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Sloan Hawkins killed the purring Harley beneath the cool shade of a swaying willow, lowered the kickstand and stepped on to the leaf-strewn edge of Redemption River Bridge. A breeze sang through the green leaves and whispered around him, tickling like small fingers and bringing the wet scent of the red, muddy river to his nostrils.
Muscles stiff from long hours of riding, Sloan stretched in the May sunlight and listened to the crackle of his neck as he looked around. The river narrowed here, near the ancient bridge, then widened on its restless journey toward the town of Redemption. A knot had formed in his gut the moment the river had come into view. Redemption was a misnomer if he ever heard one. Condemnation was a better term.
Beneath the picturesque bridge, water trickled and gurgled, peaceful this time of year but still corroding the rocks and earth, eating away its foundation—a fitting metaphor for his hometown.
Sloan had never expected to cast another shadow in Redemption, Oklahoma, or to breathe the same air as Police Chief Dooley Crawford—or his daughter, Annie. A dozen years later, here he was.
"Never say never," he muttered through three days' growth of whiskers. Traveling cross-country on a motorcycle with nothing but a duffel bag didn't afford luxury. Not that he couldn't have them if he wanted, but the good citizens of Redemption didn't need that information. They believed the worst of their "bad seed" and he hadn't come back to change their minds.
Only one person and one scenario could have coaxed him back to the place that had both destroyed and made him. Lydia. And she was dying.
The pain of that knowledge was a hot boulder in his belly, a fist around his heart tight enough to choke him to his knees. Sometimes life stunk.
He cast a hard-eyed squint across the riverbank toward the historic little town that despised him. They called him trouble. Like father, like son. With a throaty, humorless laugh, Sloan climbed back on the seat and kick-started the bike.
"Prepare yourself, Redemption, because trouble's back in town."
G.I. Jack spotted him first. The grizzled-gray Dumpster diver had just crawled out of the industrial-size receptacle behind Bracketts' furniture store when he heard the rumble. Any man with salt in his blood recognized the sweet music of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Though G.I. Jack couldn't recognize the model, he recognized the rider.
He rapped the side of the trash bin with his knuckles and hollered, "Popbottle, get out here this minute. You ain't gonna believe your eyes."
Popbottle Jones—so named because of an unfortunate length of cervical vertebrae—rose from the proverbial ashes of someone else's junk and snapped off his miner's lamp.
"Pray tell, G.I., what are you prattling on about?"
"Sloan Hawkins is back in town, bigger than life and scarier-looking than old Slewfoot himself, riding like some dark knight on a Harley."
Despite his advanced age, Popbottle Jones scrambled up from the Dumpster, hopped with practiced agility to the paved alley, and hurried to the end of the building for a better view. To the surprise of neither man, others had also spotted the unlikely visitor.
Tooney Deer stood at the yawning bay entrance of Tooney's Tune-Up, wiping his hands on a red mechanic's rag. Eighty-something handywoman Ida June Click paused in hammering a new awning over Redemption Register and yelled down at Kitty Wainright and Cheyenne Rhodes, who were just arriving at the newspaper office with a notice about the new women's shelter.
Across the street, Roberta Prine scurried out of the Curl Up and Dye Beauty Salon, mouth hanging open in both shock and thrill. Strips of shiny foil poked from her head like antennae, as if she was waiting to be beamed aboard the mother ship. She fished in her pocket for her cell phone. This was news. Big news.
Miriam Martinelli was spritzing Windex on the plate glass of the Sugar Shack Bakery in a never-ending battle against dust and fingerprints. Her employee, Sassy Carlson, pointed a roll of paper towels at the passerby.
"Who is that?"
"Well, I declare." Miriam plunked the Windex bottle on a round table and shaded her eyes with a large, bony hand. The dark rider roared past. "It's him, come back. And not a moment too soon. Praise be to Jesus."
"Who, Miriam? Who is it?"
Miriam cast a look over her shoulder, and sure enough, Police Chief Dooley Crawford had wrenched back in his chair and was coming over, leaving his coffee and cinnamon roll. If time hadn't faded the issue, he wasn't going to like what he was about to see. Nor would his daughter.
"What are you two gawking at?" the chief asked, patting his shirt pocket for the ever-present roll of antacids. "Santie Claus coming down Main Street in the middle of May?"
The Harley had reached the red light by now. The rider eased to a stop with one black-booted foot balancing the massive bike. A thick silver chain rode low on the heel of the boot, giving it a dangerous look—as if the rider himself didn't look dangerous enough.
Chief Dooley Crawford grunted once, shoved a Rolaids between his lips, and stormed out of the bakery.
Home-health nurse Annie Markham was in the rose-colored kitchen, one hand on the oak cabinet where she kept Lydia's medications, when she heard the back door open. She stilled, cocked her head to one side and listened.
Her patient, the elderly Miss Lydia, was lying down. Annie's two kids were at school. No one else was supposed to be in Lydia Hawkins's beautiful old Victorian.
Annie listened again to be certain the house wasn't settling and heard the creak of footsteps. A twinge of alarm tickled the hair on her arms. "Who in the world…"
No one locked doors in Redemption. Nothing bad had happened here for nearly thirty years. Not since Lydia's no-account brother, Clayton, killed a man over a gambling debt. This was a good town, a safe town.
"Who is it?" she called.
A man's voice came back, smooth and deep. "Lydia?"
Her anxiety evaporated. Someone had come to visit her sick patient. Probably Popbottle Jones. The odd old gentleman had been coming around more and more since Lydia's health had gotten so bad. Strange, though, that he would enter through the back way via the gardens instead of knocking on the front door. Stranger still, he hadn't knocked at all.
"I'll be right there," she said.
In case the visitor wasn't Mr. Jones, Annie grabbed the closest weapon, a saucepan, and started out of the kitchen.
One step into the living room and she froze again, pan held aloft.
A hulking shape stood in shadow just inside the French doors leading out to the garden veranda. This was not Pop-bottle Jones. This was a big, bulky, dangerous-looking man. She raised the pan higher.
"What do you want?"
"Annie?" He stepped into the light.
All the blood drained from Annie's head. Her mouth went dry as saltines. "Sloan Hawkins?"
The man removed a pair of silver aviator sunglasses and hung them on the neck of his black rock 'n' roll T-shirt. He'd rolled the sleeves up, baring muscular biceps. A pair of eyes too blue to define narrowed, looking her over as though he were a wolf and she a bunny rabbit.
Annie suppressed an annoying shiver.
It was Sloan all right, though older and with more muscle. His nearly black hair was shorter now—no more bad-boy curl over the forehead, but bad boy screamed off him in waves just the same. He was devastatingly handsome, in a tough, rugged, manly kind of way. The years had been kind to Sloan Hawkins.
She really wanted to hate him, but she'd already wasted too much emotion on this outlaw. With God's help she'd learned to forgive. But she wasn't about to forget.
Mouth twitching in a face that needed a shave, Sloan stretched his arms out to the sides. "You can put away your weapon. I'm unarmed."
She glanced at the forgotten saucepan and then lowered it to her side. After what he'd done, she should thump him with it for good measure.
She found her voice. "The bad penny returns."
The quirk of humor evaporated. His expression went flat and hard. "That's what they say."
"Sneaking in the back way, too. Typical. Sneak in. Sneak out."
Annie didn't know why she'd said that. She wasn't normally hateful, but Sloan had walked out on her twelve years ago without a word. To say she was shocked at his sudden, unexpected reappearance would be a massive understatement. Shocked, yes, but deeper emotions rattled around in her belly and set her insides to trembling. Anxiety. Anger. Hurt. All of them were stupid because she'd been over Sloan and that difficult time for years.
"You Redemption folks sure know how to roll out the welcome mat," he said in a quiet voice edged with steel. He reached in the back pocket of his tattered jeans and pulled out a yellow paper. "No more than hit town and I get a ticket. Compliments of your old man. He still loves me, too."
She ignored the too. What had he expected after what he'd done? A brass band and helium balloons? "You must have broken the law."
Gaze holding hers, Sloan slid the ticket back into his pocket. "That's what he always thought. Why change now?"
She wasn't going to get into this. There had been a lifetime of animosity between Sloan and her police-chief father. Apparently, time didn't change some things. She had a little animosity going herself, come to think of it.
"I suppose you want to see your aunt." Though why he'd bothered to come now, when time was running out, mystified her. Where had he been all these years? If he cared anything for the elderly aunt who'd taken him in when no one else would, he should have come home before now.
"Brilliant deduction, Sherlock. Considering I just rode thirteen hundred miles and I'm in her house, I'd say you're right." He shifted his weight to one hip. Something metallic jingled at his feet.
"Still got a smart mouth, I see."
"One of my many talents." He allowed a small display of teeth that looked nothing like a smile. "What are you doing here? The welcome committee send you out to harass me?"
"You think too highly of yourself, Sloan. No one knew you were coming and I doubt anyone cares."
"Ouch." He crossed his arms over that muscled-up chest. "When did you grow fangs?"
Annie drew in a deep breath. She wasn't a rude person, but Sloan's sudden appearance seemed to bring out the worst in her. If she was any kind of Christian, she'd stop letting him affect her right now.
"I'm Lydia's nurse as well as her friend. I care for and about her." She said the last as a dig. So much for not letting him get under her skin. She cared about the elderly woman who was everyone's friend. She was here for Lydia. He hadn't been. But then, "that Hawkins boy" had a history of running from responsibility.
He frowned. "A nurse. Full-time?"
Apparently, he hadn't been in close contact or he would know his aunt was dying. "I look after her during the day. She stays alone at night, though she shouldn't. Her choice, though."
He swallowed. "How bad is she?"
Some of the fire went out of her.
"Some days are better than others," she said softly. "But her heart is failing fast. I'm sorry, Sloan." And she meant it.
With his hands fisted at his sides and a hard line to his mouth, he looked lethal. If sheer will could cure Lydia's heart disease, Sloan would make it happen.
"Why isn't she in the hospital?"
"Surely you know your aunt better than that. She wants to die here in her own home with her gardens and memories around her."
He swallowed again and she could see he hadn't been prepared for the news to be this bad.
"Her heart is only functioning at about twenty percent. She puts on a good show for company, but she tires easily."
Sloan had no flip response. Annie would have felt better if he had. With a short nod, he headed to the staircase and started up.
He stopped, one hand on the polished banister as he looked down with narrowed eyes and a strange little twist to his mouth. "What now? You want to frisk me?"
The smart mouth was back. She was going to ignore it. "Lydia can't negotiate the stairs anymore. We moved her things to the garden room."
Those stunning eyes fell closed for three seconds before he retraced his steps and headed toward the opposite side of the house. But in those three seconds, she saw past Sloan's tough facade the way she had in high school. Whether from guilt or out of love for his aunt, he was hurting.
Annie didn't want to think of Sloan Hawkins as vulnerable or sensitive. She wanted to remember him as the self-centered teenager who'd abandoned her when she'd needed him most. Better yet, she wanted him to go back to wherever he'd been hiding and leave well enough alone.
As soon as he was out of sight, Annie slithered onto the couch and put her face in her hands.
The wild and troubled boy she'd loved in high school was back in Redemption messing with her emotions and threatening her hard-earned peace of mind.
Looking upward, she murmured a prayer. "Lord, I know Lydia needs him and I'm trying to be glad for her. But Sloan Hawkins can't possibly bring anything but trouble." She glanced toward the staircase. "Especially to me."
You could have knocked him over with a feather. Or with a two-cup, stainless-steel saucepan. Sloan's lips quivered.
He'd expected to run into Annie Crawford sooner or later, but he hadn't been prepared to see her here in Lydia's house, working as a nurse.
His smile disappeared before it could bloom. She wasn't Annie Crawford anymore. She'd married Joey Markham, a decent-enough guy, had kids, made a life.
Good. Fantastic. No reason for him to go on feeling guilty about the way they'd parted.
He did anyway. Like his mother's disappearance, Annie was an issue he'd never fully resolved.
His whole body had gone into shock the minute she'd stepped out of the kitchen with that pot in her hands. He was furious about his reaction, but there it was. With her large green eyes and Cameron Diaz cheekbones, Annie had blossomed from a pretty girl into a stunner. Seeing her again had made him feel weak and needy.
He despised weakness, particularly in himself.