Someone has decided to become the moral compass for the women in town, and now they're turning up dead. It will be up to Detective Lacy Pratt to find their killer before her relationship with Declan Matthews, brother to one of the victims, marks her as a target.
Icy fingers of cold air pressed against Declan Matthews’ shirt as the wind blew through the trees. Once upon a time the wooded area, less than a mile from his childhood home, would have been a place of refuge. Now it was tainted with death.
The massive tree, which had been brought down by lightning at least fifty years earlier, still made for a perfect bridge over the cold brook that calmly passed beneath it.
It was there that they had found his sister. She had died on that bridge of nature, right where she’d once played as a child.
He heard the footsteps on the dry leaves behind him, but he didn’t turn. There was no reason to.
Vaughn moved in beside him, just as an old friend would do, without a word.
They’d shared many hours together in this spot. It was more than a tree in the woods. It had been a pirate ship, a lunar landing site, and a jungle with man-eating monkeys. It had also been a place to camp and have long talks. Or when they’d gotten older, a place to sneak off with one of their dads’ beers and a cigar. He’d brought Lacy Pratt out to the log once for a massive make out session, which ended successfully in his car later that night. Of course, that would only be the beginning of the women who refused to talk to him after a relationship ended.
Vaughn shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and rocked back on his heels. “Christ, Declan. I don’t even know what to say.”
“There’s nothing to say.”
“I can’t believe something like this would happen here. Everyone knows everyone. Who could have done this?”
Declan hated the small town mentality, even if the town was no longer small, as it had been in his early youth. Small was why he’d moved so far away. Ask anyone in a small town who could have done something like murder a married mother of two, and they’d tell you no one. Give them a name and they’d give you a million reasons that person was a saint. He appreciated living in a big city where everyone was guilty of something. He was a lawyer, so he knew what he was talking about. He’d put enough deadbeats away for a long time.
He clenched his fists to his side. “People talk, V. Someone will spill and I’ll see them hang for it,” he said through gritted teeth. And he meant it. He’d found great restraint in his job, but this wasn’t part of his job. This was his little sister, and he’d take revenge if it meant finding the bastard that left her on that log, dead.
“Am I going to have to put a watch on you, Matthews?” The voice came from behind them and both men turned.
Of all people, Lacy Pratt moved toward them. A badge hung around her neck and a gun was holstered on her hip. She looked as if she’d walked out of a detective show on TV in her black slacks and starched white shirt. Her long locks, which he’d once tangled his fingers in, had been traded for a shorter cut that didn’t quite hit her shoulders.
As she moved closer, she tucked her hair behind her ear.
“I’m really sorry about what happened. Stacy was a vital part of our community and a good friend,” she said, her eyes locked on his.
He realized these were the first words she’d spoken to him in fifteen years. What a crappy thing to have to say.
“Thanks. What’s all this?” He nodded toward her badge and she looked down.
“Detective Pratt. I’m working the case.”
He felt those icy cold fingers on his back again, but this time the sharpness dug into his skin.
“How long have you been a detective?”
Lacy inched closer, her hands on her hips. “You got a problem with me and this case?”
“I have a problem with this case for sure.” He mimicked her stance. “But I don’t think that’s what I asked. I asked you how long you’ve been a detective.”
He saw the shift in her demeanor as her eyes softened. “Eight years.”
“Are you good at your job?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Damn good.”
“I’m glad to hear that. I want the S.O.B. caught and I want him to pay.”
Lacy could feel Carl’s eyes steady on her as she drove out of the neighborhood and toward Tom’s house.
“Got a problem, Moss?” she asked without shifting a look at him.
“You stopped me back there from telling him what we know. Why?”
“He didn’t need to know it,” she answered flatly.
“We have a possible serial killer on our hands, and we think we might know who he is, and we can’t tell him to watch his back?”
She turned and headed down the street lined with businesses she’d watched crop up over the years, and then some would shut down. What she wouldn’t give for a cup of coffee right about now.
It just so happened that she knew Tom liked the coffee at Griff’s Donuts, so she pulled over and parked the car.
“Listen, Moss. We have no evidence against Vaughn Price, except that he likes married women. And as Declan said, they like him, too.”
“And Stacy Watts was one of those women,” he reminded her and she flinched at it.
It sickened her to think that Stacy had been having an affair with Declan’s old pal. But she had. Lacy felt a bit cheated too.
Why in the hell would someone like Stacy need a lover? Why was her life not good enough with a doting husband and two amazing kids at home? Why in God’s name did she have to sneak around with a man who collected married women as trophies? What could Vaughn Price possibly have in his pants that no woman could get at home?
“You okay?” Carl asked as she hadn’t moved to get out of the car.
“Yeah. Tom Watts happens to like the coffee here. I forgot to eat. He also likes the jelly-filled donuts and I could use one too.”
Carl gave her a nod. “I’ll go get a bag, and a couple of coffees. I see you’re going to try and make him feel at ease. That’s kind of you. Just don’t let your heart get in the way, Lace.”
She shot him a look when he shortened her name. “My heart is just fine.”
“Yeah, well you ran with Stacy. You knew her from childhood. You knew her brother, and Vaughn too. I think this is a bit personal.”
It might have been, but she wasn’t going to let that interfere. “I’m fine. I’ll get the job done, and soon, too.”
Lacy parked in the space furthest from the door of the funeral home. She hated viewings. She hated it more when the person laying in wake was a friend.
It still stung knowing that Vaughn and Stacy had been having an affair. She wasn’t sure if it was because she hadn’t known, because it was with Vaughn, or because it was something that dredged up horrible thoughts in her head.
When she thought of a woman having an affair, it always took her back to the moment she’d found out about her mother’s affair. It had made her feel dirty and less worthy, and it had had nothing to do with her at all. At least that’s what she always convinced herself of after years of therapy. Her mother was in an unhappy state in her life when she chose to spend time with a man that wasn’t her husband. Lacy couldn’t carry the guilt of it for the rest of her life.
She’d gone through all the stages of mourning over, and over again. Now, after all these years, she wasn’t angry at her mother anymore. And being angry with someone that was ripped from your life was a horrible thing to be.
Lacy looked toward the door as Declan walked outside. He was dressed in a gray suit. Shielding his eyes with a dark pair of sunglasses, he moved into fading sunshine and lifted his face to it.
She wondered how long it would take before he cracked. Would he? Would he fall apart when it was all over? Or was he the kind of man he appeared to be? Strong and solid—unshakable.
As he lowered his face, he scanned the parking lot, and that must have been when he noticed her parked in the lot. She could have sworn a smile formed on his lips, and he started toward her car.
Lacy opened her car door and stepped out.
“Whoa, Pratt! You’re wearing a dress.” He was grinning as he said it.
“It’s a skirt. For someone who’s as sharply dressed as you, I’d think you’d know the difference.”
“Yeah, I do. Casual skirt, flats, a light jacket,” he said as he brushed his hand down her arm. “You look sharp, too.”
She had to swallow hard before she spoke. “Declan, I’m so sorry about Stacy. I’m broken-hearted for her and her family. And for you.”
“You’ve said that.” He pulled the dark glasses from his face and she saw the red rimmed eyes of a man who was in mourning. “It looks like you’re off duty tonight.”
“Unless a big lead comes in.”
“Have dinner with me. I need that non-family contact now, not after this is all done.” He lifted his chin. “Unless that crosses some line.”
“If a call comes in, I have to go. But, Dec, we were friends first, before I was in law enforcement. I don’t have to worry about crossing a line if you’re my friend.”
He reached for her hand and pulled her to him. Her cheek pressed against his chest as his arms came around her and held her there. “I need a friend right now, that’s for sure.”
“I’m here,” she said before she realized she had.
Declan moved from behind her, and stood on the other side of the desk. He scrubbed his hands over his face. “I assume you’ll be a few more hours here?”
She checked her watch and noticed that it was already past midnight. “For a little while longer, I guess.”
“Someone will walk you and your gun to the car?”
She smiled. “Yes. I’ll be fine.”
“I have to go home. Tomorrow is going to be the day from hell.”
Lacy stood. “I’m going to try to be there, but…”
“I’d rather you find the piece of shit that did it.”
She nodded. “I will.”
“I know you will.”
They stood in silence for a moment before he moved to her. Raising his hand to her cheek, he pulled her near, and pressed his warm lips to hers. “I’m staying in town until this is settled. I want some time with you.”
“Declan, I don’t know how to feel about all this. I don’t want it to cloud my position on this case.”
“It doesn’t cloud it at all. You have a job and you’re focused on it. This is about us, Lace. We didn’t get to finish this fifteen years ago. I mean, a few times in the back of my car wasn’t a relationship.”
“You’re looking for a relationship?”
“I’m looking to feel this out.” He held his finger under her chin and locked his gaze with hers. “I never forgot about you, Lace. Never.”
She couldn’t explain how it warmed her to hear that. But the fact that he’d someday leave again, that only broke her heart.
He dropped his hand and started for the elevators. After he pushed the button, he turned back. “You’re probably going to be looking at the camera downstairs from my time with Vaughn.”
“There’s no audio.”
“Yeah, well, you won’t need it. But when you see Vaughn’s eye, you’ll know I told him I found out about him with my sister.” He smiled as the door opened. “We’re cool now, but I’ll probably kick his ass over it again.” He was still smiling when the door closed.
Because she couldn’t help herself, she sat back down at her computer and logged into the cameras. She watched as Declan walked into the room and a sobbing Vaughn began to rise. She couldn’t make out the words said between them, but they were obviously heated. Then there was the moment Declan pulled back and popped Vaughn right in the eye. She stifled the laugh that wanted to burst free. “Good for you, Declan. Good for you.”