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I wish you were here.
In her mind Zoe Onella replayed the last words her best friend, Shayna, had said to her before disappearing. Or maybe I could visit there. I really need you right now. The entire cross-country trip from New York to Dallas, Zoe wished she'd have probed or, even better, agreed to let Shayna visit.
Instead, she'd rushed Shayna off the phone so she could meet a couple of friends for happy hour. And then, two weeks later, the next phone call had been from Shayna's mother, Mama Bell, worried because she couldn't locate her daughter. Mama had actually believed Shayna might have been with Zoe.
With guilt churning inside her, Zoe collected her luggage and stepped outside. The scorching air blasted her like a furnace. Ah, yes. Dallas was still the same as she remembered. Hot and miserable. She slipped on her dark glasses before she looked around for her ride.
No one on the sidewalk even looked familiar. Which was odd, since Mama Bell had promised to send someone to collect her. Fine. Squaring her shoulders, Zoe hefted her suitcase and began the trek to the cab area, lifting her chin and making her stride confident despite the towering heels she wore. This was her New York persona, one she planned to hang on to while here in Texas, to remind herself of the person she'd become.
She could handle this. Would handle it, exactly as she'd done a hundred times before at home in the city. So what if the cab fare from DFW to Anniversary would be outrageous?
"Zoe," called a voicedeep, masculine and unforgettably familiar. The sound of it reached inside her, echoing old longings. "Over here."
She stiffened. Brock McCauley. The one person from her past she didn't want to see. Not now. Not ever.
For the space of a heartbeat, she debated pretending not to have heard him and striding down the sidewalk as fast as she could. Away from him. Just like before. Instead, she took a deep breath, pasted her best "I am all business" smile on her face, and turned to face the man she'd practically left at the altar long ago.
The instant she saw him, all the jangling noise inside of her went still. He looked the sametall and broad shouldered, blond hair cut in the same sexy-shaggy cut. As his piercing blue eyes met hers, her entire being vibrated. Though her heart hammered out a welcome, she schooled her expression to nothing but pleasant surprise.
The man she'd once needed with every fiber of her being wasn't the one she wanted now.
"Mrs. Bell sent me to pick you up," he said. His blank expression let her know he took no enjoyment in the task. She nodded, unable to summon up a response. After all, what did one say to a man after you'd broken his heart?
He led the way to his truck, a new Chevrolet painted shiny red. She flashed back five years to his beat-up old pickup, which had also been red, remembering the way they'd celebrated their love in his front seat.
As her face warmed in a blush, she climbed up into the cab and turned away, pretending a sudden interest in everything outside her window. Guilt be damned. She had nothing to say to him, nothing at all.
Everything that had happened between them was in the past. She refused to look back.
Brock started the truck and they began the long drive from DFW Airport to Anniversary. Keeping his gaze on the road, Brock apparently felt no need to fill the awkward silence with meaningless words. She appreciated that, also unable to give voice to the thoughts taunting her. Might-have-beens that could never be. All they had in common now was Shayna, the only reason Zoe had returned.
Still, they had to speak eventually, didn't they? About Shayna. Especially since Zoe's former fiance and best friend lived together and planned to marry.
Life in small-town Anniversary had gone on just fine without Zoe. Her gut reaction after Mrs. Bell's frantic phone call had been to panic. She'd been standing by the window in her Manhattan apartment, watching the traffic below do its thing, the same as it did every morning. The hustle and bustle of other people starting their day had always fascinated her. The gray sky promised rain, which meant outside would be muggy and a sticky, frizzy hair day. And then the phone call from the woman Zoe considered her mother, saying Shayna had disappeared and asking Zoe if her daughter was with her. Apparently, Shayna had mentioned she was planning a visit.
When Zoe had told Mama Bell no, her answer had been greeted by silence. She sensed she'd dashed Shay-na's mother's last hope. And Zoe thought back to the last conversation she'd had with her best friend, wishing she'd paid better attention.
Though Mama Bell hadn't come out and asked, Zoe knew she was needed back home. She'd instantly volunteered to fly to Texas and sort things out.
In all the years since Mrs. Bell had taken Zoe under her wing, raising her with as much love as if blood bound them together, she'd never asked for anything.
She didn't have to ask this time.
Though Zoe hadn't actually seen Shayna since she'd left, and even though they'd lost that best friend need to talk every day, they'd still spoken occasionally by phone. In her heart of hearts, Zoe knew the connection was as strong and unbroken as if they were actual sisters.
Even when Brock and Shayna had gotten together and Shayna had tentatively asked Zoe if she minded, Zoe had tried to be happy for the two of them. In the tangled mess her leaving had created, someone should be happy. Truth be told, she'd missed Shayna and actually welcomed a chance to see her again. Brock, however, was another story. Zoe had never gotten over the agony or the guilt of practically leaving him at the altar.
She'd missed Anniversary, she realized. It would always be home, the place where she'd grown up. If only the town didn't hold so many dark, bloodstained memories. Here, in a dark alley behind a seedy bar, a younger Zoe had watched her mother die.
Glancing again at Brock, she wondered how he was dealing with Shayna's disappearance. After Zoe vanished on him five years ago, this must feel like a twist of the knife. She ached for him, even as she tried not to feel anything at all.
Did she want to know? Was it relevant to figuring out where Shayna had gone? More uncomfortable than she'd been in ages, Zoe tried to figure out the best way to ask.
While she considered, after clearing his throat, Brock brought up the subject first, still not making eye contact, instead focusing on his driving.
"Now that we're face-to-face again," he said. "Why don't you tell me why you left?"
Dread filled her even though rationally she knew he had a right to know. He deserved an explanation, or at least part of one. Five years had passed, after all. "When my mother was killed in that alley behind her favorite bar, I was there. She'd called me, drunk, and asked me to meet her. When I got to the scene, it turned out her drug dealer was also there, and she owed him money."
Though her voice broke, she continued. "She'd told him I'd bring that money. When I didn't, he slit her throat. Right in front of me." Remembered horror made her shudder.
His steady gaze stayed on her, but he made no move to touch her. "I knew about her murder, but not that you were there. Why didn't you tell me? I would have helped you."
"That's just it. I couldn't. Not only did he give me twenty-four hours to get the money, he told me if I didn't, he'd find me and kill everyone I held dear." She took a deep breath.
"At first, I ran because I was in fear for my life. Later, I was messed up. Seeing such a thing I couldn't handle "
"Me?" he asked, sounding wounded, his grip tight on the steering wheel. "You couldn't handle me?"
"We were so young, Brock. And you kept pushing to get married. It was too much. So I stayed in New York." Even after all this time, her voice shook. There was more, but she wouldn't tell him the rest of it.
"So you ran and then kept running, from this town, from your friends and your family, and from me." No emotion in his voice. No condemnation or sympathy, disbelief or commiseration.
Oddly enough, this gave her strength. "Yes."
Expression like granite, he didn't respond.
"Tell me about you and Shayna," she said, breaking the silence. After Shayna had confessed to Zoe that she'd always had a thing for Brock, Zoe'd spent months trying to adjust to the idea that her best friend had gotten together with her former fiance.
"Shayna was moving out," he said, the bluntness of his words matching his unemotional tone. "These past few months have been difficult for both of us."
Trying to hide her shock, Zoe stiffened. For the past few months, every time she'd talked to Shayna, her friend had been full of cheerful plans about her and Brock's upcoming wedding. Until the final phone call, when she'd clearly reached out to Zoe for help and Zoe had been too self-absorbed to notice. "Moved out? What happened? I thought you two were getting married?"
Now he looked at her, not bothering to hide his shock. "Shayna and I never even discussed marriage."
Not wanting to betray her friend's confidence, Zoe simply nodded. Right now, it was more important to find Shayna. After, they could straighten everything else out.
"When did you last see her?" Zoe asked.
Brock sighed, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel as he drove. "It's been a few days. This past Friday, we discussed her moving out, and I offered to help find her a place to live. She went out that night with her friend Cristine and never came back home."
Again she nodded, as though none of what he said came as a complete surprise when, in fact, she was stunned. Did Brock know more about Shayna's disappearance than he was saying?
"Where do you think she's gone?" she finally asked, even as she knew she wouldn't be here if the answer were as simple as Shayna telling her fiance where she'd be for the next few days.
He shook his head. "I have no idea. I've been trying to reach her. So have her parents and her friends. She hasn't shown up for work and her cell phone is turned off."
At least he and Shayna's mother were telling the same story since Shayna had disappeared. But was he the one who'd provided this set of facts?
"She'll come back," Zoe said, speaking with a confidence she wanted badly to feel. "She's probably just taking a break from everything. As soon as she finds out I'm in town, she'll make contact."
"You think so?" His tone told her how unlikely he found that possibility. But then, he didn't know what Shayna had said the last time she and Zoe talked.
No matter. "She has to," she replied, hoping it would be true. The alternative was unthinkable, that Shayna Bell had truly gone missing. If that was the case, who knew what might have happened to her then.
Inwardly, Zoe winced. She could only pray that the darkness of her past, after so many years, hadn't caught up with her best friend. Surely not. The killer was still in prison and appeared to have totally forgotten the young woman he'd threatened to kill. As far as he knew, there was no connection between Zoe and Shayna. On top of that, Shayna wouldn't make the kind of foolish choices that would place her in harm's way.
Silence fell again. Odd, between two people who'd never been at a loss for words. Of course, that was in the past, before Zoe had set fire to every bridge that tied her to people she'd loved in Anniversary. Now, Zoe couldn't blame him for wanting to ignore her.
Weirdly though, with Brock she'd expected more. Accusations, finger-pointing, something reminiscent of the passion that had once blazed between them.
Of course, five years had passed. There was no passion left. He'd gotten over her by now, just as she'd refused to let herself even think about him. At first, doing so had hurt too badly. Later, she'd bowed to the inevitable and tried with all her iron will to move on.
As had he. When Shayna had called Zoe, her voice full of a tentative sort of joy, to ask if she minded the two of them dating, Zoe hadn't hesitated to tell her friend not at all. Grab happiness with both hands and don't let it go, she'd urged Shayna. After all, that was how Zoe had learned to live her life in the big city.
Life went on. Old hurts, old loves, while never completely forgotten, were buried, moved past. There was no reason at all now why she and Brock couldn't be civil. After all, they both wanted the same thing Shayna to be found safe.
As the silence dragged on, Zoe snuck a glance or two at Brock, reminded of his old nicknameBrock the Rock. Judging from the size of his biceps and the breadth of his chest, he hadn't given up lifting weights. He would have been able to protect Shayna if he'd been in their home when someone came for her, but more personal thoughts tried to break Zoe's focus on her missing friend. She'd never been able to picture Brock and Shayna togetherthey hadn't even seemed to like each other back when Zoe and Brock had been an item.
"Why?" she asked, finally breaking the silence. "Why was Shayna moving out?"
"That's kind of personal," he replied lightly, still staring straight ahead. "And none of your business."
That hurt more than she'd expected. Still___"Maybe it isn't, right now," she replied. "But if the reason has something to do with her disappearance, you'd better believe I'll ask you again."
"Fair enough." This time, he swiveled his head to face her. His blue eyes flashed sparks, causing heat to flare low in her belly. This, she squashed with the ease of years of practice. She might not have been able to completely forget him, but she had managed to stop loving him a long time ago.
A few minutes later he exited the highway and the streets began to look more and more familiar, making her sit up straighter. She hadn't been back at all since she'd fled everything and everyone as though pursued by demons.
She might as well have been. She'd changed everything about herself, from her hair color and cut to the way she dressed and spoke. She'd worked hard to lose her Texas drawl, adopting a hint of a Midwest accent, so no one would realize where she was from. These days, though, she looked much the same as she used to, albeit with a much more expensive haircut.
Originally, Zoe had planned to return. To apologize to Brock, explain what had happened, and step right back into the life she'd been destined to have. Especially since she'd learned, a few weeks after leaving, that she was pregnant.
She'd lost the baby in the first trimester. That had been bad enough, but she'd learned that the endometriosis and the horrible scarring to her fallopian tubes meant she would never be able to have children. She'd realized then, in the middle of her grief, that she could never go back to Brock or to her old life.
It had taken this, Shayna's disappearance, to bring her back home. Back to the place she'd grown up, where most of her happy memories had been replaced with dark and bloody ones.
She shivered. Had she honestly believed she'd never have to revisit Anniversary?