Any coward can fight a battle when he's sure of
winning; but give me the man who has pluck to fight when
he's sure of losing.
â€”George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
English novelist 1819 - 80
They hadn't meant to kill him. That should've
mattered. It probably would haveâ€”in a different time, a
different place. But this was Stillwater, Mississippi, and
the only thing smaller than the town itself was the minds of
the people living in it. They never forgot and they never
forgave. Nineteen years had passed since Reverend Barker
disappeared, but they wanted someone to pay for the loss of
their beloved preacher.
And they'd had their eye on Clay Montgomery from the
The only bit of luck that had gone his way was that, without
a body, the police couldn't prove Clay had done
anything. But that didn't stop themâ€”and othersâ€”from
constantly poking around his farm, asking questions,
suggesting scenarios, attempting to piece together the past
in hopes of solving the biggest mystery Stillwater had ever
"Do you think someday he'll come back? Your
step-daddy, I mean?" Beth Ann Cole plumped her pillow
and arranged one arm above her head.
Annoyance ripped through Clay despite the beautiful eyes
that regarded him from beneath thick golden lashes. Beth Ann
hardly ever pressed him about his missing stepfather. She
knew he'd show her the door. But he'd let her come
over too much lately and she was beginning to overrate her
value to him.
Without answering, he kicked off the blankets and began to
get out of bed, only to have her grab hold of his arm.
"Wait, that's it? Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am?
You're not usually so selfish."
"You didn't have any complaints a minute ago,"
he drawled, glancing pointedly over his shoulder at the claw
marks she'd left on his back.
Her bottom lip jutted out. "I want more." "You
always want more. Of everything. More than I'm willing
to give." He stared at the delicate white fingers
clutching his darker forearm. Normally, she would've
recognized the warning in his expression and let him go.
Tonight, however, she went straight into her "how can
you use me like this" mode, an act she put on whenever
her impatience overcame her good sense.
The cloying sound of Beth Ann's voice bothered Clay more
than usual. Probably because he'd so recently had bad
news. The police chief's daughter, Allie McCormickâ€”a
police officer herselfâ€”had returned to town. And she was
Swallowing a curse, he rubbed his temples, trying to
alleviate the beginnings of a headache.
The pounding only grew worse when Beth Ann's voice rose.
"Clay, are we ever gonna move beyond a physical
relationship? Is sex all you're interested in from me?"
Beth Ann had a gorgeous body and occasionally used it to get
what she wantedâ€”and he knew what she wanted right now
was him. She often wheedled or pouted, trying to coax him
into a marriage proposal. But he didn't love her, and
she understood that, even if she liked to pretend otherwise.
He rarely made the first move, hardly ever asked her out,
never made any promises. He paid her way if they went
anywhere, but that was a matter of courtesy, not a
declaration of undying devotion. She initiated most of their
He remembered the first time she'd come to his door.
From the day she'd moved to town nearly two years ago,
she'd flirted with him whenever possible. She worked in
the bakery of the local supermarket and did her damnedest to
corner him the moment he crossed the threshold. But when he
didn't immediately fall and worship at her feet, like
all the other single men in Stillwater, she'd decided he
was a challenge worthy of her best efforts. One night, after
a brief encounter at the store, during which she'd made
some innuendo he'd purposely ignored, she'd appeared
on his doorstep wearing a trench coatâ€”and not a stitch of
She knew he couldn't ignore that. And he hadn't. But
at least he didn't feel guilty about his involvement in
her life. Maybe she liked to act as though he was the sex
fiend and she the benevolent provider, but after
experiencing her voracious appetite over the past several
months he had his own opinions about who'd become the
"Let go of my arm," he said.
Obviously uncertain, she blinked at the edge in his voice
and released him. "I thought you were starting to care
Presenting his back to her, he pulled on his jeans.
Sexrelaxed him, helped him sleep. Which was why he'd let
his relationship with Beth Ann continue for so long. But
they'd just made love twice, and he felt more wound up
than ever. He couldn't stop thinking about Officer Allie
McCormick. His sister Grace had told him she'd been a
cold case detective in Chicagoâ€”a damn good one. Would she
finally bring an end to it all?
Beth Ann was getting on his last nerve. "I think maybe
it's time we quit seeing each other," he said as he
yanked on a clean T-shirt.
When she didn't answer, he turned to see her gaping at him.
"How can you say that?" she cried. "I asked one
question. One!" She laughed in a manner meant to suggest
that he'd completely overreacted. "You're so
"My stepfather is not a subject I'm prepared to
discuss." She opened her mouth, then seemed to
reconsider what she was about to say. "Okay, I get it. I
was tired and didn't realize how much the subject would
upset you. I'm sorry."
She should've told him to go to hell and walked out. He
scowled. Although he'd tried to make it clear that he
was the most emotionally unavailable man she'd probably
ever meet, she was becoming attached. He didn't
understand how, but there it was, written all over her face.
He had to make a change. He wasn't even willing to admit
he had a heart, let alone open it to anyone. "Get
dressed, okay?" he said.
"Clay, you don't really want me to leave, do
you?" He used to send her home as soon as they were
finished, so there could be no confusion about the nature of
their relationship. But the past few times they'd been
together, she'd faked sleep and he'd let her stay
Softening his stance had been a mistake. "I've got
work to do, Beth Ann."
"At one in the morning?"
"Come on, Clay. Stop being a grump. Get back into bed,
and I'll give you a massage. I owe you for that dress
you bought me."
She grinned enticingly but with enough desperation to make
his neck prickle. He should've said goodbye a month ago.
"You don't owe me anything. Forget me and be happy."
Her eyebrows shot up. "If you want me to be happy, that
means I matter to you."
Determined to be completely honestâ€”or at least retain his
hard-ass imageâ€”he shook his head. "No one matters to
As tears slipped down her cheeks, he silently cursed himself
for not seeing this coming. Perhaps he'd relied too
heavily on the fact that BethAnn wasn't a particularly
deep person. Anyway, she'd get over him as soon as some
other man strolled through the Piggly Wiggly.
"What about your sisters? You love them," she said.
"You'd take a bullet for Grace or Molly, even
What he'd done for his sisters was a case of too little,
too late. But BethAnn wouldn't understand that. She
didn't know what had happened that long-ago night. No
one did, besides him, his mother and his two natural
sisters. Even his stepsister Madeline, Reverend Barker's
only natural child, had no clue. She'd been living with
them at the time, but as fate would have it, she'd spent
that night at a girlfriend's.
"That's different," he said.
Silence. Hurt. Then, "You're an asshole, you know
that?""Better than you do, I'm sure." When
he wouldn't give her a target, she drew herself up onto
her knees. "You've been using me all along,
"No more than you've been using me," he replied
calmly, and pulled on his boots.
"I haven't been using you! I want to marry
"You only want what you can't have."
"That's not true!"
"You knew what you were getting into from the start. I
warned you before you ever peeled off that trench coat."
She glanced wildly around the room as though stunned to
recognize he was really through with her. "But I
thoughtâ€”I thought that for me you mightâ€”"
"Stop it," he said.
"No. Clay." Climbing out of bed, she came toward him
as if she'd wrap her arms around his neck and cling for
He put up a hand to stop her before she could reach him. Not
even the sight of her full breasts, swinging above her flat
stomach and toned legs, could change his mind. Part of him
wanted to live and love like any other man. To have a
family. But he felt empty inside. Dead. As dead as the man
buried in his cellar. "I'm sorry," he said.
When she saw how little her pleading affected him, her top
lip curled and her eyes hardened into shiny emeralds.
"You son of a bitch! Youâ€”you're not going to get
away with this. Iâ€”I'm going toâ€”" She gave a
desperate sob and lunged toward the nightstand, grabbing for
Because Beth Ann was so prone to histrionics, Clay guessed
she was playing some kind of dramatic game, possibly hoping
to get one of her many male admirers to drive over and pick
her up, even though she had a carparked outside. He watched
dispassionately. He didn't care if she used the phone,
as long as she left right afterward. This was a blow to her
pride, not her heart, and it couldn't have come as a
But she pressed only three buttons and, in the next second,
screamed into the receiver: "Help! Police! Clay
Montgomery's trying to k-kill me! I know what he did to
Crossing the room in three long strides, Clay wrenched the
phone from her and slammed down the receiver. "Have you
lost your mind?" he growled.
She was breathing hard. With her gleaming, frantic eyes and
curly blond hair falling in tangles about her shoulders, she
looked like an evil witch. No longer pretty.
"I hope they put you in prison," she said, her voice
a low, hateful murmur. "I hope they put you away for
Scooping her clothes off the floor, she hurried into the
hall, leaving Clay shaking his head. Evidently she
didn't grasp that she already had her wish. Maybe he
wasn't in a physical prison, but he was paying the price
for what had happened nineteen years agoâ€”and would be for
the rest of his life.
Officer Allie McCormick couldn't believe what came
through her police radio. Pulling onto the shoulder of the
empty country road she'd been patrolling since midnight,
she put her cruiser in Park. "What did you say?"
The county dispatcher finally swallowed whatever she had in
her mouth. "I said I just got a call from 10682 Old Barn
Allie recognized the address. She'd seen it all over the
case files she'd been studying since she and her
six-yearold daughter had moved back to Stillwater and in
with her parents several weeks ago. "That's the
"There's a possible 10 - 31 C in progress."
"That's what the caller said."