Heroes are made in moments like this.
Ashley Walker was one of the lucky ones. Adopted when she was fourteen years old by a family willing to love her as their own, they stuck beside her through all the hell she put them through.
A kind of hell that would haunt her forever. But now she’s put her past behind her—or so she thought. Garret Hensley never imagined he'd be chasing the killer of the woman who'd set him on the path of law enforcement.
She'd given him reason to believe in himself, to believe he could make a difference. And he suspected her giving heart was the reason her life had been cut so short. When the evidence leads him to Ashley Walker, he knows he has to ignore the feelings she stirs in him, because getting her to reveal the truth of her past is the key to finding a killer.
Heartstopping romantic suspense from NY Times Bestselling Author Lori Ryan! Serve and Protect is book three of the Heroes of Evers, Texas Series but it can be read as a stand alone novel.
Ashley Walker looked out over the surface of the lake to where her siblings floated on inner tubes, a slow smile spreading on her face. She pressed her feet to the sun-warmed wood of the dock and let the heat soak into her skin. The day was perfect.
Well, that wasn’t quite true.
Emma was two beats away from pushing Sam to his limit with her nagging, but that was a fairly normal state of affairs. Emma micromanaged. That’s who she was. For the most part, all of the Walker siblings tuned her out when she got this way.
“I’m just saying, you could have handled it better.” Emma’s tone said there wasn’t any “just saying” about it. She flat-out thought she was right and she planned to make sure Sam knew it.READ MORE
Sam growled at her. When push came to shove, he’d defend any of them to the end, but Emma walked all over his last nerve, then followed that up with a tap dance. “Carrie Ann knew damned well walking in that I wasn’t looking for a relationship. It’s not my problem she got buyer’s remorse afterward. If she didn’t want a one-night stand, she should have walked away the ten or so times I gave her the chance.”
“She’s your secretary!” The indignation in Emma’s voice carried clear across the water. Their other brother, Nathan, was busy working his inner tube behind Sam, whose head lolled back, eyes closed as he appeared to relax in the sun, despite the argument with Emma. No doubt that was egging Emma on even more. She hated nothing more than being ignored.
Sam didn’t answer, and Ashley had to agree with Emma a little. Sleeping with his secretary had been a boneheaded move. The woman clearly had I want marriage and a family stamped on her forehead, and now Sam had to work with her every day. But men were idiots. That was nothing new.
Ashley watched Nathan paddle, and knew he planned to dunk Sam. Nathan was the youngest of them all at twenty-two, and still the clown of the family. He also couldn’t help trying to defuse the argument. But he was underestimating Sam. Ashley knew better. Just because his eyes were closed didn’t mean you could take Sam out. You had to wait until that man was dead to the world asleep before trying a stunt like that.
She pressed her lips together, biting them to keep from laughing as she watched Sam’s lips twitch the tiniest bit at the edges. Nathan paddled closer, using only the smallest movements of his hands to creep up on Sam. Emma seemed oblivious to Nathan’s actions.
Sam turned suddenly and dove onto Nathan’s tube, taking them both under the water together, and drenching Emma with the resulting splash. Her sister Cora had been smart enough to paddle slightly upstream to get herself out of the way. Ashley knew she was the smartest of them all for not going into the water with the boys to begin with.
She looked down at her tablet’s screen and smiled. In truth, she had other reasons for not joining in the fun today. She had her own party going on online and didn’t want to miss a second of it.
The cover of her latest book looked so good, she wanted to cry. Her cover artist had nailed it—from the colors, to the fonts, to the picture of the couple, to the size of her pen name. The bulging biceps of the male model encircled the woman protectively, but she was no mouse. She held a gun comfortably by her side as if it were an extension of her body, perfectly representing the heroine Ashley had penned. She never authored a heroine who was content to simply sit back and let the hero do all the fighting. And in her latest book, the heroine was every bit as well-trained and tough as the hero.
The water splashed when Cora pulled her tube up to the dock, hanging onto the large rope ladder their dad had tied to the wood pylon years before. Cora leaned her head back as she shaded her eyes against the sun.
“How is the release going? Good so far?”
Cora was the only one who knew that Ashley was the person behind the pen name Leigh Dare. She hadn’t really planned to keep the secret from her family and friends for so long. At first, when she’d decided to self-publish romantic suspense novels, she’d been afraid the books wouldn’t sell. That she’d be a failure. So it had seemed like a good idea to let that failure be a private thing. And then, when her books had taken off, she’d been so stunned, she hadn’t known what to do. Cora, of course, had figured it out. Cora was as avid a reader of romance novels as Ashley was. She’d read the books and spotted several phrases Ashley regularly used, and she’d figured it out by the third book.
Ashley smiled and nodded. “Yeah, people are posting that they love it so far. It’s still surreal.”
Watching hundreds of people congratulate her on the Leigh Dare Facebook page on her release day was still a dream. It still shocked her that anyone wanted to read her books. The fact that they loved them enough to contact her was unbelievable. Then, as people read the book, they posted their favorite quotes, or came on to tell her they loved it so far.
A few people had begun to tweet the links to their reviews. And those reviews raved about her latest hero and heroine. They loved the way Aiden Kane and Alexa Mayer played off one another. The way the sexual tension built until it exploded as they raced across the country, desperately trying to figure out who was trying to sabotage Dalton Chemical’s latest research project.
Cora laughed. “Of course they do. The series is a huge hit, Ash. You’re really good. Freakishly good, as a matter of fact,” she said, pushing her feet lazily against the dock so that her tube bounced back and forth on the water.
Ashley grinned. “I am, aren’t I?” She could say that to her sister because Cora was one of the few people who knew Ashley really wasn’t as arrogant as her previous statement made her sound. Cora knew Ashley on a level no one else did. And she knew Ashley was incredibly humbled by her success in this new arena. Humbled and grateful beyond words, so she chose to go the tactless joke route instead.
Ashley’s phone rang and she glanced at the screen before putting it back down. When Cora gave her that raised brow look that said fess up, Ashley rolled her eyes. They’d always had a weird ability to communicate, even though they weren’t related by blood. When Ashley had first come to the Walkers as a foster child, she’d hated Cora. Resented her. In fact, at one time or another, all of the Walker children had been so at odds, no one would have thought they’d ever be as happy as they were now.
Within the first year, Cora had knocked down Ash’s defenses. They were as different as night and day, both physically and in personality, but their bond was strong.
“It’s Alice,” she mumbled. Mumbling was not at all like Ashley. She spoke loud and clear and put out whatever she was feeling or thinking for the world’s consumption. Without hesitation. Without censorship. But the recent calls from her former social worker, Alice Johnson—three of them in just as many days—made her want to close in on herself.
Cora’s forehead wrinkled up. “Ah. I get it,” she said after a moment. “It’s almost your anniversary.”
Ashley pressed her lips together and nodded. “I just don’t want to revisit it this year, you know? She hasn’t called the past few years, so I’m not entirely sure that’s why she’s calling now, but I just, well, you know.”
Cora did know. None of the Walker kids wanted to be reminded of the reasons they had become Walkers in the first place. Their pasts weren’t fun, by any means. But they were all happy to be Walkers now. Theirs was a family truly built on love. Blood, sweat, tears, and love. They celebrated that, having moved past their backgrounds, for the most part. But sometimes their former social workers thought about them around their “anniversary dates” and got in touch. Ashley was fairly sure they didn’t even do it consciously. They wouldn’t ever seek to hurt the kids they’d helped. But as much as they were all grateful to the people who had helped them get out of the situations they’d been in, they weren’t eager to revisit those times.
“Maybe she’s figured out your secret and wants to congratulate the next New York Times bestselling author,” Cora said with a grin.
Ashley laughed, with a glance to her siblings to be sure they were far enough away they didn’t overhear Cora. “Yeah, maybe you’re right. It’s probably not related to my anniversary date at all. I’ll call her,” she said, dismissing the alert on her phone that told her she had a new voicemail. “But not until we get back. I just want to relax for now.”
Now it was Cora’s turn to laugh. “You mean watch your book’s rank obsessively, read every blog post or review posted, and stalk your favorite readers online to see if they mention Dead Run in any comments or posts?”
Ashley grinned. “Exactly. Relax.”
She grabbed the reading glasses that sat near her Kindle—this pair hot pink with white temples—and shoved her feet back into her flip-flops. She stood and shaded her eyes, looking down at Cora, who still bobbed on the gentle waters of the lake. Emma and Sam still fought in the background, and she could hear Nathan joking around, trying to distract the pair.
“It’s my turn to cook,” she said as she looked toward the lake house that was her family’s vacation home. It was only twenty minutes away from their home in Evers, Texas, and it was more a rustic cabin than lake house, with a kitchen, open common room, and two bedrooms, but it was all theirs. Their parents had the master bedroom and all five kids still bunked in the other bedroom, drawing straws over the two sets of bunk beds and one full bed that took up the entire floor space of the room. It wasn’t anything to brag about, but it was a treasured family haven.
Cora wrinkled her nose. “Foil meals or baked spaghetti?”
“Foil meals,” Ashley answered with a grin. She was the only one in her family who still stuck to the two meals she’d learned how to make as a teen. Everyone else had managed to add to their repertoire, but she loved the comfort of the meals her mom had taught her to make. They were camping staples, and to her, camping staples were what their time at the lake house called for.
Cora laughed and shoved off from the dock to rejoin the rest of their family floating several yards away. Ashley waved to the group and then headed up to the kitchen to start cooking. With any luck, her mom would be there and they could chat while Ashley got dinner going. Besides, her mom made a much better salad than Ashley did. Her siblings would be happier with dinner if her mom had a hand in it.
Garret Hensley walked into the station house and tossed his gym bag onto the warped surface of his desk. The place didn’t exactly scream modern, and lately, he’d felt a bit like his body was going the way of the station house. He kept in shape, so it wasn’t so much that as it was the lack of stimulation. The lack of anything other than work in his life. It wasn’t like he got out much or socialized with anyone who didn’t wear a badge or work in a crime lab. People who didn’t know the smell of a dead body or what it was like to chase down a junkie intent on slipping from your grasp.
That hadn’t bothered him much in the past, but lately, he’d begun to notice. Hensley had been one of six detective sergeants in the Branson Falls Criminal Investigations Division for five years. He loved the work, but his life was stagnant—empty, somehow. And for some unknown reason, he felt a hell of a lot older than his thirty-three years.
He ran a hand down his face and looked around the bullpen at the desks of the other detectives and the two animal services officers who also shared the space. They all had the look of people who’d been overworked and underpaid for far too long. Of men and women who’d spent a few too many hours inside. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. The animal services officers had tans.
At least he had kept his physique, Garret thought as he eyed the guts forming on the frames of two of the men taking up space at the desks across from him. He hit the gym or ran every morning without fail. He wouldn’t give in to the temptation to place his sleep over his physical fitness. Not when he’d had to give up healthy eating due to the demands of a job that had him dining from a takeout bag at the drive-through more often than not. The least he could do each day was run the calories off, even when the job kept his sleeping hours to a minimum.
There was a needling thought at the back of his mind that his life needed to change, but he pushed it aside. He’d been doing this a long time. It was what he knew. The detectives of the CID covered crimes, from robbery, assault, up to homicide for Branson Falls and the surrounding towns for miles. They often had to drive an hour or more to investigate crimes on limited resources and a shoestring budget. It wasn’t a job someone did for money or luxuries.
In fact, Garret wasn’t entirely sure why he did the job anymore. But that thought would have to wait. His captain stood in the doorway to his office, and barked, “Hensley!” His standard call to action when they’d caught a case. Garret’s partner, Doug Mann, wasn’t in the bullpen yet. He’d get the info from the captain, then rustle up Doug and head out. Knowing Doug, the older man was probably in the can with his morning paper. Doug was pretty committed to his morning ritual. Another thing Garret was purposefully ignoring was Doug’s upcoming retirement. In six months he’d be breaking in a new partner and saying goodbye to the man who’d had his back in more ways than he could count for years.
Captain Sharp had lowered his six-foot-four frame into the creaking wooden chair behind the government-issue metal desk that took up most of his office. He didn’t look up as he rattled off Garret’s assignment.
“One-eight-seven at the apartments over on Guadalupe.” Homicide.
Garret was glad Sharp hadn’t looked up. He didn’t catch the way Garret’s body swayed at his words. A homicide at the apartment building where Garret grew up. The building where Alice Johnson—a woman who was more mother to him than his own had ever been—lived. He put a hand on the back of the chair in front of the desk and gripped it. Hard.
He hadn’t known his father—other than to know the Irish spelling of Garret’s name had come courtesy of his father’s Irish roots, which as an adult had struck him as odd, since his mother had given him her British last name. He’d buried his mother when he was nineteen, and other than a few aunts and uncles he never saw, Alice was the only thing resembling family he had left in this world.
“Got a number?” Please not 207. Please God. Even to know she was close to violence like that would be too much. But if it were her… No, that he couldn’t handle.
His Captain read from the notepad by his phone. “Two—”
God, please, no. Please. His hands gripped, squeezing the crap out of the back of the chair in an effort to—well, he didn’t know what. To ward off the blow? How could he possibly do that? There was no way to ward off what was coming.
Evie jumped as her mother slammed the door behind her.
“Don’t you put that there, Evie. I told you, you keep your things in your room. Bill doesn’t want to look at your pictures.”
Evie nodded at her mom and took the picture she’d drawn in school that day off the refrigerator. She looked at the colors she’d chosen again before folding it up and tucking it into her backpack. The cabin she and her mom had stayed in wasn’t purple, but she’d drawn it that way anyway. Purple was better than brown. And she’d put bright pink flowers around the outside of the cabin, even though those didn’t really exist either. Her version had a roof, too. One without holes.
“Sit down at the table and eat your sandwich, then get on up to your room. I don’t need you messing this up for me again.”
Evie sat in her chair at the kitchen table and swung her legs back and forth. She picked at the corner of the sandwich. Peanut butter.
Her mom kept talking as she fussed at some papers on the kitchen table, shoving them into a folder like the ones Evie’s teacher used at school. Maybe her mother was going to be a teacher. She’d never seen her with a folder like that before. That would be exciting. Her mother had worked jobs here and there, but never something as fun as being a teacher.
“You stay up in that room tonight, girl. I’m cooking special for Bill tonight. Real special. You keep out of sight.”
Evie nodded. The smell of something good cooking made her stomach rumble, but she didn’t think her mother was going to give her any of it. She cooked for Bill, but that’s because her mom wanted that ring on her finger. Evie didn’t really know what that meant. If she wanted a ring so bad, maybe she should just go out and get a ring. But her mother seemed to want Bill’s ring. That ring must be special.
At the sound of a car in the driveway, Evie grabbed her sandwich and her backpack and left the room before her mother could chase her out. She went to her bedroom and shut the door, but the thin wood wasn’t enough to keep the voices out. Bill was loud when he talked.
“What the fuck is this shit? Am I made of fucking money?”
“No, baby. It wasn’t expensive, I promise. There was a sale on the steaks and I used coupons. You sit, baby, and I’ll get your plate ready.” Her mother was using that weird, wispy voice she used when she talked to a man.
Evie put her sandwich on her nightstand and dug out the apple she’d gotten at school today. Her teacher brought Evie two pieces of fruit every day. One to eat at lunch and one for dinner.
A plate clattered on the table downstairs, as though dropped instead of placed. Evie cover her ears against the sound of Bill’s taunting words as plates clattered and her mother’s wispy words floated out of the kitchen. The scrape of a chair.
“Get under the table, and make it up to me.” Bill laughed and Evie wondered what was under the table that could help her mother make anything up to Bill. And why was that funny to him?
She tried not to listen, although she didn’t really know why. There was always something in Bill’s voice that scared Evie. She never minded that her mother didn’t want her near him. She wished they could go back to it just being the two of them. Her mother wasn’t any nicer when they were living in the old car they’d once had, or staying out at the cabin, but at least it was just the two of them. She didn’t have to wonder if Bill would come home and throw things and yell.
Her mother’s voice was muffled now but she still crooned in that weird voice. Then there was a bump as though something was hitting the underside of the table and Bill’s laughter came up the stairs. Evie took her apple and her sandwich and crawled into the closet, shutting the door. It was dark in there and that wasn’t fun, but it blocked the sound better. She almost couldn’t hear his laughter in here. It wasn’t happy laughter, somehow. It was mean. Evie didn’t understand it. Why laugh if you’re not happy?
“Thank you, Haddie! Try to behave yourself over there,” Ashley called across the main room of the Evers Public Library. As the librarian, one would think she would encourage quiet whispers rather than friendly hollers across the room, but that hadn’t ever been her style. Her library was a place for people to gather and chat, visit, and even—gasp—hum as they perused the shelves for a new read. If they wanted quiet, they could use the reading room in the back.
She’d even instituted a monthly teen dance party in the library, despite the objections of the more traditional town leaders. On the third Friday of every month, the lights were dimmed over the stacks, the music came on, and the town’s teens could dance and party in a safe environment. When she was able to show that library usage had increased as a result, everyone in town had not only been on board, some even tried to claim credit for the idea. Ashley didn’t much care who took credit. She just wanted people to feel welcome. To see the library as the sanctuary she always felt it was.
Growing up, no matter what foster home she was in, Ashley had always been able to find solace in the town library. She’d learned early on that she just needed proof of residency and she could get a card. And getting that card meant losing herself in a world of fantasy and make-believe. A world where anything was possible. A world where none of the realities of her life could touch her.
Hadeline Gertrude Gillman, otherwise known as Haddie, waved a hand in reply and gave a little “whoop-whoop” as she went out the front door with Sheriff John Davies on her arm. The action drew a laugh and headshake from Ashley. She wasn’t entirely sure of Haddie’s age, but the white hair with a pink tinge to it and the frail frame hinted at eighty-something. After volunteering in the library each morning, she would head on over to the senior center for a few hours. Today it was John’s turn to escort the older woman. Tomorrow, Lily Winn, the town’s new veterinarian, would walk Haddie over.
Ashley glanced around the main room. A few patrons had their heads in newspapers or books, but no one looked like they’d need her anytime soon. The Evers Bees—a group of women who sewed handmade quilts out of upcycled fabrics they then donated to families in need—were in the side room working away on their latest project. And another volunteer was shelving books on the far wall.
Ashley stepped into her office behind the circulation desk and shut the door. She’d be able to see anyone approach through the glass pane in the top half of the door, but for now, her priority was reaching Alice. She’d felt guilty as soon as she’d listened to Alice’s voicemail two days before. She should have listened to her messages before coming home from her weekend at the lake house. But she hadn’t. She’d put Alice off and now felt awful.
The woman’s last message had sounded…well…off. All she’d said was that she needed Ashley to return her call, please, but there was something underlying her tone. Something in her voice that told Ashley there was more to this call than just hello or how are you.
She hit Alice’s contact on her cell phone and listened to the phone ring once again. For two days she’d tried to reach her, but Alice wasn’t answering her calls and she hadn’t returned them either. Could she be sick? Ashley suddenly had an image of Alice hurt and needing help. She wasn’t a frail woman, by any means, but she did live on her own and she wasn’t exactly young. She wasn’t old either, though. If she had fallen or hurt herself in some way, would she have been able to get to the phone to call for help?
Ashley shook her head, trying to shake off the feeling of unease that swept over her. No. Alice was in good health the last time Ashley had seen her. That had been—oh, wow—that had been close to a year ago, she realized. She frowned and looked at the clock. In three hours, her part-time employee would be in and there would be two additional volunteers on site. That was the soonest she could slip away.
She put her phone in her back pocket—something she normally didn’t do while at work—and stepped back out to the circulation desk. She would make the drive to Branson Falls this afternoon, just to be on the safe side. If nothing else, she could take Alice out to dinner. They were long overdue for a visit anyway. And at least she could put her mind at ease and be sure her old caseworker was all right. Make sure it was just her insane workload that was keeping her from returning Ashley’s calls.
Garret ground out his question through a jaw much too tight with the tension of this case. With the grief that was burying his heart.
“You can’t remember anything else about the car?” Because it was small didn’t really help a whole hell of a lot, and Garret had nothing to go on so far.
His partner looked on as the loser in front of them shrugged. Again. The man made Garret think of a squirrel, for some reason. Maybe it was the slightly bucked teeth or the somewhat fuzzy brown hair that seemed like a tail as it poofed out behind the man in a loose braid. What man braids his hair?
His partner returned the look. Doug had known right away who Alice was and why Garret had no business whatsoever being part of her murder investigation, much less heading it up. Luckily for Garret, they’d been partners a long time. Doug knew there was no way in hell anyone would be able to drag Garret off this case. So he had kept his mouth shut with the captain, and here they were, trying to find out who would stab a woman like Alice Johnson to death. A woman who’d never done anything but give of herself to those around her. A woman who hadn’t deserved the brutal end she’d met three days before.
And they had squat to go on. Alice appeared to have let her assailant in her home. There was no evidence anyone had tampered with the locks or forced their way in. In fact, the person seemed to have caught Alice off guard with the attack, because there was little evidence of a struggle. The teapot sat by the stove, filled with water. Two mugs stood ready with bags, waiting for her to pour the brew. She had been stabbed fourteen times with one of her own knives from the large wooden knife block that Garret had looked at over the years during meals in Alice’s home.
The cuts had begun tentatively, but by the third slice, they showed evidence of a killer who had let loose and wasn’t showing restraint any longer. Defensive wounds had been limited to a gash on her right arm and a few cuts on her left hand, as though Alice had been slow to defend herself. As if shock or disbelief had delayed her reaction.
Contrary to popular belief, thanks to crime shows on television, an assailant didn’t always leave fingerprints on any surface they touched. If the environmental conditions weren’t right, prints wouldn’t appear. If the assailant didn’t touch something just right, a print wasn’t going to show up clearly enough to run a match. And this person had had the wherewithal to wash the knife—handle, blade, and all—in Alice’s sink before leaving.
Garret was hopeful the crime scene guys might turn up a bit of blood or skin cells in crevices of the handle that hadn’t been washed away, but that would take weeks. Months, maybe. Another common misconception perpetuated by cop shows was the twenty-four- to forty-eight-hour turnaround from the lab. That was a joke.
“Can you remember anything else that seemed out of place that day?” Doug asked the squirrel. They had asked this guy the question in various forms several times already. In fact, this was their second time canvasing the neighbors, so they’d interviewed him before. But the key to solving cases often lay in interviews. Mind-numbingly boring interviews. You asked the same questions over and over. Open-ended questions, targeted questions, follow-up questions. You asked if there’s anyone else you should talk to. And you chased the leads. Followed them wherever they go. Because fingerprints and DNA analysis, as sexy as they were, took a long, long time. And most of the time, they weren’t going to be there.
The guy never got a chance to answer the question, because the interview was interrupted by banging. Loud banging on his apartment door.
“Hello! Please, is anyone home?”
The distress in the woman’s voice was clear. Garret’s hand went to his sidearm as Doug moved the squirrel away from the door and asked if he was expecting anyone.
“Please!” More banging.
Garret moved next to the door and opened it. A striking woman—all long, black hair and glass-blue eyes—all but tumbled into the apartment. He scanned the hallway behind her as his arm shot out to catch hold of her. Nothing there. Nothing but the crime scene tape and evidence seal on the door of Alice’s apartment across the hall.
He looked down at the fragile woman in his arms. No, that wasn’t right. She looked fragile at first glance, but she wasn’t. She shoved back and held herself stiffly in front of him, eying him and Doug with the suspicion worn only by someone who’d dealt with the system. And then her face seemed to crumple as though she’d made some connection she hadn’t wanted to. She shook her head at him, as if by denying what she was seeing, she could make it go away.
“Where is Alice?” Her voice trembled with the question.
He shouldn’t give out any information. But her wariness told him she’d been one of Alice’s kids. And her current appearance—put together, well dressed, successful—told him Alice had gotten this one out. Out of what, he didn’t know, but it was clear at some point, this woman had gotten things together.
He was drawn to her, felt horrible for what he knew she would need to learn. Because something told him the information about Alice’s death would hit her as hard as it had hit him. He was inclined to be gentler with her than he might have been with someone else, and it ate at him. Why would he want to be gentle with this woman he didn’t even know? A woman who might very well have information that could help him solve this case?
“What’s your name, ma’am?” he asked, but she stepped away from him, one arm wrapping around her stomach, and he could see tears welling, ready to spill over. She backed toward the door and stood next to it as if she might flee. He allowed her the position. For now.
“What happened to Alice?” she asked again, as she wilted in front of his eyes.
He looked over at Doug, knowing they shouldn’t give out that information just yet. But both wanting to know who she was and whether she might be able to help them with their case.
“She got stabbed,” called out the not-very-helpful, likely stoned squirrel-man next to Doug. Garret would have rolled his eyes if he’d had time. But he didn’t. He needed to grab hold of the Snow White look-alike in front of him as her knees seemed to buckle. She clung to his arm, her eyes wildly swiveling from his face to Doug’s. Now the tears did fall, as she looked for them to deny what the squirrel had said. Shit.
Neither one of them was in a position to confirm or deny anything just yet. She was a completely unknown person walking into the middle of an ongoing and open investigation. He brought her over to the squirrel’s couch and lowered her onto the cushions. Kneeling before her, he placed a hand on her leg, mostly to draw her attention to him. To ground her as she continued to look like a trapped animal ready to strike out for her own safety.
“Stabbed in her own kitchen, dude,” called the squirrel, as if trying to help. “We don’t even know if any of us are safe here.” He was not helping.
He heard the woman begin to whisper no, over and over.
“Doug, you wanna do something about that?” Garret called out over his shoulder, not taking his eyes off Snow White. He heard Doug guide squirrel-man into his kitchen, where he knew his partner would keep him busy and see if he could get any more information out of him.
He needed to get her name, but she was white as a sheet and her hands covered her mouth as she continued to whisper her chant of no. He was back to thinking she looked like a china doll who might break if handled the wrong way. Demanding to see identification probably wasn’t going to get him results. He’d need to take another tack if he wanted to find out anything from her.
“My name is Detective Garret Hensley, ma’am. Are you a friend of Ms. Johnson’s?”
And bam. The transformation from Snow White to Ice Queen was instantaneous and palpable. She turned cold, crystalline eyes on him. The eyes of someone who’d learned as a kid you don’t talk to cops. Yeah, she was one of Alice’s kids. He’d bet a few paychecks on that.
“Do you have any suspects in custody?”
Interesting way to ask the question. Not do you know who killed her? or who did this? No. She wanted to know if they had any suspects in custody. He was sure she wasn’t law enforcement. She didn’t carry herself the right way. Didn’t cover her six like a LEO would. But she wasn’t simply a citizen, either.
He answered her question with a question. “When was the last time you saw Ms. Johnson?”
Referring to Alice as Ms. Johnson gutted him. She wasn’t just a victim he was trying to find justice for. This was Alice. He didn’t know if it was the effect Snow White was having on him, or the fact that he was investigating Alice’s death, but he was off-balance. Way off-balance.
Snow White seemed to be assessing him, so he held still and let her look, then watched as she seemed to make a decision.
“I haven’t seen her in almost a year.” She offered no further information. Simply answered the question he’d asked. She used two fingers from each hand to swipe at the tears under her eyes and pulled herself together. He had a feeling she wouldn’t let him see her cry again. As though she’d remembered where she was, and her barriers were now in place.
“Have you talked to her in that time, Ms.—” He drew out the last, essentially asking her name once again.
She looked at him and ignored the question as to her identity. “She left me a voicemail the other day. A few, actually. But she didn’t answer when I tried to call her back.” She tried to hide her feelings. He could see it in the hard set of her face. But the anguish in her eyes and the way her voice cracked belied her cool veneer.
He took out his pad and jotted down a note. “Can you tell me what day she left that message?”
He moved to sit beside her on the couch and held his pen ready to write as much as she’d give him. As many details as he could get from her. If Alice was trying to reach this woman, maybe she was connected to what had happened in some way.
“She left me a few messages over the weekend. Two on Friday and one on Sunday.”
“Did she say what she was calling about?”
She shook her head no. “She just asked me to call her.”
“Was that unusual? You said you hadn’t seen her in a year. Did you speak frequently?”
Snow White pressed her lips together and shook her head. She was an intriguing combination of stone walls and helpless dismay, of steely nerves and vulnerability.
“No, it wasn’t unusual. It was that time of year.”
“I don’t know what that means, Ms.—” He needed to get her name before she left, and he would prefer not to have to pull the I need to see identification line.
She relented. “Walker. Ashley Walker.”
“Ashley Walker. What do you mean, that time of year?”
“You know that Alice was a social worker?” She paused while he nodded. “Well, social workers seem to think about their kids on big anniversaries, whether they realize they’re doing it or not. At least, Alice always did. For me, it was the anniversary of my adoption by the Walkers. Alice tended to call then, just to check in.”
“And it’s close to your, uh, anniversary?”
She nodded her head. “Yes, it was last week.”
She didn’t offer any other information, but she did have questions of her own.
“Do you have any leads? Anything to go on?”
“I’m afraid I can’t answer that question, Ms. Walker.” As much as I want to. He had no idea what her draw was. Why he wanted to tell her everything they knew. Hell, he wanted to unload and let her know all of his frustrations with the case. To let her know he was struggling to handle his feelings, to balance the need to remain professional with the need to bring the scumbag who had taken his friend from him to justice.
“So that’s a no?”
“It’s an I can’t answer the question,” he said, giving her his most apologetic smile. The one that oozed charm and usually had women falling at his feet. She didn’t fall. She narrowed her eyes at him with a look that told him she had opinions about cops and they weren’t good.
He convinced her to give him her contact information for follow up, should he need it, but her demeanor remained cool.
“Is there anyone you’d like me to call for you, Ms. Walker? Do you need help getting home?” He was an idiot. He was asking because he wanted to know if she had a husband or boyfriend. Where the hell had that come from?
She shook her head.
Doug came out of the kitchen and stood quietly, waiting for Garret to signal they were finished. He stood and offered Ashley Walker his business card.
“Please contact me if you think of anything else,” he said, giving her the standard line as he walked her out of the squirrel’s apartment with Doug at his back. Her eyes fell to the door opposite them and she swallowed visibly. He watched her beat back tears, then kept his eyes on her as she walked away from him, her arms wrapped tightly around herself, head high.
Ashley hadn’t been able to drive home from Alice’s apartment building. She drove around the corner before pulling over and breaking down. Then she’d called Cora and tried to explain through choked sobs where she was. After ten minutes, she’d gotten it out, and Cora and Nathan had driven the hour and a half to pick her up and drive her car home for her.
What she was feeling was a combination of grief, guilt for not answering Alice’s calls, and horror at the fact that Alice had been so brutally murdered. But most of all, she was beginning to feel rage. Rage and anger that someone could take the life of a woman who was so good to so many people. Without Alice’s unconditional love and support, Ashley would be dead. She was sure of it. She would have killed herself if Alice hadn’t gotten her out of the situation she was in years before. Whether it was by burying herself in pills or a bottle, or achieved more directly, it would have happened. Alice had given her the chance at a life of love and security. A chance to be safe. It was something Ashley had known she’d never be able to repay.
But Alice never asked for anything in return. It was simply what she did. And standing by the gravesite two days later, watching as mourner after mourner walked up and placed a rose on her casket, Ashley knew Alice would be smiling down on them all. She would smile to see so many of her former kids here. Because Ashley had no doubt that’s what many of the people in attendance were. When you came from that world, you could spot its inhabitants, even after you’d gotten out. There were people ranging in age from their teens to their late sixties. The older ones would be coworkers. But many of the younger people were the kids. Alice’s kids.
Ashley looked around at the group and saw people from all walks of life. Artists, rebels, nerds, and jocks. People who clearly hadn’t fully escaped the life Alice had hoped they would. And those who looked like they’d somehow found their way. Some held small babies in their arms, and Ashley could imagine Alice’s response to them. She’d reach for all of them, to rub their tiny heads or run the back of a finger down a soft cheek.
This was Alice’s legacy, Ashley thought. This was what she’d worked for. They were here for her.
She felt him watching her long before she saw him. Garret Hensley, with his dark hair cut short and tight, clean-shaven face, and dark gray eyes. He looked like he needed about three days of sleep, and she wondered if he had anything to go on in Alice’s murder investigation. Probably not, she thought. If he was here, looking so haggard and worn, then he was looking for a thread to pull. He was hoping for a break.
She looked at the crowd as people began to work their way back to their cars and wondered if the person who took Alice’s life was here. A shudder tore through her and she felt her father’s arm around her. She tilted her head and let it fall to his shoulder. She’d been one of Alice’s luckiest kids. Not everyone landed in a family like the Walkers. Most didn’t. Her father squeezed her shoulders and she looked up at him.
“Ready to go home, kiddo?”
Her nose burned and her eyes filled once again with tears at the question. All of Frank Walker’s children were his “kiddos”, no matter their age. And she’d never been as happy for that as she was today. She wasn’t alone, and that felt really good. Her mother came up alongside them as they turned toward the two cars the family had piled into for the ride here. Her siblings already waited by them. They’d all come, even though Alice hadn’t been a part of their lives, for the most part.
She didn’t need to turn around to know who was calling her. Her father’s arm tightened protectively, but she reassured him as she watched Detective Hensley walk toward her. His pace was brisk, like he thought she might turn and run any minute, and he wanted to be sure she didn’t get away.
“I’ll meet you over by the cars, Mom and Dad. That’s the detective working on Alice’s case. I want to see if he has any updates.”
Her mother and father exchanged a glance but Ashley squeezed her mother’s hand. “I’ll be fine. I’ll be just a minute.”
They turned and left just as the detective caught up to her. She brushed her hair out of her eyes and tipped her head back to look up at him. The man wasn’t overly tall, but compared to her short frame, his five-foot-ten height caused her to look up. He was sturdily built and looked like he could take on a tank and come out the winner.
“Ashley, I’m glad I caught you.” He looked past her to where her parents and siblings were waiting, and his eyes held an unasked question. Ashley waved at them before turning back to Garret.
“My family,” she said, the words reminding her that Alice had given her that. The greatest gift imaginable. One she’d grown up thinking she would never have. That had been all Alice’s doing.
He nodded. “I just wanted to see if you remembered anything else. Anything that might help.”
“Then, you have nothing so far?” she asked.
“Nothing solid yet. A witness said they saw a small car parked in the lot that isn’t normally there. Could be something. Could be nothing. And small car isn’t going to get us anywhere. We’re still waiting on a few other things, but so far, there’s not much to go on.”
She nodded and looked past the detective to where his partner waited for him. Dave, she thought. Or Doug, maybe? She wasn’t sure. Now Garret Hensley, she remembered. And that bothered her. A lot. She shouldn’t be so focused on this man. He should be nothing more than the detective investigating Alice’s case to her. And yet, she found herself looking into his eyes and thinking they looked kinder than she’d expected for a battered cop. And she wondered what had left the scar that cut a thin, white line through his upper lip. She wondered a whole lot of things she had no business wondering.
“I should go,” she said suddenly. “I need to go.”
He nodded, but his eyes assessed her and she felt uncomfortable in her skin. It wasn’t a feeling she was used to. Not as an adult. Not as Ashley Walker. As Ashley O’Rourke, she’d felt it often. But never as Ashley Walker. She felt as though he suspected her of something, though she couldn’t say why.
“Just let me know,” he said, “if you think of anything.”
She nodded as she backed away, aware of his eyes on her. Aware of an intensity in his gaze that made her uneasy. Did he look at everyone like that, or just her? Ashley turned and walked into the embrace of her siblings and parents and had to fight the urge to turn back to see if Garret was still watching her. She needn’t have worried, of course. As soon as they were piled into the back of her parents’ car, Cora turned to her.
“Who is that man and why is he still watching you?”
Leave it to Cora to ask.
Ashley took a deep breath and sat back as Cora drove them toward Pies and Pints a week after the funeral. She needed this. A night out with friends. She hadn’t felt like herself since she’d found out about Alice and she hated that. She wanted to feel normal again. On the other hand, she felt guilty for wanting to feel normal when Alice wouldn’t feel anything ever again.
Ugh. She shook off the feelings and slid her flip-flops off her feet, drawing one foot up under her. Today should be a happy day.
“So,” Cora began, chewing on her bottom lip. A sure sign she had a confession to make.
Ashley raised her brows and looked at Cora. “Soooo?” she said, drawing out the single syllable and making it a question.
“Soooo,” Cora said again, drawing it out herself this time.
“Alright, chickadee, cut to the chase. What are you hiding?”
Cora attempted an affronted tone. “What? Nothing.” She actually had the nerve to go for a why would you think I was up to anything? That’s pure silliness look and Ashley just stared back blandly at her. Cora was utterly unable to lie. She simply didn’t have the lying gene in her DNA.
“Oh, fine. I just think it’s time for you to tell everyone about your books. You just made the USA Today bestseller list, for heaven’s sake. Why are you hiding something like that?”
“You already told them, didn’t you?”
“Well, it’s not my fault.”
Ashley grinned, unable to find it in her to be upset. “How is it not your fault?”
“Because it’s your fault, really. I mean, who keeps it a secret that they’re publishing a book? No, not a book. Many books. Many highly successful and now USA Today winning books.”
“It’s not winning,” Ashley said, shaking her head. “It’s bestselling.”
“Winning, bestselling, same thing. The point is, there might be cake.”
“Cake?” Again with the eyebrows going up. “There might be cake.”
“Okay, will be. There will be cake.”
And there was. A cake in the shape of a book. And all of Ashley’s family and friends were at Pies and Pints to celebrate. Ashley grinned as she took in their congratulations. Cora had long since given up trying to defend herself for leaking the information. She was now simply saying it was a sister’s prerogative to out an author, and she didn’t know what the fuss was about.
Ashley was okay with it. Screw it. Who cared if Haddie, her mother, and many of the women her mother went to church with had read her books. Sex scenes and all. And the sex scenes were…well, they weren’t mild. They weren’t Fifty Shades and all that, but they were steamy. There was a hint of kink here and there. But whatever. She had never been one to shy away from attention, and she didn’t filter herself in person, so why would she ever think of filtering her voice as a writer?
She did squirm a little when Haddie sniffed and said she’d read worse. Ashley didn’t want to think about Haddie reading her sex scenes or any others.
Good grief. And when her mother whispered that she might read a few of the scenes to her father, Ashley covered her ears and threatened to annul the adoption, or whatever process one would seek when their adoptive parents became too horrifyingly embarrassing. What a shame to have to undo the adoption now after all this time.
She did get a few good laughs out of the evening, though. Her brothers wanted to know who had taught her “those things” and they weren’t the least bit amused when Ashley insisted they’d have to be more specific than “those things” if they wanted answers. Emma began to recount all of the ex-boyfriends Ashley had had in high school and hypothesized about which ones might have taught her which things. Cora found all of that hysterical and couldn’t stop laughing, especially when Ashley began to nod her head yes, or shake her head no vigorously at one name or another.
She mentioned she might set up some readings at the library, making it a Couples’ Night Out kind of thing. That had gotten her father and brothers to spit beer and sputter, as her mother and sisters laughed harder. John Davies shook his head and grinned at Ashley before grabbing his wife, Katelyn, and saying something about writing their own love scenes at home.
Ashley looked at the squat, red-brick building and suppressed the memories that tried to flood her. She hadn’t been in this building in years. Not since the day she’d finally come to Alice and accepted help. And that was a day she didn’t want to relive for anything. But she would.
Because Alice deserved more than to be found lying dead on her floor with no one to pay for taking her life. Ashley sucked in a deep breath and pulled open the glass door with the worn letters indicating that the offices beyond were those of DFPS: Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
She moved silently down the hall, looking for the face of the woman she’d met a few times with Alice.
Marlis. The woman’s name was Marlis, which Ashley had always found different, but sort of hypnotizing. She just hoped Marlis still worked here and that she might have some idea of what was going on with Alice’s case.
There. Red hair and a wild skirt and blouse. That’s what Ashley remembered about Marlis. Wild in every way.
Ashley smiled. That was the other thing Ashley always remembered about Marlis. She was paler than a ghost, with obvious Irish roots, but her manner of speaking didn’t match those roots at all.
“Marlis? My name is—”
“Ashley Walker!” the woman exclaimed before Ashley could tell her who she was. “Of course I know who you are, child. Of course. You one of Alice’s special’uns.”
Ashley smiled, a little taken aback.
“And that new book! Steamy and hot, that Aiden of yours.”
“What?” Ashley had to fight the urge to step back. “Alice knew I was writing?”
Marlis laughed. “Of course she did, child. Alice knew everything. She always watched over her kids, even after they’s on their way in the world.”
Maybe Alice had been calling her that weekend to congratulate her on her book release, just like Cora had said. It seemed more people had figured out her secret than Ashley realized. She smiled to herself, happy that Alice had known about her books. It seemed important somehow.
“I just wanted to see if you knew if they’d found out anything more about Alice’s murder,” Ashley said, forcing herself not to flinch at the word. “Do you have any idea what she was working on? Any ideas the police might not have looked into?”
“Taking over my job, Ashley?”
Ashley jumped and spun to face Garret Hensley. Good grief, was the man everywhere? She ignored the fact that his button-down shirt stretched across his chest and biceps in a way that made her want to unbutton it pretty damned quick. She’d have to remember that look for a future book.
Then it dawned on her. Alice had been killed two weeks ago. Why was he only coming to her office now?
“Are you serious?” She practically sputtered the question.
He tilted his head, cocking a brow at her. “Excuse me?”
“You’re just coming to interview her coworkers now? Are you kidding me? The chances that Alice’s death are related to something with her job are something like—” Wow, she sucked at math. “—well, really, really high. And you’re just now coming to talk to the people she works with?”
Garret gave her that carefully bland look she was sure he practiced at home in front of the mirror, but she doubted he was happy with the criticism. What man ever was? She squirmed. Damn it.
“Well?” she said, hands on hips and foot tapping because it was all she could think to do. When in doubt, dig a deeper hole. “Don’t you know that most police work relies on interviewing people? Over and over. You interview anyone and everyone you can because DNA and fingerprints probably aren’t going to get you a suspect for a while, if ever. You’ve got to do the leg work.”
Garret again wondered why this woman seemed to know so much about police procedures as he tamped down the frustration that came with being told how to do his job. It was par for the course. No one ever thought cops were doing enough.
She intrigued him, though. She spoke with apparent knowledge on the subject, but she wasn’t a cop. That much was clear. Even if he hadn’t run a background check on her, he would know that. She didn’t have the stance or demeanor of someone who walked the thin blue line. Maybe she had friends on the force?
As he studied her, Marlis handed him a stack of files. “I managed to narrow things down a bit for you, Garret. There were several files that were inactive on her desk, and a few that are just minor follow-ups. These are the cases that might cause the kind of hard feelings you asked about.”
He reached around Ashley, leaning in and allowing his arm to graze hers as he took the files from Marlis. His eyes stayed glued to Ashley, an open challenge in them now.
“You mean the cases I asked about the last time I was here, interviewing everyone? My third visit since Alice died?”
Ashley’s gasp was audible and her eyes went wide, but Garret wasn’t entirely sure her response was solely due to his words. If she was feeling half the heat arcing between their bodies that he was, her gasp could easily be a response to that. Or maybe she was feeling the same urge to rock her hips into his and press their bodies together. To see if he could find an ounce of relief from this insane drive to plunge into her. Holy hell.
He stepped back, holding the file folders in front of him, praying it looked casual. If Ashley and Maris and the half-dozen other people around him caught on to the fact that he was hiding the hard-on of all hard-ons behind those folders, they didn’t let on. Thank God.
“Since you seem to understand a great deal about the investigative process,” he said, narrowing his eyes on the woman before him, “I’m sure you also realize these things take time. It’s not a TV show where everything is wrapped up in forty-five minutes. You want to tell me why it is you seem to know so much about how a murder investigation works, Ashley?”
Marlis answered for her.
“Because she’s a bestselling author! She writes the most amazing romantic mystery stuff.”
“Stuff?” Garret repeated, and let out a bark of laughter. “Since when do authors get things right? They glorify everything for the sake of sales, not accuracy.”
Ah, there she was again. The Ice Queen. No, wait, she looked more like fire than ice right now. Hands back to hips, an inch or so added to her diminutive frame, and that spark in her eyes.
“Romantic suspense. I write romantic suspense. And I put a lot of time and effort into getting the details right. I check and double-check and talk to officers who know what they’re doing. They help me get the details right. For my last book, I had to talk to a detective, an explosives expert, a psychologist, a lawyer, a medical examiner, and an arson investigator. I don’t just write fluffy nonsense with facts I pull out of the air. I research.”
“Huh. Anything I might have read?”
She let her gaze run up and down his body, pausing noticeably on the part still covered by the file folders. From the look she affected, she found him wanting. But he didn’t buy it. Her breathing had shallowed slightly and the tiny lick of her lips hadn’t been intentional. She couldn’t hide her attraction to him.
“I don’t know. Do you read steamy romance novels? You know, bodice rippers?”
She said bodice rippers as though some might consider them a bad thing. Hell, he didn’t know what a bodice ripper was, but it sounded pretty good to him. Especially if the steamy parts were coming from her mind. He wanted in that mind. Now.
He took a step back. He needed to get out of here and regroup. Big time. This woman did strange things to him and he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the notion. She didn’t just draw him in sexually, the way most beautiful women did. She drew him mind, body, and soul. On a level and with an intensity that was unsettling.
“No. I guess not,” she said with a Cheshire Cat grin. And suddenly, she’d turned the tables on him. She held that grin as she swept around him, called a goodbye to Marlis, and walked away. Again.
It seemed to him he was frequently watching her walk away.COLLAPSE