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There had to be some mistake.
As he pulled out of the sheriff's station parking lot, Chase Reed requested the dispatcher repeat the address one more time.
1101 Oakwood Lane.
No mistake, and no time to waste.
Chase flipped on his emergency lights and siren as he sped through downtown, concerned over what he might be facing when he arrived at his destination on the outskirts of Placidthe recently-divorced Jessica Keller Wainwright's home. He only knew that a domestic dispute call had been placed by a hysterical woman and an ambulance had been dispatched. He didn't know who had been injured or how. One thing was certain. If Dal-ton Wainwright had laid a finger on Jess, he'd kill him.
In the six months since he'd returned to Placid, he'd only spoken to Jess once by phone, a tense conversation that involved generalitiesher new job teaching second grade, his new job as deputy sheriff and briefly about her divorce, like they were only acquaintances. Even though they'd corresponded through the years, they'd never talked about the night before he left for his first tour of duty.
He hated that he'd obviously hurt her with his careless behavior. Hated that she'd run off and married Wain-wright two weeks later. Hated that he'd somehow driven her to that decision and in turn, set a course that had ultimately led to this moment.
Chase's mind continued to reel with the possibilities as he whipped into the lengthy drive leading to the massive redbrick mansion. He barely had the car stopped before he slid out of the driver's side and his feet hit the pavement. A gust of unseasonably cold, bitter wind sent a spiral of leaves across the stone walkway as he strode past the for sale sign toward the planked porch. The white holiday lights hanging from the eaves and the huge artificial Christmas tree filling the entry window gave the appearance of normalcy. But when he found the front door partially ajar, he prepared for anything but a normal situation.
Chase poised his hand on the Glock holstered at his hip as he moved into the foyer, an automatic reaction resulting from hour upon hour of military training. But in this instance, he wasn't the soldier navigating war-torn territory. He was the deputy sheriff doing his duty no matter what he might encounter. senses on high alert, he cocked his head to listen as he walked past the ornate staircase and down the tiled corridor. The sound of harsh sobs caused him to quicken his pace, his heart keeping an equally rapid tempo. The minute he entered the great room, he pulled up short to survey the scene.
To his left, Jess sat on the floor, her back to a white leather sofa, hugging her knees to her chest as she rocked back and forth like a lost child. Chase instinctively started toward her until something caught his immediate attention from the corner of his eye. He turned to see a figure crumpled near the stone hearthonly to discover it was Dalton Wainwright.
When he noticed the blood pooling around Dalton's head, images of war zipped through Chase's brain. Fallen comrades, chaos and confusion. Death and destruction. A fatal error he'd made that couldn't be rectified
Chase again forced the memories away as he walked to his long-time nemesis, crouched down, pressed his fingertips against Dalton's neck and fortunately for Jess, found a pulse.
"He's dead, isn't he?" she asked in a tone strangely absent of emotion.
"He's alive but unconscious," he assured her, although right then he wasn't sure of anything.
When he heard the wail of sirens, Chase immediately went to Jess, knelt and took her by the shoulders. "Are you okay?" he asked, even though he could tell she wasn't from the undeniable shock in her eyes.
"It was an accident," she muttered as her gaze slid away. "No one's fault."
Chase couldn't imagine Jess would intentionally injure her ex-husband, but he wasn't fool enough to deny anything was possible when it came to volatile relationships. "Look at me, Jess." Once he finally had her attention, he added, "When the paramedics get here, don't say anything about what happened."
"But I didn't mean"
"Don't talk about it," he cautioned again. "You have to remember who you're dealing with here, even if it was an accident."
Realization dawned in her expression. "Edwin," she said in a whisper.
"Yeah. Your ex-father-in-law could make this tough on you. And anything you tell me could be used against you in court if it comes to that."
Her eyes went wide with terror. "Court?"
Before Chase had a chance to reassure her, the sound of gurney wheels echoing through the foyer interrupted his train of thought. He straightened and met the EMTs as soon as they entered the room. "He's still alive," he told a fifty-something paramedic named Joe. "But it looks like he has a pretty serious head injury."
"We'll take it from here," Joe said before he and his partner went to work on Dalton.
Chase helped Jess to her feet and guided her down the hall to the formal dining room he found nearby. After he had her seated in a chair at the polished mahogany table, he asked, "Where's your son?"
Chase wondered exactly what the boy had witnessed during the last few minutes. "I want you to stay right here while I go check on him."
She nodded like she needed complete guidance. Chase understood that all too well.
He strode back into the great room in time to find the crew loading Dalton onto the stretcher, but he didn't stop to check on his status. Instead, he took the stairs two at a time. When he reached the top landing, he discovered Danny Wainwright, dressed in a pair of race-car pajamas, standing against the wall with his gaze focused on the hardwood floor.
After Danny finally looked up, Chase was amazed over how much he resembled Jess, with the exception of his blond hair. Fortunately he couldn't see a scrap of Dalton in him, but he did see the same vacant stare his mother had exhibited a few moments ago.
More recollections of another time, another foreign place and another child intruded into Chase's thoughts. He had to get a grip on the present and stay out of the past for both Jess and her son's sake.
Chase swept his cowboy hat from his head and kept a safe distance. "Hey, Danny. I'm Deputy Reed, a friend of your mom's."
The boy blinked but remained silent.
He decided tackling Danny's immediate worry might help. "The paramedics are taking your dad to the hospital, so he's in good hands."
Still no response, and Chase wasn't real sure how to proceed. "Do you want to go see your mom?"
This time Danny shook his head, which fueled Chase's concerns. If the kid had witnessed Jess injuring Dalton, inadvertent or not, he could have a damn hard time forgiving his mother. He wasn't too keen on leaving the boy alone, but he didn't want to push him, either. "Why don't you wait in your room and I'll have your mother come up to talk to you."
Without any reply or hesitation, the boy headed down the hall and walked through a door to his right. Chase followed behind and entered a bedroom decked out in dark blue walls and baseball memorabilia. A typical kid's room that reminded him of his own when he'd been about Danny's age, only he'd been more inclined to collect football souvenirs.
When Danny curled up on the bed facing the wall, Chase felt the need to say something else, to offer some words of comfort, but he had no real experience dealing with childhood trauma. "I'll be back in a few minutes with your mom, okay?"
Danny didn't respond, didn't even shrug his shoulders to acknowledge the suggestion. With any luck, reuniting him with Jess would be the key to his comfort. Then again, maybe not, but Chase felt he had no choice in the matter.
As he sprinted back down the stairs, Chase heard the sound of an all-too-familiar voice coming from somewhere in the house. A booming voice that belonged to his father, the sheriff. No surprise that Buck would have been summoned, considering the nature of the crime. Correction. Accident. Chase refused to believe anything else until proof landed in front of his nose. Even then he'd have a hard time buying Jess flying into a homicidal rage.
He made his way back to the dining room where he'd left Jess and arrived just in time to hear his dad say, "You're going to have to give me more details than that."
Furious over Buck's tone, Chase stepped inside the opening, hands fisted at his sides. "Can I have a word with you?"
Buck turned to him and scowled. "I'm taking Jess's statement, son, so you'll need to wait a minute."
Chase was tempted to remind his father that he should call him by his proper name, not son. "It's important."
Buck forked his fingers through his silver hair and sighed. "Fine," he said before turning to Jess. "Don't go anywhere."
As soon as Buck joined him at the front door out of Jess's earshot, Chase turned his fury on his father. "What in the hell are you doing?"
"My job, exactly what you should be doing, too. She told me you hadn't questioned her about Dalton's injuries."
"She said it was an accident and that's all I needed to know."
Buck hooked his thumbs in his pockets and stared him down like he was thirteen, not thirty-one. "Doesn't matter what she said, boy. You have to get all the facts to put into the report."
Chase pointed in the direction of the dining room. "That's Jess in there, Dad. The same girl who used to come with her folks to our house for Sunday dinner and dominoes."
"Yeah, and you're too close to the situation. That's why I called in Barkley to assist me. He should be here in about five minutes."
That only increased Chase's wrath. "Barkley can't find his way out of a feed sack. He'll arrest Jess first and ask questions later."
Buck raised a brow. "Any reason why you think Jess should be arrested?"
He reflected on Danny's reaction and decided to keep his mouth shut for now. "Like I said, she claims it was an accident, and I have no reason to believe it wasn't."
"You know the procedure," Buck said. "I still have to take an official statement."
"Then do it in the morning after she's had some time to recover."
"That's not the way it works, son."
"Make it work, Dad. Right now she needs to rest."
"She can't stay here, Chase. We'll need to gather evidence in case Dalton dies during the night."
On one hand, he didn't give a rat's ass if Dalton died. on the other, he had to consider what that might mean for Jess. "She can stay with me tonight and I'll have her at the department first thing in the morning."
"She can get a room at the motel."
He had no intention of sticking Jess in some seedy, pay-by-the-hour dive on the outskirts of town. "She's in shock and so is her kid. She needs to be in a place where she's comfortable."
Chase could see Buck's frustration beginning to build. "And you think that's with you? Best I recall, she hasn't come around once since you've been home."
Understandable why they'd been avoiding each other, but he'd be damned if he let his father in on a ten-year-old secret. "She's been busy getting rid of Dalton."
Chase realized how questionable that sounded when Buck said, "Maybe that's what she did tonight, got rid of him once and for all."
He couldn't quite understand why his father was bent on treating Jess like some black widow lying in wait to off her former husband. Buck might be one of the good guys, but he could be an obsessed hard-ass when it came to the job. If serving as sheriff for thirty some odd years did that to a man, Chase wanted no part of it, even if that's exactly what was expected of him.
"Tell you what, Sheriff," he said. "If you'll stop jumping to conclusions, then I'll have Jess to you bright and early. But if you're not going to stick to the innocent until proven guilty clause, then I'll be damned if I'm going to continue to work for you."
Chase could see the cogs spinning fast in Buck's head. Placid had suffered a deputy shortage for years, and there sure as hell wasn't a long line waiting to sign on. If he up and resigned, he'd leave his dad high and dry and working longer hours again, which sure wouldn't set well with the missus.
Buck took on a look of reluctant submission. "Okay, you bring her home and have her in my office no later than 8:00 a.m. And have her boy there, too. Maybe between the two of them, we can shed some light on this thing."
As far as Chase was concerned, having Danny put through the wringer was entirely up to Jess, at least for now. "Fine. You can go. I'll handle it from here."
"I'll go outside to wait for Barkley until you leave with Jess." Buck turned toward the door then stopped and pointed at Chase. "8:00 a.m. sharp or I'll come down to the cabin and get her myself."
"I'll have her there, Sheriff." And he would, right on time. He didn't sleep much these days anyway. Too much on his mind. Too many nightmares to count.
After his dad had finally left the immediate premises, Chase made his way to the dining room, only to find it deserted. Jess would've had to walk past him to go up the stairs, which made him wonder if she'd headed out the back door. With that major dilemma in mind, he strode to the back of the house and came upon a rear staircase adjacent to the top-of-the-line kitchen. Hopefully that had been her escape route, if in fact she felt the need to escape.
He opted to give Jess the benefit of the doubt and headed to the second floor. As suspected, he discovered her in Danny's room, perched on the edge of the bed, sifting her hands through her son's hair.
Chase paused a moment to take in the subtle alterations in Jess's appearance. She'd cut her long auburn hair to her shoulders and she wore the kind of loose-fitting clothes designed to hide her figure. At five-foot-three, she'd always been small in stature but tough as barbwire. But the most noticeable change could be found in her light amber eyes when she leveled her gaze on him. The former outgoing cheerleader, who could talk the bark off a tree, looked lost and defeated. He damned Dalton Wainwright for that. Damned him for sucking the life out of Jess. Damned himself for staying away from her because of his own guilt.
Chase remained in the doorway and in a low tone said, "Pack a bag for you and your son. You're going to stay with me for a few days."