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JO DIDN'T ROAR INTO Maraville on her Harley. She drove a candy-apple-red convertible she'd rented at the New Orleans airport. The air blew in her short dark hair, giving the illusion of coolness until she stopped. Then the sultry Mississippi heat enveloped her, and the sun seemed to burn right through her hair to her scalp. Her skin glistened with perspiration. She was no longer used to the humidity. L.A. heated up plenty in the summer, but it was a dry heat. She'd heard that so many times she couldn't count, but until today, she hadn't realized how true it was. She'd been gone too long.
Driving slowly down Main Street, she looked with interest at the town she'd grown up in.After the sprawl of LosAngeles it seemed tiny and quiet. The old brick buildings looked dirty and tired. For the most part, the cars were sedans, sedate and suitable for old folks. Who traveled far in Maraville? She didn't see the big SUVs that were so prevalent in Southern California, nor the "beater" cars gangs used, or the fancy foreign jobs seen rolling along Rodeo Drive.
People on the sidewalk stopped and stared. A stranger still drew notice in town. She resisted an urge to wave just to see what they'd do. But she wasn't here to stir things up. She'd come to make her peace with Maddie Oglethorpe, if she wasn't too late.
As she glided by Ruby's Café, Jo's mouth watered in memory. She'd spent a lot of time there eating burgers and fries. She wondered if they still tasted as good as she remembered.
As she drove away from the center of town, she caught the eye of a law-enforcement officer about to get into a car emblazoned with the sheriff's shield. Maraville wasn't big enough to afford a police force and so it used the same law enforcement the entire county did. The man getting into the patrol car didn't look anything like Sheriff Halstead, the man who'd manipulated things to suit himself and the good citizens of Maraville, and shipped Jo off rather than deal with her accusations.
She should have come back sooner and set the record straight. But who would have believed her? Nothing had changed in the interim. Now it was too late. The statute of limitations had long run out even if she could get someone in authority to believe her.
The man watched her as she went by. She'd toned down a few things about her appearance for this homecoming, but the black tank top that showed her tanned, muscular arms was as out of place in summertime Maraville as her black jeans and motorcycle boots. Her hair was slightly spiked. She'd come back to make a statement, as well as apologize, she admitted. And if they didn't like it, too bad. No one had stood up for her in this town. She was going to show them she needed no one. And if she shocked a few people, so much the better.
No one messed with Jo Hunter when she was in battle dress, and she figured she needed all the help she could get.
When her friend Tyler Jones had dropped her off at the airport in Los Angeles, he'd shaken his head and asked why she dressed like that when flying. Didn't she know what a red flag she was waving?
Since Jo had never flown before, she hadn't a clue how uptight the flight attendants might get. Fortunately, she took some of Tyler's advice to heart and bought a colorful short-sleeved shirt at an airport shop to cover the black tank top. Coupled with softening her hairstyle and keeping her expression bland, she felt she more or less fit in with the other travelers.
Still, she had been wanded and her boots double-checked by security. And the flight attendants eyed her suspiciously the entire flight.
Continuing without another look at the cop, she headed for the house on Poppin Hill. If Heller's story had been true, Maddie was most likely in the hospital, but Jo needed to see the place, to sort of ground herself. She was stalling and she knew it. But it wouldn't hurt just to see the house before she searched for Maddie.
She almost laughed when the cop pulled in behind her — keeping far enough back not to crowd her, but definitely on her tail. How predictable. Would he follow her all the way up to the house?
She turned onto the curved, crushed-shell driveway. The old house, hidden by trees and shrubbery, couldn't be seen from the road. She rounded the bend and the Victorian structure came into view, so out of place in Mississippi, with its antebellum architecture. If painted, it would fit in fine in San Francisco. The windows looked empty and blind. Yet flowers bloomed in garden patches, the lawn was mowed and two vehicles were parked in the driveway near the back door.
She pulled to a stop behind one of them, a white van, and killed the engine. Glancing in her rearview mirror, she realized the cop had not followed her into the driveway.
She opened her car door, stepped out and looked around. The familiar scents filled her head with memories. The sticky heat wrapped around her just as it had all those summer days so long ago. Jo was surprised by the pang she felt. One of homecoming and welcome. Stupid. There was no welcome for her here.
She heard a radio and the sound of a power saw from within the house, muffled slightly because of the closed windows. She could also hear the dull roar of the air-conditioning unit at the far corner of the house. That hadn't been here before.
Was the house still Maddie's? Was she in time, or had the woman already died and the estate been settled? Heller hadn't told her much, and she had not followed up before coming as fast as she could.
Nervous at what she'd find, she stepped up onto the back porch. Wiping damp palms against her dark pants, she rapped on the door, remembering how she used to barrel into the kitchen after school, hungry for food and Maddie's approval. She wasn't looking for that anymore. Funny how some memories just popped into mind.
"It's open," a voice called.
Jo turned the knob and pushed the door. A familiar scene assailed her. For a moment she felt like a teenager again. Eliza stood at the stove cooking. The aroma of the bubbling sauce filled Jo's nostrils and made her mouth water. Rock music blared from a radio in the room. And now the sound of someone hammering could be heard in the background.
Just as Eliza turned, April came through the door from the hallway.
"Honestly, if I ever reach her, I'm getting her address and sending her an answering machine. This is so frustrating —" She stopped and stared at Jo. Eliza turned and stared at her, too. For a long moment all three were motionless.
"Jo?" Eliza said.
"Jo, where have you been?" April asked, rushing across the room to throw her arms around her, Eliza only two steps behind.
A lump gathered in Jo's throat. She was home.
And greeted with a welcome she didn't deserve. Eliza and April were both here. She couldn't believe it.
"Jo, we've been trying to reach you for days."
"How did you know to come home right now?"
"How are you?"
"What have you been doing?"
"Look at you!" Jo felt the suspicious sting of tears. She never cried.
"You look fantastic," Eliza said, standing back to look her up and down, a wide smile on her face.
"Omigosh, I can't believe you're here!"
"We've been trying to reach you for days," April said. "Why don't you get an answering machine?"
"I can't believe you're both here," Jo said. "I thought we were scattered to the winds. If I'd known, I'd have come back sooner. I never expected to see either of you again." Eliza and April had been Jo's best friends for most of her growing-up years. They'd lost touch after that fateful day. Seeing them again felt as if nothing had changed.
"We were scattered to the winds. I was living in Boston until about a month and a half ago," Eliza said.
"And I live in Paris," April said, smiling happily.
"I've been back a few weeks. And we finally tracked you down to L.A. Could we have been living farther apart? How did you know to come home? Instinct?"
Jo shook her head, trying to assimilate all the news. "You've been trying to reach me?"
"Yes, we got your phone number in L.A. At least we think it's yours." April rattled off the number.
Jo nodded. "I've been calling for days," April said again. "You're here now. I can't believe it. Come in. Let me shut the door. This heat is horrific."
She reached behind Jo and started to close the door, then hesitated.
"Sam's here," she said. Eliza looked over her shoulder. "Sam Witt? Wonder why?"
Jo turned and saw the sheriff climb out of his car. "Probably making sure I'm not stealing the silver," she said, watching him as he approached the back door. He was tall and nicely put together. His hair was dark, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses. The uniform was immaculate, despite the heat and humidity. He looked to be in his early thirties, much younger than the former sheriff.
Jo's two old friends looked at her, and April wrinkled her nose. "You do look like biker trash in that outfit. What's with all the black? It's not your best color."
Before Jo could reply, Sam stepped up on the back porch and peered in through the screen door.
"Everything all right, ladies?" he asked. Eliza stepped around Jo and pushed open the screen door. "Come in and meet Jo. She just showed up."
Sam stepped inside, his expression guarded. He took off the sunglasses, and Jo was surprised at the velvet darkness of his eyes. His assessing look, however, was one she was familiar with. The good sheriff didn't trust her. He gave her a look law enforcement the world over knew. But if the mood took her, she could give as good as she got.
Right now, Jo felt a spurt of amusement. She knew what he thought. She had left her gun at home, not wanting to have to explain it on the airplane. But she did have her badge and credentials, and courtesy demanded she tell the sheriff. An imp of mischief stilled her tongue.
"Jo Hunter, of Los Angeles?" he said.
She inclined her head.
"We had a hard time locating you."
"She ended up coming home without us," April said. "I never got an answer on her phone. She just showed up."