As Laurel Ridge embraces a stranger hungry for answers, a sinister truth is awakened.
A hard-hitting reporter, Kate Beaumont unearths the deepest lies and brings harsh truths to light, but the story that lures her to the gentle town of Laurel Ridge, Pennsylvania, is closer to her heart than anyone knows. The details of her half brother’s sudden death have never made sense. She owes him justice, yet the one man who can help her is the stubborn sheriff she can’t stand.
Protecting his town is Mac Whiting’s top priority. Everything else, including pacifying a beautiful crusader on a mission best left resting in peace, is secondary. But as Kate’s search embeds her in his world and attracts a skilled criminal, she needs Mac’s protection. Drawn together by deadly secrets, they must find a way to trust each other before a killer silences them both.
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Mac drove down Main Street, keeping an eye on the compact car ahead of him. He wasn’t following the woman exactly, but she had stirred his curiosity. Something had been just a little off-kilter about their conversation, and her defensiveness had startled as well as intrigued him.
He frowned, trying to put his finger on the exact source of his unease. Kate Beaumont had seemed vaguely familiar to him, but he couldn’t quite place her. Thick, honey-blond hair was pulled casually back on the nape of her neck, allowing wavy tendrils to escape and curl around her ears. Her lightly tanned skin seemed touched by the gold in her hair, and even her eyes were a golden brown. Surely, if he’d ever known her, he’d remember. A man didn’t run into that many brown-eyed blondes—and especially not one carrying a chip the size of a mountain on her shoulder.
The familiarity remained stubbornly elusive, so he put the resemblance on a back burner to percolate. It would come through, sooner or later. Meantime, it looked as if his mystery woman was going to take his advice. She’d pulled into a parking space across from the café.
A moment later he realized he’d jumped to conclusions. Ms. Beaumont wasn’t headed toward the café. Instead, she was walking up the sidewalk of Blackburn House. Now what, exactly, was she up to? Unless she had a sudden yen to buy quilt fabric or a book, there wasn’t much in Blackburn House to attract a casual visitor.
Curiosity had him turning in at the driveway that ran along the side of the building. At the rear of Blackburn House stood the old carriage house, converted into the workshop of Whiting and Whiting Cabinetry. Not that he was the Whiting or the son involved in the business. Dad might have had hopes in that direction at one time, but when Mac had come back from a stint in the military, he’d known the carpentry trade wasn’t for him. Still, Dad seemed content with one son in partnership, and the business suited Mac’s brother, Nick, perfectly.
Parking, Mac eyed the back door into Blackburn House. That might be a bit too blatant, running into the woman so quickly. She really would have cause to cry harassment if he did that, wouldn’t she?
Instead, he headed into the cabinetry shop, prepared for the usual din of saws and hammers. But all was fairly quiet at the moment. One of the Amish carpenters who worked in the shop sat on a bench in the rear, his lunch bucket beside him. He raised a thermos in Mac’s direction, and Mac grinned and nodded.
He’d forgotten it was lunchtime. No doubt Nick was lunching with his fiancée, Allison, assuming she’d been able to get away from the quilt shop.
His father, instead of eating the lunch Mom had packed for him, was bending over a rocking chair, carefully hand-sanding a spindle. The normal work of the shop—custom-designed kitchen cabinets—sat all around him, but he was focused on the rocker instead.
“Hey, Dad. Is that for Mom?”
His father looked up at his approach, pushing his glasses into place. Folks said Nick looked more like their father, but all three of them had the same lean, straight-featured faces. Dad’s eyes crinkled at the sight of him.
“Your mom says she has enough furniture, thank you very much.” He grinned. “This is a gift for Allison. The way those women are fussing over this wedding shower, you’d think no one had ever gotten married before.”
“Better not let Mom or Allison hear you complaining.” Mac leaned against a handy workbench. Since he was safely removed now from the farmhouse that his brother, Nick, and Nick’s young son shared with Mom and Dad, he could take a more detached view of Nick and Allison’s wedding preparations.
His father raised an eyebrow. “Bet you haven’t even thought of setting up the bachelor party yet. That is a best man duty, you know.”
“I know, I know. But Nick doesn’t like any of my ideas. Especially not taking off to Vegas for a weekend.”
Dad swatted at him as if he were a pesky fly. “Be nice to your brother. He’s taken long enough to decide to risk marriage again. And as for you…”
“Don’t start,” Mac said quickly. “I hear enough of it from Mom. She’s taken to reminding me that I’m not getting any younger, as if I were teetering on the doorstep of the nursing home.”
“She wants more grandkids.” Dad eyed him severely. “You’re supposed to do your part.”
Mac shrugged. “I’ve got a whole town to look after already. That’s enough for me at the moment.”
“Here.” Dad tossed him the fine sandpaper he’d been using. “Do a little work for a change while I pour out my coffee.”
Mac bent obediently over the chair, hands caressing the smooth curves of the fine maple. He might not want carpentry for his life’s work, but he still enjoyed the calming nature of the skill. Seeing the grain gleam in response to his movements was satisfying.
“What brings you in here at this hour?” His father took over his spot, leaning against the workbench. “Not enough to keep you busy at the office?”
Mac shook his head, not looking up. “Just a funny thing that happened. I had to speak to a woman parked in the no-parking area up by the cemetery. She seemed… I don’t know…upset, maybe. Annoyed at me for speaking, that’s for sure.”
“And?” Dad seemed to be waiting for more. He had to know that that was the sort of thing that happened too often to cause comment.
“It was just odd, that’s all. She’s a stranger, but she seemed kind of familiar to me.”
He could feel his father’s gaze on him. “A looker, was she?”
Mac grinned. “You could say that. A striking brown-eyed blonde, if you want to know.”
“That’s the answer, then.” Dad sounded amused. “She probably had a starring role in one of your dreams.”
He chuckled, as he was meant to, but then he shook his head, running the sandpaper smoothly along the grain of the wood. “Sounds like it, but that wasn’t it. I’ve got a good memory for faces, and I’m sure I’ve seen her before.”
“If she was visiting someone in town, you might have noticed her. In fact, it sounds as if you could hardly miss her.”
“She said she wasn’t visiting anybody. Asked directions to a place where she could get lunch, as if she was just passing through.”
“You told her the café, I suppose.” Dad spoke with the experience of one who knew there were few other places in Laurel Ridge where you’d be likely to get a good lunch.
“I did,” he said slowly. “But I saw her going into Blackburn House instead.”
“So maybe she wanted to look around the shops.”
Mac didn’t respond. Slowly, very slowly, a memory was stirring in the back of his mind. An image. A rainy day, the kind of steady downpour that managed to trickle down your neck no matter how protected you were. Soggy grass underfoot, and drooping, saturated flowers, the ribbons around them stained with water. A cemetery, but not the one at the top of the hill.
“That’s it.” He straightened, one hand on the back of the chair, gripping it tightly as the impact of the memory hit. “I saw her a little over a year ago at a cemetery in Philadelphia. At the funeral of that young guy who worked in the financial management office. The one we found dead of an overdose right up there on the hill where she’d stopped.”
Dad met his eyes, startled and sympathetic. “That poor kid? Is she some relation?”
He nodded, the memory clarifying now. “I didn’t speak to her, but someone pointed her out to me. His sister—no, his half sister. The names are different, but I’m sure of it.”
The picture was stamped so firmly on Mac’s mind that he wondered why he hadn’t realized it the minute he’d seen Kate Beaumont. Maybe he would have, if she’d been named Reilley, like the half brother.
Funny how much you could tell about a situation just from body language. The half sister and the father had stood several feet apart, obviously not touching, not even looking at one another, each one isolated in his or her own grief.
Tom Reilley, presumably Kate Beaumont’s stepfather, had been a retired cop. That had been one reason why Mac had driven to Philadelphia for the funeral. Professional courtesy, if you will. The man’s son had died on his turf.
Mac realized his own father was studying him, an expression of concern on his face. He’d known—he always seemed to know—how hard Mac had taken the death. This was his town. He was responsible for it. That meant never letting a situation get out of control, because if it did, then as a peacekeeper, you’d failed.
Jason Reilley, lying dead against a gravestone in the oldest section of the cemetery, a fatal combination of alcohol and pills in his system, had been out of his control.
Another memory flickered, just for an instant. Another town, a world away—flattened homes, the smell of burning in the air, a small, huddled body…
His father stirred. “Well, no reason for the woman not to come here, I suppose. Maybe she felt as if she wanted to see for herself where he died. Sort of a pilgrimage.”
It struck him then. Kate Beaumont hadn’t looked to him like a woman on a pilgrimage. She’d looked like a woman on a crusade.
His uneasiness was full-blown now. His sudden movement set the chair rocking as he headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” Dad put out a hand to still the rocking.
“To have a talk with Ms. Beaumont.” Mac’s course of action solidified. “Maybe you’re right. But I want to know why, when she saw who I was, Kate Beaumont was so careful not to mention her relationship with Jason Reilley.”