Pulling his pickup truck into a parking spot at the edge of the lot, Ford inhaled deeply as he looked at the majestic brick building which had stood longer than any other building in Lynyrd Station. A tornado had swept through town twelve years ago and wiped out most of the town. Few buildings were left fully standing, the courthouse being one of them. Others were partially destroyed and now had new additions added on to the formerly standing walls. So, the courthouse was revered in a special way as indestructible. Today, he only hoped it ended this black chapter in his life.
Spotting his sister, Emmy Lou, and his brother, Dawson, waiting for him at the top of the steps in front of the entrance, he pulled his keys from the ignition and exited his truck. Swallowing the lump in his throat as he neared them, the somber looks on their faces told his story. They were scared, worried, and sick to have to be here today but eager to get on with life. Their new life.
His boots made soft thumping sounds as he ascended the steps to greet his siblings. The sun beat down, already creating a bead of sweat on his temple, and he could feel moisture gather at his back. Another scorcher today.
He hugged Emmy first. Her long, dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail at her nape, her dark eyes so much like his held the emotions of a hundred people in them. He wrapped his arms around her tighter and pulled her closer, whispering in her ear, “We’ll be okay. We can do this.”
“I know. I’m not used to being on this side of the courtroom, and I’m nervous as hell.”
“’Bout time you see what some of your clients have to go through. It’ll make you a better lawyer for them.”
She scoffed and slapped at his shoulder, but the weak smile she gave him said it all. She thought so too. She was a damned good lawyer, though she often found herself working for the worst clients. Drug dealers and pedophiles—as a defense lawyer, she got them all. But she always believed a fair trial kept these scumbags from getting an appeal and kept them in jail where they belonged. Good thing they didn’t know she felt that way.
Turning to Dawson, Ford wrapped him in a warm embrace. “Love you, man. It’s going to be all right.”
“I know, Ford. We’re finally going to see this piece of shit go to jail for killing Mom and Dad. I haven’t been able to sleep, thinking we’d finally be getting justice for them.”
“It’s all I’ve been able to think about for the past four years.”
“Yeah, I get that.” Dawson, the youngest of the three of them and the most emotional, blinked away the wetness gathering in his eyes. Dawson’s sandy brown hair and blue eyes were just like their mom’s, and Ford had to swallow the lump that had grown in his throat at the thought. Their parents had been killed in a fire set by Bobby Ray June just over four years ago; he’d been tracking Bobby Ray ever since. Then, Bobby Ray was a suspect in the fires that burned through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and Ford had been so damned mad that he hadn’t gotten to him. He stepped up his efforts which required him to be away from home for five months and finally brought him in eight months ago. Getting to this trial had seemed like an eternity, and his heart was heavy that he hadn’t been able to get justice for his parents. That is, until now. Finally.
Stepping back, he inhaled deeply and asked, “Shall we head inside?”
They turned to enter the old brick building, the sun still high in the sky. The cloudless day seemed a good omen for them.
“Ford! Hey, wait up.”
He turned to see Detective Rory Richards briskly walking toward them. Leaning forward to shake hands with his high school friend, Ford could see the trouble in his eyes.
“Hey, I hate to be the one to tell you this, and I’m so sorry.” He cleared his throat. “Bobby Ray June escaped as he was being transported to court this morning.”
“What?” Emmy yelled. “Honest to God, didn’t you have that animal chained up in every way possible?”
Tears instantly raced down her cheeks as she looked to Ford for their next move. His jaw clenched, and his heart dropped to the bottom of his stomach, threatening to spill the meager contents inside.
“He had help. We’re thinking Waylon June.” Rory’s fingers shook as he handed the grainy pictures to him. “We’d like you on this, Ford—if you think you want to track this asshole down again.”
It was hard to make out distinct features, but the resemblance was certainly the mark of family. Sliding each picture off to Emmy and Dawson as he looked them over, the last one was a gut punch. Both Bobby Ray and Waylon giving the camera on the prison escort van the finger and wearing smiles on their disgusting pudgy faces.
Emmy gasped as she saw the last picture. Dawson swore and choked back a sob. Emmy grabbed Ford’s arm and turned him toward her. “You have to go. You have to go and get that motherfucker again.”
“Good morning!” she cheerfully said to no one in particular but to all who were within earshot.
“Morning, Megan. I’ve got your breakfast all ready. It’s chicken day, so you’re gonna be busy, need to eat to build up your strength.” Nila’s deep, gravelly voice could be heard over the clatter of dishes and frying foods. A large woman in her early sixties, Nila had hired Megan when she needed a job, and they’d been together for the past four years. Everyone in town loved Nila’s broasted chicken and her apple pies. Megan loved that Nila took care of her, and she returned the favor. It wasn’t uncommon for Nila to forget to eat herself—especially on chicken day.
“Thank you. I’ll just do a quick sweep of the dining room with the coffeepot before I sit.”
Tying her spring green apron around her waist, she breezed through the double swinging saloon doors to the dining room and quickly assessed the capacity. About half full now. It wouldn’t be long before it would be impossible to hear herself think as it filled with customers, all chatting, laughing, and enjoying the atmosphere. Small town meets southern charm meets the best deal in town—and the best food too. It was a business gold mine.
“Morning, Ralph. Ed. More coffee?” She filled their cups without waiting for them to respond. They always wanted more coffee. Regulars came in at six in the morning and sat through the better part of breakfast, gossiping about who was where and when they came and went. Gossip central right here.
Edging her way through the tables set for four, the red and white upholstered chairs in shiny vinyl and chrome legs resembled a fifties diner. She continued chatting and pouring until she came to a booth in the corner. Stopping short of the table, her stomach plummeted as her eyes caught those of the occupant. Lazer blue eyes trapped her, causing her throat to go dry as her heart sped. Not again. This was the fifth day in a row. Why wouldn’t he believe her and go harass someone else?
“Marcus. I don’t suppose I could hope that you’re actually here for the food today?”
Slowly pushing his cup to the edge of the table, she gritted her teeth as she concentrated on filling it but fantasied about dumping the whole pot over his head.
“I think we both know why I’m here.”
Lifting her eyes to his, she slowly inhaled and held her breath for a moment before exhaling.
“I don’t know where Waylon is. We’re divorced. Have been for over six damned years. He doesn’t check in. He doesn’t call. He doesn’t write. He doesn’t visit. And I like it that way. I want nothing to do with him or you or any of your cohorts. Now, if I need to call the police about the harassment, I certainly will.”
A smile spread across his face in a slow slither, as if he were a snake—which was the perfect way to describe him. He was a drug runner, and unfortunately for her, so was Waylon. Also, unfortunately for her, Waylon seemed to have stolen a very valuable something from Marcus, and he wanted it back.
“I think you’re blowing this all out of proportion. I’m sitting here drinking coffee, not unlike those gentlemen over there you chatted so nicely with, and I simply ask you a couple of questions about a mutual friend. Don’t think the cops are going to be too interested in that story.”
She clenched her jaw tightly as her breathing increased.
“Plus, with your record, I don’t think the police are going to believe you over me. I don’t have a police record.”
“Yet,” she spat out.
Turning abruptly, she hustled back to the kitchen, more to get away from him than anything else, but also … well, to get away from him. Ramming her fists into her apron pockets to hide the shaking from Nila, she walked past the table set with her plate and a fresh glass of orange juice, intending to use the restroom.
“Hey girl, you need to eat,” Nila called after her.
Giving a quick wave of her hand and a glance over her shoulder, she replied, “Just gotta use the bathroom. Be back.”
Locking the wooden door behind her, she leaned against it, wrapping her hands around her stomach, hoping to quell the roiling. He was right in that he didn’t actually do anything to her other than ask questions, but she knew for a fact that he’d followed her home yesterday and the day before. He watched her house most of the night too. She’d gone onto her front porch to water all of her flowers, and there he was, not even hiding the fact that he was watching her. In the middle of the night, she could have sworn she heard footsteps on the porch. Her heart beat so fast, she thought it’d take off and fly away. Listening for the jiggle of the door handle or the rattle of one of her old windows, she was finally able to relax after about an hour when no such sounds reached her ears. She didn’t mention it today because she wanted to pretend it wasn’t happening, and he wasn’t getting bolder. She was probably being stupid. These weren’t people you messed with. If she knew where that jackass ex-husband of hers was, she’d turn him over in a heartbeat.
“Megan, honey, time to get rolling. You okay in there?” Nila knocked softly.
“Yes. I’ll be right out, Nila.”
Washing her hands, she breathed in and out a couple times and told herself it would be all right. Leaving the bathroom, she smoothed down her apron, shoulders back, head high and forced herself to be brave. Then she heard Chad, the busboy, say, “Huh, never seen that guy before.”
Shuffling through the pictures once more, Ford stopped on the picture of Megan. Waylon June’s ex-wife was a pretty little thing. Green eyes that sparkled at the camera and thick auburn hair trailing to just past her shoulder blades was a stunning combination. Her sweet, perfect smile and smattering of light freckles across her nose spoke of innocence and purity. But you aren’t married to a drug dealer and remain pure. Those two things don’t go together. And she had an arrest on her record.
He looked up and saw the sign above where she worked: The Log Cabin Restaurant. He shook his head and muttered, “Why in the hell would you work in a restaurant, Megan?”
He glanced through her dossier again. Four years of nursing school. Worked in the field in a hospital for two years, a nursing home for ten, then abruptly quit and began working at The Log Cabin as a waitress. What would make a single woman give up a career where she made good money to sling hash in a little place like that? If her ex was any indicator, she was trouble or looking for it.
Entering the diner, the bell above the door called out his entrance. A red-haired waitress behind the counter glanced his way and smiled. “Take a seat anywhere you like. One of us will be around with coffee in a minute.”
He nodded and glanced to the right. A couple of empty tables sat toward the middle of the dining room and one empty booth toward the window. The booth called his name, so he strode over, slid on the vinyl seat to the middle, and picked up the menu. The smell of bacon and fresh apple pie floated in the air to his nose. He swallowed the lump that formed in his throat. His mom made the best apple pie he’d ever eaten. He loved the spices and cinnamon in her pies, and she always added an extra dash of it for him. He hadn’t had apple pie since she died. It was these little things that caught him off guard. Emmy and Dawson, too. They spoke about it every so often, each of them with their own apple pie story.
Glancing around the room and taking in the occupants, he noticed a single gentleman sitting in the corner opposite him and realized he was assessing the room as well. He was by himself in a booth—no food in front of him, just coffee.
Megan walked out of the kitchen, swung past the coffeemaker and began filling the customers’ cups. He watched her move, graceful and casual as she gave each patron a bit of attention and a nice smile. She stopped at his table, and he heard her intake of breath when he looked into her eyes. Eyes that, by the way, the picture in his truck did not do justice. Green like a spring day, deep around the outside of the iris, lighter green toward the pupil and hypnotizing. Full lashes framed the green jewels, and he could see she barely wore makeup. Clear skin, faint freckles dusted her nose, and her full sensual lips held just a touch of gloss. I’ll be damned.
“Care for coffee?” she chirped.
It took him a moment to respond, his mind lagging behind and thinking other thoughts. Clearing his throat, he responded, “Yes. Please.”
He turned the cup over that sat on the matching saucer at his place setting and slid it to the edge of the table. He watched as she poured, her arm lifting just enough for him to see the outline of her breast hidden behind her light green apron. It was easy to see what Waylon saw in her, but what in the hell did she see in Waylon? That man was pudgy, unkempt, and a drug dealer. Made no sense.
“Have you had the chance to look at the menu? Special today is chicken if you want to forego breakfast and slide into lunch. Otherwise, we have all the usuals—eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, French toast and my favorite, Eggs Benedict.”
“Thanks. I’ll have two eggs over easy and whole wheat toast. Then, if you’d be so kind, I’d like to know where your ex-husband is.”
She stepped back, and he saw her jaw tighten. She practically hissed, “Is this what you two are doing now? You’ll keep sending in more and more of you until you’re satisfied that I’m not lying?”
She jerked her head toward the opposite side of the room. “You and Marcus. He’s been hounding me all damned week. I’ll tell you what I told him—several times.” She leaned in, lasered her eyes to his and continued. “I don’t know where that useless piece of shit is, and I don’t care. I haven’t spoken to him in about five years. I don’t even have a phone number, and again, I don’t want it. If you want your precious item back, go find him. He doesn’t come to me and he won’t and I sure as hell have no intention of going to him since. I. Don’t. Know. Where. He. Is.” She finger jabbed the table as she said each syllable as if it made her point clearer.
She straightened her spine and tossed her head in Marcus’ direction. Slowly shaking her head back and forth as if to scold him, she turned to him again. “Now, any other way I can make myself clear?”
He straightened his spine, glanced over at Marcus, and then looked into her eyes. “I don’t know Marcus. I also don’t know about any precious item. What I do know …” He leaned toward her, set his jaw and locked eyes with her. “… is Waylon helped Bobby Ray June escape from the prison transport van on the way to his trial for killing two people in a fire. I. Want. Waylon. And. Bobby. Ray.” He finger jabbed the table just as she had previously, to emphasize his point.
Gasping, her free hand flew to her mouth, her eyes closed, and she swallowed. Opening her eyes, she softly asked, “Bobby Ray killed someone?”
She made her way to the kitchen, her stomach twisted, and she thought she’d lose the little bit of the Eggs Benedict Nila had made for her. Bobby Ray always was a piece of crap. She hated it when he came around. He leered at her and creeped her out. She complained to Waylon about it, and he told her to pull up her big girl panties. Toward the end of their marriage, whenever Bobby Ray would come by, she’d disappear to the grocery store or her best friend, Jolie’s, house. She knew he was dangerous and not mentally sound, but she had no idea he was capable of murder.
She tucked her order slip for the gorgeous, but probably dangerous, man in the booth by the window, beneath the spring on Nila’s order wheel.
“Order for table eight is up, Megan,” Nila called out when she saw her approach. Taking a deep breath, she grabbed the two plates and carried them to the nice couple, asking if they needed a coffee refill.
Keeping herself busy wasn’t a problem as the restaurant filled up. “Order up for table seventeen.” Squaring her shoulders, she picked up the two eggs over easy and whole wheat toast, grabbed the coffeepot and headed to the table of the man who both excited and scared her. He was a broody sort; his darker than dark eyes were both mesmerizing and scary. They were so dark, it was hard to tell where the iris and pupil met. His strong jaw held a hint of whiskers as if he’d shaved hours ago. The dark shadow gave him a mysterious presence which she bet he loved. She hadn’t seen him walk in, but the length of his legs under the table and of his arms on top told her he was tall. From the side, she could see he was fit and firm. Nice. But no. She was steering clear.
“Here you go.” Sliding his plate in front of him, she lay his silverware, wrapped in a napkin alongside his plate. “Coffee?” Proud that she was keeping her voice even, she poured when he nodded. Then she watched as his eyes caught movement behind her and his back stiffened. She could feel the heat at her back before she heard Marcus whisper in her ear, “I’m watching you, Megan. You may as well make contact with that jerk you were married to before things get very ugly for you.”
Before she could respond, he was gone. Setting the coffeepot on the table before she dropped it, she clasped her hands together in front of her to quell the shaking. He was getting bolder.
Looking up slightly to see what her mysterious man was doing, her heartbeat hitched. Those deep black eyes bored into hers, but this time they held something else. Sympathy? Caring? Probably not, but he didn’t look as menacing as he had before.
“Looks like Marcus there is getting bold.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“Why don’t you tell me?”
She picked up the coffeepot and stepped back. “I don’t even know you. Why would I share that kind of thing with a stranger?”
“My name is Ford Montgomery, and I’m here for the same reason Marcus is—to find Waylon. But not for the same reasons. I was hired by the Kane County Police Department to bring him and Bobby Ray in. Looks like we could be friends and help each other out.”
Biting her bottom lip, she thought about it. Actually thought about it. His low sexy voice washed over her in a soothing way, and she’d bet her next ten checks he’d lured women of all kind in with those looks and that Sam Elliot voice of his. But, it was too easy to rely on him and too convenient. It would be nice, though, to have someone to turn to.
“Thanks, Ford, for the offer, but I don’t think so.”