Read an Excerpt
"There she is!"
"Melanie, can you give us a statement? How does it feel to be released? Do you still claim to be innocent?"
"She's a murderer! She should still be rotting in jail!" Prying questions, angry jeers and insults assailed Mela-nie's ears. She kept her head turned away from the mob standing behind the police officers stationed near the road. She had hoped the combination of the brisk March wind and the early hour would keep the vultures away. No such luck. Her heel slipped on a patch of black ice left over from winter. The ghost of a malicious chuckle reached her ear. She steadied herself, trembling.
A rock sailed through the air. It struck her pale cheek. She could feel blood well and drip down her face. She refused to brush it away, to allow them the satisfaction of seeing that she was hurt.
Wow. She was being stoned in public and no one seemed to care. If anything, the sight of her blood seemed to inflame them. The shouts grew louder, and someone started chanting, "Murderer! Murderer!" The crowd picked up the chant. It sent ice down Melanie's spine.
A muscled arm shot in front of her face, deflecting a second rock. The owner of the arm placed a strong hand on her shoulder. Not in comfort, but in an attempt to keep her moving. She didn't acknowledge him. She already knew that Lieutenant Jace Tucker agreed with the crowd.
"Officers, control those people!" he barked into the radio fastened to his shoulder.
Mel shuddered as Lieutenant Tucker's harsh voice washed over her.
Without warning, a swarm of hungry reporters closed in on her, threatening to swallow her whole. She ducked her head to avoid the cameras flashing around her. The cacophony of voices surrounding her was deafening, one voice melting into the next. At least the hooded sweatshirt she was wearing allowed her to hide part of her face. Hopefully, her bleeding cheek wouldn't make the evening news.
"Melanie, Senator Travis was quoted yesterday as saying you should have served more time for the death of Sylvie Walters. Any comment? Have you talked to his son, your fiancé?"
Not for the first time, Melanie struggled against bitterness toward the senator, who had used her court case as his own political platform to be harsh on crime. It wouldn't surprise her to find out he was responsible for this mob.
Melanie kept her face blank, but her chest tightened. One trembling hand slipped into her jeans pocket and closed around her inhaler. Please Lord, let me make it to the car.
One intrepid soul darted past her police escort and thrust a microphone into Mel's startled face. "Come on, Melanie. You were in prison for almost four years after being convicted of manslaughter. Surely there's something you'd like to say. A message for Sylvie's family, maybe?"
The callous remark slammed into her, robbing her of her breath.
"No comment, people. Give us room."
Against her will, Melanie glanced to her left to take in the man walking beside her. Lieutenant Tucker met her eyes briefly, his own as hard as flint, his face an inscrutable mask.
Why was he here? Couldn't they have found someone else for this dutysomeone who wouldn't look at her with such clear disdain? Her knees trembled as he moved beside her. She resisted the urge to step away from him. Jerking her eyes forward, she strove to act as though he weren't there. But his image had been seared into her mind.
Strong. Determined. A man of faith. And the man who had personally slapped handcuffs on her and coldly recited her Miranda rights. And now she had to sedately walk by his side as if her heart weren't pounding and her insides quaking. Pull yourself together, Mel, she ordered herself sternly. All you have to do is make it to Aunt Sarah's house. Then you never have to set eyes on his odious face again. Okay, so maybe odious was a bit too strong a word. Still, she didn't think she would be too upset when he was out of her life for good.
She flicked a nervous glance at the stony-faced man beside her, shivering at the utter coldness in his deep blue eyes. His short blond hair was the color of wheat ripe for the harvest. His strong jaw was clenched as he walked by her side, emphasizing the distaste he felt for this assignment.
Well, that was too bad. She straightened her shoulders. Directly ahead, she could see the police cruiser waiting. All she needed to do was get through the gauntlet of reporters and angry protestors.
One of the protestors suddenly thrust himself forward. He planted himself in her way, ignoring the fierce scowl on Lieutenant Tucker's face. Stabbing a threatening finger at her, the demonstrator leaned in until he was almost touching her. Anger spilled from his eyes. His pungent breath fanned her face. Mel stumbled back. Only the Lieutenant's iron grip on her arm kept her from falling. As soon as she had her balance, he released her. Fast. As if just touching her would contaminate him. Humiliated, she tried to walk around the man in front of her.
"You think you'll get away with this, don't you? Like father, like daughter." He sneered. "That poor girl's dead, and you go free after just a few measly years inside. But you'll never be free. We're watching you. We won't forget. You will pay the way you deserve, one way or another."
Melanie's stomach turned at the mention of her father and at the menace in the man's tone.
"Move along, mister, or you'll find yourself arrested for threatening her," Lieutenant Tucker ordered.
Not that he disagrees, Mel thought. Oh, she doubted the Lieutenant was the type to resort to vigilante justice, but it was clear he thought prison was exactly where she belonged. Despair welled up inside her. She clamped down on her emotions. No way was she going to show any hint of vulnerability. Not in front of these vultures. Her face a stoic mask, she let herself into the passenger's side of the police cruiser. Her hands gripped together in her lap as she waited for Lieutenant Tucker to join her.
He slammed the driver's side door and started the car, muttering to himself. She waited until he had driven away from the crowd before taking her inhaler out and using it. She almost cried with relief as her inflamed air passages opened, allowing her to breathe freely. Lieutenant Tucker darted wary glances her way.
"Are you all right?" he asked her, his tone of voice suggesting he was only asking because he felt obligated to do so.
"I'm fine. Thank you for agreeing to drive me home."
He threw a furious scowl her way. "Yeah," he retorted, sarcasm heavy in his voice, "this is exactly what I wanted to be doing today."
"I'm sor" She halted. No way would she apologize for any of this. Whether he believed it or not, she was the victim, and had been for a long time. Fueled by indignation, she found her anger and became bold. "Why are you even here? It's obvious you agree with those nuts out there."
His eyes widened, but were just as quickly shuttered.
Had she surprised him with her candor?
"It's my job. My boss felt you were in danger. Whether or not I agree, the chief wanted someone here. I drew the short straw. So here I am
a glorified babysitter for an ex-con."
That hurt. Melanie looked out the window as frustration clawed at her throat, making her voice tight when she spoke.
"I am not a criminal."
"A jury of your peers disagreed."
"I don't care." Her voice was low and husky. "I never sold drugs to anyone, especially not to teenagers."
He sighed and rolled his eyes. "Sure, sure. You were just a victim of circumstances."
"My name is Melanie, not Lady."
"Whatever. The point is, Melanie, no matter how innocent you claim to be, all the evidence implicated you. I collected it myself."
"I know," Melanie responded bitterly. "But it was all circumstantial. What absolute proof was there?"
The lieutenant made a disgusted sound. "If you were so innocent, why the suicide attempt?"
Distress filled Melanie. An inarticulate sound of pain escaped from her throat, almost like that of a wounded animal. "I didn't
" she choked out, and turned to face the window. This time, the tears would not be held back. They trickled in a slow stream down her cheek.
She heard him sigh again but was determined to ignore him. Awful man. How dare he treat her this way? Even if she had been guilty, she had served her sentence and paid her debt to society. She knew in her heart, though, that she was not guilty. Proving it, however, had been beyond her power. Maybe if she could have remembered the night in question
she shook her head. She needed to move on.
She refused to acknowledge him. "Melanie, I'm sorry." The words sounded somewhat strangled.
She turned around from the window and glared at him. "Don't choke on your apology."
Unexpectedly, he chuckled. A shiver went down her spine at the pleasant sound. Under different circumstances, she might have been attracted to him. As it was, she couldn't help but view him as an adversary.
"I won't say that I don't think you're guilty, because I do." Melanie turned away from him. "I will apologize for my unprofessional behavior."
She nodded in acknowledgment. What else could she say?
The remainder of the thirty-minute drive from Erie to LaMar Pond was silent. Uncomfortable. Melanie kept her gaze fixed on the passing scenery outside her window. Only a few more minutes, she told herself when she saw the sign for LaMar Pond. The car slowed as the lieutenant maneuvered past two Amish buggies. Lieutenant Tucker and Melanie both sighed in relief when her aunt's house came into view. It would have been humorous if the circumstances had been different.
Dear Aunt Sarah. Even with all the supposed "evidence," she had refused to believe her only niece could have committed the vile acts of which she was accused. Everyone else abandoned Mel. Her friends, her coworkers at the restaurant, even her fiancé. But not Aunt Sarah. For that alone, Melanie would be forever grateful.
The cruiser turned onto the gravel path that led up to the small cottage Sarah Swanson had built with her husband thirty years earlier. The area remained remarkably untouched in the years that followed. The closest neighbor was half a mile away. Melanie had always loved the peacefulness. The lack of people around appealed to her. Especially now. Impatience grabbed her. She tried to open her door. Locked. Throwing Lieutenant Tucker a scowl, she gestured toward the door. He rolled his eyes as he unlocked it. Ignoring him, she pushed the door open and ran up the front steps.
She stopped. Uneasiness shivered through her. The front door was open. Aunt Sarah never left doors open.
"What's the holdup?"
She whirled to face the grim-faced man stalking toward her.
"Lieutenant," she started. Stopped. If she shared her suspicions, he would think she was playing games. Her aunt had probably felt tired and left the door open so her niece wouldn't have to wait for her to maneuver through the house in her wheelchair. Mel remembered how drama wore her aunt out.
Melanie flattened her mouth into a determined line. Straightening her shoulders, she pushed the door open and entered. And screamed.
* * *
Melanie's scream pushed Jace into action. He bolted up the stairs. He found Melanie kneeling on the floor beside her aunt's unconscious body. Tears streamed down her face. She was shaking her aunt's shoulder and calling her name. No response. Jace glanced around, his eyes alert. Sarah's chair was still where it had been when she fell out of it. A shattered mug was on the floor. Sarah herself was lying in a puddle of what looked like hot chocolate. Her wispy white curls were matted with the liquid.
Instinctively, Jace fell back on his first-aid training. He glanced around the room, making sure no other dangers lurked before falling to his knees beside Melanie. He could hear the elderly woman's labored breathing. Together, they carefully turned her onto her back. Melanie gasped at the sight, and Jace could hardly blame her. Sarah Swanson's eyelids and lips were swollen to three times their normal size.
"Anaphylactic shock?" Jace queried.
Mel nodded in agreement. She raced to the desk against the wall and tore open her aunt's purse, desperately riffling through its contents.
"Yes!" Triumphantly, Mel held up the object she had been searching for. An EpiPen. Jace made room for her as she rushed back. Throwing herself on her knees next to the prone woman, she jabbed the needle into her aunt's thigh. Then she sat back on her heels. Jace watched the desperation leave her face as her aunt's breathing became more natural. Holding Melanie's eyes, he flipped open his phone and called for an ambulance. Releasing her gaze, he stood. He needed to call the chief and give him an update.
Mel screamed again. The brick that had been flung through the window landed with a thud beside her. Glass shards glistened in her hair. In the midmorning sunlight, they resembled diamonds.
Jace barked a request for backup into the radio clipped to his shoulder. He raced to the window. His gun seemed to jump into his hand. He peered outside, squinting as he examined the thick line of trees surrounding the cottage. Nothing moved. A quick glance down, though, showed fresh footprints in the flower bed below the window. Large footprints. Whoever had thrown that rock was probably around six feet tall. Jace figured the person was in shape given how fast they escaped the scene. In the distance, an engine roared to life. Jace let out a frustrated sigh as he realized pursuit would be pointless.
A gasp behind him caused him to whirl. Melanie was staring at a crinkled piece of paper. She was trying to keep it steady, but her hands shook violently. Her face was ashen. She looked as though she might faint. Alarmed, Jace went to her and snatched the paper out of her grasp. She didn't even flinch.
MURDERER! YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE. LEAVE WHILE YOU CAN.
The large block letters had been cut out of magazines and newspapers. Whoever had thrown that rock made sure their handwriting couldn't be traced. That amount of effort pointed to premeditation. The person had probably been outside the window waiting for Melanie's return.
Jace scowled. What kind of lowlife threatened women? Sarah Swanson was about as harmless as you could get. And as for Melanie
He narrowed his eyes as he gazed at the young woman. Her face was pale, and her lips seemed bloodless. The dark curls framing her face emphasized the pallor. The haunted look in her velvet brown eyes tore at him. Even knowing her past as he did, Jace disliked seeing her slender frame tremble with fear.
He hated himself for feeling drawn to her. He thought he had banished the attraction four years ago. A flare of resentment surged as he looked at the young woman kneeling on the floor. Hadn't he learned his lesson? He had let affection cloud his judgment once before, with disastrous results. Never again.