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Simon Teague eyed the radar image on his computer and groaned.
"Colorful," said Deputy Pete Kayne as he walked behind Simon with a fresh cup of coffee.
"Little too colorful." The image showed too much blue and pink for his taste. If the snow and, worse, ice dipped down much farther, they were going to have a devil of a night.
"I heard on the way in that they think at least the ice will stay north."
Simon grunted. It was bad enough when Dallas and Fort Worth got socked with winter weather. On the rare occasion that it ventured as far south as Austin, San Antonio and the Hill Country where they now sat, people tended to freak out as if the apocalypse had arrived. That led to wrecks, which led to his deputies and him spending miserable hours out in the cold.
He'd just clicked on the hourly forecast when the phone rang. He reached for the receiver as he scrolled through temperatures that should never cross the Red River into Texas.
"May I speak to Sheriff Teague?"
"Speaking." Simon minimized the computer screen and shifted his focus fully to the phone call.
"This is James Dial with the Dallas P.D."
"Just saw you all are getting slammed up there."
"Yeah, that's why I'm calling," Dial said, sounding serious.
A chill went down Simon's back. This wasn't going to be good.
Dial took a deep breath before continuing. "I just got back from a crash scene, two deaths. Next of kin for one of the deceased is listed as living in Blue Falls, but I've been unable to make contact. Probably better coming from someone local, anyway, though it's going to be awful either way."
Damn, of everything his job entailed, telling relatives someone they loved had died was the absolute worst. He'd rather break up a thousand bar fights, even take a few punches himself, than have to make one next-of-kin call.
"Who are you trying to contact?"
A rush of cold washed through Simon. His first thought was of Carter, Keri's brother and his once-upon-a-time best friend. But then the fact that Dial was calling from Dallas registered. Keri's older sister and her family lived in Dallas.
"Samantha and Benjamin Spencer died at the scene when their SUV flipped and rolled several times."
Simon gripped the phone harder. "The baby?" He'd last seen the little girl at the Fourth of July celebration as she crawled around on a blanket next to the lake while her parents, Keri and the rest of Blue Falls had waited for the fireworks to start. He swallowed hard at the idea that she'd been killed, too, before reaching her first birthday.
"Scared, but not a scratch on her," Dial said. "It's a miracle considering how bad that vehicle looked."
Simon ran his fingers through his hair. How was he going to tell Keri, after everything she'd been through?
"I take it you know Ms. Mehler?"
"Yeah." Had known her nearly all his life, had once been her friend. Had spent nearly as much time at her house when he was growing up as he had his own.
"Then you can make contact?"
Simon made an affirmative sound, then cleared his throat. "I'll head over there now."
"Until Ms. Mehler can come to pick her up, Hannah Spencer is being held in state care."
Poor little girl. The image of her crying for her mother, a mother who'd never be able to hold her again, twisted Simon's gut.
After he wrote down all the particulars, Simon hung up and ran his hand over his face. When he looked up, Pete and Anne Marie Wallace, the 9-1-1 dispatcher, were staring at him, both with tight, pinched looks of concern on their faces.
"Keri Mehler's sister and brother-in-law died in a car accident tonight."
Anne Marie gasped and lifted her hand to her mouth.
"Keri's niece?" Pete asked.
"She's fine." Simon shook his head slowly. "God, I hate doing this." He stood and walked toward the coatrack by the door.
"Want me to go with you?" Pete asked, not sounding particularly anxious but willing to help out nonetheless.
"No, you stay here in case the weather gets worse and the crap hits the fan. Don't know how long I'll be gone. Call in Jack or Connor if you need to."
After slipping on his heavy ranch coat and tan Stetson, Simon stepped out into the cold night to deliver even colder news.
Was that a snowflake? Keri moved toward the bakery's front window and pressed her face close to it. Sure enough, a few snowflakes drifted through the crisp night air. A girlish thrill zipped through her. She hadn't seen snow in Blue Falls in more than a decade and only twice in her lifetime. Both times didn't amount to much but still enough to scrape together the world's smallest snowmen. When she'd been twelve, she'd managed to gather enough snow to make a little snow familyMom, Dad, two kids and even a snow dog. Of course, they'd all been about the height of a saltshaker and had lasted less than a day, but they'd been fun nonetheless.
She shifted her gaze across the street. Most of Main Street was already closed up for the evening, with the exception of the Frothy Stein. It'd take more than a swipe from Old Man Winter to part the regulars from their whiskey and Shiner Bock.
She'd been imagining curling up in front of her fireplace with a big mug of hot chocolate and a book from her teetering to-be-read pile for the past hour. But first, she had to finish cleaning the bakery. At least Sunshine Monroe, her second in command, had finished the prep for the next morning's baking before she'd had to leave to pick up her son from basketball practice.
Keri hummed along with the tune by Lady Antebellum as she returned to the mop and bucket of soapy water. After she made a couple of swipes, she was startled by knocking on the front door.
She froze when she saw Simon Teague standing on the other side of the glass. What the devil could he want? She pointed at the obvious sign hanging on the door. "We're closed."
He didn't go away. And something about the solemn look on his face caused her heart to skip a beat. What kind of trouble had Carter gotten into this time? And why the hell did Simon feel he had to be the one to tell her? It still irked her every time she saw him in uniform. Sure, everyone else in town seemed to love him to pieces, but she couldn't see past what he'd allowed to happen to her brother, his supposed best friend. Even Carter had told her to let it go, but she'd never been the kind to forgive and forget. Not wanting to be angry every time she saw him, she'd settled into a sort of detachment as if she barely knew him.
She propped the mop against the edge of the front counter and strode toward the door. Why had she fantasized about a cozy night at home? That was like screaming at Murphy and his damn law to come screw stuff up.
When she unlocked the door and opened it a fraction, the blast of cold air smacked her in the face.
"Little late for a doughnut, isn't it?" she asked, not relinquishing her hold on the edge of the door.
He didn't toss a snappy comeback her way or offer up one of the smiles that he had to know annoyed her. The fact he wasn't acting normal worried her more than his unexpected appearance outside the bakery.
"Can I come in?"
She wanted to say "no" and ignore the very bad feeling pooling in her middle. Instead, she took a step back and opened the door wide enough for him to fit through. Once he was inside, she shut the door on the unholy cold and crossed her arms across her chest.
"Is it Carter?"
Simon had removed his hat and picked at the edge of the brim without looking. He shifted from one leg to the other then nodded at the tables to his right. "Let's sit."
"No, thanks. Just come on out with whatever it is you think my brother has done this time."
Simon winced. If she hadn't been watching him closely, she wouldn't have noticed.
"It's not Carter."
"Then what?" She paused and reminded herself to not get so irritated. "I've still got work to do before I can go home. And I'd like to head out soon since it's snowing."
The discomfort tugging at the lines of his face sent another surge of worry through her, making her wish she'd ignored his presence out on the sidewalk. Instinct told her she didn't want to hear whatever he'd come to tell her.
"A few minutes ago, I received a call from Dallas P.D. Sammi was in an accident."
She went still, not even sure her lungs were pumping air.
"Is she okay?" The words came out in a ragged whisper.
Simon stood silent for a moment too long, a moment in which she grasped the terrible truth of what he was going to say next. Her mind screamed at her to flee. If she didn't hear the words, they wouldn't be true.
"I'm so sorry, Keri. She and Ben were both killed."
She stared at Simon without really seeing him. He was no more than a hulking blur in a world suddenly gone very dark. It took so much effort to form a single word.
Simon took a step forward, and his footfalls on the floor sounded so much louder than they actually were, like the booming of cannons instead of the normal tread of boots. Keri retreated away from his outstretched hand. She couldn't let him touch her. If he made contact, she'd know he was real, that what he'd said wasn't just part of a horrendous nightmare. She could convince herself that she was really already at home, curled up in that chair in front of the fire asleep.
From somewhere beyond the disbelief, she managed to find the breath to utter another word. "Hannah?" As soon as she asked, she hated herself. She didn't want to know, couldn't imagine going on in a world where that precious little girl had died before seeing her first Christmas.
"She's fine, no injuries."
She collapsed into a chair and latched onto that one glimmer of good news among an ocean of bad. "Where is she?"
"In state custody until you can arrive."
It took several seconds for the words to travel from her eardrum to the part of her brain that actually understood. Memories jerked her back more than a year, to when she and Sammi had sat on Keri's front porch enjoying the pleasant October air.
"I have a favor to ask you," Sammi had said as she ran a hand over her slight baby bump.
"Ben and I are drawing up legal documents, and we want to name you as the baby's guardian should anything happen to us."
"Nothing's going to happen to you. You're both healthy as a horse."
"You know things happen unexpectedly sometimes." Like their parents dying within a year of each other, both from cancer. "Ben's parents already love this child, but they can't take on raising a baby."
The Spencers were wonderful people, but they were already in their seventies. Ben was their only child, born after they'd given up on having children.
Oh, God, they'd just lost their only child. Something about the brutality of that pain hit Keri more than her own.