For twenty years, Cain Dennison has been haunted by the death of a young, pregnant girl found murdered at Crybaby Falls. Determined to finally discover the truth and lay the past to rest, Cain quickly discovers he's not the only one looking for answers. Crossing paths with Sara Lindsey at the very spot that has caused so much pain, Cain is stunned to discover an instant and dangerous attraction flaring between them. Their shared goal of finding answers only fuels their passionand enrages a killer. Before long, they stumble across information that could affect everyone in this small Tennessee town and bring the real culprit right to their doorstep.
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The roadside memorial wasn't tattered or faded as so many monuments to the departed were. The simple wooden cross planted in the ground off Black Creek Road gleamed white in the midday sunlight, and the flowers in the resin urn were real, not plastic, still dewy with recent life.
Sara Lindsey crouched beside the small display and touched the big red gerbera daisy in the center of the urn. A chill skittered through her, as if someone had touched the back of her neck with cold fingers, and she nearly knocked herself on her backside turning to look.
Nobody's there, Sara. Get a grip.
Turning back to face the monument, she silently read the name etched there, darkened with black paint by whoever had planted this latest incarnation in the ground. Don-nie Lindsey. Beloved son and husband.
Today was the third anniversary of the accident. Some days, Donnie's death seemed like a distant memory, as if life since the accident had slowed to an interminable crawl, each minute stretching to hours or even days. And other times, like now, the raw realization that he was gone forever ached and bled like a brand-new wound.
Joyce must be the unseen caretaker, Sara thought. For her mother-in-law, the wound never stopped bleeding. Her grief was a physical thing, a heavy pall hanging over whatever space she occupied these days. How her husband, Gary, lived with her constant state of mourning, Sara couldn't imagine. As painful as her grief for Donnie had been for the past three years, Sara still managed to find moments of happiness within the sadness.
Joyce never seemed to. Grief had aged her a decade in the past three years, her pain exacerbated by the loss of her daughter years before. And as much as she mourned the loss of her children, Joyce craved someone to blame for their deaths.
For Renee's death, there was no closure. Her murder remained unsolved. But for Donnie's death, Joyce had found a target for her silent wrath.
After all, Sara had been behind the wheel of Donnie's truck the night of the accident. And she'd refused to play by her mother-in-law's rules of grieving widowhood, choosing to honor her husband in her own way.
She checked her watch. Almost noon. Joyce, Gary and all of Donnie's childhood friends who still lived near Purgatory would be leaving the cemetery now, heading back to the Lindseys' home for a potluck dinner. This was the second year of what Joyce called "The Remembering," and for the second year in a row, Sara hadn't been able to bring herself to go, even though everyone clearly expected her to make an appearance.
As the widow and part of the reason Donnie was dead, the least she could do was show up and take part in the ritual show of grief, right?
But grief was a private thing for her. She wasn't going to put on a show or stand around and watch others grieve just because people expected it. So she'd come here instead, to the hairpin turn on Black Creek Road, the place where everything had fallen apart, for her own personal memorial. And if she allowed no tears to dampen her cheeks or sobs to escape her throat, there was no one else around to pass judgment on her restrained style of grief.
Bitter much, Lindsey?
With a sigh, she pushed to her feet, grimacing at the lingering pain in her joints, and turned toward the drop-off only a few short yards from the roadside. Donnie hadn't actually died here, at the site of his monument, but nearly forty feet down the gorge that ended where Little Black Creek snaked its way through the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.
Sara wasn't sure how she'd survived the accident. She remembered none of it, not even why she and Donnie had been in Purgatory that night in the first place. She knew Donnie had been following a new lead about his sister's murder, but thanks to the head injury she'd sustained in the crash, she couldn't even remember what the lead had been or how he'd come by it. She'd spent a month in the hospital, missing Donnie's funeral and wallowing in a toxic combination of grief and pain until she'd finally talked her doctors into letting her go before the hospital killed her.
Recuperation had taken a year, and to this day, though she was pretty much back to normal physically, the memory loss lingered like a big, blank hole in the middle of her upended life. And the memory she most wanted to recover was what had happened in those last few seconds before the truck had left Black Creek Road and spun over the cliff edge.
What had caused the accident? Was it something she could have avoided? The question had haunted her for three years.
"Must've fallen asleep and missed the hairpin turn," had been the accident investigator's best assessment. But she'd never been able to picture the accident happening that way. She was so careful behind the wheel. She never drove sleepy or even distracted by the radio or her cell phone, because her first two years as a Birmingham police officer had been spent in the traffic division. She'd seen a lifetime's worth of the grim results of inattention behind the wheel in those two years.
She wouldn't have been driving impaired. And she couldn't imagine how anything but impairment would have led her over that cliff at such a high rate of speed.
She heard a faint rustle in the woods nearby, and the creeping sensation that had followed her down from the scenic overlook where she'd parked intensified until the hair on the back of her neck prickled to attention. She eased around in a full circle, studying her surroundings with the eye of an investigator.
The woods around her bristled with life, leaves fluttering in the late September breeze that ruffled her hair into disarray. She spotted a squirrel shinning up a tree with quick, darting movements, its black eyes scanning the area for threats much the same way her own gaze was seeking some cause for the unsettled sensation that had set her heart pounding and scattered goose bumps across her limbs.
You're alone, she told herself, firmly turning her gaze back to the road and the long walk uphill to the scenic overlook.
With the skin on the back of her neck still twitching as if brushed by invisible fingers, she took one last look at the roadside memorial before heading up the mountain road.
Cain should have known Sara Lindsey wouldn't show up for the graveside memorial. From what he'd heard around Purgatory over the past couple of weeks, she hadn't been back to Ridge County more than a handful of times since the accident.
Thanks to being laid up in ICU, she'd missed the funeral. Even her in-laws couldn't fault her for that. But what had kept her away after that?
A hunch had brought him out here to Black Creek Road and the roadside memorial Joyce Lindsey tended with obsessive attention. And sure enough, here she was, the grieving widow crouched beside the gleaming white cross, her head bent, a glossy curtain of dark hair hiding her face from his curious gaze.
She couldn't remember the accident, people said. Unfortunate for her if it was true, because without any memory of what had happened that night, there was no way for her to refute the whispered rumors about what might have led her to drive their truck off the road and down the steep bluff.
There had been no witnesses. Nobody to say, one way or another, whether she'd been reckless or even careless. The hospital wouldn't release the records of the tests they'd done on her, but he knew they'd have checked her bloodalcohol level and probably even done a tox screen, since she'd been found behind the wheel. If anything had turned up, she'd have been charged.
Her husband, on the other hand, had gone through the windshield. He'd been dead before anyone arrived on the scene.
Cain knew that for a fact. Because he'd been the one to find them.
A few yards away, Sara stood and looked around, her shoulders hunched and her eyes narrowed as if she sensed his presence. He stood very still, knowing that motion, more than the color of his clothing, would betray his location. His drab clothing would blend in well enough with his woodsy surroundings, but a turn of the head or a flick of a hand would give away his position in a heartbeat.
She had become a beautiful woman, a combination of age and tragedy carving away any vestige of baby softness from her features, leaving the fine bone structure in full view. A stirring sensation in his chest caught him by surprise, and he averted his gaze without moving a muscle.
After a moment, she seemed to shake off her nervous tension, turned back to the road and started walking uphill toward the scenic overlook located a quarter mile up the mountain.
He watched until she was out of sight around the next curve. Then he pulled out his cell phone and pressed the speed dial for his office.
Alexander Quinn answered on the second ring. He didn't bother with a salutation. "Did you find her?"
"Any clue why she didn't show for the memorial?"
"Oh, she showed for a memorial. Just not the one at the cemetery." That strange flutter he'd felt in his chest earlier recurred. He tried to ignore it.
"I didn't hire you to be cryptic." Though Quinn's voice barely changed tone, Cain knew his boss was annoyed. In fact, something about this case had been making the old spymaster cranky from the moment Joyce Lindsey had showed up at Quinn's detective agency, The Gates, and hired him to look into the deaths of her two children.
"Sorry." Cain started walking along the narrow shoulder, keeping an eye out for cars coming around the blind curve. "I found her at the roadside memorial her mother-in-law maintains."
"Thought those weren't legal in Tennessee."
"What's legal and what's tolerated can be two different things." Cain paused as he reached the small white cross. "From what I hear, Joyce Lindsey sets up a new one almost as fast as the state can remove the old one."
"She's lost a great deal." Coming from almost anyone else, the comment might have been a statement of sympathy. But Quinn was anything but sentimental, and what Cain heard in his voice was unease.
"You think you were wrong to take her case?"
"Cases," Quinn corrected. "She lost two children. But I don't need to remind you of that, do I?"
Cain tightened his grip on the cell phone. "No, you don't."
"She wants justice. I don't blame her for that."
"But she seems very sure she already knows the answers," Quinn answered. "I wonder whether she'll accept a truth that conflicts with what she already believes."
"Just a second." Hearing the sound of a vehicle engine approaching around the curve, Cain edged away from the shoulder of the road, taking care not to get too close to the drop-off. A sturdy thicket of wild hydrangea offered a hiding spot; he crouched behind the thick leaves until the truck passed. He caught a glimpse of Sara Lindsey's fine profile before sunlight bounced off the driver's window with a blinding glare. The flutter in his chest migrated down to his lower belly, and he knew instantly what that feeling was.
Desire. Raw, visceral and entirely unwelcome.
"You think she wants us to confirm her beliefs rather than find the truth," Cain continued after the truck was safely past, dragging his mind out of dangerous territory. "For instance, if we find that her daughter-in-law didn't cause the accident"
"The police looked into the accident pretty thoroughly. They found nothing to prove the widow was at fault."
"So they say," Cain murmured, remembering the flicker of guilt he'd seen on Sara Lindsey's face as she looked back at the small white cross before heading up to the overlook.
"You think they missed something?"
Cain started up the mountain, where he'd left his own truck parked at the overlook. "Maybe. It would help a whole lot if Sara Lindsey could remember anything about that night."
"How sure are you that she doesn't?"
A three-year-old memory pricked Cain's mind. Sara Lindsey, bloodied and panic-stricken as she lay strapped upside down in the crumpled truck cab. She had looked straight at Cain, but he could tell she wasn't really seeing him. Her breathing had been fast and labored, but she'd managed to find air enough to scream her husband's name in terror, over and over, until she'd gone quiet and still, falling unconscious.
He shut the memory away, not wanting to let it taint his present investigation. "From all accounts, she and her husband had been happily in love since they were both in grade school. Even the people who think she must have caused the accident don't reckon she did it on purpose."
"And the sister's death?"
"We know Renee's death was murder," Cain said grimly. "We just don't know who did it."
"Joyce Lindsey still thinks you did it, doesn't she?"
Cain crossed the road to the wider shoulder on the other side while there was no traffic approaching from either direction. "You should have told her you were assigning me to the case. She'll find out sooner or later. Nothing stays secret in a town this small unless you bury it."
"I didn't want to give her the chance to say no."
"She'll just fire you later rather than now."
"We'll deal with that when it happens."
"What's this case to you, Quinn? Why are you misleading a client in order to keep investigating?"
"It's not what the case is to me, Dennison. It's what the case is to you."
Cain pressed his mouth to a thin line, torn between irritation and an unexpected flicker of gratitude. "I've lived this long without answers."
"Too long. You almost turned down a job with The Gates because of what happened here in Purgatory eighteen years ago. Nobody should have to live his life under a constant cloud. Believe me."
Cain almost laughed. Quinn's whole life was lived smack-dab in the middle of an impervious cloud of secrecy and lies. Little of what Cain knew about his boss's life and history was reliable. Quinn had spent two decades in the CIA, fabricating an identity as impossible to penetrate as a Smoky Mountain midnight.
He sighed. "Okay, fine. But how am I supposed to investigate Renee Lindsey's murder when half the town still thinks I did it? Who's going to be willing to talk to me?"
"You had an alibi. There was never any evidence to implicate you. You weren't charged with anything."
"Small-town gossip doesn't deal in evidence and legal outcomes." Cain reached the summit of the hill, where a scenic overlook offered parking for a half dozen vehicles and an observation deck with a panoramic view of the Smoky Mountains. "People know what they know, the truth be damned."
As he unlocked the cab of his Ford F-150, he spared a moment to gaze out across the spectacular mountain vista. The sight tugged at something deep inside him, something he'd have sworn died years ago when he'd shaken the dust of Purgatory, Tennessee, off his boots.
Yet, thanks to Alexander Quinn, here he was again, back in the hills he'd left behind, ready to face a past he'd long been determined to forget.
What the hell was he thinking?
"Don't you want to know who killed Renee Lindsey?"