Read an Excerpt
Cambria at thirteen
It would have been amusing, if it hadn’t had the potential to be so dangerous.
Jaymi Flannigan Kramer watched as her younger sister, Cami, sneaked another shy look at Rafer Callahan, one of Corbin County’s three bad boys and the man Jaymi’s deceased husband had claimed as a blood brother.
He was also the man she was sleeping with, but that wasn’t as important as the fact that he was her best friend. And he knew, just as well as she did, that sleeping with him was her attempt to stay close to the husband who was forever gone. He had been Tye’s best friend, his blood brother, and the only man she knew who even came close to her soul mate.
She turned her gaze away from Cami and Rafe and let it sweep over the crowd attending the Saturday night social.
Jaymi loved the name of the county’s weekly street party and dance that had become a tradition of almost-required attendance. The mayor and city officials pushed the weekend socials the way some towns pushed voting, sports arenas, and political agendas. Wholeheartedly.
Corbin County and its seat, Sweetrock, promoted their drug awareness and “Children First” agenda with the same passion and strength. They had adopted the slogan more than a generation before and made certain everyone knew they meant it.
Friday after school the community center opened and any child enrolled in school from Head Start to college was welcome. BYOSB—Bring Your Own Sleeping Bag—was the rule. But there were so many donated bags that it really wasn’t necessary.
City officials, employees, and any and all teachers, from tenured to substitute, were required to give one weekend per month to chaperone the social as well as the community center.
Families donated the food and drinks that were prepared in the community center’s kitchen, and parents who didn’t stay around to help chaperone were forced to sign a legal release stating that if they left their children, at any time, in the care of the county’s volunteers, the parents rescinded all rights or legal abilities to sue in the event of accident.
However all manner of ills could befall anyone who chose not to participate. Permits could get lost or delayed, mail could be misplaced, utility workers could move at a much slower pace, and just forget getting out of that speeding ticket. And that was nothing compared to what local business owners could do.
City Hall had begun the socials, and their commitment to providing something entertaining and supervised for the county’s youth had been sustained for over twenty years. It had grown to the point that if that commitment lapsed in any way, then newspapers and radio stations found the phenomenon strange enough to report it.
Corbin County had found that the key to keeping their youth away from delinquency or drugs was to give them something to do. And it was still working.
Parents and teens mingled in the dance area, while the younger children played games or watched supervised videos.
Parents took the few hours’ break to dance, socialize, and build not just friendships but also those all-important ties that sustained a community.
But there were undercurrents. Undercurrents existed in any town. It wasn’t all sweetness and light. For Corbin County, those undercurrents seemed to swirl most viciously around Rafer Callahan and his cousins, Logan and Crowe. The three disowned grandchildren of Corbin County’s founding and most influential families.
Crowe, Logan, and Rafer Callahan were each the son of a reigning princess of one of those founding families and the Callahan brother she had married.
Many said those three unions were born of the murders of the brothers’ parents. The couples had died in a suspicious accident on a mountain road. Within days of their deaths the Rafferty, Corbin, and Roberts patriarchs had arrived at the court house with a bill of sale and proof of purchase of the extensive Callahan lands bought by the three men. When their sons Samuel, David, and Benjamin returned from the military to a pittance amount for prime land, they turned their attention to the daughters of these families.
The Callahan brothers had acquired more than they had ever lost when they married those daughters. At least for a few years. Until a freak blizzard had swept through the Colorado mountains. The storm had surprised the three couples who were returning from Denver that night. Slick roads, high winds, and near-zero visibility had sent their SUV careening over a mountain cliff, killing them, as well as a single infant daughter, instantly.
And it had left three orphans whom those influential families had opted to disown and attempt to rob of the inheritances their mothers had left to them. Property, cash, trust funds, and a multitude of stocks and bonds that totaled into the millions. At last rumored count, it was close to $40 million among the three cousins. Funds that were still frozen and in litigation ten years after the death of their parents.
If it hadn’t been for Rafe Callahan’s uncle Clyde Ramsey, the boys wouldn’t have had a chance of surviving or fighting for what was theirs.
But the same city officials and reigning families who sponsored, pushed for, and fought for the weekend attendance at the socials also put just as much energy into ostracizing the Callahan cousins.
And the reasons why just simply didn’t make sense.
Why would the Raffertys, Robertses, and Corbins turn on the only heirs their daughters had left? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to draw the orphans to their hearts, care for the boys, love them, or at least give them the illusion of love, and steal their inheritance once they were older?
But why turn on them at all? Why try to destroy three kids who simply didn’t know what the hell was going on or why their families had disowned them to begin with?
It was a question that Jaymi hadn’t really thought much of herself until lately. It was simply accepted. She had accepted it all her life, just as everyone else in the town had.
As their mutual friend Jack Townsend had said the other night when she had asked him about the past, there were just things they had accepted as kids but had learned better than to believe as adults.
But because of his father’s demands and a county’s blind obedience to the three founding families, Jack had been forced to take his friendship with the Callahans into the shadows. It was either that or watch his parents’ garage slowly go bankrupt.
That was how it worked in Corbin County. The county was one of the last holdouts to an archaic community. It was ruled by the financial power of three families whose focus on the destruction of their own flesh and blood was becoming a shadowed, silent feud. That feud had the potential to tear families apart in not too many more years.
Whether the Corbins, Rafferys, and Robertses liked it or not, Corbin County was growing. New blood was coming in. Technology was making the world a much smaller place, and Corbin County would be forced to change with it. Whether any of them liked it or not.
Besides, there were more important things in the world to worry about than these three young men. Men who had been unfortunate enough to have been born to an inheritance their families didn’t want them to have.
“Did you hear about Amy Jefferson?” Jaymi heard the question posed several tables over by one of the women who had volunteered to chaperone that weekend.
Amy, the daughter of Colorado’s state representative, had been found raped, tortured, and murdered. Another victim of a serial killer’s hunger.
“Poor thing,” Sara Keane, the wife of the pharmacist Jaymi worked for, said. “They said they found her in her car on the road at the base of Crowe Mountain. She was a mess, too. She had suffered badly the state police reported.”
That mountain belonged to Crowe Callahan and it was part of the inheritance he was still fighting the three families over. A mountain that had been in the Corbin family since before the county had first been created that went to the oldest child of the family, and if that child was a daughter, all that was required was that she have a child herself. And all the better if he were a son and carried the “Crowe” name. Bloodline was more important than name to the great-grandmother who had set the trust in motion. Bloodlines, and the family name that originated centuries before.
But the implications of the state representative’s daughter dying at the base of the mountain wasn’t lost on Jaymi. There were already those more than eager to pin those murders on the Callahan cousins.
She slid a look to Rafe to see him laughing with Logan. Cami had wandered away from the table, as she was prone to do lately, as though she couldn’t bear to be around Rafe for long. At the same time, she would catch little glimpses of him as if to be certain he was still there.
Teenage hormones, Jaymi thought sadly, weren’t being kind to her sister, and they boded ill for Cami’s future. A fascination such as the one she was showing for Rafe would only end up breaking her young heart, one way or the other.
It wasn’t as though Cami had a lot to hold on to in her young life. She had Jaymi, and sometimes, if their father wasn’t around, Cami had their mother. Unfortunately, their father was around much too often. Cami could do nothing right in his eyes. Just as Jaymi could do nothing wrong. And to preserve the peace in the house, Margaret Flannigan did whatever it took to pacify her confrontational husband. And that meant ignoring her youngest child.
Even the knowledge that his elder daughter was fucking the town’s ostracized bad boy wasn’t enough to tarnish Jaymi in Mark Flannigan’s eyes. As he explained it, grief had overtaken her and Jaymi was temporarily trying to find her husband after his death, in the arms of his best friend. And Rafe Callahan was taking advantage of it. “After all, wasn’t that what a Callahan was best known for?” was what her father was prone to say.
Mark wasn’t a father to his younger daughter, and that often seared Jaymi with guilt. She didn’t understand why, but she suspected. Cami would have been conceived during the year their mother was estranged from her husband. And Jaymi had always wondered.
“Do you think they were involved in it?” Jaymi heard Sara ask, and she knew who “they” were.
“Well, the FBI released their profile on the killer,” the other woman stated. “And they ‘did’ say they believed it was at least two men acting in accordance. I wouldn’t doubt it was three,” she concluded with an air of knowing importance.
At that moment, Jaymi’s cell phone began vibrating in her jacket pocket, causing her to flinch in fear.
Glancing at Rafe, she saw him and Logan talking to Cami, teasing her as they tried to draw her back to the group.
Pulling the cell phone free, Jaymi glanced at the number before moving a few steps away, then flipping the phone open. She didn’t know her caller’s identity, but the “unknown” caller was familiar.
“Go to hell!” she hissed into the line as she answered the call.
“My hell is a daily adventure into a torment created by man who is full of infinite cruelty and self-absorbed awareness. A hell created by Callahans. Do you really want me to show you my hell, Jaymi?”
She knew that voice.
Each time he called she tried to keep him talking longer, tried to figure out who he was. Because she knew that voice, had heard it before, and often. But not often enough to place it without seeing his face at the same time.
“Why would you care?” she asked, watching the crowd and trying to spot anyone with a cell phone. Anyone who could be making the call.
She saw no one.
She saw several teenagers texting. The Realtor Dave Stone was laughing into his phone, but he had a high, nasal tone, not a gentle saddened voice that echoed with grief.
“Why do I care?” the caller sighed. “There are so many reasons. I like you, Jaymi. You’re different than … Well, than most women, who lower themselves to fuck those bastards, I guess.” He paused as though he had said more than he intended to. “Don’t push me. Get your sister and walk away from him, Jaymi. Cut those ties now, before you force me to cut them for you.”
Jaymi glanced over at Rafe again. He, Logan, and Crowe were gently flirting with Cami, as she giggled and watched Rafe with complete female adoration.
“I’ll ask you again, why do you care?”
There was a moment of silence.
“Because I have to care,” he finally said sadly. “If I don’t, who else will? Who else will keep them from destroying families, lives, and morals, if not I?”
“They’re just men,” she whispered painfully, realizing in that moment what the Callahans had faced all their lives. “Not monsters.”
“But they attract the monsters,” he said, with grave certainty as though he truly believed monsters existed. “This is your last chance, Jaymi. I won’t tell you again. End this illicit relationship or I’ll end it for you.”
It was what he had said.
“End this illicit relationship.”
Who had she heard say that before? It stuck in her mind, the words and that grave, pain-ridden voice.
Who had called her relationship with Rafe illicit?
She swallowed tightly, feeling that knowledge at the very edge of her memory.
The knowledge of who it was was getting closer. She could feel it. And when she remembered she would make damned sure the whole county knew who he was. Moving back to the small group, Jaymi couldn’t help but feel a flare of regret for the lives Rafe and his cousins lived. Always aware they were unwanted.
“Jay, you okay?” Rafe slid behind her, his arms going around her waist as she watched her sister from the corners of her eyes.
Jaymi watched as Cami turned away as Rafe came behind Jaymi, Cami’s head lowering until Logan drew her attention once again.
Meeting Logan’s gaze, Jaymi caught the little wink he directed her way, as well as the compassion she saw in his eyes toward Cami and her obvious affection for Rafe.
She could see Cami’s devotion to Rafe also, as well as her tender emotions and the conflict raging inside her. Jaymi knew that Cami loved her. They were as close as mother and daughter at times, but lately, with this crush Cami had on her sister’s lover, she found that though the bond wasn’t straining, it was changing. That frightened Jaymi for reasons she couldn’t explain. She had already lost the man she had called her soul mate since she was thirteen years old. She couldn’t lose Cami as well, even in that small way. It would destroy her.
“I’m fine,” she told him as he kissed her cheek. “What are you doing flirting with my baby sister? Don’t you know she already has a terrible crush on you?”
He was only twenty himself. Hell, she was a cradle robber. She was twenty-five and she should be sleeping with a man her age rather than the young man her husband had called his blood brother. But Rafe had always seemed much older than his age, and far more experienced in life, which he was. It was easy to see why her husband had all but adopted him after meeting him years before.
Tye had been part Native American, raised by his Navajo grandfather, and had been completely loyal to the mocking, sarcastic, often-brooding young man he’d met years before in the middle of the forest while he’d been hunting. Ten years older than Rafe, but infinitely wiser, Jaymi always thought, Tye had taken the young man under his wing and they had formed a bond even death couldn’t destroy.
Rafe sighed at her shoulder. “That girl confuses me.”
Jaymi knew at that moment that she would be breaking their relationship off soon after all. Very soon. More than likely before the night was over. She couldn’t bear to hurt Cami, and this crush she had on Rafe was causing Jaymi to break her young sister’s heart.
Jaymi remembered clearly too, the first time she had seen her husband. She had been fourteen and he had been a worldly-wise twenty. Within weeks he’d laughed at her and said the same thing: she confused him. She had told him that was just because he was a boy and she was the girl who loved him.
“And why does she confuse you?” Jaymi asked, though she knew the answer, or a variation of it, that Rafe would give.
“Hell if I know, sweetie,” he grunted. “She’s got the oddest look in her eyes. Like she’s a hundred years old and the secrets she knows break her heart.”
Wow. She had expected the hell-if-he-knew part, but she hadn’t expected him to acknowledge in even such a small way the fact that Cami was becoming a young woman.
“Perhaps they do,” Jaymi said softly. “Her life hasn’t exactly been a happy one. And I’m afraid it’s about to get worse.”
“Your father still hasn’t said anything?” Rafe asked her, knowing the plans Mark Flannigan was attempting to put in place. Plans that would destroy Cami.
Jaymi glanced at her sister again. Cami was talking to Crowe about the wolves that roamed Crowe Mountain. He had out his cell phone and was regaling her with the story of the one that came through the dog door of his partially buried home and ate his cat’s food before lying in front of the fire for a nap.
Jaymi had seen the pictures herself, but still found it hard to believe. That wolf had acted more like an overgrown pet than a wild animal.
“No, he hasn’t said anything,” she finally answered. “He’s refusing to even discuss the issue with Mother. It will split them up.”
But as far as Jaymi was concerned, her mother should have never returned after leaving years before. This time, however, Jaymi could feel the explosion coming, and when it did she had a feeling it was going to hurt Cami more than anyone.
Mark Flannigan had been offered a promotion at the communications firm he worked at in town. It meant a move to Aspen and he wanted to accept it. The problem was, he didn’t want Cami moving with them. He had convinced Jaymi to go with them before she learned he’d asked his brother, Eddy, to take custody of Cami. That betrayal to Cami had broken Jaymi’s heart. But the fact that her mother’s answer to solving the problem was to up her dosage of Ativan infuriated Jaymi.
“Poor kid,” Rafe murmured. “It sucks bad enough when it’s other family members, aunts. When it’s your parents, it has to slice clear to the soul.”
“She doesn’t know yet.” Jaymi knew her mother was doing her best to avoid the situation while Mark was continuing on with his plan to move.
Jaymi and her mother had managed to protect Cami so far from learning his plans, but that wouldn’t last for much longer.
“You can’t protect her forever,” he said sadly, echoing her own thoughts.
“As long as I’m alive I can.”
She lived for Cami. Knowing that Cami would suffer at her father’s hands if she was gone, was all that kept Jaymi from joining Tye. From escaping the agony that met her each day in the knowledge that he had been taken from her so quickly.
There were days, nights, that she swore she could hear Tye calling her name. She would turn, expecting him to be there, certain that somehow he had found a way to return to her. If it were possible, Tye would have found a way.
Then, there were the dreams.
“What price would you pay to be with him?” The disembodied voice would whisper through her mind as she watched Tye doing one of the things he loved best. Playing touch football with the kids. Laughing, showing them how to play.
“I would pay any price,” she always whispered.
“Would you leave her?”
The scene would change then and she would see her sister. Guilt would flay her as she watched Cami crying, sobbing as though she were in agony as Rafe stood behind her, staring back at Jaymi with a question in his eyes.
“I would leave her.” That was always the answer.
“What pain would you endure to be with him again?” The voice would whisper.
And for a moment, just a moment, she was with him again. Surprise would reflect in his gaze, then regret. He would touch her. “What happened?” he would whisper.
Jaymi would shake her head. She didn’t know what had happened, she didn’t care, all she wanted, needed, was his kiss, his touch. And for just a moment, she had it again. As though it were real, his lips on hers, his hands pulling her close, the whisper of his voice as he welcomed her into his arms.
She ached for him down to the bottom of her soul. Life no longer held promise, the future no longer appeared exciting or bright.
Jaymi had lost her future in a desert a world away when the enemy’s bomb had taken out the vehicle he was driving.
Turning her head, she watched Cami again, saw the hurt in her sister’s gaze at the sight of Rafe’s arms around her, and wanted to sigh at the intensity of emotion she glimpsed in her sister for the man there was no chance of having for a very long time.
Yes, she knew her sister’s pain well. And she knew, after tonight, she would never add to it again.
* * *
Rafe knew as he pulled the pickup into the parking spot in front of Jaymi’s apartment that the relationship was over. He could feel it in the very air, and though there was a sense of regret, there was no anger.
They both knew the reason why they were together.
Jaymi was searching desperately for the husband she had lost, and the closest she could get to him was the man he had called his best friend.
Not that he had cared. Rafe wasn’t looking for love, it had no place in his life at the moment. Besides, the day he’d realized Jaymi’s sister had a crush on him, Rafe had known this was coming.
The girl was damned confusing, just as he had told Jaymi. She’d managed to slip in beneath his defenses despite the fact he’d been on guard against it. She made him feel protective, made him want to look out for her.
He was aware of the crush she had on him, and was flattered by it. He teased her gently, let her flirt, just as his cousins did, and made damned certain he never let her become hurt by it.
But as Jaymi told her sister gently to go on up to the apartment, Rafe saw that flash of brutal pain in her soft gray eyes before she quickly hid it.
“Night, Rafer.” She opened the back door slowly as though reluctant to leave him alone with her sister.
“Night, wildcat.” He flashed her a smile and a little wink, pulling a little smile from her as she moved from the car and closed the door behind her.
They watched as the girl moved across the narrow strip of grass to the door of the apartment across from the truck.
She unlocked it quickly before disappearing inside and flipping on the inner lights.
As much as he used to expect it, he never saw her at the curtains spying. She would move through the brightly lit room occasionally but never come close to the windows.
“So, this is it, huh?” he asked Jaymi as he laid his arm over the steering wheel and continued to stare at the window.
He felt her surprise before turning his head to watch her.
Dark blonde lashes swept over her eyes for a second before she met his gaze, regret shimmering in her dark brown eyes.
“I think it’s time,” she said softly. “Cami needs me right now, Rafe. With the crap Dad is trying to pull on her, and this crush she’s picked up for you, she’s going to be hurt enough.”
A small grin tugged at his lips. “She’s lucky to have you, Jaymi.”
He’d never resent her for it. Hell, he couldn’t even blame her.
“I wish you’d had someone to protect you,” she said then, sadness flashing over her delicate expression. “You’re too good for the family you have.”
He had to chuckle at that. “Of course I am, they’re all assholes.”
He played it off, but he remembered the days, the nights, that he’d agonized over being disowned, wondered what he and his cousins had done wrong that all of them had been turned away by everyone but his mother’s uncle.
“Yes, Rafe, they’re all assholes,” she agreed softly. “And I’m so sorry for the hell they put you through.”
“Stop, Jaymi.” He gave his head a short shake at the regret that filled her voice. “You have no reason to be sorry for what others did. You’re a good friend, and I’ve always known the reason we were together. You didn’t lie to me.”
“I didn’t tell you though,” she whispered. “I should have.”
“You told me, sweetheart,” he informed her gently. “With the lights out, every time you called me by Tye’s name. I knew.”
Her lips parted, her eyes filled with tears, and the response assured him that she had never been aware she had cried out for the husband she’d lost each time he was with her.
“Rafe—” Pain filled her voice.
“Jaymi, stop torturing yourself,” he told her, his voice hardening at the tear that slipped from her eyes. “Did you know Tye came to me before he went on that last tour?”
“No.” Her lips trembled as she shook her head and pushed the long dark blonde bangs back from her face. “Why would he do that?”
“To make certain I knew what he expected from me,” he told her with a small grin, remembering the visit with the same affection he’d felt the day the Navajo warrior had made his appearance at Rafe’s uncle’s ranch.
“What did he expect?” she whispered, so unconsciously eager for a new experience, a new memory of her husband that she could cherish, that she was now hanging on every word.
Rafe reached out, pushed back the long curl that fell down her face then, noticing, not for the first time, how Jaymi’s hair was as curly as her mother’s and her father’s. Cami’s was much straighter, and naturally shot with various shades of caramel, dark golds, and lighter browns amid the heavy strands of dark brown.
“He expected me to stand for him,” he told her gently. “And those were his exact words. ‘If anything happens to me, Rafe, I give you leave now, to stand for me however my heart needs you to stand’.” From the day he had married Jaymi, Tye had called her ‘his heart’. “I didn’t know what he meant at first,” he confessed as he watched her eyes fill with tears again. “He told me if he didn’t come home, then he expected me to protect you, to clothe you, to feed you, and if you needed it, he expected me to warm you. Then he looked at me with those black eyes of his eyes and he said ‘Rafe, if she needs, turn out the lights and let her pretend it’s me. Don’t let my heart suffer alone’.”
“Oh God.” Her hand flew to her lips as they shook, a sob suddenly tearing from her as he reached for her, pulled her into his arms, and held her gently. “Oh God, Rafe. I miss him.” Agony pierced her voice. “I miss him so much I don’t know if I can bear it.”
Holding her, rocking her, Rafe felt his chest tighten with pain as she cried against him, wondering if perhaps he shouldn’t have told her.
He and Tye had talked a lot that day, and his friend had told him that the day would come when he might believe it was time to tell Jaymi the request Tye had made of him. Rafe thought it was time, but hell, he’d been wrong before.
“I wouldn’t have survived without you,” she whispered tearfully against his chest as he rubbed her back, kissed the top of her head gently. “I couldn’t have been here for Cami. I couldn’t have protected her in the last year, Rafe, if you hadn’t done as he’d asked.”
She sobbed softly, the never-ending pain he knew she felt filling the air around them.
“I’ll always be here for you, Jaymi,” he promised her as her head lifted. “For both of you.”
Damp eyes stared back at him, filled with misery and loss.
“Thank you, Rafe.” She reached up, touched his cheek, then laid her palm against it gently. “One day, someone will love you the way I loved Tye. I know they will.”
“I hope not, Jaymi,” he whispered, meaning every word of it. “Love like that comes with far too much risk.”
And she shook her head, the smile that curved her lips suddenly filled with life, with the memory of love. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, Rafe. Even if I had known one day he would be gone, I wouldn’t have missed it.”
And Rafe knew, Tye had felt the same.
His friends had been two parts of a whole, and with Tye’s death, there were times Jaymi seemed almost crippled with grief.
But in her eyes, in that moment, he saw another side of it. A side that held no regret. That loved so deeply that the pain was worth it.
And he promised himself, swore to himself, he’d never love that way. He’d never let another person in that deep. He’d never allow himself to be broken by losing them.
Two weeks later
The bronchitis was getting worse.
Jaymi sat beside Cami’s bed and read the thermometer worriedly. Her temperature was edging over 102, her sister’s face was flushed, her lips dry, and fever glittered in her dove gray eyes.
“But you were getting better,” she sighed as Cami stared up at her with overbright eyes.
“Lost my medicine,” her sister admitted, struggling for breath as she coughed again, the labored, rough sound worse than it had been when her sister had showed up at her doorstep earlier that day.
Their mother had sent her to the apartment, a good twenty-minute walk from the house that would have taken Cami much longer as she labored for breath.
She glanced at the clock, willing the doctor to call her back about the prescription before it was too late. She worked at the pharmacy, but still, Mr. Keene wouldn’t like it if she had to let herself in tonight to fill the prescription.
If he were in town, he would have come in himself and done it, she knew. He liked Cami. Hell, everyone liked Cami, except their father.
“How did you lose your medicine?” Cami’s answer perplexed her. Her sister wasn’t an irresponsible child. She’d been forced to grow up young, and hadn’t had the luxury of being able to forget the simplest things. Mark Flannigan, their father, had little patience for teenage angst or forgetfulness from his youngest child.
Cami shrugged at the question and turned her gaze away to stare at the wall on the other side of the bed.
“Cami?” Jaymi touched her sister’s chin gently to turn her gaze back to her. “What happened to your medicine?”
“I don’t know.” Her dry lips trembled as her eyes filled with tears. “Dad came in the bedroom and he was upset because there were dirty clothes on the floor and the tissues were on my table. I think he threw them away when he started throwing everything in the trash.”
Jaymi’s lips thinned.
She knew better than to call him, or to appear at the house furious over it. Mark always had a way of making it look as though it were Cami’s fault, or even pretending innocence.
While he did, their mother would stare at him in resigned accusation before mumbling about taking her medicine and heading for her bedroom.
She wasn’t going to allow this to continue, she decided. Once Cami was better, they would go to the house and pack her things before bringing them to the apartment. Cami was being neglected in the most despicable way. Even worse, Mark was risking her health. He had to have known he had thrown the medicine away. That wasn’t something that was done by accident, and she knew Cami wasn’t a messy child. She was too neat for her age and Jaymi couldn’t believe there had been enough tissues on the bed table for Mark to have missed the bottle of pills and the cough medicine.
She just prayed the doctor was willing to fax the prescription in to the pharmacy before Jaymi broke several different state and federal laws and refilled the prescriptions herself.
She would not allow her sister to suffer more tonight, and the hospital was more than an hour away. After the wreck she’d been in the week before, she was wary about driving the mountain roads.
There shouldn’t have been anything wrong with her brakes. There had been no reason they would go out as she started down the mountain, causing her to nearly crash over one of the sheer cliffs that dropped to a boulder-strewn ravine below.
It had been sheer luck that had kept her from going over. That and the fact that a rock slide from the cliff above the road had caused the state to clear a wide area on the other side of the road to make room for debris.
She’d managed to steer her car to the other side and the very fact that she hadn’t been going fast had possibly saved her life, Joe Townsend had told her.
But he had acted oddly. He’d refused to look her in the eye, and Joe was the type of man who looked a person in the eye. But when he’d warned her to be careful, and she had taken it as a warning, he’d been more commanding than concerned.
“Jaymi, watch what you’re doing,” he told her fiercely. “Don’t be taking any chances.”
She hadn’t been aware she was taking any chances. At least not in her car.
But the night she and Rafe had stopped seeing each other, another call had come in, and this time, she was certain she knew who it was. Mostly certain of it. There was just enough doubt that she had to see him first, had to look in his eyes as he spoke to her to be certain.
Each time she called him the call went to voice mail. The one time she’d shown up at his office, he had been “unavailable,” according to his secretary. But he couldn’t hide forever. Sweetrock was a small town, she was going to see him eventually.
The ring of her cell phone had her jerking the device from the table next to the bed and flipping it open.
The prescription had been faxed in. The pharmacy was closed, but the doctor was certain it would be filled before the doors opened the next morning.
So was she. She had the keys to the store and she had the license to work behind the counter and fill prescriptions. She was supposed to have it checked by the pharmacist; she wasn’t supposed to fill anything without Martin Keene’s presence. But this was an emergency. It was her sister.
Cami fought to cough again, nearly losing her breath as she tried weakly to clear the obstruction in her lungs.
“Cami, I’m going to go get your prescription,” she told her as she rose from the chair and grabbed the jacket she’d laid at the end of the bed earlier. “I’ll be back in a bit, okay?”
Cami nodded, her eyes drifting closed, her breathing labored as she tried to rest before another bout attacked.
“Get some rest, baby.” Leaning down, she kissed her sister on the forehead before grabbing her purse and keys and heading out of the apartment.
It was dark. The street lights glowed weakly in the evening fog, casting sinister shadows along the nearly deserted back streets.
She considered moving to the front of the block, but it was the quieter part of the evening. There wasn’t much traffic until Main Street and then heading south toward the interstate.
The pharmacy was only a few blocks from her apartment, which was why she liked the job. She could walk to work and back, and even during the rain and snowstorms, it wasn’t a bad walk. It would just be a wet one.
Which was why Cami had bronchitis. Her father had sent her the eight blocks from their home to the pharmacy to get their mother’s prescription rather than waiting for Jaymi to bring it to the house after she locked up.
He had deliberately attempted to get Cami ill, she thought as she tucked her hands into the light jacket she wore and strode faster along the neat, well-lit back street.
Cami was susceptible to bronchitis and pneumonia. If the first stage wasn’t treated quickly and aggressively, then Cami could become viciously ill. She’d been hospitalized twice in the past four years, once for pneumonia, the second time for double pneumonia.
Pausing at the street corner, she felt a chill race up her spine and marked it down to the thought that her father might be attempting to kill his youngest child.
If she was his youngest child.
Jaymi had done some counting in the past weeks since her father had revealed his attempt to convince Uncle Eddy and Aunt Ella to keep Cami when they moved to Aspen.
Cami was thirteen. She would be fourteen in three months. Add nine more months to that, and it added up to the time their mother had taken Jaymi and stayed in Denver with Aunt Beth for nearly a year.
Jaymi had been ten, and she remembered, even now, how much happier her mother had been then. She laughed, giggled on the phone. Sometimes, Jaymi would wake up in the middle of the night and thought she heard a man’s voice in the bedroom across the hall.
She remembered the man her mother had said was a friend of Beth’s. He had worn a uniform. Dark hair, and eyes a soft, soft gray ringed with the same odd blue color Cami’s were ringed with.
She walked across the street as realization began to rush through her.
God, why hadn’t she made the connection before now?
For years she had watched Mark Flannigan treat Cami like shit, and had agonized over how a father could be so cruel. Why hadn’t she remembered the darkly handsome man with the gentle smile and big hands?
Why hadn’t she remembered, during that time, the day she had come home from the park with a neighbor to find her mother sobbing as though she were dying? Aunt Beth had been crying as well and Uncle Jonah had been grief-stricken.
She unlocked the pharmacy and stepped in, careful to lock the door behind her, holding her breath as she heard a car easing down the street.
She prayed it wasn’t Mr. Keene, or the police. She would hate to have to explain why she was here. Even if she did have the key, she didn’t have permission to be in before it was time to open the pharmacy.
Moving quickly to the back, she began to fill the prescription as those memories continued to ease forward from whatever shadowed recess they had been hiding in.
She was still shocked, dismayed that she hadn’t remembered that summer so long ago. She should have. Because she remembered her father showing up not long after that and he and Uncle Jonah fighting over something Mark had called a “whoreson” and “wife-stealing brother.”
It was beginning to make sense. So much was becoming more clear.
She had been pushing so many memories back over the years, trying to keep the truth at bay. She hadn’t wanted to remember, though it was something Cami deserved to know. But that didn’t mean it wouldn’t destroy her. Cami still had the hope that the day would come that Mark would accept her as a daughter and part of the family.
The fact that he never would wasn’t lost on Jaymi, or Jonah, if she could remember the past well enough to recall the screaming match they had gotten into.
Why? Why had she forgotten?
That question tormented her as she finished filling the prescription, capped it, and printed out the label before peeling the paper from it and sticking it onto the bottles.
The antibiotic would take at least twenty-four hours to kick in, but the cough medicine would ease her labored breathing and the horrible coughing.
Did Cami take her susceptibility to bronchitis from her natural father? Jaymi wondered as she made her way to the back door.
And if her mother had loved this other man so much, why had she taken Mark Flannigan back and allowed him to treat their daughter so dismally?
It was a question she intended to ask him the minute she arrived at the house in the morning. She would make a special trip before work just to throw her knowledge into his face and demand custody of Cami from both her parents.
She’d had enough. She wasn’t about to allow Cami to be treated so cruelly, or endangered while ill again.
Re-entering the security code, Jaymi opened the back door to the pharmacy, eased out, and turned back to lock the three locks on the door and reset the code.
The door was almost closed, the keys ready to shove into the lock.
There was no warning.
There was nothing to alert her.
One minute she was filled with righteous indignation over the treatment her sister had received for as long as she could remember, and the next second, everything was black.
* * *
The lone dark figure, black mask pulled over his face, his eyes filled with sorrow, looked up to the camera that was almost hidden above the door.
He knew what would be seen later. Rich, sapphire blue eyes.
Picking Jaymi up in his arms, he turned away and laid her carefully in the backseat of the stolen pickup before tying her hands snugly behind her back. Her ankles were secured with another length of rope and gray tape placed over her lips.
He stared down at her, just for a second, before reaching out and pushing her hair back from her face.
He’d tried to warn her, he really had.
She’d pushed too far, though. When she had begun calling his phone, he knew she suspected. He should have known she would catch on quickly, she was really smarter than the others. Smarter, and with the clear advantage of having known him most of her life.
With a last pang of regret he closed the door to the back of the king crew cab pickup before moving to the driver’s side and getting into the vehicle.
He stayed on the back streets, easing through them and making his way to the end of town before pulling the mask off and driving the speed limit the rest of the way.
He didn’t have far to go. There was a small gravel and dirt road that led to where he’d told the other man to meet him. Once there, he would turn her over to the killer whose lust for blood made him exceptionally easy to use and to control.
The man wasn’t good for much else but killing. He’d fried his brain with too many drugs years before, and existed on autopilot until he scored the next fix. Give the man a fix and he obeyed every command given and didn’t remember a second of it the next morning.
For the first time since the killing had begun, he knew he wouldn’t be participating. He usually took that first taste of them, raping them while they still had some fight to them. But he couldn’t, not with Jaymi.
He couldn’t hurt her himself.
He couldn’t stay and watch her be hurt.
He’d have to trust the drugs to have done the work this time as efficiently as they had the past five times.
Jaymi would be the last nail in the Callahans’ coffin. Once her body was found along with another, more significant piece of evidence, the Callahans wouldn’t be able to excuse their way out of murder.
There was no way to save her. There would be no way to save the Callahans. And the truth of the events that began this tale twelve years ago would continue to rest in peace along with the bodies of the grandparents that had set the events in motion.
He’d killed them. He’d been forced to kill their sons and their sons wives that snowy day as they returned from Denver. He hadn’t wanted to, but he’d had no choice. What they had been doing, and what they had found in that safe deposit box no one had known JR and Eileen Callahan had rented, could have destroyed them all.
He couldn’t let it happen. He couldn’t let them destroy everything he had killed the cousins’ parents for.
And it could have ended there.
It should have ended there.
And it would have, if only Jaymi hadn’t realized who was calling. And if he wasn’t certain she would figure out he was killing as well.
All for the greater good, of course, he told himself as he had been telling himself since that first life had been taken. It was all for the greater good.
But this time, with this woman, he knew the lies were catching up with him.
It wasn’t for the greater good.
It wasn’t for his own good.
It was for the good of a man that only gave the orders and refused to bloody his hands.
It was for the good of a family that would throw him to the wolves if it meant saving their own asses.
And he had no intentions of taking that fall.
At least, not alone.
Copyright © 2011 by Lora Leigh