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He had sworn he'd never come back to Sheffield, Alabama. But never say never. Ashe McLaughlin had discovered that anyone so absolutely certain often wound up eating his own words. And in his case, the taste was mighty bitter.
He had been gone eleven years, and little had changed. Except him. He had changed. He was older. Smarter. Harder.
He chuckled to himself. Harder? Hell, folks in northwest Alabama had considered him a real bad boy, one of those McLaughlins from Leighton, his daddy nothing but a white trash outlaw. But Ashe hadn't been as tough as everyone thought. He had hated the legacy of poverty and ignorance his family had given him. He'd wanted more. He'd fought long and hard to better himself. But Wallace Vaughn had destroyed Ashe's dreams of being accepted in Colbert County.
Eleven years ago he'd been told to leave town or elseor else he would have done jail time.
Now, here he was returning to a town that hadn't wanted his kind. He couldn't help wondering if anyone other than his grandmother would welcome him home. He supposed Carol Allen Vaughn would be glad to see him. After all, she'd been the one who'd asked him to take this job. He was probably a fool for agreeing to act as Deborah's bodyguard.
Deborah Vaughn. No amount of time or distance had been able to erase her from Ashe's memory.
He parked his rental car in the circular drive in front of the old Allen home, a brick Greek Revival cottage on Montgomery Avenue. His grandmother had once been the housekeeper here for the Vaughn family.
Walking up to the front door, he hesitated before ringing the bell. He'd never been allowed to enter the house through the front door but had always gone around to the back and entered through the kitchen. He remembered sitting at the kitchen table doing his homework, sharing milk and cookies with Deborah, and sometimes her older cousin Whitney. That had been a lifetime ago.
He rang the doorbell. What the hell was he doing here? Why had he allowed Carol Vaughn's dare to goad him into returning to a town he hated? Deborah needs you, she'd said. Are you afraid to see her again? she had taunted him.
He was not afraid to see Deborah Vaughn again. After ten years as a Green Beret, Ashe McLaughlin was afraid of nothing, least of all the girl who had betrayed him.
A plump, middle-aged woman opened the door and greeted him with a smile. "Yes, sir?"
"I'm Ashe McLaughlin. Mrs. Vaughn is expecting me."
"Yes, please come inside. I'll tell Miss Carol you're here."
Ashe stepped into the gracious entrance hall large enough to accommodate a grand piano as well as a large mahogany and gilt table with an enormous bouquet of fresh flowers in the center. A sweeping staircase wound upward on the left side of the room.
"If you'll wait here, please." The housekeeper scurried down the hall toward the back of the house.
He'd been summoned home. Like a knight in the Queen's service. Ashe grinned. Better a knight than a stable boy, he supposed. Why hadn't he just said no? I'm sorry, Mrs. Vaughn, but whatever trouble Deborah has gotten herself into, you'll have to find someone else to rescue her.
God knows he had tried to refuse, but once he'd heard that Deborah's life was in real danger, he had wavered in his resistance. And Carol Vaughn had taken advantage of the weakness she sensed in him.
"Ashe, so good of you to come, dear boy." The voice still held that note of authority, that hint of superiority, that tone of Southern gentility.
He turned to face her, the woman he had always thought of as the personification of a real lady. He barely recognized the woman who stood before him. Thin, almost gaunt, her beautiful face etched with faint age lines, her complexion sickly pale. Her short blond hair was streaked with gray. She had once been full-figured, voluptuous and lovely beyond words.
She couldn't be much more than fifty, but she looked older.
Caught off-guard by her appearance, by the drastic change the years had wrought, Ashe stared at Carol Vaughn. Quickly recovering his composure, he took several tentative steps forward and held out his hand.
She clasped his big, strong hand in her small, fragile one and squeezed. "Thank you for coming. You can't imagine how desperately we need your help."
Ashe assisted Carol down the hallway and into the living room. The four-columned entry permitted an unobstructed view of the room from the foyer. The hardwood floors glistened like polished metal in the sunlight. A blend of antiques and expensive reproductions bespoke of wealth and good taste.
"The sofa, please, Ashe." She patted his hand. "Sit beside me and we'll discuss what must be done."
He guided her to the sofa, seated her and perched his big body on the edge, not feeling comfortable in her presence. "Does Deborah know you sent for me?"
"I haven't told her," Carol said. "She's a stubborn one, that girl of mine. She's always had a mind of her own. But she's been a dutiful daughter."
"What if she doesn't agree to my being here?" He had known Deborah when she was seventeen, a plump, pretty girl who'd had a major crush on him. What would she look like now? And how did she feel about him after all these years?
"Mazie, please bring us some coffee," Carol instructed the housekeeper who stood at the end of the hallway. "And a few of those little cakes from the bakery. The cinnamon ones."
"Refreshments aren't necessary, Mrs. Vaughn. Really." Ashe felt ill at ease being entertained, as if his visit were a social call. "I'm here on business. Remember?"
"Mazie, go ahead and bring the coffee and the cakes, too." Carol turned her attention to Ashe. "Times change, but good manners don't. Of course my mother would be appalled that I had welcomed a gentleman, unrelated to me and not a minister, into my home when I am quite alone."
"Coffee will be fine, Mrs. Vaughn."
"You used to call me Miss Carol. I much prefer that to the other. Your calling me Mrs. Vaughn makes us sound like strangers. And despite your long absence from Sheffield, we are hardly strangers, are we, Ashe?"
"No, ma'am, we're not strangers."
"Mazie has prepared you a room upstairs. I want you with Deborah at all times." Carol blushed ever so lightly. "Or at least close by."
"Has she received any more threats since we spoke two days ago?"
"Mercy, yes. Every day, there's a new letter and another phone call, but Charlie Blaylock says there's nothing more he can do. And I asked him why the sheriff was incapable of protecting innocent citizens."
"Has a trial date been set for Lon Sparks?" Ashe asked.
"Not yet. It should be soon. But not soon enough for me. I can't bear the thought of Deborah being in danger."
"She just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time." Ashe knew what that was like. And he knew as well as anyone in these parts just how dangerous Buck Stansell and his band of outlaws could be. For three generations, the Stansell bunch, along with several other families, had cornered the market on illegal activities. Everything from prostitution to bootlegging, when the county had been dry. And nowadays weapons and drugs dominated their money-making activities.
"She insists on testifying." Carol glanced up when she saw Mazie bringing the coffee. "Just put it there on the table, please."
Mazie placed the silver service on the mahogany tea table to the left of the sofa, asked if there would be anything else and retreated to the kitchen when told all was in order.
"Do you prefer your coffee black?" Carol asked.
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you." When his hostess poured the coffee and handed it to him, Ashe accepted the Haviland cup.
"I will expect you to stay in Sheffield until the trial is over and Deborah is no longer in danger."
"I've already assured you that I'll stay as long as is necessary to ensure Deborah's safety."
"And I will send the sum we agreed upon to your agency in Atlanta on a weekly basis."
"You and I have come to an agreement on terms," Ashe said. "But unless Deborah cooperates"
"She will cooperate."
Ashe widened his eyes, surprised by the vigor of Carol Vaughn's statement. Apparently her fragile physical condition had not extinguished the fire in her personality.
The front door flew open and a tall, gangly boy of perhaps twelve raced into the living room, tossing a stack of school-books down on a bowfront walnut commode.
"I made a hundred on my math test. See. Take a look." He dashed across the room, handed Carol his paper and sat down on the floor at her feet. "And guess what else, Mother? My team beat the hel heck out of Jimmy Morton's team in PE today."
Carol caressed the boy's blond hair, petting him with deep affection. "I'm so proud of you, Allen."
The boy turned his attention to Ashe, who stared at the child, amazed at his striking resemblance to Deborah. Ashe's grandmother had mentioned Allen from time to time in her letters and phone calls. He'd always thought it odd that Wallace and Carol Vaughn had had another child so late in life. When Wallace Vaughn had run Ashe out of town eleven years ago, the Vaughns had had one childseventeen-year-old Deborah.
"Who's he?" Allen asked.
"Allen, this is Mr. McLaughlin. He's an old friend. He and Deborah went to school together."
"Were you Deborah's boyfriend?" Allen scooted around on the floor until he situated himself just right, so he could prop his back against the Queen Anne coffee table.
"Allen, you musn't be rude." Carol shook her index finger at the boy, but she smiled as she scolded him.
"I wasn't being rude. I was just hoping Mr. McLaughlin was here to ask Deborah for a date. She never goes out unless it's with Neil, and she told me that he isn't her boyfriend."
"I must apologize for Allen, but you see, he is very concerned that Deborah doesn't have a boyfriend," Carol explained. "Especially since he's going steady himself. For what now, Allen, ten days?"
"Ah, quit kidding me." Allen unlaced his shoes, then reached up on top of the tea table to retrieve a tiny cinnamon cake. He popped it into his mouth.
Ashe watched the boy, noting again how much he looked like Deborah as a young girl. Except where she had been short and plump with small hands and feet, Allen was tall, slender and possessed large feet and big hands. But his hair was the same color, his eyes an almost identical blue.
"Hey, what do we know about Mr. McLaughlin? We can't let Deborah date just anybody." Allen returned Ashe's penetrating stare. "If he gets serious about Deborah, is he the kind of man who'd make her a good husband?"
The front door opened and closed again. A neatly attired young woman in a navy suit and white blouse walked into the entrance hall.
"Now, Allen, you're being rude again," Carol said. "Besides, your sister's love life really isn't any of our business, even if we did find her the perfect man."
"Now what?" Deborah called out from the hallway, not even looking their way. "Mother, you and Allen haven't found another prospect you want me to consider, have you? Just who have you two picked out as potential husband material this time?"
Carrying an oxblood leather briefcase, Deborah came to an abrupt halt when she looked into the living room and saw Ashe sitting beside her mother on the sofa. She gasped aloud, visibly shaken.
"Come in, dear. Allen and I were just entertaining Ashe McLaughlin. You remember Ashe, don't you, Deborah?" "Was he your old boyfriend?" Allen asked. "Mother won't tell me."
Ashe stood and took a long, hard look at Deborah Vaughn the girl who had proclaimed her undying love for him one night down by the river, eleven years ago. The girl who, when he gently rejected her, had run crying to her rich and powerful daddy.
The district attorney and Wallace Vaughn had given Ashe two choices. Leave town and never come back, or face statutory rape charges.
"What are you doing here?"
She had changed, perhaps even more than her pale, weak mother. No longer plump but still as lovely as she'd been as a teenager, Deborah possessed a poise and elegance that had eluded the younger, rather awkward girl. She wore her long, dark blond hair tucked into a loose bun at the nape of her neck. A pair of small golden earrings matched the double gold chain around her neck.
"Your mother sent for me." Ashe noted the astonished look on her face.
Deborah, still standing in the entrance hall, gazed at her mother. "What does he mean, you sent for him?"
"Now, dear, please come in and let's talk about this matter before you upset yourself."
"Allen, please go out in the kitchen with Mazie while I speak with Mother and Mr. McLaughlin."
"Ah, why do I have to leave? I'm a member of this family, aren't I? I shouldn't be excluded from important conversations." When his sister remained silent, Allen looked pleadingly at his mother, who shook her head.
"Do what Deborah says." Carol motioned toward the hallway. "This is grown-up talk and although you're quite a young man, you're still not old enough to"
"Yeah, yeah. I know." Allen jumped up and ran out of the room, his eyes downcast and his lips puckered into a defiant pout.
"What's going on?" Deborah marched into the living room, slamming her briefcase down atop Allen's books on the antique commode. She glared at Ashe. "What are you doing here?"
"As Ashe said, I sent for him." Tilting her chin upward, Carol straightened her thin shoulders.
"Calm yourself," Carol said.
"I am calm." Deborah spoke slowly, her teeth clenched tightly.
"Ashe works for a private security firm out of Atlanta." Carol readjusted her hips on the sofa, placing her hand down on the cushion beside her. "I've hired him to act as your bodyguard until the trial is over and you're no longer in any danger."
"I can't believe what I'm hearing." Deborah scowled at Ashe. "You've brought this man back into our lives. Good God, Mother, do you have any idea what you've done?"
"Don't speak to me in that tone of voice, Deborah Lu-ellen Vaughn! I've done what I think is best for everyone concerned."
"And you?" Deborah looked directly at Ashe. "Why would you come back to Sheffield after all these years? How on earth did my mother persuade you to return?" Deborah's rosy cheeks turned pale, her lips quivered. "Whatwhat did she tell you?"
"I told him that your life had been threatened. I explained the basic facts." Carol turned to Ashe. "This is what he does for a living, and I'm paying him his usual fee, isn't that right, Ashe?"
"This is strictly a business arrangement for me," Ashe replied. "My services are for hire to anyone with enough money to afford me."