Christie Craig's Texas Justice Series
Christie Craig's Don't Close Your Eyes
DON'T CLOSE YOUR EYES
Book one in the Texas Justice series
by Christie Craig
Release date: August 28, 2018
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New York Times bestselling author Christie Craig presents the first book in a sexy, gripping series about an alpha hero who will stop at nothing to protect the woman he loves. Perfect for fans of Kat Martin, Sharon Sala, and Brenda Novak!
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The sounds came to Annie Lakes first. The sound of her young heart thudding in her chest. The night sounds of insects, owls, and unknown creatures scuttling around the woods at night.
The sound of…fear.
Then a panic-laced young voice echoed in the dark distance. "Faster, Annie."
She couldn't run faster. She couldn't breathe.
She couldn't…wake up.
She felt trapped in the blackness. Then the dark curtain lifted and she saw it all. The thicket of trees, the thorny brushes encroaching the dirt trail. Her pink Cinderella tennis shoes slapping against the dirt. Her small feet racing, rushing, running to someone to save her. Running away from someone who wouldn't.
"Keep up!" The same voice, a young voice, echoed again. All Annie could now see of this person was snippets of a pink nightgown appearing and disappearing between the trees ahead. Too far ahead.
She didn't want to be alone.
She hugged the teddy bear, once white but now sticky and red-stained.
"Don't leave me!" Annie cried, unable to move faster. Her side pinched from running. Her leg muscles burned.
She wanted to scream.
Wanted to cry.
Wanted her daddy.
Thorns caught and snagged on the ruffle on her Smurf nightgown. The toe of her tennis shoe hit a stump.
She tripped. Went down. Hard. The bear hit the dirt before she did.
Small rocks ripped at the tender flesh on her palms. A jagged one sliced into her knee. The raw sting brought tears to her eyes. She could no longer hear the person in front of her, but the footfalls of the person chasing her grew closer. Louder.
She really wanted her daddy. Now.
Struggling to her feet, she let soft whimpers slip from her lips. She took one slow step, and someone grabbed her from behind. Grabbed her tight.
Annie's own bloodcurdling cry echoing through her bedroom yanked her awake. No longer the frightened child, she was now a frightened woman, but she still wanted her daddy.
Swallowing air that felt solid, hand clutching her chest, she felt her heart slamming against her rib cage.
Realizing what this meant, she rolled over and buried her face in the pillow. The dream, the recurring nightmare was back. And she knew why.
She really needed to stop watching the news.
Annie, sitting at her usual table, refocused on the stack of ungraded papers. The dark circles under her eyes were hidden behind darker sunglasses. Blond and fair skinned, she lacked sleep, which brought out raccoon eyes. Too bad she couldn't wear the shades while teaching.
"Happy hump day." Fred waved his cup of espresso with extra milk as he moved to his booth. For reasons unbeknownst to Annie, the elderly widower was always happier on Wednesdays. Sometimes, when the place was full, he'd even sit with her to chat.
Annie smiled. "Did you have a good night last night?"
"Sure did." A sparkle brightened his light blue eyes. He sat down and pulled out his newspaper. Was he seeing some lady on Tuesdays? Not that it mattered, Annie liked seeing happy people.
Glancing out the window, she took in the early-morning walkers trying to get their steps in. The quaint coffee shop nestled between high-rises in downtown Anniston, Texas, was conveniently located a block from the junior college where she'd taught for last five months. Coming here had become part of her morning ritual. Being an only child, she liked feeling as if she was part of a community. She knew the regulars. They knew her. At least most of them did.
The door swished open. Pretty sure who it was, she glanced up, without lifting her head. He always arrived between seven and seven thirty. The coffee shop was conveniently located a block from the police precinct, too.
Detective Sutton liked the dark roast and drank it black. Sometimes, he added a skinny hazelnut latte to his order. Probably for some long-legged, lucky secretary at his office.
While Annie was certain he'd never noticed her—he was one who didn't speak or even nod—she'd noticed him.
Even before she'd seen him on television.
It wasn't just his big-gulp size, or his big-gulp good looks. Oh, she noticed those, too—hard not to—but it was the fact that, like her, he hid behind sunglasses. Considering most of his cases involved murder and some involved children—she wondered if he wasn't suffering from some bad nightmares, too.
He shot to the counter with his usual determined pace. Not so much rude as running late.
Today, he wore his navy Dockers and his light blue buttoned-down oxford. The shirt, creases down the sleeves, no doubt dry-cleaned, hugged his broad chest. His dark hair appeared freshly showered damp.
The customer ahead of him, an elderly grandmother—not a regular—looked antique and frail. "I know I've got some coins…" Her arm, lost in her big purse, fumbled for loose change.
Annie waited to see if he'd do it again. She'd seen it happen six times.
"I got her coffee," he spoke over the woman's gray hair to Mary, the barista.
The older woman looked back, and up. And up. "Why that's sweet, but I've got…"
My good deed for the day, Annie said in her head, right before he did.
A smile curled up in her gut and gave her good-guy butterflies.. She'd even borrowed his act of kindness herself.
Shamelessly, she'd considered attempting to be his good deed for the day for an introduction-and maybe more. But she'd failed at her last attempts of "more."And considering the return of her nightmares, she needed to get her life fixed before she asked for company.
He eased up to the counter, paid for the elderly woman's coffee, then carefully—with more patience than he normally exuded—he handed it to her.
The good-guy flutters commenced again. Annie's phone chimed. She pulled her gaze away from the detective and glanced at the number. Her mom. She never called this early. Something had to be…
"Hello." The soft sounds of her mom's sobbing sent thick air rushing into Annie's lungs, and her heart filled with empathy before even understanding.
"Mom? What's wrong?"
* * *
Detective Mark Sutton skipped his Thursday-morning coffee run and went straight to the lake.
It was one of those perfect days for fishing. Hot, but not too damn hot. Windy, but not too damn windy. Cloudy, but not too damn cloudy.
White cotton-like clouds hung in the blue sky, appearing so picture-perfect they looked like a lie. The sunset sparkles danced on top of the water. The breeze, cooler than the air, flowed through the trees and offered relief from the Texas temperature.
But nothing ruined a good day at the lake more than when it wasn't a fishing line in the water, but a winch connected to a wrecker. When what was being reeled in wasn't a blue cat, or a bass, but a fifty-pound drum containing the body of a four-year-old girl.
Days like this caused a raw kind of hurt—the kind that chipped away at one's soul.
"I'd give my left ball to be wrong about this." Mark looked at Juan Acosta, another cold-case detective, standing beside him.
"No shit," Juan said.
Mark, Juan, and Connor Pierce, the three-man team that made up the Anniston Cold Case Unit, had spent hours of personal time the previous week scuba diving in the lake searching for barrels.
Forget asking the local volunteer divers. Homicide had them booked. Forget having a special dive team do it. Their division didn't have a budget.
If they needed something done, they had to do it themselves. The fact that they'd gotten cases solved shocked the shit out of the big brass. And this particular case was going to be a real pisser for their sergeant.
That was why Connor and Juan had chosen the case. Well, that and because the kid had been related to the mayor. Mark would've preferred a different case. One that didn't feel so goddamn familiar. He had only so much soul left.
Exhaling a piece of that soul now, he watched Albert Stone, the medical examiner, use a crowbar to pry the top off of the drum they'd pulled from Sunshine Lake. Stone looked into the barrel, grimaced, then glanced at Mark and Juan. He didn't say anything, or even nod. The despair in his eyes said it all.
"Damn!" Mark's stomach muscles cramped like he'd just done fifty sit-ups.
Stone re-capped the drum and gave the motion for the forklift driver to load the evidence into the van. After taking a few seconds, he walked over.
"I won't be able to say it's her for a while. But there's long brown hair." Stone ran a hand over his face as if to wipe away the image. A move every cop who'd ever worked in homicide knew well. A damn shame it didn't work.
"The body is submerged in concrete." Stone's tone came out as heavy as the barrel looked. "Weren't they looking at the father for this?"
"Yeah, but they couldn't prove it," Juan said.
"Then prove it. Catch the bastard who did this." Stone exhaled.
We will. We have to. Mark gave him a tight-lipped nod.
Catching bastards was the way to get back a tiny piece of his soul that these cases robbed from him. He never got it all back, but a little was better than nothing.
"This would make…what? Three cases you've solved this year?" Stone asked.
Four. But who's counting?
Mark nodded. Juan did the same. They weren't doing this for the notoriety. Not that it didn't feel good every time they showed the department how wrong it'd been to discount them.
The forklift groaned as it picked up the rusty metal drum. Stone frowned. "It's been years. How the hell did you know where to find her?"
"Johnny Cash," Mark said.
Stone chuckled. "You been hitting the bottle early?"
"No." Mark resented the implication, even when he didn't resent Stone. "It was the only lead they had on the case," Mark explained. "A day after she went missing, a homeless man, Mr. Johnny Cash, reported he saw someone pushing a barrel into the lake. Reports says he was drunk and about as credible as a rock, but being the only lead, APD sent some divers out. They found nothing. One of the divers was on record stating that due to the weather conditions earlier, visibility wasn't really good. Between the lack of a budget and a drunk witness, they didn't do another search."
"Well, keep this up, and the department will be forced to move you off the shit list."
"I hope not," Mark said. "Shit list equals 'no expectations.'"
Stone offered a half-assed grin. "Where's Connor?"
"Searching for Cash." They watched the forklift loading the evidence.
"Is the poker game on for Saturday night?" Stone asked as if needing a mental U-turn.
"Not this Saturday, but next," Mark answered.
"Well, I should get back…" Stone looked over Mark's shoulder, and his expression soured. "You're gonna get a chance to secure your place on that list. The vultures are waiting." He waved toward the road and walked off.
Mark didn't have to look back. He knew what vultures Stone meant.
Proving him right, someone, a feminine someone, yelled out, "Detective Sutton? Can I have a word?"
Recognition of that voice struck like a painful thump to his balls. "Fuck."
Probably not the word the Channel 2 reporter wanted. But it was the one Judith Holt pulled out of him.
Glancing away from the police van, he looked at Juan. "Who called the press?"
"Why don't you ask your girlfriend?" Juan's tone said he hadn't forgiven Mark for almost screwing up the last case. Not that Mark blamed Juan. He hadn't forgiven himself, either.
Mark looked back. Judith stood in front of six other reporters from both newspapers and television stations. "Ex-girlfriend."
Not that she'd really been his girlfriend, just a warm body for about a month. One he hadn't missed. Oh, the sex had been great. But she'd been using him, and not just for fun in the sack. She wanted story leads, inside information, and she didn't care who it hurt.
When he refused to give her anything, she'd stolen it. The leaked information had almost cost them the arrest. If he could've proven she'd stolen the info from him, he'd have hauled her ass in. But he couldn't. So she became another life lesson for him to file away.
A lesson that had kept him celibate for five months.
Juan looked back. "I'm walking through the woods and will meet you by the car."
Juan hated the press more than Mark did. Well, not the press-it was the cameras and seeing his face on the six o'clock news or on the front page.
Mark didn't know a cop who'd served for more than ten years who didn't have a few scars. Most of them on the inside. Juan hadn't been that lucky.
"Keys?" Juan held out his hand.
Mark watched the detective take off. Swallowing a mouthful of hopeless air, he told himself to hold his temper. His bank account couldn't take another hit. Who knew film cameras cost that much? Thankfully, the city had picked up that first one. But when APD stuck him in the Cold Case Unit, they'd made it clear. Any further destruction of news-media property would come out of his pocket. So the tripod he'd used to dent the bumper of the Channel 6 van a few months back had been on him.
He started back to the street, away from the crowd, but like hungry piranhas they followed. With Anniston's population encroaching on a hundred and thirty thousand, they had plenty of piranhas.
"Detective Sutton?" They pushed toward him.
"We don't know anything yet." He quickened his pace.
"But Detective—" one of the newspaper reporters started.
"No comment!" He got about two feet past them.
Someone snagged his arm. Unfortunately, he'd know the feel of Judith's nails anywhere. "Was Brittany Talbot's body in the drum? Isn't that what the Cold Case Unit is working on?"
She shoved her mic in his face. Damn it! Didn't she realize how hearing and seeing this on the local news would make the kid's mother feel? Sure it'd been four years, but hurting from losing someone you love didn't have time limits. He knew firsthand. It was the scar he carried with him.
"No comment!" he growled.
"Can you confirm that this is about the Talbot case?"
"Go chase another ambulance!" He started off. He heard her say something to the camera. Another reporter blocked his path and then Judith grabbed his arm again.
He stopped. Stared at her nails biting into his forearm. He'd never been into scratchers.
She cut off her mic, lowered it to her side. "Just because we didn't pan out—"
"This has nothing to do with us." He shot forward.
The wish-wush of her expensive heels sinking in and out of the wet ground as she chased after him ratcheted up his frustration.
"You got that right!" she said to his back. "It's about my career. And if you think—"
He swung around so fast the heels of his shoes cut divots in the ground. Then, because he didn't care to air his dirty laundry—and fuck yeah, he considered their relationship to be dirty laundry—he pulled her away from the crowd of reporters. Scowling, he held out his hand in warning that no one should follow.
Once he got out of earshot, he swerved and faced her. "This may be a hell of a shock to you, Judith, but it's not always about you." The muscles in his neck knotted.
Her eyes glittered with determination. The kind that didn't let up. The kind he didn't admire. The kind that stemmed from selfish ambition.
"I'm just doing my job," she said with a jab.
"And it doesn't matter who you step on as long as you come out looking good. I'm still dusting off your footprints myself."
"Just because I don't have to drink myself into oblivion when bad things happen doesn't mean I don't care."
Okay, that poke was personal. Too personal.
"I don't have to drink myself into oblivion." He yanked off his sunglasses. "I choose to. But the difference between you and me is that I do my job to catch sorry sons of bitches. You do your job so you can prance your little ass up the career ladder."
He stormed off, not caring if his words struck a nerve. Not even feeling better for delivering them because, like he'd told her, this wasn't about her. Or him.
He had to go see Bethany Talbot now, the kid's mom, hoping like hell she wouldn't see the news report before he got to her.
Mark hadn't made it to the road when another reporter and his cameraman blocked his path. It was Matthew Kelly from Channel 6, one of Judith's on-again, off-again lovers, who'd been pissed that Judith had taken a shining to Mark. So this approach was likely to be just as personal, but probably more fun. Call him a male chauvinist pig, but he couldn't completely unleash on a woman. Even when they deserved it.
"No comment." Mark gave it a good college try.
Matthew stuck his mic in Mark's face. "Is it true that the Cold Case Unit is the police department's dumping ground for cops who don't play well with others?"
Yup, personal! Mark hoped this was a live feed. "Is it true you still fuck Ju— a certain Channel Two reporter even though you got married last year?"
The cameraman let out a burst of laughter. But before Matthew could react, Mark yanked the microphone from the man's hand and chucked it. The splashing sound in the lake was as good as a big-mouth bass slapping against the water.
"That was a five-hundred-dollar piece of equipment," Matthew seethed.
"I know," Mark said. "But it was a lot cheaper than paying to have your nose fixed."
Mark took off to his car. Juan, in the driver's seat, had the engine running as if he expected the worst.
Climbing into the passenger seat of his racing-green Mustang, stepping into a week's worth of fast-food bags, he looked at Juan.
A touch of humor reflected in his partner's brown eyes. "I think you enjoy that."
"Yeah, but it's an expensive hobby."
Juan chuckled, but his smile faded fast. "I'll go help Connor look for Cash. You going to see Bethany Talbot?"
"Yeah." He'd have loved to push that job over to either Connor or Juan, but he'd drawn the short straw.
Mark snatched his file from the backseat to get the Talbots' address.
"Do you still like the dad for this?" Juan's fingers tightened on the steering wheel.
Mark reached back and squeezed his knotted right shoulder. He'd only spoken with Brian Talbot once. He didn't think he was behind this, but the guy's alibi had been shakier than a drug addict needing a fix.
"I don't know." Mark wanted to believe no father could do that to his child, but he knew better. Being a parent didn't stop someone from being a sick bastard. He let out a gulp of frustrated air. "When I'm done, I'll call you and hit any shelters you haven't."
"You know finding him is going to be almost impossible. It was four years ago, and Johnny Cash probably isn't even the guy's name."
"I know," Mark said. "But I'm hoping if he picked that name, it means he actually sings, and that might help us find him."
Juan turned into the precinct and parked. Mark set the file on the dash. A picture of the dark-haired little girl slipped out. He saw the toothy, gotta-love-me grin and the sweet life in her freckled face. But mostly he saw the innocence.
There went another chunk of his soul.
* * *
"I know, Mom. I'm sorry." Annie meant it. She wasn't heartless. She just…
"How could you not want to go?" Her mom's arms crossed over the front of her yellow tailored suit. Then Annie got the you-disappoint-me sigh.
Annie hated that sigh. Hated disappointing her mom.
"You've turned me down to go see them three times since you've lived here."
Yeah, her move to Anniston five months before—for a job—had put her only an hour drive from her mother's family. She'd worried her mom would use her location to push Annie closer to the Reeds. She'd been right.
She met her mom's woeful gaze and felt heartless, like she'd feared. Her mom's visit was a surprise, but after she'd called yesterday morning to inform Annie that her uncle had died, she should have expected it.
"I said I'd go."
Her mom popped up from the living room chair. "After you said you preferred not to."
Well, there was that. "I was thinking about work when I said it." Lie. The truth—it was hard going to the funeral of someone you didn't know. Okay, maybe it was harder to go to the funeral of someone you did know. Someone you loved.
Like her dad's. And if he were still alive, he wouldn't let her mom put her through this. Annie stared at the papers she'd been grading in her lap.
"He was your uncle." The grief in her mom's voice drew Annie's gaze up.
The emotion echoed inside Annie. "I'm going."
"How could you be so uncaring?"
Uncaring? No! Annie had lost two jobs because she cared too much. She had to give up teaching elementary school because she cared too much. She couldn't watch the news because she cared too much.
"I didn't know him. He wasn't even at the reunion I went to. It makes it awkward."
"We lived in the same town until you were almost five."
"I don't remember him." Nada. Zip. She refocused on her papers. Her sketchy childhood memories had created interesting discussions in her therapy sessions.
Sessions Annie no longer indulged in. After more than a year of getting nowhere, and doubting herself even more, she decided to keep her distance from shrinks and got herself a cat instead. And frankly, she was better. Or had been until…
"It's because of your dad, isn't it?"
Maybe. Not completely. "No." Annie ran a finger over the scar right below her kneecap.
Harsh streaks of sunlight slashed through the miniblinds and brought with them the ugly memory of hearing her parents in the kitchen having a blowout. Her mom's mother had died—a grandmother Annie hadn't known she had. Her mom had wanted to take Annie to the funeral. She'd never heard her soft-spoken, choir minister of a father so outraged.
The next day, worried about her mother, Annie confronted her dad. He didn't hold back. They aren't nice people. They're angry and they're alcoholics and they've spent more time in prison than they have in church.
Since her dad's death, Mom had reconnected with her family. Six months back, she'd begged Annie to go to a family reunion. Curious but leery, she went. And maybe her father's opinion had tainted her view, but the Reed clan gave her the heebie-jeebies.
Her mom's blue eyes teared even more. Guilt took a few laps around Annie's sore heart. No matter how she felt about the Reeds, her mother had lost someone she loved.
Setting her papers down, Annie stood. "I'm sorry. Drive here tomorrow, and we'll go together." Annie hugged her.
"Thank you." Her mom ended the embrace a second earlier than a normal person.
Funny how one second made a difference.
Her mom, three inches taller than Annie, frowned down at her. "You've got dark circles under your eyes. Are you…having sleeping issues again?"
Sleeping issues? Mom always called it that as if it would make it less than it was. "I'm fine." When twelve, she'd asked her mom about the recurring nightmare she'd been having. It had felt so real. Mom had blamed it on her watching The Blair Witch Project at a friend's house. That could've explained things. Well, everything but the scar. Her mom, however, insisted Annie had fallen off her bike.
Five minutes later, Annie stood by her apartment window, still longing for that extra second, and watched her mom drive off. Her dad had been the hug giver. Sometimes Annie missed him so much her toenails ached.
All grown up and still a daddy's girl. She'd have to discuss this with her cat.
Speaking of Pirate: The one-eyed, three-legged orange tabby sashayed into the room. It wasn't easy to sashay with a limp, but he pulled it off with charisma.
She scooped him up. "Looks like I'm going to a funeral in Heebie-Jeebie Land."
Pirate bumped her nose with his scared face. Annie moved toward the sofa. "I know, going makes me a pushover. But don't rub it in. I brought you home, didn't I?"
Dropping into the soft leather cushions, Pirate in her lap, she clicked on the television.
The screen flashed with a breaking news story. A perky blond reporter was saying, "We believe there may be news on the Brittany Talbot disappearance."
Emotion crowded Annie's throat. Turn it off!
She couldn't. The image of the five-year-old ballerina shot straight to the heart.
The screen again showed the reporter standing in front of a lake. "We've—" She turned, and the camera did, too. "Detective Sutton, can you give us a word?"
Coffee-shop Sutton filled the screen. Once again, he wore Dockers and dark shades, but new to his apparel was a darker frown. Darker than usual.
"No comment!" The camera focused on his face. Annie leaned in closer. What was he hiding behind his glasses?
"Can you confirm that this is about the Talbot case?"
"Go chase another ambulance." He left the woman holding the microphone and a scowl.
"A man of few words." The reporter's perky mask reappeared. "Sources tell us that the body of a child fitting the description of…"
Eyes closed, Annie saw a little girl twirling in her tutu, clutching a white teddy bear.
Annie's eyes shot open. Brittany Talbot didn't have a teddy bear.A shiver climbed her back. The news went to a commercial. She clicked off the TV.
Her phone rang. The number belonging to Isabella, Annie's neighbor and the one friend she had made in Anniston, showed on the screen.
"Come over for wine," Annie said in lieu of hello.
"Sure. I just saw your coffee-buddy cop on TV."
"He's not my buddy." The teddy bear image flashed again.
"Right. Was that your mom's car I saw?"
"Yes." Annie stared at the blank TV screen, wishing she could cut off her mind.
"You cratered, didn't you? You're going to the funeral."
Annie nipped on her lip. "You said I would."
"You didn't have to prove me right. It's not too late. The stomach virus is going around. Diarrhea works like a gem."
"I can't. She's hurting. Besides, it's only two days. What could possibly happen in two days that I can't survive?"
When Bethany Talbot opened the door, Mark knew he was too late. She brushed her tear-streaked cheeks and looked up with the kind of sorrow he still saw in his own eyes. Judith Holt needed to see this.
"Is it her?" Bethany asked.
"Looks like it."
A moan of pure sadness, slipped off her lips.
"I'm sorry." Mark fucking hated his job right now.
"After all this time, I didn't think it would hurt this much. I mean, I only held out the slightest hope that…" She swallowed.
He heard the agony in that gulp. It was all too familiar to him.
"If only I'd made her come inside with me when the phone rang." Falling against him, her shoulders shook from heartfelt sobs.
Mark wasn't a touchy-feely kind of guy, but he wasn't an asshole, either. So with awkward not-sure-how-to-do-this pats, he tried to comfort her. Just like he'd tried to comfort his mom and failed.
"I'm sorry." His sincerity echoed in his tone. Her pain was too damn familiar. Her sobs too close to those of his mom's seventeen years before.
He offered more words. "You shouldn't blame yourself." While true, he knew firsthand those words wouldn't help. That kind of guilt couldn't be consoled. You had to live with it.
Obviously, sensing his discomfort, she pulled back. "I'm sorry."
She wiped her pale cheeks. "No. Nothing about this is okay. Do you think my ex-husband did this?"
"I don't know. We called requesting he come to the station for another interview, but he's not in town until Monday."
"You spoke with him, though. Did he sound guilty?"
"I'm not sure." He looked at the woman, early thirties, probably his age. Yet she looked older. The despair in her face told him life hadn't been kind to her. Men just carried the scars better.
"What do you believe?" he asked, turning from consoler to cop.
She pulled in another shaky breath. "I don't want to believe it, but I wouldn't swear on it." Her head fell back onto his shoulder, and Mark resumed the awkward patting.
* * *
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Sgt. Tom Brown bellowed. He fell into pace with Mark as he made haste to his office.
"My job." It was five o'clock. Quitting time. He'd left Bethany Talbot to search for Johnny Cash and found nothing. But damn, he could use a stiff drink. More than one. The weekend couldn't come fast enough.
Brown's short legs worked double time to keep up. Mark didn't slow down. If the man was going to read him the riot act, let him do it in the privacy of Mark's office. Not that it'd be private. Connor and Juan were back.
"Do you have to be a dick doing that job? We got a call from Channel Six."
"Finding a murdered kid brings the dick out in me." Mark sped up.
"Damn it, Sutton! I'm going to get shit from the commissioner over this."
"And here I thought he'd be happy. We're a step closer to finding who killed the kid." Mark knew "the kid's" name, but using it made it feel more personal.
They arrived outside the opened door to the office, which was actually the file room where three on-probation cops had been assigned to do the department's grunt work. Sift through endless cold case reports.
APD didn't have enough ammo to fire their asses, so they stuck them there and waited for them to quit. The Cold Case Unit was known as the exit route. They'd decided not to accommodate them. Of course, after the day he had, he could change his mind.
Mark faced his sergeant. "Is that what's really chapping your ass? That we did what you and your partner, Gomez, couldn't do?"
Brown's nose grew red. A bad sign. Mark had watched too many older officers get pudgy, red nosed, and lost in a bottle. A heart attack always followed.
Was that what he had to look forward to?
"Watch it, Sutton," his sergeant warned.
"Or what?" Mark asked with jaded confidence.
Brown's jowls slapped shut, and he rushed off.
Mark walked into the room. Connor and Juan, at their desks, clapped, a slow one-beat-at-a-time applause. Both of them had bones to pick with Brown. Mark's bone wasn't so much with Brown as it was with the political bureaucracy of the system. They wanted them to go out and solve crimes, then put so many friggin' rules in place that they couldn't.
He knew they needed rules, but damn if every one of them hadn't been written more to protect the guilty than the innocent. And even when they followed the rules, if the public didn't like it, the big brass threw the officer under the bus.
He had a few tire tracks on his ass. Connor had more. They'd trained him on when to use his weapon and when not to. And when he'd been forced to protect himself they couldn't even argue that discharging his weapon hadn't been justified. But when the shooter turned out to be seventeen, the press and the precinct turned on Connor.
"Spill it," Connor said.
"Spill what?" Mark sat behind his messy desk. He liked it messy. Just like his life.
"What you've got on the sergeant's ass."
"Who said I've got anything?"
"Don't bullshit a bullshitter," Connor said. "If I or Juan here had said that to the old fart, we'd be cleaning out our desks."
"I'm just more likable." Mark leaned back in his chair.
The info he had wasn't anything he'd ever share. If the sergeant pulled his head out of his ass, he'd know that. Right now, Mark hoped the man's head never saw the light of day.
* * *
Saturday morning, dressed in funeral black, Annie found a row of creaky metal chairs, behind which was a corner with a door in case she needed to escape.
Condensation dripped from her glass of watered-down lemonade.
The home, old, large, and rambling, would've made a perfect haunted house. It felt as if some wannabe contractor had added a couple more bedrooms every few years. Most of the rooms didn't have closets but held antique armoires. Not the nicer ones people bought at auctions, but worn pieces that looked as if they'd been used all these years. She had a creepy suspicion that secrets and skeletons lay hidden in those scarred wooden wardrobes.
People milled around in a proper funeral mood. Yet nothing felt proper.
Her gut said that this eerie somberness hanging in the stuffy air wasn't brought here by a funeral, but lived here.
Growing up, she'd seen touches of it in her mom, but Annie's father's easy-to-smile persona had overridden her mom's brief slips into depression.
Her gaze caught on the casket in the front of the living room. The air in her lungs felt like liquid concrete. What kind of family held a funeral in their home?
At the sound of her name, she quashed the need to duck through her escape route. Aunt Doris, one of her mom's sisters, darted across the room toward her.
"Look what I found last night. I thought you'd like it." She held out a photograph.
Annie forced a smile and tried not to stare at her aunt's false eyelashes. The woman reminded Annie of a slightly drunk, downplayed version of Dolly Parton—a look completely opposite from her mom's Sunday-best style.
The yellowed photograph showed two girls sitting in kitchen chairs. She recognized herself. She looked about five. Her gaze shifted to the untied Cinderella tennis shoes on her feet. Her heart took a time-out. The scar on her knee itched.
Trying to not to react, she continued to gaze at the snapshot. The other girl, who appeared to be older, another blonde, wore a cast on her right arm. Fran?
Annie had heard Fran's name. The Reed gossip mill, which she'd already been privy to, said that the divorced Fran had drinking problems. That she'd left a kid with her ex-husband.
"You two were best friends," Doris's slurred voice had the hair on Annie's neck dancing.
Annie studied the picture harder, drawn to the expression on Fran's face—the sadness, a silent yearning begging for someone to save her. That look on a few of her students had haunted Annie when she'd been an elementary school teacher. That look had ultimately cost her the job. That look had resulted in a restraining order against her.
That look had gotten her arrested for breaking that restraining order.
She really didn't like that look.
"Fran should be here," Doris said. "I hope she behaves. She didn't grow up as nice as you did."
Little did Aunt Doris know. Annie's "nice" was running on fumes. She wanted to get out of there so bad the bottoms of her feet itched.
She glanced at the grandfather clock that ticked and chimed in the corner like a bomb about to blow.
"But she's my girl." Doris's words rode on her liquor-scented breath.
Her cousin obviously came by her drinking problem honestly.
"I'm sure she means well," Annie said and watched Doris bumping her way through the crowd.
The photograph found a spot in her purse, beside the panties that she'd almost left behind in her hotel room this morning. Cold drops of condensation from the glass of lemonade ran down the side of Annie's hand and spattered on the toes of her black heels. The tiny splats echoed in her ears as she thought about Cinderella shoes and Fran's expression in the photo.
Fidgeting, she looked up. Aunt Frieda, Uncle Harry's widow, draped in black, paced the room in a cloud of misery. A red-haired woman, an aunt by marriage, who her mom had introduced earlier as Aunt Karen, stood talking to her mom. Sarah, her mom's youngest sister who'd never married, sat in a metal folding chair, staring at her hands in a not-really-there way. A vague but eerie feeling of déjà vu hit. She'd seen that woman sitting that way before. Not at the family reunion, but from some other time in the far reaches of her memory.
Right then Uncle George, her mom's brother, a short, pudgy, red-faced man who looked angrier than he had the previous day at the wake, walked in complaining about the pastor being late.
"Annie?" Her mom's voice rang out. "Come here."
Annie saw her mom had moved to stand beside the casket. No. But her mom called again. Heart thudding, Annie walked over. She'd managed to be in the house for over an hour without looking at the guest of honor.
"Do you think his tie works?" her mom asked.
Intent on offering only a glance, like swallowing a bitter pill fast, Annie cut her eyes downward. Her gaze stuck on the dead man. Her heart raced and yanked her back to the recurring dream. Thump. Thump. Thump. Run. Run. Run.
"The tie's fine." Annie's gaze shot to the door. "I…need air."
When she swung around, she accidentally ran into her aunt Karen. Muttering an apology, Annie moved as fast as her liquid knees would take her. Feeling raw, feeling vulnerable, feeling chased.
Faster, Annie. Faster!!
* * *
"Let's bow our heads." The hour-late pastor began.
The swish of a door opening brought the pastor's words to a halt. Annie turned to see a blonde saunter into the room.
"Better late than never." Her voice didn't match the room's mood. Neither did her red dress. She stumbled to the closest available chair.
Murmurs echoed from the crowd. Red. Drunk. Not again. Annie glanced at her mom.
"Fran," her mom whispered.
Annie titled her head to the side just enough to study her cousin. She saw similarities to the picture Aunt Doris had handed her. Fran's hair was darker, she wore the years on her face, but the lost look in her eyes hadn't changed.
Almost as if she could feel Annie's stare, her cousin turned. Their gazes locked. Recognition filled Fran's eyes. Memories that Annie couldn't quite reach clawed at her mind. She looked away.
The metal folding chair under Annie suddenly felt unstable. She fought the desire to reach for something to hold on to.
How soon could she get the hell out of here?
The service ended. The crowd thinned. Back to hugging the corner of the room, the one beside the door, she waited for her mom to say it was time to go.
Twice she watched Fran make trips to the kitchen to refill her glass with something stronger than lemonade. When Fran stumbled, spilling her drink, Annie moved in.
Fran, gripping the back of a chair, looked up. "So the little cousin finally comes out of hiding."
Annie took the glass from Fran's hand and knelt to collect the ice cubes. When she stood up, she met Fran's one-too-many gaze.
"It's not a big deal," Fran said. "I was on my way for a refill." She took the glass and started walking. Then she swung around. "You coming?"
Annie followed. The kitchen was empty except for herself and Fran, who rode her tiptoes as she pulled a bottle of vodka from the pantry's top shelf.
Freshly brewed caffeine flavored the air. "How about coffee, instead?" Annie asked.
Fran's brows rose with too much expression. "Still trying to be the good girl, huh?"
Had Annie been a good girl back then? "Just being helpful."
"Then pass the lemonade. It helps this cheap vodka go down."
Annie spied the coffee cups on the counter. "You take it black?"
Fran stared. Annie continued, "People are talking." Why she wanted to save Fran from the gossip was a mystery. She recalled her aunt's words: You two were best friends.
Fran's laugh bounced around the yellow kitchen, but there was nothing cheery about the sound. Or the room. "They always talk."
"One cup," Annie pleaded, her voice too small for the big space.
Fran leaned against the old refrigerator. The noisy icemaker clanked out ice. Annie took Fran's posture as a sign of resignation. As Annie poured hot coffee into the cups, steam rose in the air.
"Black?" Annie asked again.
The fridge spit out more ice.
Fran stared. It wasn't resignation shining in the watery pools of green. "I don't want any fucking coffee. And I don't fucking care what they say. Do you?" She grabbed the bottle again. "Because if you think by not coming back all these years that you saved yourself from their hypocritical judgment, well think again."
The bitterness in Fran's tone scraped across Annie's nerves.
"They say you lost two jobs 'cause you couldn't handle the pressure. That you had a nervous breakdown. Then you became a regular on some shrink's couch. Personally, I'd rather drink."
Anger burned in Annie's stomach. How dare her mother…
Fran raised her glass. "We all deal with it somehow, don't we?"
Annie took a backward step, her heart crashing against her chest like a trapped bird seeking freedom. She had to leave. She started for the door.
Fran blocked her path. "Do you ever think about her?"
"Move," Annie managed.
"Mom said you live there now. When you drive past the park, do you think about her?"
Annie shook her head, her blond hair scattering over her eyes. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Don't tell me you don't remember Jenny." Fran slapped a hand over her lips. "Oops, not supposed to say her name, am I?"
A wave of nausea swelled in Annie's stomach. She had to get out of here. Away from these crazy people. She took off, bumping into several people standing right outside the door.
"What's wrong?" Fran's question chased her out.
But in Annie's head she heard Fran scream, Run, Annie! Run!
She snatched her purse. Outside she spotted her mother and met her halfway across the yard. "How could you tell them my problems?"
"What?" her mother asked.
"Me losing my jobs, my therapy. How—?"
"They're family," her mom said.
"They aren't my family. Daddy made that clear." Annie took one step then swung around. "I'm going home."
Her mom's eyes rounded. "Annie? You can't—"
Don't tell me you don't remember Jenny.
Shaking, she dug through her purse, and found her keys. Then Annie did just what Fran had told her to do all those years ago.
She flung herself into her car. Gravel spit from beneath the tires as she put it into gear. Faster, Annie, faster.
As her wheels made tracks back to Anniston, her mind took her to the dream. The footsteps.
And just like that, she remembered Jenny. She knew the bloody teddy bear had belonged to Jenny. She knew Annie and Fran had gone into the woods looking for Jenny. Then another image flashed, of Jenny lying in a hole in the earth, dirt being tossed over her too-still body. Blood running down the side of Jenny's face.
Annie yanked her mom's car to the side of the road, opened the door, and puked.
"Someone's here to see you."
Mark looked up from his messy desk to see Mildred, the front desk clerk, standing at his door. Round, pudgy, with dyed red hair. He frowned at his cell phone, noting it wasn't even eight o'clock yet.
Too early on Monday morning to have people popping in. It didn't matter that he'd been here since five, going back over the case files of the dead little girl. Coming in was better than staring at the damn ceiling all night, not wanting to close to his eyes. Because when he did, he saw things he wanted to forget. Images that stained his soul.
The concern of a mother bear puckered her lips. "You look like something my cat dragged in and then refused to eat."
"Good. That's the look I was going for." His tone hinted at sarcasm.
He pressed a finger to his temple, wishing he could rub away the headache. Friday night he'd lost himself in a bottle of scotch. Or-how was it that Judith had put it? He drank himself into oblivion. Something he hadn't done in about a month. It seemed the less he drank, the longer the hangovers lasted when he did. And there he had it: a reason not to slow down.
"Who is it?"
Mildred leaned in. "A Ms. Lakes. She said it's about a murder."
Mark stopped massaging his forehead. "The Talbot case?"
"I assumed. She asked for you."
He rolled his shoulders. "Is she one of the crazy ones? You know I don't do crazies on Monday."
"Do you do crazies on Tuesday?" The question came with tease. "She's pretty."
"Well, hell. Why didn't you start with that?"
The smile in her eyes faded. "Take something for your headache."
When Mildred left, the two plastic cups of cold coffee he'd poured and hadn't drunk caught his attention. He'd skipped his coffee run, but he still couldn't drink this shit.
He set them in the trash can, an attempt to come off like less of a slob.
The tapping of heels echoed down the hall.
He stacked up a few more papers. The tapping stopped at his door. He stood up, hoping to come off well-mannered, even though his present demeanor leaned more to don't-give-a-damn curt.
"Hell…o." The o of the greeting stuck to his tongue when his eyes lit on the package in pink. Pink sandals, a wispy skirt with pink flowers, and a fitted pink cotton shirt that looked as soft as what filled it.
Pink looked good on her, too.
Add blond hair and blue eyes, and, hangover or not, old-fashioned lust washed over him.
Then recognition hit. He knew her. Didn't he?
He motioned her inside, trying to place her while trying to recover from his initial, completely normal male reaction. One he hadn't felt since a certain news reporter.
"Come in. Ms. Lakes, right?" She nodded. He continued. "I'm Detective Mark Sutton, but you know that."
She nodded again.
"Have a seat."
"Thanks." She fiddled with the sunglasses on top of her head as she inched closer.
Her hesitation told him she had doubts about being here.
When they'd each settled into their chairs, he watched her fidget with her purse strap. Patience had never been his strong point. How the hell do I know her?
An uncomfortable thought hit. He hadn't met her in a bar and gone home with her, had he? He'd done that a few times before Judith.
"You wanted to see me?" His tone was soft, but her reaction wasn't. She flinched as if he'd asked for her bra size.
Then she blinked and replied, "Yes."
That was when he noticed the purple rings under her eyes. Blatant evidence that, like himself, she hadn't been sleeping that well. The fact that she hadn't taken the time to hide those purple smudges told him something, too. This problem was serious enough to keep her awake, and she wasn't the overly vain type.
He liked that. Not the seriousness of the situation, but the lack of vanity. His fling with Judith had taught him a few things. Mainly, stay away from women whose egos were larger than their breasts.
She crossed her legs, then uncrossed them. "I don't know where to start."
Her voice didn't ring any bells. He picked up a pen, and ignored his instinct to lean in and glance down at her legs. Not that he hadn't already noticed them. He had.
"How about starting at the beginning?" He offered her the police-regulated smile, hoping to put her at ease. She brushed a strand of hair off her cheek, and he got the feeling again that he'd watched her do that before.
Her gaze met his. The haunted look staring back at him seemed familiar in a different way than before. His faux smile slipped off his face. The woman looked as if she might pass out.
"Do you need something to drink?"
She played with the flap on her purse. "It was a long time ago." Her voice barely reached him.
He leaned in. The chair protested with a squeak. "What was a long time ago?"
"Is this about the Brittany Talbot case?"
She frowned as if it was a trick question. "No."
"So what's it about?" he asked, growing more impatient. Her fidgeting must have been contagious, because he ran his finger over the lip of his messy desk.
"I think it's about a murder. Another girl. Not Brittany."
"You think it's about a murder? But you're not sure?"
"I'm pretty sure." She sat up taller, as if his question had put her on the defensive.
"Care to elaborate?" he asked, back to worrying about the crazy factor.
"I saw…" Her voice thinned. Her chest rose and fell as if the air was too thick. "I saw someone burying her."
Vertebrae by vertebrae, Mark's spine tightened. "Where? When?" He shook his head. "Who?"
"Jenny. Her name was Jenny."
She sent him a blank look. "I'm not sure. Maybe Reed? Maybe not. She lived in Pearlsville." Another strand of wispy hair fell to Ms. Lake's cheek. "She was my cousin."
"Cousin?" But you don't know her last name? "What happened?"
"The family had gone camping. We were asleep in the tent, and—"
"Who's 'we'?" He edged his chair closer to the desk.
"My other cousin. Fran. Francyne Roberts." She pulled a photograph from her purse and handed it to him. "She's the one with the broken arm."
It was an aged image of two girls. His gaze stuck on the youngest. He looked up. Same round eyes. Same sweet face.
Why she'd brought the picture baffled him. He set the photograph on his desk. "So you woke up and…" He motioned for her to continue.
"Jenny was gone. Fran was supposed to watch us, so—"
"Watch?" He pushed a thumb to his throbbing temple. "When did this happen?"
She took another nip at her lip. "About twenty-four years ago."
He ran a hand through his hair. "And you're just now coming forward?"
"I would've, but…"
"What?" He tapped the end of his pen on his desk. The click bounced around the room, making the silence seem incredibly loud.
She hugged her purse. "I didn't remember…until now."
He rolled the pen between his palms. "It just came to you. Just like that?"
"No. I went to an uncle's funeral and…" Her words faded. "I guess I never really forgot. I've dreamed it, over and over again. Well, some of it. But when I was there, I remembered."
He leaned forward. "You dreamed that this happened?"
Yup, crazy. And it's Monday! "If you dreamed it, and then forgot it, how do you know it really happened?"
Her chin inched up, a tiny gesture that spoke of her guts.
"The shoes." She pointed to the photo. "I dreamed I was wearing them. And the scar. I fell in the dream, and I have a scar."
His grip on the pen tightened. "Normally, it takes more than a dream to report a murder."
"I'm sorry," she said breathlessly, her tone hinting at a touch of anger. "It was a mistake coming here."
Guilt tugged at his gut. "If it happened in Pearlsville, you should talk to someone there."
"I thought you'd…" She inhaled as if to pull the words back in. As if she decided he wasn't worth her words.
"You thought I would what?" He clicked the pen.
Instead of answering, she bolted out of his office with a hell of a lot more energy than she'd come in.
Frustrated, he finger-locked his hands behind his neck and closed his eyes. His mind flashed the image of the haunted look he'd seen on her face. And while he still didn't know why she looked familiar, he knew that look. He'd seen that same expression in the mirror every morning when he woke up, or when he crawled out of bed and hadn't slept, because the images robbed him of sleep and sanity.
Determined to focus on the Talbot case, a real case, he leaned forward. He saw her picture. Picking it up, he stared at the younger girl's image, the sweet face. He thought of his half sister. Sweet, innocent, and dead. Her body tossed in a dumpster.
"Well, shit!" He took off, hoping to catch Ms. Lakes. What he'd say to her when, or if, he caught her, was anyone's guess.
* * *
Insides trembling, hands sweating, she walked, weak-kneed, down the hall. Coming here had been a mistake.
She made it outside the precinct. Hot air and hotter sunshine hit her. Lowering her sunglasses, she fought the need to cry. Not in public, damn it. People would think she was crazy. Just what Detective Sutton believed—what most of her old coworkers, her friends, and Ted, her fiancé, believed. Hell, she could probably add her mother to that list.
Why had she told him about the dreams? She could've just said…what?
There was nothing she could say about any of this that didn't sound crazy. If it happened in Pearlsville, you should talk to someone there.
It might've helped if she'd told him she thought the murder had happened here. Or maybe not. He was right. She needed something besides dreams, and rants from her drunk cousin.
She needed Jenny's last name.
She needed to talk to her mom. The knot in her throat tightened. Tears threatened.
She turned. Detective Sutton sprinted across the parking lot. Feeling a tear slip from beneath her sunglasses, she brushed it from her cheek and nudged her frames up on her nose. Had he changed his mind?
His dark hair, a tad too long to be considered stylish, stirred in the wind. He carried his big frame like a man comfortable with his size. The type of man who always made Annie wish she had a few more inches.
As he got closer, she spotted the photograph in his hand.
He stopped beside her.
Yep. He made her feel small.
"You forgot this."
Not trusting her voice, she reached for the picture.
"The coffee shop," he blurted out. "That's where I know you from. I don't think I've ever seen you without your sunglasses on."
Great, now she was going to have to find a new place to drink coffee. She slipped the photograph into her purse. When her hands shook, she didn't bother zipping it, but swerved around and started to her car.
His one word gave her pause.
She stopped. She waited. But she didn't turn around. Then not wanting to come off like some meek, too small female, she squared her shoulders.
He stepped beside her. She didn't look at him. But she felt him. His scent, a spicy, male soap kind of aroma, filled her senses.
She gazed up at him, and a tingling awareness skittered down her spine. A male/female kind of tingle, the last emotion she expected to feel to right now. The last thing she wanted to feel. But hadn't she felt it every time she'd watched him come into the coffee shop? Oh, Lord, why had she thought this was a good idea?
Nudging those thoughts aside, she glanced up but waited for him speak. Waited to see what he'd say. Then her patience snapped, she tossed words out. "I shouldn't have come here. Forget…" She started to leave, but he spoke up again.
"Wait." He looked down through his dark sunglasses. "You didn't answer my question. What is it that you thought I'd do?"
While she couldn't see his eyes, she felt them studying her. She suddenly wished she'd taken the time to notice his eyes earlier. What color were they? What was he hiding?
"I thought you'd care." An assumption she'd gotten from him buying coffee for strangers and the way he'd come across in the on-camera interviews. And the way he'd shielded himself with those glasses, as if hiding his pain.
Wasn't that the reason she wore sunglasses? To hide.
"You think I don't care?" His tone deepened.
"I think…it doesn't matter. Because you obviously believe I'm crazy." She shook her head. "Like I said, coming here was a mistake."
"That's my job." His comment felt like a jab, hitting her ribs, heart, and nerves.
Her shoulders squared. "Your job is to think I'm crazy?"
"My job is to mistrust everyone." He let the words hang in the air before continuing. "And your job is to convince me otherwise."
"What happened to innocent until proven guilty?"
"I never assumed you were guilty." His right eyebrow rose above his dark glasses. "Just crazy." A whisper of a smile pulled at his lips.
His honesty both disturbed and intrigued her. "And what do I need to do to convince you I'm sane?"
"You could start by buying me a cup of coffee."
"Bribery?" she asked.
He ran a palm over his mouth as if to hide a smile. "It's right around the block, as you know." He pulled a set of keys from his front pocket. "I'm parked right here." He started walking to a line of cars.
She hesitated. The idea of having coffee with him made her feel as if she'd already indulged in too much caffeine. And the reasons weren't about Jenny or about him believing she was crazy, but about the insane male/female thing again.
He glanced back. "Coming?"
From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
In Craig’s clever first Texas Justice contemporary romantic suspense novel, the reopening of a cold case leads to passion and drama. Community college English teacher Annie Lakes moved to Anniston, Tex., to get some breathing room after losing her job and fiancé. But a new city and a three-legged cat companion don’t stop her from dreaming of her young cousin Jenny’s disappearance, a dream she’s had every night for 24 years. When she finally remembers new details about what happened to Jenny, Annie feels compelled to report that another family member may have killed the girl. Cold case detective Mark Sutton is teetering on the edge of a drinking problem, and his cases are often stressful and unsolvable. Still, he’s willing to help Annie, particularly since their mutual attraction is so palpable. He’s not convinced that Annie is a reliable witness, but as he and his team dive in, they begin to uncover her long-hidden family secrets. Their teamwork is also demonstrated in a well-plotted secondary story line about another cold case. Craig demonstrates strong characterization skills in building Annie and Mark’s imperfect personalities, and her supporting characters will be worth getting to know in the future. Romantic suspense fans will mark this as a series to watch. (Sept.)