A family tragedy brings Bo McBride to his Mississippi town two years after a devastating loss made him leave. Now he's back and only Claire Silver is ready to welcome him home. The sassy blonde teacher wants his help in finding a killer who has plagued the town
Although she could only admire him from afar, Claire was always drawn to Bo. Their unofficial investigation is complicated by the passion igniting between them. And by the obsessed stalker who has targeted Claire. With the threat escalating, Bo vows he'll do whatever it takes to protect her. And Claire vows to put her faith in the man ready to risk everything to safeguard her future.
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Bo McBride throttled down, the Harley responding by slowing as he passed the old, faded wooden sign that read Lost Lagoon, Population 705.
His stomach knotted painfully as the scent of the swamp not only surrounded him but invaded his lungs, making it difficult to breathe around the anxiety and anger the scent of home now brought.
As far as almost everyone in town was concerned, it had been two years since he'd been back to Lost Lagoon, Mississippi. Only two people knew about his monthly visits back here to his mother's place, secret visits that had him arriving and leaving under the cover of darkness.
He wouldn't be here now if his mother hadn't passed away unexpectedly two days before. A massive heart attack. His best friend, Jimmy Tambor, who had moved into the house when Bo left town, had given him the grim news.
It had taken Bo an entire day to process the fact that his mother was gone and another day to make arrangements with his employees to leave. The funeral was to be held tomorrow. After that, he figured it would take a couple of days to put his mother's things in order and then get the hell away from the town that had robbed him of the last two years of his mother's life, among other things.
He'd been on the road for hours, leaving his place in Jackson before dawn that morning. He hadn't stopped to eat except snacks picked up at gas station pit stops, and now decided before showing up at his childhood home that he'd grab a quick bite to eat at George's Diner, located just inside the city limits.
George's Diner was more glorified hamburger joint than true diner. Although there were a couple of booths inside, most people either drove through or sat at the wooden counter to be served as quickly as possible.
Bo parked his ride on the side of the building and then pulled off his helmet and hand-combed his thick, shaggy hair. He stretched and headed around the building to the front door, eager to escape the June heat and humidity.
It was after three and few people were inside. The prevalent scent was of fried onions, hot grease and the gamy odor of swamp fish and gator. There was a pretty blonde woman serving a couple at one of the tables.
Bo slid onto the first stool at the counter just as George stepped out of the kitchen. George King was a big man, both tall and weighing in at about three hundred pounds of muscle and fat. He was bald, with thick black eyebrows and dark brown eyes that narrowed the instant he saw Bo. He ambled over to Bo as he wiped his hands on his stained white apron.
"Burger, fries and a sweet tea," Bo said.
"Move along, Bo. I don't serve murderers here," George replied, his deep voice filled with disgust.
His words aroused Bo's angerthe anger of injustice, of things unchanged and memories of the isolation and despair he'd felt when he'd left town two years before.
He wanted to fight for the simple dignity of being served a burger, but instead he slid off the stool and left the building without saying a word.
He certainly hadn't expected to be welcomed back to town with open arms, but he also hadn't expected the same kind of intense animosity that had ultimately forced him to leave.
Sitting on his bike, he tried to school his emotions. Jimmy was meeting him at the house and he didn't want to carry any more anger with him than what already burned in his soul. It had just been a hamburger and fries, after all, and everyone in town knew that George was an ass.
He pulled on his helmet and was just about to start his motorcycle when he heard somebody call out his name. From around the corner of the diner the curly-haired blonde waitress appeared. He had a quick impression of long, shapely legs, big blue eyes and a warm smile that was as surprising as a gator wearing a straw hat.
She tossed him a brown paper bag that he caught with his hands. "Burger and fries. I couldn't do anything about the sweet tea," she said, and then before he could reply she disappeared back around the corner of the building.
Bo sat in stunned surprise for several moments. It had been an unexpected gesture of kindness. He opened the bag and ate the food. At the same time he wondered who the woman was and why she had gone to the trouble.
It was almost four o'clock when he drove slowly down the street that was an outer band. Several blocks over to his left was the business area of Lost Lagoon, and on his right was the swamp side of town with a few small, neat cabins intermixed among weather-faded, neglected shanties. The swamp was an overgrown, tangled bog about twenty feet from the back of these houses and continued until Bo made the left curve that would skirt the edges of the lagoon.
On the right side of the lagoon, the swamp ended and he was on higher ground with larger homes and an aura of better prosperity. He made two turns to take him into the neighborhood where he'd grown up.
It appeared as if nothing had changed in the time he'd been gone. Only when he noticed a lot of new construction at the top of a hill behind his neighborhood did he realize something was about to change in the tiny town.
At the sight of the neat white ranch house with black shutters and a butterfly wind chime hanging off the edge of the small porch, his heart fluttered with grief. He pulled into the driveway and parked and wished that the past two years had been different.
He didn't bother taking anything from his saddlebags. He had plenty of time to unpack what few things he'd brought with him. He climbed off the bike, set his helmet on the seat and then headed for the front door.
As he stepped up on the porch the door swung open and Jimmy Tambor pulled him into a bro hug. "I'm sorry, Bo. I'm so damned sorry," he said and released Bo.
"Thanks," Bo said woodenly.
"If it's any consolation at all, the doctor thinks it happened in her sleep," Jimmy replied. "She just went to bed as usual and I found her in the morning. I don't think she suffered."
Bo hoped that was the case. His mother had suffered enough five years ago when his father had passed away in a car accident. At that time Bo had feared his mother would grieve herself to death.
Jimmy had moved into the house when Bo had left town. Bo had wanted somebody he trusted to be there for his mother while he couldn't be.
"I don't know how to thank you for everything you've done for me and for her since I left town," Bo finally said.
"You know she was like a mother to me, too," Jimmy replied, his brown eyes a perfect match for the thatch of unruly hair on his head. "Come on, let's get out of the heat. I've got a couple of cold beers in the fridge with our names on them."
Bo stepped into the house behind Jimmy, and the first thing he noticed was the lack of scent. Even on the day Bo had left town the house had smelled of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.
His mother had loved to cook and bake, and never had Bo been in the house when the fragrance of her labors hadn't filled the air. It was then that his true grief began.
The pain stabbed him through his heart, leaving him momentarily breathless. He'd felt pain this deep only once before in his life and that had been on the night two years ago that Shelly Sinclair had been found murdered, her body floating in the lagoon.
He sucked it up and stuffed it down, knowing the time to truly grieve would come later, when he was all alone. He followed Jimmy through the spotlessly clean living room and into the kitchen. Jimmy pulled two bottles of beer from the refrigerator and Bo sat at the round wooden table where he'd spent most of his life eating meals with his mother and father.
When his father died, Bo had moved from his apartment on the third floor of his business and back into the house with his mother. He hadn't wanted her alone with her grief, and the return to his childhood home had gone seamlessly.
Jimmy set one bottle of beer in front of Bo and then sat with his own bottle across from his friend. They unscrewed lids and each took a drink. Jimmy set his bottle on the table and leaned back in his chair.
"There will be a simple graveside service tomorrow at three," he said. "Your mother had all the arrangements already made. When I moved in here she told me where to find her important paperwork and that she'd left a will with Grey Davis. I'm sure he'll want you to get in touch with him."
Bo waved a hand and took another drink of his beer. "I'll get in touch with him sometime after tomorrow's service."
"How long are you planning on staying?"
"As briefly as possible," Bo replied. "I stopped by George's place to get a burger on the way in. He refused to serve me." He tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
"You want a sandwich? I've got some ham and cheese." Jimmy started to rise from his chair but Bo waved him back down.
"Actually, I was getting ready to pull away from George's and some pretty blonde woman ran out with a burger and fries for me." Bo thought of the warmth of her smile and figured she must be new to town and didn't know that he was the prime suspect in his girlfriend's murder.
"Curly hair?" Jimmy asked.
"And long legs," Bo replied.
"That would be Claire Silver."
"Is she new in town?"
Jimmy shook his head. "No, she's been here all her life. She's three or four years younger than us, so you probably just never noticed her."
Bo took another sip of his beer, mentally acknowledging Jimmy's words. From the time he was seventeen, he hadn't noticed any other girl except Shelly Sinclair. Shelly had been his high school crush, then his girlfriend, then his lover and finally a murder victim.
"I'm assuming things are going well at the bar," Bo said, needing to get thoughts of the past out of his head.
"Business is booming, but you should know that by the profits we're turning. In fact, I should probably get out of here pretty quickly because the dinner rush usually starts soon. I just wanted to be here when you arrived. I didn't want you walking into an empty house."
"I appreciate that," Bo replied.
"I've still got all my things in the guest bedroom. I plan to rent an apartment, but haven't had a chance to get it done yet. If you could give me a couple of days " Jimmy let his voice trail off.
"There's no reason why you can't continue to stay here. I'll only be here maybe a week at the most. The house is paid for and at this point I don't need to sell it."
"We'll see how you feel about it later," Jimmy replied. He finished his beer and stood. "I'll be back here around three or so. I'll try to be quiet so I don't wake you."
Bo stood to walk his friend to the door. "Hope you have a good night."
Jimmy flashed him a boyish grin. "Every night is a good night at Jimmy's Place. We'll talk more sometime tomorrow." He gave Bo a clap on the shoulder and then left the house.
Bo went into the living room and slumped down on one end of the sofa. Jimmy's Place. It had actually been Bo's Place before the murder. During the late afternoons and early evenings, families had filled the dining room, drawn to the good food, the reasonable prices and the atmosphere of community and goodwill. At ten, the diners had mostly gone and the drinkers and partiers arrived.
It was only after Bo had been named as the number-one suspect in Shelly's murder that the families stopped coming in and even the staunchest alcoholic refused to frequent the place.
Within a week Bo had become a pariah in town with only his mother and Jimmy sticking by his side. There had been no evidence to warrant Bo's arrest, but in the eyes of Lost Lagoon he'd been deemed guilty and judged as such.
A month after Shelly's murder it had been his mother who had urged him to get out of town, to start fresh someplace else.
With his life and business in shambles and the woman he'd loved dead, Bo had finally left Lost Lagoon.
Although he still owned what had once been Bo's Place, as far as everyone in town knew, Jimmy had bought the place, and under the new name, business was once again booming.
Bo snagged a second beer from the refrigerator and then spent the next hour sipping his drink and wandering the house. Little had changed. The bedroom where he had stayed while he'd lived here looked as if he'd just stepped out for a meal rather than been gone for so long. The smaller guest bedroom held signs of Jimmy's takeover. The closet door hung open, displaying a variety of clothing including half a dozen black shirts with the white lettering reading Jimmy's Place on the pocket.
Finally he entered his mother's room with its attached bathroom. Apparently Jimmy had worked hard to remove all traces of the death scene. He sat on the edge of the bed and ran his hand over the patchwork quilt in shades of pink and rose, a lump the size of Mississippi in the back of his throat.
He and his mother had usually spoken on the phone at least once every couple of days. He'd talked to her days ago and while she'd sounded a bit frail and weak, she'd assured him she'd just picked up a bug of some kind and that Jimmy was feeding her chicken soup and she'd be fine.
Dammit, Bo should have been here. He should have taken her to the doctor, he should have eaten dinner with her the night of her death and every night in the last two years.
His occasional visits had been short and bittersweet. He'd arrive in the middle of the night on a Saturday, park his motorcycle in her garage so the neighbors wouldn't know he was there, and then leave again in the middle of the night on Sunday.
He'd known it would be easier on his mom if people in town didn't know he was at her home. She'd carried the stigma of being a murderer's mother although she'd never mentioned her own alienation from friends and neighbors.
Bo wasn't sure how long he sat there. He had no more tears left, having spent them on the day he'd gotten the call from Jimmy that his mother was gone.
He was vaguely surprised that it was almost seven when he finally left his mother's bedroom. He needed to get his things from the motorcycle and settle in for the night. If Jimmy continued to stay here, then all Bo needed to do was bury his mother, meet with the lawyer and pack up his mom's clothing and shoes and other items to donate.
It was Wednesday night. He figured if things went smoothly and he used his time wisely, then by Sunday he could be back on the road to return to the life he'd been forced to build, a new life he'd never wanted.
Bo McBride was back.
Nothing exciting ever happened in Lost Lagoon, not since Shelly Sinclair's murder, and that had been tragic.
Claire Silver had heard about Bo's mother's death and assumed he'd come back to take care of whatever needed to be done. His presence here was sure to stir people up.