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"Tell me she's still alive." Piper Kennedy gripped Harmony's hand as they rushed down the halls of Baptist Memorial East. The drive from Jackson, Mississippi, to Memphis had been eternal. The thought of losing her grandmother sickened Piper. Not Mama Jean. "This is all my fault."
"It's not your fault. I knew you'd think that. Eventually, you're going to have to stop looking over your shoulder. It's over." Harmony wrapped an arm around Piper as they made their way to the ICU. She'd always been a good friend even when they were up to trouble.
But Piper wasn't so sure things were over. Chaz Michaels hadn't been found, and hadn't turned up, since that last job they did ten years ago, the day after he'd threatened to kill her if she walked away. Her plans to escape that life had backfired, and the person she'd loved most had been caught in the cross fire. Piper had been waitingand watchingevery day for Chaz's payback. Looked as though it might have come tonight.
"And yes, she's alive. I think they'd at least tell me if things went wrong in surgery, family or not."
Piper's insides did a gold-medal-worthy gymnastic routine. She should've never left Memphis and Mama Jean. Too many regrets. Too much pain.
They turned left down the hall toward the ICU; a wave of antiseptic burned Piper's nose. "What could Mama Jean have worth stealing?"
Harmony grunted. "I think that boarder of hers may have had something valuable
Piper frowned. She loved Mama Jean, but she never thought taking in boarders was smart. Guess Mama Jean thought if she couldn't help her own daughter, she might as well try someone else.
"Maybe. When Mama Jean's pastor called, he said the guy had been murdered. Looked like a burglary gone wrong." The irony that she'd been robbed didn't fall short of Piper's attention. "I'm just thankful Mama Jean's life was spared. Maybe they thought she was dead." Piper shivered.
They reached the nurse's station. "I'm Piper Kennedy. Here to see Jean Kennedy. I'm her granddaughter."
"She's just out of surgery. Have a seat. Coffee in that room to your right. We'll call you when you can see her." The nurse smiled and returned to her charts.
"I'll get us some coffee. You sit tight." Harmony handed her a magazine. "She's strong."
"Harm, you don't think
Harmony gave a confident shake of her head. "Not a chance. We've been out of that sick world a long time. We don't owe or have any money. My bank account will testify to that." She chuckled. "This is in no way connected to us."
"But what if Chaz is"
"He's not. End of story." Harmony headed for the coffee room while Piper flipped open the magazine, then chucked it on the table beside the chair. She wrenched her canvas jacket around her. April in Memphis was chilly, and the hospital kept the rooms cold.
A few families huddled together. A man with dark hair and a black leather jacket nosed through a golf magazine. Piper had no family to lean on while she waited. No one but Harmony.
Piper raised her head. "That's me."
A nurse motioned for her. "You can see her now." She led Piper through the halls. "She's asleep. Surgery went well."
Doctors shuffled in and out of patient rooms. Monitors beeped, and with every step, Piper's chest constricted. "Can you tell me what happened?"
"I don't know details of the circumstances that led to her injuries, but she received a gash on the back of her head. Her arm is broken in two places, and the femur is fractured."
Piper's eyes burned. Who would harm an innocent old woman? People she used to call friends. Bile rose in her throat. The nurse opened the door and Piper froze.
Her gaze flitted past Mama Jean to the man standing over her bed. Time had put a few crinkles around his blue eyes. Piper wasn't close enough to see the flecks of green, but memory told her they'd be there. His hair was a little shorter now and a shade darker with a touch of gray at his temples. Too young to have gray but it worked for him. Piper's stomach somersaulted, and she forced herself to breathe. Did he still despise her? Think about her?
The suffering in Luke Ransom's narrowed eyesfrom that last night ten years agomirrored hers. He straightened his broad shoulders. Large and in charge. As always. Piper switched her attention to Mama Jean, lying feeble in the hospital bed. She shuffled closer and held her limp, wrinkled hand.
Piper should have moved her out of the old East Memphis neighborhood a long time ago. She'd let Mama Jean down. A fresh streak of shame flamed over her. Like a branding iron to her bones.
Luke stepped back and remained silent. Was he assessing Piper or simply giving her a moment to take in the sight before her? If history was any indicator, he was doing both. Always was considerate.
After kissing Mama Jean's hand and swallowing back the burning lump, she faced him. A flash of something flickered in his eyes, but Piper couldn't be sure what it was. She fought the urge to take his hand for comfort, as she'd done so many times before.
"What are you doing in here?" Piper needed to control this conversation and hope it didn't lead to the past.
"I wanted to make sure she was okay. When she wakes, I'll have questions." He cleared his throat. "I have a few questions for you."
"What could you possibly want to ask me? I just got here." Piper had no answers but a slew of her own questions.
Luke's throat bobbed, and he swung his gaze across Mama Jean's face. He'd always been fond of her, and Mama Jean had always adored him.
"Did you know Christopher Baxter?"
Piper shook her head. "Should I?"
"I don't know. That's why I'm asking." His jaw twitched. Was this as uncomfortable for him as it was for her?
She never thought she'd see him again and especially not the second she blew into town. "I never met him. I haven't been home in
" Dropping her head, Piper focused on the starched white sheet covering Mama Jean's body.
"Fine." The word was clipped. "Take a look." Luke held out a photo of a young man, early twenties. Curly brown hair. "Familiar?"
"No," she rasped. "How did he die?"
"Blunt force trauma to the back of the head. Much like Mamalike your grandmother's injury. Several bruises indicate he fought back."
Piper compelled herself to stare Luke in the eye. He didn't have the clean-shaven look anymore, or maybe he simply hadn't shaved. The stubble covered the dimple on his chin. "What do you think they were after?"
Luke shrugged. "I don't know. I don't investigate thefts anymore. I'm here about Christopher's murder. Homicide."
Piper nodded once. Guess they'd both abandoned anything to do with theft. "What do you know about him?"
"I know he has a background in armed robbery and that he's been in rehab twice. But the pastor from Jean's church says he's been clean for the last eighteen months. I also know it's easy to be deceived, so I won't believe it until I see the tox screen."
The barb made a direct hit on its intended mark. Piper's heart. "Will they let me into her house?"
Luke's eyes softened, then steeled again. "I'll see what I can do. Where are you staying in case I need to contact you?"
Oh, he was going to love this. "I'm staying with Harmony Fells. I can get you the address."
A puff of air escaped his nose. He shook his head.
"We've changed. And I have nowhere else to go." Piper had cut ties with everyone else she'd been involved with, and Mama Jean's house was a crime scene.
Piper rattled it off.
"Nice neighborhood. How does she afford that?" Luke scribbled the address on a notepad. The accusing tone in his voice rang loud and clear.
Piper bristled. "She works for an insurance company, and she has her Realtor's license. The house was a foreclosure. But I'm pretty sure that has nothing to do with your investigation, and from here on out, I'm only answering questions that pertain to my grandmother's case."
Piper caught the corner of Luke's mouth twitch north, but then he grew serious. "Fair enough. I think your grandma was an innocent bystander. This Baxter guy may have invited trouble. But if not, would there be anything you can think of that might have led to her place being trashed?"
Piper had stewed over that same question during the drive. Was God punishing her for her past? Not that she didn't deserve it, but Mama Jean was the sweetest woman on the planet, and she loved God, so why would He allow this to happen to her?
"I don't know. She lives on a fixed income. Doesn't even have a computer or a cell phone. I can't imagine someone thinking she had anything of value. It must have something to do with Christopher Baxter." Mama Jean had blinders when it came to wounded souls. When she was stabilized, they'd have a talk about that, but until then Piper wasn't going to sit by and let some lowlife get away with hurting her grandmother. And while Christopher Baxter might have been a thug himself, no one deserved to be murdered. She had every intention of finding out who had done this and why.
"The detective in the theft unit told me the basement had been meticulously disarranged. Even a few holes in the walls. Whoever did this was hunting for something, Piper." He eyed her until she fidgeted. "If they didn't find what they were after, they could come back."
And if it was connected to Piper's previous mistakes, they would. Invisible icy claws scraped down her spine. Was Luke trying to terrify her? It was working.
"If it was something they wanted from Christopher Baxter, they got it. Otherwise, they'd need him alive." Piper adjusted Mama Jean's covers and ran her hands over her bony fingers jutting from the cast.
She needed to be alone. She'd barely had time to process being back in Memphis. The fact that Luke Ransom was a foot away was too much to bear. Instead of trusting her all those years ago, he'd believed the worst about her. She'd never got over that pain.
"You may be right. I just hope whatever is going on doesn't implicate you." Regret and a hint of accusation laced his voice.
"I would never do anything to hurt Mama Jean, and you know that if you know nothing else." Piper had half a mind to throttle him right here in the room. To insinuate Piper had anything to do with thiswould ever intentionally put Mama Jean at risk
She rubbed her temples, a migraine trying to break through.
"Getting one of your headaches?"
The familiarity between them pushed against her chest. Piper had a sick feeling this was the first of many headaches to come. What if this did have something to do with her former messed-up life?
Luke might as well have been hit with an atomic bomb. The minute Piper had stepped into the room, he'd imploded. Lost his breath. And hated himself for it. She might have lied about loving him once, but Mama Jean was her world. The one person she refused to disappoint, though if Mama Jean ever found out about Piper's infractions, it'd send her to her grave. But maybe not. Mama Jean was a strong woman.
Strong like the one standing before him now. Hazel eyes that bordered brown. She didn't hold the hard edge anymore, but Piper Kennedy radiated tough. And no doubt she was even fiercer than when he'd loved her a decade ago, considering the martial-arts path she'd traveled after leaving Memphis. Despising himself every time, he'd checked up on her throughout the span of ten years.
Piper dropped her hand from her temple and clutched her purse to her side. "Sometimes. When I'm stressed."
"The theft unit will probably want to ask you some questions, as well."
"Why? Because you told them about my past?" Her voice invited a challenge.
Luke wouldn't share her past with a soul. Never had. For her sake and his. He'd put his career in jeopardy over Piper once, and now he was up for a promotion to sergeant. No way would he risk that. "No. Because you're family. But since you're bringing it up, you should know if this has anything to do with that, it'll come out. They'll look hard at you."
Her face blanched, and she white-knuckled her purse.
"I'm just saying." She didn't have an ally in Luke anymore. Not since that night ten years ago when she gave him false information about a burglary, sending him on a wild-goose chase. While they were waiting to bust Chazat the wrong locationthe real burglary went down and south quick. A woman almost died. And Piper had been right there in the thick of it. Betraying him for a criminal like Michaels.
So why did he want to take her at her word now? Because he wanted to believe the best about her. Always had. He prayed she wasn't entangled in this.
"I have my own business. My own home. You can dig all you wantyou won't find anything."
That was what he was banking on. Luke was aware Piper owned a karate dojo in Jackson. That she'd competed in international championships. And won. She'd gone from scrappy to stealth. Beneath the still-raw pangs of betrayal, he hated to admit he was proud of her in that area. Unfortunately, just because her nose seemed clean didn't mean it was. He refused to let tender feelings for Piperthough unwantedcloud his judgment on this case and ruin his shot to move up.
"They, Piper, not me. But if his murder leads me back to you, I can't let it go. Not this time." He brushed past her and out the door. If Piper had connections to this burglary, and ultimately Christopher Baxter's death, he wouldn't be played. Luke had wised up since his rookie days undercover with the theft unit. A pretty face wasn't always an innocent face.
Piper had proved that.
The moment he'd laid eyes on her, when she was eighteen and he was only twenty-one, a fierce need to protect her gripped him. But he'd always been a protectora fixer, like Granddadwhether it was a stray cat, a broken bird or a hungry dog. Piper had been broken, woundeda straywhen they met inside that pool hall. Turned out the one thing Luke should have protected, he'd left vulnerable.
Eric Hale, Luke's partner, stood with a cup of coffee in his hand. "You were in there awhile. Did she wake up?"
Eric had given Luke a few minutes to see Mama Jean. The woman had always cared about him. He'd checked in on her over the years, and she'd promised never to tell Piper. Looked as if she'd kept up her end of the bargain.
"No. Her granddaughter showed up. I asked her a few questions." Eric had no idea about his connection to Piper, and until he could figure out what to say about her, he'd like to leave it that way.
"She offer anything useful?" Eric finished his coffee, trashed it, then fell into step with Luke as he zipped up his black leather jacket.