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"Deck the halls with boughs of holly. Fa-la-la-la. La-la-la-lalaaaaaa," Emma Fairchild sang as she dipped a roller into a paint pan and swiped it over the walls of her newest project.
Arianna's Diner. Soon to be Mrs. Daphne's Diner. Named for Emma's great-aunt, Bea Daphne.
"'Tis the season to be jolly," she continued even though she wasn't at all jolly.
For Bea's sake, she'd been faking happiness for the past two months. She thought she'd been doing a pretty good job of it. But with Christmas approaching and work on the diner intensifying, she was exhausted, grumpy and desperate to be back in Boston and away from the city she'd always hated.
Sagebrush, Texas. Home of every bad dream she'd ever had, birthplace of every bad memory.
Well, not exactly every one.
Boston hadn't exactly been good to her in the week before she'd left to care for Bea.
She scowled, refusing to think of her breakup as anything other than fortunate. She might not be happy to be in Sagebrush, but she was thrilled to be done with her no good ex-boyfriend, Camden Maxwell.
Sure, you are, her heart whispered.
She ignored it, rolling more paint on the wall and stepping back to view her progress. Not bad. She should have been pleased. Opening a restaurant had always been part of her life plan. The problem was, she'd never ever planned to do it in Sagebrush. That made it a little difficult to be happy about all the sweat equity she was pouring into the place. Not to mention the money.
"Get over yourself, Em," she hissed, as irritated with herself as she was with the situation. It was no one's fault that Bea's health was declining or that her memory was going. She had no kids. No family aside from Emma. She needed someone, and Emma was going to be there for her. Even if that meant living in Sagebrush permanently.
Or until Bea didn't need her any longer.
The doctor had said Emma's great-aunt would probably be around for five or ten more years. Emma was hoping for twenty. She loved Bea more than she'd ever hated Sagebrush. Loved her so much that she was going to open the diner and commit to running it for as long as Bea was around. When she was gone, Emma would sell the place and move on to a new town and a new project.
She sighed and swiped paint on a spot that she'd missed.
God was in control. He had a perfect plan. Unfortunately, it wasn't anything close to what Emma's perfect plan had been. Another couple of years working as sous-chef at one of Boston's premier restaurants, marriage, a house and, finally, a restaurant of her own. She'd made a list. She'd checked it twice. She'd gone over details and facts and figures. She'd shown all of it to Camden because he was the one she was supposed to do everything with.
"I'm such an idiot," she muttered as she carried the paint pan and roller into the kitchen.
She dropped the pan into the deep stainless-steel sink and wrapped the roller in plastic. Tomorrow she'd paint a second coat in the dining area and roll fresh paint onto the kitchen walls. Right now she really needed to get home. She glanced at her watch.
She hadn't realized it was so late. Bea would be worried and probably hungry. She'd been having trouble remembering to eat.
Emma turned off the light in the dining room, plunging the diner into darkness. Wide windows looked out onto a sidewalk and street that bustled with life during the day. Both were silent and empty. A few business owners had hung Christmas lights in the windows of their shops. Others had placed wreaths on doors or Christmas decorations in large display windows.
It should have been cheerful, but it just made Emma feel sad and lonely. Camden had been planning to give her an engagement ring on Christmas Eve. He'd told her that when he'd given her an ultimatum. Either stay in Boston with him or travel to Texas to take care of her aunt. She couldn't have both, because he wasn't the kind of guy who wanted a long-distance relationship.
She'd heard the truth in his wordshe just hadn't really wanted her. Not enough to make things work while she took care of Bea.
She grabbed her purse and jacket from the office. A small window looked into the back parking lot. Empty but for her car. One day it would be full of cars and people. She hoped. Prayed.
There was no plan B.
She flicked off the office light and the kitchen light. The entire diner was suddenly dark and silent. Eerie, really.
No. Not eerie. Just exactly the way a restaurant was supposed to feel when it was closed. The problem was, she'd been listening to too many people saying too many things about the murder of the diner's former owner. People seemed to think Ari-anna's death had somehow tainted the building. Ludicrous! That was what Emma thought, but all the talk had kept the building from selling. That had worked out for Emma. She'd purchased the property for well below market value. Hopefully, the notoriety that went with the place would bring in crowds rather than keeping them away.
She opened the back door, fumbling in her purse for the key. A soft rustling sound broke the silence, a whisper of fabric on air, a shift in the darkness to her right. She swung toward it, her heart stuttering as a black figure lunged from the shadows.
She screamed, sprinting toward the car, her purse falling from her hands.
Faster! her mind screamed, but her feet seemed to be moving in slow motion, the air behind her so charged with energy that she knew he was right there. A step away. Ready to .
An arm wrapped around her waist. A palm slapped over her mouth. She couldn't scream. Could barely breathe.
God, help me!
"Where is it?" her captor growled, his hand tightening over her mouth, his grip so hard her teeth ground into her lips. She bucked, slamming her head into his chin.
He cursed, forcing her, one step after another, back into the diner. He shoved her into the kitchen, and she crashed into the center island prep area, pain shooting through her ribs. Then he was on her again. One hand on her throat, the other pressing her harder against the cold metal counter.
"I said, where is it?"
"Where is what?" she gasped, her fear so real, so sharp that she could feel nothing else, think of nothing else. "The money!" he snarled.
She had three dollars in her purse. Maybe another dollar worth of change. She tried to tell him that, but he dragged her around, slapped her so hard she saw stars.
He was going to kill her. Simple as that. But she didn't want to die. She swung her fist, connecting with a hard jaw. She felt a second of victory before he hit her again, this time with enough force to send her flying backward. She landed hard, her head smashing into the floor. Darkness edged in, but she scrambled to her feet, tried to run. He snagged the back of her hair, yanking so hard her eyes teared.
"Stop fighting me! I just want the money. Give it to me, and I'll leave you be."
She wanted to. She really did, but she had no idea what he was talking about. "My purse"
Someone knocked on the diner's front door.
Emma's attacker froze, his hand still fisted in her hair.
The person knocked again, this time hard enough to rattle the doorframe.
"Who is it?" the man growled at Emma.
"I don't know."
He shoved her violently, and she stumbled forward, her knees hitting the tile floor. She felt no pain, felt nothing but the fear that coursed through her.
Balmy air lapped at her hot cheeks, and she realized she was alone, the back door open.
"Emma!" Someone called her name, and she tried to respond, but the words caught in her throat.
She had to get up, walk through the dining room and open the front door. Every movement hurt as she dragged herself upright and shuffled out of the kitchen.
"Emma!" The front door rattled, and she took a step toward it, dizzy, off balance. She tripped over something, her hands hitting the ground seconds before her head crashed into the tile floor.
* * *
Police Lieutenant Lucas Harwood rounded the corner of Arianna's Diner, his K-9 partner, Henry, padding along beside him. The place had been closed down for eight months, and it had the lonely, empty feel of an abandoned building. It had been an abandoned building.
That had changed, though. Emma Fairchild had bought the property. According to her aunt Bea, she should be there now, working to get the place ready for its grand opening. So far Lucas hadn't seen any sign of her. The lights in the diner were off. No hint of activity inside the building.
It was possible Bea was mistaken. Emma was a grown woman. She might have gone out with friends or gone on a date. He had to be sure, though. He'd taken the report, and it was his job to follow up on it.
He walked through a small alley that separated the diner from the store beside it. Nothing unusual there. No sign of a struggle or trouble. No sign of Emma, either. The musty scent of dirt and garbage hung in the air, the shadowy alley the perfect place for transients to camp out for a night or two.
The alley spilled out into the diner's back parking lot. One car was parked near a burned-out streetlight. No one in sight, but the back door yawned open, something lying on the ground in front of it. He approached cautiously, Henry whining beside him. Trained in apprehension and protection, the three-year-old German shepherd mix could sense trouble a mile away.
"What is it, boy?" Lucas murmured as he bent over a large purse, its contents spilled onto the ground. He lifted a wallet in gloved hands. Three dollars and a debit card. Massachusetts driver's license issued to Emma Grace Fairchild. Brown hair. Blue eyes. Five foot two. One hundred and two pounds. Tiny, just as she'd been all through junior high and high school. They'd been friends then. Close friends. It had been years since he'd seen her, though.
Henry whined again, his nose raised to the air, his ears alert. He smelled something.
"Seek," Lucas said, giving Henry the lead.
The dog ran through the open doorway, and Lucas followed.
"Police!" he called. "Anyone here?"
Silence, darkness. Still no sign that Emma was there.
Henry barked quietly.
"Seek!" Lucas commanded, and the dog nosed the ground, found a scent and followed it through the large room. Lucas had been in the diner quite a few times when he was a kid. The place had always been hopping with activity. Now it was dead quiet.
Someone was there, though. Lucas could feel it.
He pulled his service revolver and eased into the dining room behind Henry. Even in a city the size Sagebrush, there were plenty of criminals. The diner's original owner had been one, working for a crime syndicate responsible for several bank robberies and murders. In the end she'd become a victim of the organization she worked for.
The inky blackness made it nearly impossible to see into every corner of the room, but the furniture had been removed. Not a lot of hiding places. He ran his hand along the wall, trying to find a light switch.
Henry barked twice. Anxious. Ready to go. Whatever he was trailing, it was close, but Lucas wasn't going to walk into it blind.
He finally found the light switch, flipped on the lights. Saw Emma just a few feet away, facedown, blood on the floor near her head. It looked as though she'd been trying to get to the front door. She hadn't made it. He knelt beside her, pushing back the heavy fall of her hair and probing her neck. Her pulse beat steadily beneath his questing fingers. Alive.
He called for an ambulance, then covered Emma with his jacket. Blood seeped from somewhere on the back of her head, pooling on the floor near her ear. He gently parted her hair, trying to find the wound, praying that it was superficial. He found a lump and a large gash, his fingers trailing over the swollen broken flesh.
"No!" She jumped up, screaming so loudly that Lucas thought she'd come pretty close to rupturing his eardrums.
"Em" he started, but she was sprinting from the dining room as if a serial killer was after her. He just managed to snag the back of her bright pink coat before she reached the back door and ran out into the night.
She swung around, her fist aimed at his chin, her eyes wild with fear.
"Calm down!" he commanded, grabbing her hand before she could connect.
She blinked, her smooth brow furrowing. "Lucas?"
She knew him. That was good. Maybe she hadn't taken as big a hit on the head as he'd thought.
"What are you doing here?"
He would have answered, but she swayed, nearly collapsed. He helped her onto the floor, tucking his jacket around her shaking shoulders. She was in shock, her skin leached of color, dark bruises standing out on her cheek and jaw.
"It's going to be okay," he said, but he didn't think she heard. Her eyes were closed, black lashes fanning across her cheeks. His heart jerked, his muscles tight with the need to take Henry and hunt down whoever had done this to her.
He'd seen women and men in worse shape. He'd tended victims of domestic violence, gang violence and accidents. In his years working on the Houston Police Force, he'd faced plenty of tragedy and dealt with plenty of drama, but he'd never tended a victim who'd been a childhood friend. Now he was back in Sagebrush. It stood to reason that he'd know some of the victims he helped.
He scrounged through a box of supplies that sat next to an industrial-sized refrigerator, found a set of plastic-wrapped cloth napkins and ripped it open. He didn't have time to deal with personal feelings. Emma was still bleeding, a new pool of blood forming under her head. He snagged a napkin from the package and pressed it to her head, sirens screaming in the background as he tried to staunch the flow of blood.
Pain ripped through Emma's head, and she moaned, trying to pull herself out of the darkness she'd fallen into.
Something pressed against the back of her head and white-hot pain seared through her. She jerked away, swinging her fist before she had time to think about what she was doing.
"Calm down," someone said.
Not someone. Lucas.
She knew the voice as well as she'd known the face.
She forced her eyes open. Somehow she'd ended up on the floor again, a leather jacket thrown over her as Lucas pressed something against the lump behind her ear.
"I am calm," she muttered, pushing his hand away and feeling as if she were back in grade school, fighting with the cutest boy in class. Not surprising. She and Lucas had spent most of fifth grade at each other's throats. Up until middle school, they'd been as bitter as two enemies could be.
"I'm trying to stop the bleeding," Lucas responded reasonably, pressing on the painful lump again.
Obviously, he'd matured in the decade since they'd last seen each other. He'd also become a police officer, if the dark blue uniform and shiny badge peeking out from beneath his coat were any indication.
"Thanks, but I'd rather bleed to death than have your hand pushing through the back of my head," she managed to say past gritted teeth.
"I'm not pushing that hard."
"You're pushing hard enough to hurt."
"I wouldn't be if you weren't bleeding like a stuck pig." Despite the words, his tone was gentle.