymore. "Your neck…"
"It'll be sore for a few days but I'm all right."
After studying her face a bit longer, he glanced back at his SUV and then walked to the front. There, he stood and surveyed the damage.
Lily was mortified. She wanted to crawl out of her skin and escape until this was over.
"I have insurance," she said quickly.
He looked at her.
"I—I was…I guess I was…a little distracted," she stammered.
"Places like this have that effect," he said.
Was he kidding? She didn't know what to say.
"It's probably going to be totaled," he said.
Great. She couldn't remember what her deductable was. A thousand probably. And her rates would go up after this, too.
"That's all right." As if.
"I liked my SUV," he said.
She hadn't thought of it like that. "I'm sorry." Could she disappear now?
The victims' officer came running toward them. She must have barely made it into the building when she'd noticed the crash.
Here we go, Lily thought. Lord, she wanted to go home.
"Oh, my God…are you two okay?" The officer stopped, breathing rapidly from exertion.
"Yes, we're fine," Lily said. "Neither one of us is hurt, but I'll call the police for an accident report and we'll be on our way." She tapped the toe of her shoe on the pavement and looked toward the road leading to the checkpoint.
The officer followed her look and then her gaze passed over the wreckage of the man's truck. "One of you isn't going anywhere without help. You'll need a tow."
"We probably need an accident report," Lily repeated, knowing she sounded harried. "You know…for insurance. So as soon as we call.…" She could drive home.
"We don't need to call anyone to come out here," the man said.
She stopped tapping her foot. "Really?"
"No one was hurt, and this is a private parking lot. All we need to do is stop by the sheriff's office and fill out a form for insurance."
"Oh. Okay. Good." Then all they needed was a tow truck. How long would that take?
His eyes grew more curious and then he really looked at her. It made her nervous. As if she wasn't nervous enough.
"Maybe I should get someone to drive you home," the officer said to her. "You look a little shaken."
"No. I can drive."
"You were just in an accident."
This lady was really starting to irritate her. Did she hound all the victims who came here? Lily didn't respond, just looked toward the road again. Oh, to be on it, driving away from here, on her way home.
"Wait a minute," the man said, which brought her head back around. "You look familiar."
How could he possibly know her?
"Where are you from?" he asked.
She didn't want to tell him.
"Wes Colton." He stuck out his hand. "Honey Creek County sheriff."
Momentarily stunned, she numbly took his hand. Colton. He was a Colton?
"You're from Honey Creek?" she asked, her astonishment coming out in her tone.
He smiled. "Yeah. You're Lily Masterson, right? You took over for Mary Walsh at the library."
"That's me," Lily said, cringing inside. The resident bad girl. There was only one reason he recognized her. All the gossip. Honey Creek was rampant with it these days.
"You know each other?" the officer cut in.
"No," Lily all but snapped.
"Not really," Wes answered conversationally. "We both live in Honey Creek. It's not far from here."
"I know where that town is." The officer smiled. "Quite a coincidence, wouldn't you say?"
He nodded toward the prison. "Might be a bad sign that we're both here."
Lily was getting good at forcing humor. She laughed.
Great. Would he guess why she was here? If the victims' officer didn't give her away.…
She glanced at the woman. Her eyes had widened but she remained quiet.
"What brings you here?" she asked Wes.
"I came here to see my brother."
Of course. She remembered. Damien Colton was in prison for murder, except the man he had supposedly murdered had recently turned up—dead again. Damien was Wes Colton's brother. Talk about his impending release was all over town. Lily looked more closely at him. He was handsome and young. She thought she remembered someone saying he was thirty-three, which was too young for her forty years.
"What about you?" he asked, and she wished she would have kept her mouth shut.
"Oh.…" How was she going to answer that? No one from Honey Creek knew what had happened to her. "I was just… visiting a friend."
The officer angled her head a little, a silent question in her eyes.
Lily ignored her, but she couldn't ignore Wes. The amusement that had pulled a smile from his mouth faded.
Surely he'd heard all the rumors. Some weren't rumors, either. Before she'd left Honey Creek, she'd done anything and everything to spite her holier-than-thou parents. That was so long ago, though, and so much had changed since then. She'd changed. Why was it so hard for everyone to see that?
"What kind of trouble did your friend get into to land himself here?" he asked.
She thought fast. "Robbery."
The officer's eyebrows lifted.
"Must be someone close to you if you're willing to visit him here."
"He's just a…a…friend."
The officer's eyebrows lowered and her eyes turned sympathetic. She knew why Lily was lying.
Lily met her gaze and hoped she read the message not to say anything. When the officer remained a silent observer, she didn't know if that was worse. Pity was for the vulnerable.
"You've been away from Honey Creek for a while," Wes said, appearing oblivious to the exchange. "What brought you back?"
Another subject she didn't particularly want to discuss. But he wasn't pressing on her reason for being here so she wouldn't complain. "My dad. His health isn't so great right now. Stage two stomach cancer. He's gone through the surgery, but he's still in treatment and we don't know how things will progress from here. I came back to help him. Without Mom around it's hard for him to care for himself."
He nodded and his blue eyes showed his admiration. They also showed self-assurance and intelligence that went along with his honorable reputation. She checked his left hand. No ring.
"That's very kind of you to do that," the officer said, sounding out of place in the conversation. Was that because she'd noticed Lily looking at Wes?
Checking for a ring. Oh, lord….
He had really nice hands. She'd heard he was a nice man, too. And a sheriff….
Something about that appealed to her.
She stopped herself short. Why was she thinking like this? She hadn't been back in Honey Creek long, and was too caught up in the gossip going around about her to pay much attention to potential love interests. She didn't want to get involved with anyone. So why had those thoughts even crossed her mind? Was she interested in Wes? He was attractive, but…
Lily tipped her head back and looked up at the big, blue sky. "At least the weather is nice."
Wes looked up with her, but not for very long. He was studying her again.
"Sure is," the officer said, drawing out the word sure suggestively.
And Lily snapped her head down to see the officer smiling.
The officer turned to Wes. "So, you're a sheriff?"
"Yes. Honey Creek County."
"Oh, well," the officer beamed, "Lily's in good hands then."
Lily loved the sound. "Should we call for a tow now?"
"Of course," the officer cooed. "And then maybe you could let Sheriff Colton drive you back home in your truck, Lily," the officer suggested, doing a bad job of pretending to be nonchalant. "He'll be needing a rental car anyway." Her smile was more genuine now, but held a tinge of slyness. Maybe she understood why Lily had lied and only wanted to make sure she made it home all right.
The officer had noticed their exchange and was now matchmaking. Was she like this with all the victims?
"Sure." Anything to be gone from here as soon as humanly possible. She looked at Wes. "I can drive you back to Honey Creek."
He dipped his head. "I'd appreciate that."
After the tow truck had left with Wes's SUV and the prison worker had gone back into the building, Wes got into Lily's pickup. As she started the engine, he covertly looked at her. She had thick, long black hair and a pair of amazing blue eyes. Her breasts were just the right size and shape in the short-sleeved collared cotton shirt she wore, and she looked nice in the knee-length jean skirt.
She started driving. He hadn't argued over who should drive. He thought he should, but he also had the impression she needed the control…or the sense of it. He faced forward. The truck was quiet and she stayed focused on the road.