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One year later
The minute Lara drove over the bridge into Riverport, she knew coming back was a big mistake. It didn't matter how many times she told herself it was only for a couple of days, the feeling persisted. There was too much history here.
She turned on Ferry Street, passing the teen center without looking at it. Next came the bank and the hardware store. A red light at the corner of Ferry and Oak caught her as it always had. She kept her eyes on the road until the light turned green.
Her mother's big old Victorian sat perched on an acre of manicured gardens on the outskirts of town. Most of Riverport's other big old houses were gone, their land cut up and sold off to contractors for subdivisions. The mansion had been updated over the yearsa solarium on the back, the kitchen expandeduntil now it was quite a showpiece.
Lara had grown up in the house and it was with a surge of familiarity, if not homecoming, that she turned into the driveway. Her mother wasn't actually in residence as she'd left for an Alaskan cruise just a few days before. Myra, her mother's housekeeper, must have been waiting, though, for Lara had barely set the parking brake when the garage door rolled upward. Lara restarted the car and drove into the enclosure, sighing with relief when the doors closed behind her. She glanced into the backseat, then heard Myra coming through the side door that connected the house with the garage.
"Miss Lara," Myra called as Lara got out of the car. She approached with a big smile. "Your poor mother will just die when she learns she missed your visit. Here, let me help you."
Myra Halifax had worked for Lara's mother forever. A woman in her sixties with gray permed curls, she was built with a low center of gravity and formidable forbearance. That trait was a plus when it came to dealing with Lara's high-strung mother.
Lara returned the smile. She couldn't return the sentiment.
An hour later, she'd emptied the car and spent several moments upstairs settling into her old bedroom. Restless and uneasy, she decided something cold to drink and a friendly chat with the housekeeper might ward off her growing sense of foreboding.
She was one step into the kitchen when the doorbell rang. The shrill interruption came as a surprise. With her mother gone and her own presence in Riverport more or less a secret, company was unexpected and unwanted.
"I'll send whoever it is away," Myra said as she bustled past Lara into the foyer.
Lara hung back. There was a sense of destiny in the air, of colliding worlds. An overwhelming desire to race out the back swept through her and yet she stood off to the side as Myra impatiently flung open the door.
"You!" Myra said, and even though Lara couldn't see who stood on the front-porch step, she knew. Myra added, "What do you want?"
There was a pause during which Lara stopped breathing. Her heartbeat drummed in her head.
And then his voice.
"I need to speak to Mrs. Kirk."
"Mrs. Kirk is away for several weeks." Myra started to close the door.
Lara saw the hand that caught it. His hand. "Maybe you can help me."
Myra sputtered a little before saying, "I don't see how"
"I need to get in touch with Lara," he cut in. "I have to talk to her. Warn her. All I need is her address or a telephone number."
Was it possible he didn't know she was at this house? It seemed so unlikely. No, someone must have seen her drive by, someone must have alerted him.
What else had they reported?
"I won't give you her phone number," Myra announced. "You broke her heart once and I won't stand by while you do it again."
Lara grabbed the edge of the door and opened it wider. "It's okay," she told Myra who stood her ground, glowering at their guest. Staring up into two very dark eyes, she added, "Hello, Brady."
For a second he didn't answer. For a second he looked as dumbstruck as she felt and she knew in that instant that he hadn't expected to find her here, that she was as much a surprise to him as he was to her.
That moment gave her a second to absorb his changed appearance. The thinner face, the longer hair, the hollows in his cheeks, the deep, deep tan, the solid muscles under the worn T-shirt, the dusty-looking jeans. What had happened to Mr. Press and Fold, Mr. Perfect Haircut, Mr. By the Book?
This Brady looked younger, rangier, cagier, sexier.
"I'm glad you're here," she said, which was an out-and-out lie. Sure, she'd planned on seeing him while she was in Riverport, of course, but not quite so soon, and not here at her mother's house. She'd spent three long hours in the car rehearsing her what-comes-next speech and now drew a total blank.
She hadn't taken one factor into account. She hadn't considered the impact of seeing him face-to-face. The months of tears that had cleared her head apparently hadn't cleared her heart. Yet.
"I'll just be a minute or two, Myra," she said with a backward glance. "You'll take care"
"Of course," Myra huffed as Lara stepped onto her mother's broad porch and softly closed the door behind her.
"I was going to call you later," she told Brady.
Before he could answer, a car drove by, slowing down as the driver craned his neck to see who stood outside the Kirk house. Brady said, "Let's walk around back so we don't give the whole town something to talk about."
Lara suspected it was too late for that. She'd recognized Frank Duncan leaning forward, eyes wide. The hardware store would be abuzz within minutes. But she led the way around the back just the same, toward the riverside garden where they couldn't be overheard through the open windows.
The back sloped down to the river, which flowed by at a leisurely pace this late in the summer. Lara stopped by a grouping of wrought-iron patio furniture arranged on a brick island, surrounded by a sea of flowers. Too nervous to sit, she stood in back of a heavily scrolled chair, gripping the metal for support. Brady leaned against the edge of the old brick barbecue, linking his arms across his chest. He'd always been fit, but had his shoulders and arms always bulged with so many muscles?
"I didn't know you were in Riverport," he said.
"I've been here less than an hour." She tried not to stare at him but her traitorous gaze strayed his way every chance it got.
"How have you been?" he said.
She shook her head, unable to bear the thought of small talk.
"You look good," he added, his gaze taking her in from head to toe. She hadn't changed out of her traveling clothes, the white shorts and white halter top felt suddenly too revealing.
She whispered, "It's too late, Brady. I didn't come back for this."
His eyes flashed, then he smiled, kind of, his lips doing all the work, his eyes not playing along. "Oh? Then why did you come back? Explain it to me."
"Don't use that tone with me. You're the one who called everything off."
"And you're the one who left."
"You sent me packing like a kid. I was hurt at first but I'm over it now."
No reaction showed on his face. He was quiet for a long moment before saying, "Listen, Lara. Things between us ended kind of abruptly."
She met his gaze.
"Okay, okay, it's all my fault. I know that." He threw up both hands. "I admit it. I take full responsibility. I couldn't give you a whole man"
"So you gave me nothing," she said, pushing herself away from the chair and walking toward the river and the abandoned dock her father had built twenty years before.
"I was a wreck" he said from right behind her.
She jumped at the nearness of his voice. "Of course you were," she said, memories of the night flooding back. His stunned expression, his self-incrimination, the reality of the last few hours circling them like a cyclone, lifting them off their feet, tossing them around before flinging them back to earth a hundred miles from where they'd been.
She pushed it all away. "This is pointless. Let's skip the postmortem on our very short marriage. You told Myra you needed to warn me. Warn me about what?"
His voice, pitched low and combined with the mysterious intensity of his dark gaze, made Lara's knees go weak as he said, "I expected divorce papers by now."
"I have a lawyer working on them."
"For a year?"
"I haven't wanted anyone to know"
"'Anyone' being your mother."
"Does it matter? I'm sorry I haven't moved fast enough for you. I'll get to it right away." The truth was the papers were ready. They were upstairs, in her suitcase. But she couldn't give them to Brady without an explanation. There were things he needed to know, things they needed to work out. But not now, not in her mother's garden, not when she needed to get back inside the house.
"The only reason it matters is Bill Armstrong," Brady said.
"Billy's father? Why"
"Since the internal investigation found reasonable cause for the shooting, he's threatening a civil suit against me. I guess I don't blame him."
With a bitter twist to his lips, he added, "They never found the gun and trust me, they looked. Armstrong insists his boy didn't have access to a handgun and wouldn't have carried one if he did. I still swear I saw one. It's a stalemate."
"But the river
" she began, something more niggling at the back of her mind. But what?
"Yeah. I know. It could be buried in three feet of silt and muck, it could be halfway to the ocean by now. Who knows?"
"Mr. Armstrong won't win."
"He'll have the sympathy of the jury. He lost both his kids within a month. And you know what the name Skye is worth around here."
"You are not your father," she said. She'd said it before, but it never seemed to sink in.
His laugh was sudden and without mirth. "You've always been naive. Maybe it comes from being born with a silver spoon in your mouth."
"And you've been afraid you'll turn into your father. It's not written that you will be a drunk and a loser."
"Ah, darling, it's the family tradition," he said, his voice low and silky and taunting. "My dad, my brother"
I will not rise to the bait, she told herself and stood there with her mouth closed.
He finally added, "Anyway, it's not me I'm worried about."
"Maybe you should."
Frowning, he said, "What does that mean?"
"What's happened to you? When did you stop caring?"
"Stop caring about what? What are you talking about?"
"Your appearance, for instance. I can't believe the department lets you wear your hair that long."
"I'm not a policeman anymore, Lara. That part of my life is over. I thought you knew that."
She could hardly fathom such a thing. Brady had always wanted to be a cop. "Then what do you do?"
"I work construction like I did in college."
That explained the muscles. "But you were exonerated, weren't you? Why didn't you go back? Was it Chief Dixon?"
He shrugged and looked away.
"Brady," she said, touching his wrist. Big mistake. Sensory recognition traveled through her system like a lightning bolt, erasing the last three hundred sixty-three days in the blink of an eye. She drew her hand away at once. "You wouldn't have shot the boy if you hadn't had to," she said, her voice gentle. "You saved Tom's life."
He looked straight into her eyes and her heart quivered in her chest. She did not want to feel anything for him, let alone the tumultuous combination of lost love and resentment currently ricocheting inside her body like a wild bullet. Her mother had warned her a man with Brady's past could never really love anyone. Lara hadn't believed it until that night when he'd proved it to her.
He said, "I have nothing to lose. But you do."
"Me? Oh, you mean money. You think Bill Armstrong is going to come after my family's money."
"If he finds you're legally my wife, yes. If he finds a way to stick it to me or anyone I carecaredabout, yes, I do. Our marriage is a matter of public record. All he has to do is look. Maybe you ought to light a fire under your lawyer."
She closed her eyes, trying to imagine her mother's reaction to someone suing Brady and walking off with the Kirk fortune.
"It's not the civil suit I'm worried about," Brady added. "It's Armstrong himself. He's gone half-crazy since losing Billy. If he finds out about you"
"Why would he even think about me?" she said, looking at Brady again, but her mind's eye casting a different image. Both of the Armstrong kids had come into the teen center on occasion. First Sara, Billy's delicate sixteen-year-old sister, then Billy and his pal, Jason Briggs, both a year younger. When Sara took a whole bottle of her grandmother's sleeping pills, it had stunned the community and it had devastated Billy.
The senior Armstrong had come into the teen center looking for answers no one could give him. Grief and anger had battled in his feverish eyes and she'd felt horrible for him. And truth be known, a little afraid of him, too.
And then, three weeks later, Billy died.
Good Lord, no wonder Brady looked haunted.
But she couldn't offer him what he needed. Maybe another woman could, someday, one who knew how to crack through his defenses or live with them.