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Last Kiss Goodbye Rita Herron Литагент HarperCollins EUR “Why did you come back?” He stepped closer, so close she could smell the scent of his soap, combined with something more woodsy, all primal male. “Why do you think?” A muscle ticked in his jaw as he waited for her reply. But she couldn’t find her voice. “I came to see you,” he finally said. “Me?” Her voice quivered. “But why?” He lifted his hand and twirled a strand of her hair around his finger. Tension radiated from every pore in his body, the heat between them igniting a mixture of fear and excitement inside her. He looked so lost and angry. So alone. The way she’d felt so many times. His pain drew her. Suddenly she wanted to assure him that life wasn’t all evil. A bold and sexy look flared in his eyes. Hunger. Lust. The urgent need of a man to take what he wanted. She backed away, frightened by the potency of that desire. Half wanting it. Half terrified of the desperate need that accompanied it. “I’ve been waiting a long time for us to meet so you could explain why you didn’t tell everyone what happened that night. Why you let them put me in prison when you knew I was innocent.” Rita Herron Last Kiss Goodbye Dear Reader, Having grown up in the rural South, where local legends, folklore and superstitions abound, add flavor to small-town life and make the town come alive, I developed an affinity for using those elements in my own storytelling. There are also Southern scenes that paint such vivid parts of rural life in my mind that I had to use those, as well. For example, the trailer parks (mobile home parks) where some of my own family live. The junkyards sprinkled throughout the countryside where old cars, buses, trucks are left, their parts sold off. And of course, the kudzu vines that grow out of control and take over the dilapidated barns and rotting wooden houses. In this latest romantic suspense, Last Kiss Goodbye, I tried to paint those pictures for you by way of the legends and myths in the fictitious small town of Kudzu Hollow, Georgia. When I first began, one thought stuck out in my mind—I knew I wanted the heroine to have witnessed her parents’ murder when she was a child, and that the only thing she remembered about that horrific night was kissing her mother goodbye. That gave me my title. Of course, for a Rita Herron heart-pounding romantic suspense story, I had to add a strong sense of family, emotional turmoil, murder and small-town secrets, along with a sizzling romance between two wounded souls who desperately need each other! With this book, I’ve also included guidelines for you and your book club (if you belong to one) to aid you in discussing the story and the metaphors I’ve used. I hope you enjoy! Sincerely, To George Scott, my favorite, fantastic bookseller—thanks for all your support, and for helping to make my single-title romantic suspense debut, A BREATH AWAY, a success! LAST KISS GOODBYE CONTENTS PROLOGUE CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER EIGHTEEN CHAPTER NINETEEN CHAPTER TWENTY CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE EPILOGUE PROLOGUE “MOMMY!” EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Ivy Stanton stared at the blood on her hands in horror. There was so much of it. All over her. Her mother. The floor. “Ivy, Jesus, look what you’ve done!” Her daddy’s gray eyes seared her like fire pokers. Outside the wind howled, rattling the windowpanes and metal of their trailer. The Christmas tree lights blinked, flashing a rainbow of colors across the room. “She’s dead,” her daddy said, “and it’s all your fault.” Ivy shook her head in denial, but he shoved her blood-soaked hands toward her face, and she started to cry. Then she looked down at the knife on the floor. And her mother’s lifeless body sprawled across the carpet. Her pretty brown eyes stared up at the ceiling, icy now. No! Her mama couldn’t be dead. If Ivy just kissed her, she’d wake up. Then she’d smile and hug Ivy and tell her everything was going to be all right. That tomorrow they’d finish decorating the Christmas tree and wrap the presents. Ivy pressed her lips against her mama’s cheek, but it was so cold and stiff, she shivered. Then her father yanked her up by the arm. “You’re poison, Ivy. You’ve ruined this family.” “No!” She struggled against him, but he shoved her so close to her mother, Ivy saw the whites of her mama’s bulging eyes. Ivy’s stomach cramped, and she coughed, choking. All that blood. So red. No, not red. The color faded. Just yucky brown. Even the colored Christmas lights disappeared, turned to black dots before her eyes. He snagged her hair and flung her backward. Pain exploded in her head as she hit the wall. She scrambled to her knees, tried to run toward the door, but he lunged after her, grabbed her ankle and twisted it so hard she thought she heard it snap. She cried out and kicked at his hands until she was free. A bolt of thunder jolted the trailer, shaking it as if a tornado was coming. Two of her mama’s ceramic Santa Clauses crashed to the floor. Ivy crawled across the glass, felt shards stab her palms. She had to save the Santas. Save them for when her mama came back. Her daddy reached for her again. No. No time to get the glass Santas. She had to escape. She grabbed the cloth Santa instead, the new one her mama had just sewed from felt scraps. Clutching it, Ivy vaulted up and out the trailer door. Her ankle throbbed as she hobbled down the wooden steps and darted toward the junkyard. Her father chased her, his screech echoing over the wind. Tree limbs reached like claws above her in the shadows. Lightning flashed in jagged patterns. It was dark, and she could barely see. She tripped over a tire rim. A stabbing pain shot through her ankle and leg, and she had to heave for air. But she forced herself up, fighting the wind. It was so strong it hurled her forward. Rain began to splatter down, mud squishing inside her sneakers. Behind her, her father shouted a curse. His bad knee slowed him down. Her chest ached as she dashed through the rows of broken-down cars. Ones people didn’t want anymore. Just like her daddy didn’t want her. He’d told her so dozens of times. Ivy’s legs gave way again, and she collapsed on the soggy ground. The Santa flew from her hands. Mud soaked her clothes, splashed her face. Then someone grabbed her from behind. Flailing, she yelled and kicked. “Stop fighting me, dammit.” He released her, and she scrambled away on her knees. It wasn’t her father. Bad-boy Matt Mahoney was standing in the shadows. He stood motionless, his chin jutting up, a pair of ragged jeans hanging off his hips. He was soaked with rain and smelled like car grease. And he was so muscular and big he could stomp her into the ground. His black eyes tracked her as if she was an ant he wanted to kill. “Dammit to hell, Ivy.” He launched forward with one giant step, picked her up, then the Santa, and carried her toward a rusty van. Kudzu vines covered the roof and dangled over the windows, blocking all light. Ivy shuddered. It was pitch-black. She knew the nasty things men did to women in the dark. Had heard her daddy and mama. And those other men from Red Row. Knew what bad boys like Matt wanted. He opened the door, then shoved her on the bench seat in the back. With one hand, he untied the bandanna from around his head and wiped at the blood on her mouth. She couldn’t breathe. He was going to choke her just like the kudzu choked the wildflowers in the yard. Suddenly he yanked a knife from his pocket. The blade shimmered in the dark as he ripped away the front seat cover. His expression changed as he gently spread it over her. Then he pushed the cloth Santa back into her hands. “Shh, no one can see you in here,” he murmured softly. “It’s a good place to hide. Rest now, little Ivy.” She searched his big black eyes. She knew what he saw. She was covered in mud and leaves and blood. A bad girl just like her daddy said. She willed away the memory. Told herself it wasn’t true. Her mama hadn’t died. She would come back tomorrow. Glue the Santas together. Pick Ivy up and kiss her again. And this time her mama’s lips would be warm. Ivy’s head spun, and the bloody red color faded to brown again. She didn’t want to remember. To see the red. Not ever again. No, she had to forget…. She closed her eyes, dragging the makeshift blanket over her head to shut out the night and the grisly images. CHAPTER ONE Fifteen years later “DON’T GO BACK to Kudzu Hollow, Ivy. Please. I’m begging you, it’s too dangerous. There’s nothing but evil and death in that town.” Ivy squeezed her adopted mother’s hand, then bent to kiss her cheek, her cool leathery skin reminding her of the time she’d kissed her birth mother goodbye. The day she’d died. In fact that kiss was the last thing Ivy remembered about that horrible night. That and the terrified cries echoing in her head. Her mother’s. Her own. She couldn’t be sure which. Or maybe it was both, all mingled together, haunting her in the night. Miss Nellie wheezed, cutting into Ivy’s morbid thoughts. Her adopted mother was close to death now, too. She’d suddenly taken ill a few days ago, and had gone downhill fast. She claimed she’d made peace with her maker, but Ivy wasn’t so sure. Sometimes she saw doubt, worry, secrets in Miss Nellie’s eyes. Secrets the woman refused to share. Secrets that told her Miss Nellie had a dark side. “I have to go back, Miss Nellie,” she said in a low whisper. “I…I’ve been having nightmares. Panic attacks.” And sometimes I see images from the past in the night, monsters that can’t be real. Cries and whispers of death. Screams of ghosts and spirits crying out for salvation. And I’m lost in the middle…. Miss Nellie’s hand trembled as she lifted it to brush a strand of hair from Ivy’s cheek. “Forget about the past, dear. You have to let it go.” “How can I?” Fading sunlight dappled the patchwork quilt in gold and created a halo around Miss Nellie’s face. Ivy stood and faced the bedroom window, the scents of illness and dust surrounding her. She hated to lose Miss Nellie, but the elderly woman had looked so pale and her cheeks were sallow. The doctors weren’t certain what had caused her illness, but they’d said she wouldn’t make it another week, much less to Christmas. Christmas—the Santas… Ivy shuddered and fought against the fear that gnawed at her at the thought of the upcoming holidays, with all the twinkling lights, festive ornaments and decorations. Snowmen and reindeer, and of course, the Santas. Those Santas were the only thing she had left of her mother. Dozens of them. Soft ones sculpted from fine red-and-white velvet, with tiny black boots and belts and long cottony beards. Crystal and homemade crafted Santas with glass eyes and painted smiles. Wooden ones carved from bark and painted in a folk art style. Ivy kept them boxed up, though, couldn’t bear to look at them. Just as she couldn’t look at Miss Nellie now. She’d always felt Miss Nellie held something back, some part of herself she kept at a distance from Ivy. She knew it had to do with Nellie losing her own son when he was small, but her foster mother refused to talk about him or even show Ivy pictures. A sob built in Ivy’s throat. Miss Nellie was all she had. Another reason she wanted answers. When Miss Nellie passed, she’d take her secrets with her to the grave. Just as Ivy’s parents had. And Miss Nellie had secrets. “Please tell me what you meant in the journal, Miss Nellie. How did you come to get me?” “That journal was private, you shouldn’t have been snooping.” Miss Nellie clammed up abruptly, her thin lips pinched and almost blue as she turned her head away. “I didn’t mean to snoop, Miss Nellie, but I need to know.” “All that matters is that God wanted me to raise you. And I got you out of Kudzu Hollow. That town is tainted, I tell you,” Miss Nellie warned. “There’s evil there. I knew it when I lived there. And I’ve seen the papers, heard stories on the news over the years. Ever since your folks was murdered, bad things have been happening. Livestock and animals attacking one another. Children dying before their time. Folks rising from the grave. Men becoming animals. Teenagers turning against their folks that raised them.” Miss Nellie was superstitious. It was the way of the people of Appalachia. But Ivy couldn’t argue. She’d seen the stories, too, had read the papers. Every few years, always after a bout of bad thunderstorms and rain, the entire town seemed to go crazy. Crime spiked to a high. There had been several killings. Even more odd was the fact that very few people ever left the town—alive, anyway. And the ones who’d lost loved ones seemed trapped by the old legends. Either that or they were held there by the spirits of the dead, who supposedly roamed the graveyard on the side of the mountain. “No town or person is all bad,” Ivy said, clinging to her optimistic nature. “There has to be some good there, too.” Miss Nellie’s expression softened slightly. “You’re so naive, Ivy. You always try to find good in everything. But there ain’t no good there. Just ghosts and the devil.” The old woman coughed and reached for her oxygen mask, inhaled a deep breath, then continued in a wheezing voice. “I used to hear the children chant when they were skipping rope. ‘Evil in the kudzu devil in the men Death in the hollow again and again.’ And it’s true. People are afraid to stay. Afraid to leave.” Ivy shivered. She’d been so afraid to return. But those old fears were keeping her from having a sane life. From being with a man. From loving. Even the colors hadn’t returned. The fall leaves outside had already started changing, but all she would see were brown and hints of yellow. There was no red. Even oranges appeared a muddy color. She crossed the room to Miss Nellie’s bed and sat down beside her in the hard wooden chair. “If you don’t want me to go back, then tell me the truth about the night my parents died.” Miss Nellie’s face turned ashen. “The only thing you need to know is that they locked up the killer. None of them Mahoney boys were ever any account.” Ivy bit her bottom lip, her stomach knotting. Matt Mahoney hadn’t been all bad. She wasn’t sure how she knew that, but she did. So why had everyone been so quick to blame him? She’d written him letters to find out, but he’d never responded. And six months ago, she’d drummed up enough courage to drive to the prison to hear his side, but he’d refused her visit. The past few months, the local paper had featured articles on a lawyer named Willis who was writing a book on old cases and corruption in small-town politics. He’d managed to clear prisoners who’d been falsely arrested, citing new evidence based on advances in DNA testing. He was working on Matt’s case now. What if they’d convicted the wrong man for her parents’ murders? Matt had been sixteen at the time. Why would he have killed her folks? That question had haunted her for years now. That and the fact that if he was innocent, Matt had spent fifteen years in jail for a crime he hadn’t committed. All because she’d been too much of a coward to remember the events of that night. Six weeks later MATT MAHONEY HAD SPENT the last fifteen years in jail for a murder he hadn’t committed. And someone was going to pay for the way he’d been wronged. Thank God Abram Willis had taken an interest in his case. Willis had chosen to devote half of his practice to cold case files, to “the Innocents,” as he referred to them. Men and women falsely imprisoned. And he’d been digging into Matt’s case for months now. Today would tell if he’d been successful. Matt glanced at the lawyer and hoped he’d presented the case effectively, that he’d crossed all his t’s and dotted all the i’s. The judge had reviewed the evidence and called them to reconvene for his decision. Willis fidgeted with his tie, then adjusted his wire-rims. The damn lawyer looked as nervous as Matt felt. Except Matt’s future was on the line here. What was left of it. The bailiff called the court to order, and the judge slammed down the gavel, then cleared his throat. Tufts of white hair stood up on the back of his balding head, making him look almost approachable. But his lack of expression during the hours Willis had presented the case made Matt wonder. And the steady gaze that he settled on Matt at that moment added to the mounting tension in the courtroom. Matt glanced at the sunlight streaming through the window, aching to step outside and bask in it. This judge was the only thing standing between him and freedom. He could almost taste the fresh air, smell the grass and leaves, feel the heat beating on his face and back. But if he didn’t win today, he would go back inside. Back to the dismal existence and that damn cell block that had become his life. The judge cleared his throat. “After studying the evidence collected fifteen years ago, and after reviewing the current DNA evidence supplied, the court agrees that a mistake was made in this case. I’m ruling to overturn your conviction.” His expression turned grave. “The court offers its deepest apologies to you, Mr. Mahoney, but also issues you a warning. We’re trying to right a wrong here today. Remember that, and don’t use your incarceration as an excuse to make trouble.” Matt exhaled slowly, the burning ache of disbelief rolling through him. Had he really heard the judge correctly? After all this time, was he ruling in Matt’s favor? “You are free to go, Mr. Mahoney. With the court’s regrets, of course.” He pounded the gavel, ending the session, and Willis jumped up and slapped Matt on the back in congratulations. A deputy stepped forward and removed the ankle bracelet. Matt stood immobile, breathless, as the metal fell away. He couldn’t believe it. He was free. Free to walk out the door for the first time in fifteen years. Free to go anywhere he wanted without a guard breathing down his shoulder, without handcuffs and chains around his ankles. Free to go to bed at night without another man watching him, or worrying that he might never live to see freedom. But if the judge thought he’d righted the wrong just by releasing him, he was a damn idiot. Matt had lost fifteen years of his life. And someone had to answer for that. The town of Kudzu Hollow. Ivy Stanton. And the person responsible for the Stanton slayings. The real killer had to be punished this time. And Matt would make certain that happened. Even if it killed him. “I KNOW YOU’RE STILL grieving over Miss Nellie’s death, Ivy,” George Riddon said. “And I want to help you if you’d let me.” Ivy stared at her partner at Southern Scrapbooks, the magazine she’d birthed with the help of her own savings and George’s funding, and bit her lip. She’d thought George had stopped by her house to talk business. But so far, his visit had seemed personal. He’d been pushing her to date him for months now, had hinted that he wanted more. Much more than she could give. “I’m sorry, George, but it’s just too soon.” He slid his hands around her arms and held her still when she would have walked away. “Listen, I want you, Ivy. I’ve been patient, but a man can only wait so long. We would be really good together. All you need to do is give us a chance.” She froze, the note of anger in his voice spiking her own. “No one is asking you to wait.” A fierce look flashed in his hazel eyes. Eyes before that had always been kind and businesslike. “What are you saying? That you won’t ever…that you can’t see me that way? Is it my age?” “No, of course not. You’re not that much older than me.” Ivy simply couldn’t see any man that way. She wished she could. Sometimes she was so lonely. He released her abruptly and snapped open the September layout she’d completed on Southern romantic rendezvous. “Look at all these places. Maybe if we took a trip together we could kindle the fire between us.” She glanced down at the rows of pictures she’d scrapbooked for the magazine. Idyllic, charming bed-and-breakfasts in the mountains, the Grand Ole Opry Hotel in Nashville, a cozy inn on the river in New Orleans, the Chattanooga Choo-choo. A deep sadness washed over her. When she’d photographed and finished the layout, she had imagined herself there, walking hand in hand with a lover, making love as the river rushed over rocks nearby. She longed for a companion in life. But as much as she’d tried, she couldn’t imagine that person as George. “Please just let it go.” She sighed. “I have too much on my mind right now.” His jaw tightened as he ran a hand over his sandy-blond beard. “I’m beginning to think you’re a cold fish. That you use your past as an excuse so you won’t have to get close to anyone.” Ivy glared at him. Granted, she hadn’t made a lot of friends, but she wasn’t a cold fish. She needed order to keep the demons at bay. The endless patterns of her day, the routines, the sameness kept her sane and safe. Get up at seven. Shower. Go to the office. Hit the gym after work for a three-mile run around the track to help her sleep at night. Dinner. Reading. Tea. Bed. Then start it all over the next day, a vicious circle where she was never moving forward, just in a circle like the track. Sometimes the routines kept the nightmares away. And when those nightmares left her, erotic dreams filled her sleeping hours. Dreams of being touched, loved, caressed by an anonymous dark-haired man. He seemed familiar, but she couldn’t quite see his face or discern his features. If or when she gave her body to a man, he had to be someone she really wanted to be with, a man who made her feel alive and special. A man who moved emotions inside her. A man she could trust enough to share her secrets. That man wasn’t George. “I’m sorry.” He sighed, looking frustrated but resigned. “I know you’re still troubled over Miss Nellie’s diary. But if you don’t get over it, Ivy, this magazine is going to fall apart because you’re not focused.” She swallowed hard. The magazine was her baby, the only thing she’d ever put her heart into. Failure was not an option. “What do you have planned for the October issue?” George asked. “The deadlines are approaching.” “I was thinking about featuring Appalachian folklore and ghost stories. That would fit with the Halloween theme.” He plucked at his beard again as he chewed over the idea. “That could work. Do you have a specific place in mind?” “Kudzu Hollow.” He frowned. “I thought Miss Nellie convinced you not to go back there.” The television droned in the background, but Ivy froze, momentarily caught off guard when a special news segment flashed on the screen. Abram Willis, the lawyer who’d been working on Matt Mahoney’s case, appeared in front of a massive stone, columned structure, a flock of reporters on his heels. The courthouse in Nashville. A tall man with thinning hair and a tanning-bed-bronzed complexion stopped in front of the lawyer, blocking his exit. “This is Don Rivers reporting to you from C & N News. We have a live interview with Abram Willis, the nationally acclaimed attorney, currently fighting to free falsely accused prisoners.” “Ivy—” “Shh.” She pushed past George and turned up the volume, her eyes glued to the set, her adrenaline churning. The distinguished attorney paused to address the group, absentmindedly straightening his tie, which matched his streaked gray hair. But it was the man beside him who captured Ivy’s attention. Well over six feet tall with jet-black hair, and eyes so dark brown they looked black. His powerful body exuded pure raw masculinity, as well as bitterness and anger. The scar that zigzagged down his left cheek added an air of brutality that bordered on frightening. But something about his darkness drew her, made her wonder if he really was the hard, cold man he appeared on the surface. Pain radiated from his body, and his eyes held such deep sadness that Ivy literally trembled with compassion. For a fleeting second, another image passed through the far recesses of her brain, the image of Matt Mahoney as a teenager. He’d been fierce, angry, frightening. But all the teenage girls had wanted him, had whispered about the girls he’d taken in the back of his daddy’s ’75 Chevy. Now he looked exhausted, half-dead from defeat. Yet a small spark lit his eyes—relief at his sudden and unexpected freedom. “Mr. Willis, is it true that the court overturned the ruling on Mr. Mahoney’s murder conviction?” Rivers asked. “That he spent fifteen years in jail for a crime that evidence now proves he didn’t commit?” Willis nodded, puffing up his chest as he straightened his suit jacket, but Matt averted his face as if shying away from the camera. “That’s correct,” the attorney said. “Justice has finally been served. Mr. Mahoney has been cleared of charges and has been pardoned.” The reporter shoved a microphone in Matt’s face. “Mr. Mahoney, tell us how it feels to be free.” “What are you going to do now?” another reporter shouted. A chorus of others followed. “Are you receiving monetary retribution for the past fifteen years?” “Are you going home?” “If you didn’t kill that family, do you know who did?” Ivy pressed her hand to her mouth, waiting for his answer. But Matt scowled at the camera, pushed the microphone away with an angry swipe of his hand and stalked through the crowd without responding. “What the hell is it, Ivy?” George said, sliding his hand to her waist. “You act like you’ve seen a ghost.” She gestured toward the screen with a shaky hand, the black hole of her past threatening to swallow her. “That’s the man who was convicted of killing my parents.” MATT INHALED THE CRISP fall air as he walked away from the courthouse, barely noting that the smells of grass, honeysuckle and clean air that he’d craved were missing, that the city with its concrete buildings and sidewalks had destroyed those things, just as prison had decimated his dignity. Goddamn bloodsucking reporters. He’d half wanted to use them as a tool to vent his case, since they’d sure as hell done a number on him years ago. But he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. And what could he say? That he was bitter. That he hated the system that had failed him. That he despised the citizens who still stared at him as if he was guilty. That he wished he had a nice home to go to. Someone waiting on him. A family. A loving wife or lover. Anyone who cared about him. A future. He didn’t. In fact, going home meant facing the very people who’d condemned him. The neighbors and family who’d gossiped about his family, testified against his character, thrown him away and forgotten about him. The ones who believed he was a murderer. But he would face them, anyway. Because someone in Kudzu Hollow knew the truth about the Stanton slayings and had allowed him to take the fall. One last glance at the columns of the courthouse and its stately presence, and he remembered all he’d learned in prison. Laws varied, depending on a person’s financial status. For the poor, the old adage “innocent until proven guilty” didn’t matter one iota. In fact, it was the opposite—you were guilty from the beginning, and nothing you said made a damn bit of difference. From the moment the sheriff had slapped handcuffs on him, Matt had been labeled a killer. Not one person in Kudzu Hollow had spoken up to defend him. Then in prison…hell, everyone screamed they were innocent. He’d had a hard time telling the difference himself. He’d met men bad to the bone, some meaner and more depraved than he’d ever imagined. But other innocents like him, convicted by bad cops, seedy lawyers, piss-poor judges and shoddy crime scene techs, filled the cells, too. Trouble was, once the prisoners were all thrown in there together, fighting for survival took priority. And they all became animals. Sweat beaded his forehead at the memory of the acts he’d committed in the name of survival. His life would never be the same. He’d lost his youth, and for a while his chance for an education, although the last few years he’d pulled himself together and had been studying the law. One day soon, he’d obtain his license and take the bar exam. Become a respectable citizen and prove to the world that it had been wrong about him. Maybe he’d even work with Willis to help free other innocents. Matt’s chest squeezed, though, as he climbed into the lawyer’s black Cadillac. Now only one thing drove him—bittersweet revenge on the man responsible. If only he knew his identity. That fateful night raced back as Willis drove through Nashville, Matt’s mind wandering back in time as the sea of cars and traffic noises swirled around him. Fifteen years ago, he’d been up to no good, stealing tires from the junkyard, when he’d spotted that little Stanton girl running for her life. Hell, he’d felt sorry for the kid. They’d both grown up in the trailer park that backed up to the junkyard. He knew the kind of life she had. Had heard folks in town gossiping that her mother liked the men, that if she wasn’t married she’d be shacked up in one of Talulah’s Red Row trailers making money on her back. And some said that she did spend her days there with her legs spread wide, entertaining customer after customer while her old man sold car parts and pedaled junk for a living. And Matt had finally learned that was true, although he wasn’t proud of the way he’d found out. Old man Stanton had beat his wife. They were white trash just like his family. Ivy had been such a puny little thing, with bundles of curly blond hair and those big green eyes that he hated to think of her big-bellied father taking his fists to her. The poor kid didn’t have enough meat or muscle on her to fend off a spider, much less a drunk, two-hundred-pound, pissed old fart who wreaked of whiskey and a bad temper. When Matt had seen all that blood on her hands and shirt, the devil had climbed inside him. He’d wanted to kill her bastard daddy. Teach him to pound on somebody his own size. And he had gone to the trailer, the one with the torn, yellowed curtains, the broken-down swing set and the beer cans smashed against the porch. But he hadn’t killed anyone. No, her mother had been dead when he arrived. A vicious slaying, as if animals had been at it. Matt had damn near lost his dinner seeing all the blood on the floor, like a fucking river. And her daddy had been found later, buried beneath the kudzu, his body slashed and bloody, his face carved as if an animal had ripped him apart. Not that Matt’s pleas of innocence had mattered. The sheriff had found his boot prints, his damn fingerprints on the doorknob, and he’d been railroaded to jail for the crime, anyway. Craving fresh air, and suddenly claustrophobic as prison memories assaulted him, Matt cranked down the window, uncaring that the air that assaulted him was tainted with smog and exhaust fumes. It spelled freedom. He was thirty-one now. Thirty-one with nowhere to go, nothing to do, and not a soul in the world who gave a damn that he was out. Thirty-one and so damn scarred inside and out that no sane woman would ever want him. All because he’d had a tender streak for a little girl who hadn’t bothered to show up at his trial and defend him. Damn fool. That’s what he was. What he’d always been. But never again. The sun warmed his face as Willis wove through the heavy rush hour traffic. Matt dragged his mind from the depths of despair where he’d lived for so long, and tried to soak up the changes in the city. New businesses and skyscrapers had cropped up on every corner, rising toward the heavens. Car horns and humming motors of SUVs and minivans whizzing by bombarded him, as did the loud machinery on a construction site. The sight of modern vehicles, the styles so different from fifteen years ago, reminded him of all that he’d missed. “How about a motel on the outskirts of the city?” Willis asked. “There’s a used car lot across the street, and a motor vehicle place a few blocks away so you can renew your driver’s license tomorrow.” Matt nodded. “Sounds good.” Willis pulled into a Motel 6 and cut the engine. Matt turned to him, forever grateful. “Thank you for all you did for me, Abram.” A smile lifted the older man’s lips. “Just don’t make me regret it.” Matt’s gaze met his, and he nodded. He just hoped he could keep that promise. Willis handed him an envelope. “Here’s some cash from your account and a credit card. I’ll let you know when the state compensation comes in. It won’t be near enough, but it should help you get started.” Matt accepted the envelope. “Thanks again.” He shook Abram’s hand, then climbed out, smiling at the fact that he could step outside alone. Then he went inside and registered. A few minutes later, he walked across the street to the Wal-Mart, bought a couple of pairs of jeans and T-shirts, along with some toiletries—all mundane tasks that felt so liberating. Like a kid, excitement stirred inside him as he stopped at the Burger King and ordered a couple of Whoppers and fries. He grabbed the bag, inhaling the smell of fast food with a grin, then walked to the convenience store on the corner, bought a six-pack of beer and headed back to the motel for his celebration. He had to go back to Kudzu Hollow and face his demons soon, but not tonight. Tonight he’d celebrate his freedom. Tomorrow he’d renew his driver’s license, buy a car and a used computer, then locate Ivy Stanton. And when he found her, he’d surprise her with a little visit. Unlike the day the police had questioned her about her parents’ murders, this time she wouldn’t claim she didn’t know what had happened. This time, she’d damn well do some talking. ARTHUR BOLES WAVED his son into his office with a glare, popped an antacid tablet into his mouth and released a string of expletives. “Dammit, Crandall, I’ve paid you a small fortune to keep that Mahoney boy in jail. How did you let that confounded fool Willis get him free?” “Listen, calm down, Arthur,” his attorney screeched over the telephone line. “I did everything I could. By all rights, the boy should have been paroled years ago.” “But you managed to keep that from happening, so why couldn’t you stop this disaster?” “I’ve used up all my favors and jeopardized my own reputation for you,” Crandall snapped. “Now I’m through, Arthur. Through doing your dirty work for you, through putting myself on the line. I fully intend to salvage my career and wash my hands of the whole mess.” Arthur ran a palm over his thinning hair, watching as his son, A.J., paced the room like a caged animal. The boy was nervous. Hell, they all were. “You can’t walk away from me now, Crandall.” “I can and I will,” the lawyer snapped. “And if you dare try to use what I’ve done to blackmail me, I will expose you and your son.” Crandall slammed down the phone, and Arthur cursed again, then raked a hand across his desk, sending papers flying in fury. Crandall wouldn’t reveal a damn word. Arthur would see to that. “Dad,” A.J. said in a worried voice as he paused, jerked open the liquor cabinet and grabbed a fifth of bourbon. Tipping up the bottle, he drank straight from it like a heathen, the brown liquid dribbling down his chin. Just as he had fifteen years ago. The night the trouble had started. “What in the hell are we going to do?” A.J. swiped a hand over his mouth. “Mahoney’s out. And you know the first place he’ll come.” Traces of desperation and fear lined A.J.’s face, suddenly aging his son another ten years. Arthur’s own panic gripped his chest like a vise, but he stalked toward A.J., took the bottle from his hand. “I’ll take care of things. Don’t worry.” A.J. relaxed slightly, but remnants of memories lingered in his eyes. The same ones that troubled Arthur. They both had made mistakes fifteen years ago. But they’d survived this long without anyone knowing. And those mistakes would go with them to their graves. Even if Arthur had to kill Crandall and Mahoney to keep them buried. IVY HAD BEEN ALONE FOR SO LONG. His dark eyes skated over her, and her body tingled in response. She wasn’t a cold fish. No, she craved his touch. Could not get enough. His shaggy black hair nudged his collar, the desire in his dark eyes nearly bringing her to her knees. She reached for him, but he shook her hand away and made her wait. With one finger he flicked the buttons on her shirt free, the corner of his mouth twitching as he peeled it from her shoulders. Cool air brushed her skin, and her nipples budded beneath the flimsy lace of her bra. A hot look of hunger colored his irises, but he still didn’t move to kiss her. He simply stood stone still, watching her chest rise and fall as he slid her panties down her thighs. She stepped out of them, suddenly feeling shy. But the hiss of his breath was so erotic that all shyness fled. He smiled, then cupped one hand behind her neck, lowered his mouth and claimed hers. Her heart pounded as he tasted and explored, teased her lips apart and thrust his tongue inside. Then he trailed kisses down her neck and lower, to her breasts. Pleasure rippled through her. She had been waiting all her life for this moment. For his touch. His lips. His hands. His fingers slid along her spine, over the curve of her hips, then lower to her blond curls that were already wet from wanting him. A groan erupted from his throat as he pulled back and looked at her. A fierce need glimmered in his eyes, making her ache to strip him and touch him all over. But when she reached for him, he drifted away, swallowed by the darkness…. IVY JERKED AWAKE, panting and sweating, the sheets twisted around her legs and arms where she’d rolled from side to side as waves of erotic satisfaction splintered through her. She wasn’t the cold fish George had accused her of being. She was starved for love, for a man’s comfort, for his touches and kisses. And the man in her dreams…this time she had seen his face. And that face had belonged to the man who’d been imprisoned for killing her parents—Matt Mahoney. God. She dropped her head into her hands, trembling. Matt Mahoney was not a man she would ever have sex with. Not a man who would want her. The dark coldness of the room closed around her, suffocating her. The screams of terror suddenly exploded in her head again, and her heart pounded. A monster’s face replaced Matt’s, and she saw the blood. Brown, not red. Floating like a river around her mother’s body. A wail lodged in Ivy’s throat as the smell of death bombarded her. She had to run but her legs wouldn’t move. The silent voices screeched in her ears. Run like the wind. Run from the monster or he’ll get you again. Just as she had fifteen years ago. Anything to escape the horror. Or he would kill her, too. And there would be no tomorrow. TOMORROW WAS THE beginning of another bad day. The beginning of the end for some in Kudzu Hollow. For years now, the dark cloud, as Lady Bella Rue called it, had hovered about the small mountain community, floating away only occasionally, only long enough to give the locals a momentary reprieve. But before hope could be rekindled, the cloud returned with a vengeance to dump more sorrow and misfortune on the town. Lady Bella Rue gathered her shawl around her trembling shoulders, fighting the wind as she walked outside and descended the steps to her root cellar. Storm clouds brewed above, the smell of rain and trouble filling her nostrils, a streak of lightning splintering off the mountain ridges. Thunder followed like an unwelcome guest announcing its arrival. The frizzled hen she kept in the yard scratched at the ground, a reminder of the West African legends. She had learned from the best. And she had visited the crossroads and prayed to the devil for nine days and nights to strengthen her powers. But she did not practice evil sorcery, as the locals said. Neither was she a lady of darkness as the kids had taunted when they’d dubbed her Lady Bella Rue years ago. No she desperately wanted to save the town. Thunder rumbled again, growing louder, and the impending pain and fear of what was to come pierced her heart, settling so deeply in her bones that she could almost feel the brittle edges poking through her paper-thin skin. Folks whispered that the evil had started the day the Stanton family had been murdered. Others thought that Lady Bella Rue was the cause. That she had killed her own child and cast a wretched spell on the town years ago, beginning a vicious cycle of family members turning on one another. But they were wrong. The gods and goddesses of the rivers, mountains and land were angry at the people, and fought the devil at every turn. Just as she did. And the ones who’d lost family over the years were trapped here, just as she was herself. Forced to listen to her baby’s cry at night as it echoed in the wind from the tangled vines of the kudzu. As long as she was alive, she would visit her son’s grave and pray for his spirit. She touched the red flannel charm bag she kept tucked inside her blouse, hoping the mixture of Jerusalem bean, devil’s shoestring, High John the Conqueror root, bloodroot, snakeroot and Adam and Eve root would be strong enough to stave off the evil when the rain came. After all, how could she protect the town if she was dead herself? Methodically, she gathered the roots and ingredients for the protection spell she hoped would help stave off the dangers. She would need eggs, candles, sulfur and chimney dust. She also needed graveyard dust, so she climbed the steps from the root cellar and headed toward her son’s grave. There, she would pray and chant and maybe be able to see the future. If she knew the man who brought danger this time, the man already possessed, perhaps she could make a spell to strip the devil from his soul before the killing began. If not, God help them all. More would die. And Satan would win again. CHAPTER TWO KILLING CAME EASY for some. And some were punished for it. But not him. He had escaped. But his soul was weak, and he craved another just as he craved the satisfaction of sex from the women he took to his bed. The one beside him flicked her tongue across his belly, and his muscles clenched. She had power over him now, but only because he’d allowed her the momentary privilege. Her breath bathed his skin, and he tunneled his fingers through her hair, pushing her head south. Now he had the power, and she would do as he said. And she would never tell anyone about their rendezvous. Since Matt Mahoney’s release, people might ask questions. Maybe look into the past. A new investigation or anyone snooping around would be a problem. Oblivious to his thoughts, the whore glided her hands over his stomach and stroked his erection as she flicked her tongue along his length. He relinquished himself to the pleasure as she captured him in her mouth. One stroke. Two. Her tongue worked magic. Energized now, he jerked her up to straddle him, then slid his hands along her spine, angling her hips so he could sink himself into her. She scraped his chest with bloodred nails and released a low moan, then lowered her tits and brushed his mouth with her nipples. He licked the pointed tips, suckled her like a baby, watched her throw her head back in wild abandon. Her cries lit a fire inside him, and he thrust harder, then flipped her on the bed and climbed above her, shoving her hands up and hammering into her. She dragged her legs up, her stiletto heels dangling as she raised her lush hips to meet him. He closed his eyes and stripped away her face. Saw another woman’s instead. Blond hair. Sparkling, innocent green eyes. Lips begging for him to fuck. Her voice telling him no. Her eyes screaming in terror. Release splintered through him, mind-boggling in intensity. He pumped harder, groaning as the woman below him dug her sharp heels into his buttocks and cried out her own pleasure. “God, baby…” His chest was dewy, his arms shaking as he opened his eyes. But the face that he’d imagined with his climax had disappeared. The whorish, made-up woman had replaced her. Mascara streaked her eyes, and her ruby-red lips had faded to a dull smudged pink. They would be pale blue in death. Icy cold. Not smiling. The mere thought gave him pleasure. And his cock stiffened again. He took her once more, this time flattening her on her stomach, with her face stuffed into the pillow. She was helpless. Begging him to stop. Begging him to continue. Her gasp as he shoved himself up her was his undoing, and he imagined his hands sliding around her throat, choking her. One kiss. Two kisses. Three kisses. Sigh. Four kisses. Five kisses. Six kisses. Cry. Seven kisses. Eight kisses. Nine kisses. Die. One last kiss and then goodbye. For a brief second, he thought he’d done it. Plunged the knife into her. Watched the life spill from her. Then the blackness faded, and he found himself lying on his back as he had so many times in the past. She raised up and kissed his neck. “Honey, anytime you want a little fun, you call Chantel.” He nodded, threw a hand over his forehead, panting as she stood, picked up her red teddy and slid it on. The past fifteen years he had had his share of women, but none as gorgeous as Chantel. Well, there was one…. His first. But no one knew. The door slammed as Chantel left, and he sat up, grabbed the half-full bottle of bourbon from his nightstand and took a swig, the woman already forgotten. More important matters to attend to now. He had seen the news report, watched Mahoney being released from prison, recognized the fury in his expression. Mahoney wanted revenge. Wanted answers. Wanted the real killer behind bars. His stomach knotted. All that he’d worked so hard to attain the last few years might slip through his fingers if the truth was revealed. That truth had to remain hidden. Sweat soaked his body now, and he guzzled the brown whiskey, his mind searching for a plan. What if Mahoney returned to Kudzu Hollow asking questions? What if he discovered the truth about that night fifteen years ago? Ivy Stanton’s face flashed in his head. She had been so little then, just a scrawny, knock-kneed kid with a gap-toothed, crooked smile. But now she was a woman. His sex stirred again just thinking about Lily Stanton. Would Ivy be as tasty as her mother had been? He cursed himself, fighting the desperate urge to find out. He couldn’t think with his dick right now. His future might be in trouble. And he’d do whatever necessary to make sure it didn’t explode in his face. IT TOOK MATT A WEEK to start acclimating into the world, renew his license, buy an SUV and track down Ivy Stanton. Apparently she worked at a small magazine called Southern Scrapbooks, a publication that showcased regional and small-town folklore, sites, restaurants, entertainment venues and other unique attractions, especially mysteries or oddities associated with small Southern towns. As he knocked on the door to her home in downtown Chattanooga, he studied the Victorian house she’d rented near the river. The scenic, homey-looking place robbed his breath for a minute. A fall wreath made of fake leaves decorated the door, while a bird feeder swayed in the breeze in a nearby dogwood tree. White wicker rocking chairs flanked the doorway, and a chaise sat kitty-cornered beside a tea table, as if inviting someone to lounge for a lazy afternoon with a glass of sweet iced tea beneath the twirling ceiling fans on the porch. Bitterness swelled inside him. The beauty around him once again reminded him of the life he’d been denied. Latching onto his anger, he knocked on the door a second time, but no one answered. Irritated, he climbed back in his car and drove toward the magazine office. It was only a few blocks away, a nondescript, small building that was much older than Ivy’s house, tucked in a historic area that held many small businesses. Five minutes later, he sucked in his breath as he strode into the office. A hum of voices swirled from a back room. In the outer area, a rail-thin brunette leaned over a table studying what seemed to be a photograph layout of restaurants and cafеs. He cleared his throat. “Excuse me, but where can I find Iv—Ann Ivy?” The woman pursed her lips and glanced at him, and he was grateful he hadn’t completely slipped and used her name instead of the pseudonym she’d adopted for the magazine. “She’s not here. I’m Miss Evans. Can I help you?” “I really need to talk to Miss Ivy myself,” Matt said. “When will she be back?” “I’m not sure. She went out of town to research a story.” He chewed the inside of his cheek. “She contacted me about an upcoming issue, and I need to discuss some layouts with her.” The woman’s cell phone rang, and she glanced at it, then back up, looking harried. “Listen, I’m really busy—” “If you can just tell me where she went, I’ll track her down.” “She’s on assignment. Some little Appalachian town called Kudzu Hollow.” Miss Evans reached in her pocket and handed him a business card. “Here’s her cell number.” He pasted on a phony grin, then thanked her and left, his stomach churning. Ivy had gone back to Kudzu Hollow. That was the last place he’d expected to find her. Why had she returned home now? And why would she do a story on the town? Unless she’d seen the reports of his release… Had she actually returned to talk to him? Or did she believe he was guilty? If so, was she trying to find a way to put him back in prison? His chest tightened at the mere thought. He’d die before he’d go back inside. An hour and a half later, he was coasting up the highway toward eastern Tennessee, growing nearer and nearer his destination. A few phone calls, and he’d discovered Ivy had rented a cabin on the mountain. He’d reserved a cabin beside her. Horns blared, a siren wailed in the distance and rap music pounded through the speakers of the black pickup in front of him. An eighteen-wheeler nearly cut Matt off, boxing him in next to a cement truck. His claustrophobia mounted. One day the real killer would know what it was like to lie in a cramped, six-by-six cell and piss in a pot in front of strangers. He would know what it was like to suffer. To lose everyone he cared about. His entire future. Yes, Matt Mahoney had been innocent when he’d gone to jail. But he wasn’t innocent any longer. Now he would finally confront Ivy Stanton and force her to admit the truth about what had happened that night. Find out why the hell she hadn’t spoken up years ago and defended him. Then he’d make her pay for keeping quiet. THE VOICES WOULDN’T BE quiet. And the color red was back. But only in Ivy’s dreams. They had become more frequent since she’d seen that newscast of Matt Mahoney’s release. And even more intense since she’d come to Kudzu Hollow the week before. Nightmares of blood and screams, of that last kiss goodbye, the cold unbending skin of her mother’s lips, the eyes wide open in death… Ivy shivered, willing away the vivid images as she clutched the metal fence surrounding the junkyard, but the photos and article chronicling her parents’ brutal murders remained etched in her mind forever. There was no turning back now. She’d come here for answers and she couldn’t leave until she had them. The only way for her to move forward in her life was to travel backward in time. She’d spent the last week incognito, using her pseudonym, Ann Ivy, so the locals around Kudzu Hollow wouldn’t know her true identity. She’d driven the countryside and town taking photographs and studying the people. Soon, maybe she’d gather enough nerve to approach the locals about her parents’ murders. And to visit their graves. But one step at a time. Having finally gotten up the courage to stop by the junkyard today, she studied the landscape. Rusted and stripped vehicles of all sizes and models filled the overgrown yard, everything from Corvettes to pickups and broken-down school buses that had transported their last group of kids. Weeds choked the land, and kudzu climbed like snakes up the broken windows, over tires and hubcaps and scattered car parts. Tall trees dropped dead leaves, adding a layer of brown and gold to the dilapidated site, a reminder that winter was on its way. Winter and death. Ivy tried to banish her anxiety, then imagined her father working the lot, selling off parts as needed, trying to rebuild an engine in the station wagon he’d kept, huddling with a cigarette as he swiped at grease on his coveralls. That brief memory seemed to stir the pungent air with the scent of those filterless Camels he liked so much, the smell of his booze, the sound of his angry booming voice as his boots pounded on the squeaky floor of the trailer. She shuddered and clutched her jacket around her, willing other memories to follow, but the door slammed shut with a vicious slap, and there was nothing but emptiness. And the sense that she had run from the trailer to the junkyard more than once. Taken solace in the rusted old cars. Pretended they weren’t broken, that they could magically transport her far away from her miserable home. Frustrated, she yanked her gaze sideways, beyond the junkyard to the trailer park where she’d lived. Weeds choked the brown grass, and the trailers were faded and rusted, although families still dwelled in some of the same single-and double-wide mobile homes that had stood for twenty years. A few new ones had been added, she noted, although the rain had washed mud and leaves onto the aluminum sides, aging them automatically. Several small children in ratty jackets and jeans played chase in the yards just as she had probably done, and two neighborhood women sat on a sagging porch, chatting. Tricycles and plastic bats and toys littered the ground, and a couple of stray cats slept beside a double-wide while a mangy dog scrounged for food in the overflowing garbage. Although the scenery seemed familiar, Ivy couldn’t remember anything about that fatal night her parents died. Except that last kiss goodbye. Suddenly another image returned, this one more disturbing. She had been running through the junkyard, had fallen in the mud. A big boy suddenly appeared, piercing her with his dark brown eyes. Bad-boy Matt Mahoney. He reached for her, and she froze in terror, the world spinning and spinning until she spiraled downward into a black abyss of nothingness. The tunnel of darkness sucked her into its vortex, and the memory crashed to a halt. The familiar rush of renewed panic that had started after Miss Nellie’s death squeezed Ivy’s chest again. The accompanying light-headedness, the flash of white dots before her eyes, the inability to breathe—she couldn’t control it. A sudden gust of wind rattled the power lines, and gray, mottled storm clouds rolled over the tops of the ridges. Rain splattered the earth, the howling wind blowing leaves and debris across the brown grass. Tree branches swayed with its force, lightning zigzagged across the turbulent sky, illuminating the jagged peaks, which rose like a fortress guarding the town’s secrets. The earth suddenly rumbled, and the ground shook beneath her feet. Her heart pounded. What was that noise? An earthquake maybe? A tornado? Or the ghosts of the people who had died in the town, the ghosts that Miss Nellie had warned her about? The spirits that wandered the junkyard, trapped beneath the kudzu, begging to escape… NIGHT HAD SET IN by the time Matt reached the mountains. Although the majestic scenery and fresh fall air was a welcome reprieve from the city, a storm brewed on the horizon. Thunderclouds rumbled across the sky, and lightning flashed above the treetops. As he neared the hollow, rain slashed the Pathfinder, drilling the ground. It was almost as if Satan had sent this storm to remind him of that awful last night he’d spent in Kudzu Hollow. A glutton for punishment, he drove toward the trailer park, unable to face the town just yet. The graveyard for cars still sat in the same location, but weeds and kudzu had overtaken the place. Apparently, no one had kept up Roy Stanton’s business. Sweat rolled down Matt’s neck as he bounced over the ruts in the road and neared his old home. His mother’s parting words echoed in his mind: I’m so ashamed of you, Matt. Your brothers are thugs, and I knew you wasn’t any good, but I never thought you’d be a killer. She hadn’t believed him innocent any more than the locals had. Her lack of faith had cut him to the core. Determined to show her the papers exonerating him, he veered into the parking lot and stopped in front of his old homestead. Weeds filled the yard, and what little grass was left was patchy, with mud holes big enough for a small kid to get mired in. Rust stains colored the silver aluminum, a broken windowpane marked the front, and red mud caked the steps to the stoop. What had he expected? For his mother to have inherited some money and be living in a mansion? For her to have hung a Welcome Home banner out for him? He cut the engine, inhaled a deep breath, grabbed the papers and climbed out. Ducking against the downpour, he ran up the rickety steps and knocked. His heart pounded as he waited. But no one answered. He knocked again, then glanced sideways. Someone nudged the front window curtain back slightly. His mother, years older, and now fully white-haired, with prominent wrinkles around her mouth, peered through the opening. When she saw him, her gray eyes widened in fear. “Go away, boy. I don’t want you bothering me.” Pain shot through his chest. “Come on, Mom. Let me in. It’s Matt.” “I told you to go away. I don’t want trouble.” He waved the papers like a white flag, begging the enemy for a truce. “But I’m free. Just read this. The judge cleared me, and these papers prove it. I told you I was innocent.” A moment of hesitation followed, then his mother shook her bony finger at him. “I said go away, or I’ll call the sheriff. I don’t have sons anymore. They’re all dead to me.” Her words slammed into him with a force worse than the punches he’d taken in prison. Gritting his teeth, he jogged down the steps, grief digging at his throat. Rain sluiced off him as he plowed through the mud to the Pathfinder. When he got inside, he buried his head in his hands, desolation and shame searing him like a hot poker. He’d hoped like hell that at least his mother would believe him now. But the papers hadn’t changed her opinion. Which meant the rest of the people in town probably hadn’t changed theirs, either. A SUDDEN MOMENT of dеj? vu struck Ivy. Had it been raining the night her parents died? Her stomach knotted, the onset of another attack imminent. Beneath the wind, she detected a cry echoing from the hills, but the sound might have been her own thready voice trilling out a prayer to the heavens. Whirling around, she ran toward her car, shivering and eager to return to the cabin she’d rented. Darkness descended quickly, the shadows stealing daylight and reminding her that night would soon trap her. And so would her nightmares—the blood, the screams, the mangled bodies. She cranked up the defogger, squinting through the blinding rain as she drove around the mountain and into Kudzu Hollow. The town seemed tiny to her after living in Chattanooga for the last few years. The park, the brick storefronts, sheriff’s office and small diner were reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. At first glance, the town appeared to be the perfect place to raise a family. And the cabin on the creek where she was staying would be a romantic spot for a young couple to honeymoon. But Miss Nellie had been right. The rumors about the ghosts and the killings destroyed any romanticism. Whispers of death floated from beneath the green leafy kudzu vines that crawled along walls and the ground. Locals claimed that nothing could kill the kudzu. It was parasitic, killing its own host. Just as the people couldn’t destroy the evil here, or force the ghosts to move on to another realm. Just as the evil drew the devil to the town and the families killed their own. A flashing sign for a local pub named Ole Peculiar drew her eye, but she headed to The Rattlesnake Diner on the next block instead. Determined to learn more about the locals, she veered into the graveled parking lot, climbed out and rushed up the steps, shaking water from her hair as she entered. A short, sturdy, middle-aged waitress wearing a colorful dress, white apron and a name tag that read Daisy, approached her, her short gray curls framing a tired face. “Hello again, Miss Ann. You back to take more pictures?” Ivy smiled. “Not at the moment. I’m starving.” Daisy removed the pencil tucked in her brown bouffant hair. “Well, what’ll it be, honey? Rattlesnake stew?” Ivy swallowed. She’d thought the dish a legend, but apparently the cook, Boone, an old-timer who’d lived in the mountains for decades, had inherited the recipe from his grandmother. “A bowl of your vegetable soup. And sweet iced tea, please.” Daisy nodded, then waddled away, and Ivy twisted her hands together as she studied the handmade arts and crafts along one wall. Local artisans’ paintings, photographs and jewelry decorated the cafе in an artful arrangement, with price tags attached. Photographs and sketches of local scenery included valleys and gorges in the mountain, a little white chapel at the top of a cliff, the creek behind her cabin, a water wheel, then one of the junkyard. A charcoal sketch of Rattlesnake Mountain hung in the center, the etchings of the natural indentations that resembled a nest of rattlesnakes along the stone surface, sent a chill up her spine. According to her research, the originators of the folklore and black magic in the area had been birthed by a small group of witches who believed that the rocks, mountains, trees and rivers were all inhabited by spirits—spirits that never knew human form. Rattlesnake Mountain once held pits of rattlesnakes that the practitioners of hoodoo and voodoo used for their evil spells. The sorcerers were given a Christian name, then a secret name, that was used only for black magic purposes. Daisy delivered the soup. “Here you go, sweetie.” “Thanks. This looks delicious.” “You still working on the scrapbook on the town?” Daisy asked. Ivy nodded and sipped her iced tea. “Yes.” “My daughter and I are making a scrapbook of my grandbaby. We’re even thinking of starting a scrapbooking club.” “Really?” Ivy smiled. “My mother used to belong to one of those.” At least her adopted mother, Miss Nellie, had. That club and the popularity of scrapbooking had actually triggered her idea for the magazine. “You see that chapel?” Daisy pointed to the photograph on the wall. “The locals call it the Chapel of Forever. It’s where Hughie and I got married. Legend says that if you marry in that chapel, your marriage will last through eternity.” Ivy made a mental note to add that bit of folklore to her magazine feature article. “Do you know when or how the legend got started?” “No, but I’ll check around and see if someone else does. Maybe Miss Gussy. She’s been around longer than me.” The bell on the door tinkled, and they both glanced up as an odd, elderly woman stepped inside. Dressed in all black, in a long skirt that nearly touched the floor, a hat and veil that half covered her wrinkled face, and army boots with thick socks rolled over the edges, she was almost spooky. Two other ladies whispered and gave her a wide berth as they left. Two teenagers got up and hurried toward the door. Another woman followed the eccentric lady in, the polar opposite in appearance. Platinum-blond hair formed a pile of curls on top of her head, gaudy costume jewelry adorned every finger and a skintight, bloodred dress dipped low enough to reveal massive cleavage that a man could get lost in. Shiny white, knee-high boots hugged her killer legs and completed the outfit. “I cannot believe the two of them have the nerve to show up here,” Daisy said. Ivy frowned. “Who are they?” “The one in the red, that’s Talulah. She’s the head mistress down on Red Row.” “Red Row?” Daisy leaned closer. “The row of trailers where all her prostitutes live. A seedy place that no decent citizen would ever visit.” But the men probably kept them in business, Ivy thought, as the two women moved to the rear and grabbed a booth, ignoring the stares and blatant whispers. “And the other woman?” “Lady Bella Rue. She calls herself a root doctor. Folks say she’s a lady of darkness, that she’s connected to the moon, the spirits and the devil himself. Even killed her own boy, though no one could prove it.” Ivy sipped her tea, her curiosity spiked. “I think folks around here were just too scared of her to pursue it,” Daisy continued. “They say she’s a seer to boot.” “You mean she can see the future?” Daisy nodded. “Some people think she cast a spell on the town—that’s what brings all the evil when it rains. The kudzu sparkles yellow sometimes, then other times has this metallic blue-green mist rising from it. Folks say Lady Bella Rue’s tears of guilt turn the kudzu those odd colors, or maybe it’s devil’s breath.” Daisy hesitated long enough to inhale a breath. “Better stay away from her. If you anger her, she might put a hex on you. Once she does, bad luck and death will follow you the rest of your life.” Ivy’s hand trembled as she placed her glass on the table. Bad luck and death had already been a part of her life, and had brought her here now. A strained silence fell across the room, the rain pounding the roof accentuating the tension. It was almost as if the townspeople sensed winter and death were imminent. That these two women’s presence in town represented a bad omen. A middle-aged lady at the next table waved Daisy over to her side. Ivy ate her soup while she listened. “I heard that Mahoney boy has been released.” Daisy refilled their tea, ice clinking. “Some fancy lawyer got him out. I just hope he doesn’t come back to town and stir up trouble.” “Land sakes alive. We breathed a lot easier when he was in jail. We’ll have to go back to locking our doors at night.” “You’re right. We don’t need his kind around,” another woman said. “Although I thought he did us a service when he killed those Stantons. The woman was a slut. I heard she worked for Talulah on Red Row.” Ivy clenched her hands in her lap, anger knifing through her. Her mother had not been a slut! She’d loved Ivy. Had brushed her hair and played dolls with her and collected Santa Clauses. She’d strung glittery Christmas lights all around the trailer and tried to make it pretty. They’d even baked homemade sugar cookies and strung popcorn for the tree they’d cut down in the woods. She had not deserved to die. And what about Matt Mahoney? Had he deserved to go to jail for murder? Not according to Abram Willis and the judge who’d released him… ARTHUR BOLES BURIED his face behind the local newspaper and sipped his coffee, unable to focus on the words on the printed page for studying the young woman talking to Daisy. Ivy Stanton. He would have recognized her anywhere. After all, he’d kept tabs on her all these years that she’d lived with Nellie. Years during which he had worried that she would remember something, that she’d return to Kudzu Hollow, see his face and spill her guts about that night. Years where he wished he’d silenced her already. Years where he’d thought of her mother’s lush wanton body, the way Lily Stanton had taken him into her nest and given him pleasure without asking for anything but money. God, he’d missed her over the years. Missed her lips touching his, her mouth closing around his cock, the sight of her spreading herself for him to bury his length in. Missed the way her tits had swayed when she rode him, and the way she’d use her tongue to make him come. And the way her eyes had gone all melting and soft when he’d returned the pleasure. Not that there hadn’t been replacements. Red Row still stood to serve its customers. The anonymity was an important part of the business. And if one of the whores did decide to talk, well, hell, he’d shut her up like he had the others. And how ironic. Talulah, that old root doctor and Ivy Stanton all in one room together. All held the secrets to his past. Maybe the key to his future. All expendable… But he still couldn’t help himself from staring at Ivy Stanton all grown up. She’d turned into a beautiful, seductive woman. Not in the same bold, untamed way her mama had, for an air of innocence surrounded her. A naivete her mother had never possessed. Oh, maybe she had once, but she’d lost it long before he’d come along. Lily had not been lily-white. She had even taken the innocence of others and been proud of it. Young boys ripe for a woman’s body had come to her, and she had taught them well. His cock swelled, and he rubbed it beneath the table, grateful it was dark and he’d taken a booth in the back corner. He could almost taste the sweetness of Ivy Stanton, the unbridled passion she had yet to discover. The fear and tension radiating from her slender body. The feel of those silky blond curls tickling his bare belly. Maybe he would toy with Ivy a little. See if she did remember him. And just as her mother had taken the innocence of the young men in town, his son for one, he’d steal that innocence from her daughter…. UNEASY WITH THE CLIMATE in the diner, Ivy paid her bill and rushed outside, tugging her raincoat around her. Suddenly aware of the shadows, she darted toward her car, climbed in, locked the door and started the engine. The fine hairs at the nape of her neck prickled. Someone was watching her. Rattled, Ivy checked the street and sidewalks for strangers, but here everyone was a stranger. A lone figure clad in a black hooded sweatshirt stood beneath the awning of the pub, smoking a cigarette. Was he watching her? She pulled onto Main Street, then drove through town, slowing as the rain intensified. Bright lights nearly blinded her from behind as a car suddenly raced up on her tail. She tensed, checking the mirror, and glanced around the darkened street. In Chattanooga, she sometimes sensed she was being followed, but had finally chalked her uneasiness up to Miss Nellie’s constant paranoia. Here no one knew her real identity. At least she didn’t think so. Just to be safe, she turned down a side street, then another, driving as if she’d entered a maze. Finally, the headlights disappeared, and she sighed in relief. Through the blurred, foggy windshield, she checked the storefronts as she passed, choosing several to photograph for her scrapbook layout. The dollar store, arts and crafts store and antique shop would be perfect for the spread. Halloween ghosts, skeletons, spiders, ghouls and goblins filled the windows. A few Thanksgiving pieces also appeared. And through the glass, a nearly life-size Santa was lit up, waving. The old familiar grief clawed at her throat, and she headed out of town toward the cabin. A car appeared behind her again, then moved closer, so fast and close that its bumper skimmed hers. Ivy gasped, grappling for control of the Jetta, then sped up. Instead of slowing, the driver gunned his engine, swerved around her, then sideswiped her car, knocking her into a spin. Tires squealed and the car skidded, metal scraping metal as she hit the guardrail and careened toward the embankment. MATT DOWNSHIFTED as he drove the slick, winding road toward Cliff’s Cabins. Next to the trailer park, a new subdivision of log homes had been built on the mountainside. The primitive landscaping, natural pine islands and spacious backyards looked inviting against the ridges. So far the new development was the only hint of progress in the sleepy town. His hands tightened around the steering wheel as his last night in town flashed though his mind. Ivy had been terrified of him, of her father. How would she react when he confronted her? Would she cower away from him as if he were an animal? Scream and run? Call him a murderer? The sign for the cabins dangled precariously from a lopsided wooden pole, blowing in the wind, and he veered onto the unpaved road that led to the rental units. A mile from the turn-off, he parked in the graveled lot, hurried inside the office and retrieved the key. The frail man at the desk glanced up at him over bifocals, but said nothing. Either he was so old or blind he didn’t recognize Matt, or he didn’t care. Back in his SUV, Matt backed up and circled the cabins, his gaze tracking the numbers: 32A—his; 32B—Ivy Stanton’s. He parked, sat and stared at the cabin through the fog, his heart racing with anticipation. Should he knock on her door tonight? Force a confrontation? An engine suddenly rumbled down the drive, and he glanced in the rearview mirror, as bright lights pierced the night. A black Jetta swerved, spitting gravel, then lurched to a stop in front of 32B. The lights flickered off, and he had to blink to adjust his vision. A woman gripped the steering wheel, then leaned her head forward, her shoulders shaking. He frowned. Something was wrong. The driver’s side of the car had been dented. He swallowed, debating whether to offer her help, but the door swung open and the breath froze in his lungs. Ivy Stanton. As if she’d gathered her control, she climbed out, the wind whipping a long denim skirt around her ankles, the rain beating at her face as she braced herself against the elements and ran toward the cabin. His gaze skimmed over her profile, his gut clenching. She was petite, maybe five-three, and slender. Cornsilk blond hair cascaded down her back and shoulders and shifted upward, caught in the breeze, the wet strands clinging to her cheeks just as they had fifteen years ago. And just as he remembered her as a child, she was pale-skinned and delicate. But instead of a small child, she’d morphed into a beautiful woman. And so damn sexy. Soaked, her cotton top clung to curves that begged for a man’s hands. Her nipples tightened beneath the thin fabric, highlighted by the lightning. It had been a long damn time since he’d been with a woman. Although he had had invitations from some of his prison buddies’ sisters and friends. Another strange group of prison groupies, women infatuated by inmates, wrote them letters, offering conjugal visits. He’d even succumbed to his basic needs and accepted a few offers. But that raw sex had left him unsatisfied and feeling dirty. Hell, he wasn’t sure he’d know what to do with a real woman, a nice one…. Matt cursed. Confronting Ivy was first on his list, being attracted to her, dead last. As if she suddenly sensed his presence, halfway to the cabin, she pivoted in the darkness, her eyelashes fluttering over cheeks made rosy from the chill of the storm. Their gazes locked, and the eyes that had bewitched him as a child completely mesmerized him now. In them, he saw fear, pain and an emptiness that he felt mirrored in his own troubled soul. Hell. His body hardened again, the need to protect her as he had years ago building inside him, as intense as the thunder roaring above. But this time he ignored it. The bitter memory of being dragged to the jail and imprisoned for her parents’ murders surfaced, stifling the lust mounting in his loins, and he jerked his gaze away. She suddenly broke into a sprint, unlocked the cabin and slammed the door shut. Had she recognized him? Known he’d come here after her? Was she as frightened of him as she had been that night he’d rescued her? He muttered a curse, telling himself it didn’t matter. Ivy Stanton had been trouble fifteen years ago. A needy little kid. He’d been nice to her and look what had happened. He’d ended up in jail, his life destroyed. But she wasn’t a needy little girl anymore. No, dammit, she was a stunning woman, one who had messed with his libido in ten seconds flat. Which meant she would be more trouble than before. No telling what would happen if he got involved with her now. He glanced down at the clothes he’d bought at Wal-Mart. Even though they were clean, he reeked of foul prison odors. Dirt, sweat and the stench of urine permeated his soul. His resolve clicked back in, obliterating any sympathy he had for Ivy. He didn’t give a damn why she’d returned, or that his body craved a woman right now, that it had reacted to her. It was time she told the truth about that night. And before he left this hellhole of a town, he’d make sure she did—no matter what it cost either one of them. HE STOOD BY THE STREAM in back of Cliff’s Cabins, his all-weather coat tucked around him, rain dripping from the brim of his hat, gushing down as hard and fast as the icy water rushing over the rocks. Kudzu climbed along the embankment, killing wildflowers, crawling toward the pines like snakes. The rain would only make the plant grow faster. Faster and faster until it claimed everything in sight. This damn rain brought all the problems again—the violence, the worry, the memories…. It had all started the night of the Stanton slayings. And now little Ivy Stanton was back. He should have killed her fifteen years ago. Had been furious at his slip in judgment in letting her go. Had waited each day with his heart in his throat, afraid she’d remember. Had slept only the nights he’d talked to Nellie and learned she hadn’t. But now she’d returned. And so had that Mahoney boy. Holy Mother of God. He’d done everything in his power to see that he stayed in jail. And Nellie and he had done everything possible to make sure Ivy’s mind remained a blank. That she never contacted Mahoney. But what would happen if she saw the ex-con in town? Or him? He scratched his chin and glanced back at Ivy’s cabin. He could almost see the bluish-green tint surrounding the kudzu that the locals claimed were spirits. Almost hear the voices of the ghosts crying out in the night. But the Appalachian folktales didn’t worry him. The dead were already gone. Lost forever. Let them walk the grounds and haunt the town. The live ones still posed the problem. He flicked his lighter, lit the cigarette, cupping his hand around the flame so the wind didn’t blow it out until he’d inhaled a few drags. Smoke curled toward the sky, a halo of hazy white against the night. Damn shame to have to kill a pretty girl like Ivy. But he’d do anything to protect his secrets. If he didn’t, things would spiral out of control again. He was sure of it. What would Ivy think when she saw the message he’d left inside her cabin? A deep laugh rumbled in his chest as he pictured her horrified face. Her childhood image had taunted him for years. Had threatened to ruin his life. But little Ivy Stanton wasn’t a child anymore. That meant he could kill her this time. He wouldn’t freeze up and let guilt rule his actions. And Matt Mahoney would be the perfect person to pin the crime on. After all, the ex-con had a rap sheet. A motive. And no one in Kudzu Hollow would be surprised that the joint had only made him meaner. Yes, they’d be glad to rid themselves of Mahoney. Then Kudzu Hollow could go back to normal. As normal as it could get. After all, he couldn’t control the rain. And when it came, fate played its own nasty game and filled the town with evil. CHAPTER THREE IVY SLAMMED THE DOOR to the cabin, the fine hairs on the back of her neck standing on end as she slid the curtain aside and peered out the corner of the rain-lashed window. A tree branch scraped the glass, wind rattled the pane and she nearly jumped out of her skin. She hadn’t seen the driver or the make of the vehicle that had sideswiped her, but she had stopped, and the man who owned the gas station had rushed to check on her. Unfortunately, he hadn’t seen anything helpful, either. Still, for insurance purposes, she’d driven to the sheriff’s department, met the deputy and filed a report. He’d muttered something about the weather making teenagers do crazy things. But she wasn’t at all sure teenagers had been driving the car. And now someone had been sitting in that SUV outside her cabin. Someone who’d been watching her. Someone who meant her harm. She’d sensed an aura of anger when she’d met his eyes through the window. Was he the same man who’d intentionally sideswiped her earlier? The person who’d been following her in Chattanooga for the last few weeks? And if so, what did he want? Why would someone wish to hurt her? Fog coated the windows, the darkness cloaking the room adding to her nervousness. The scents of pine floors, dust and cleaning solution wafted around her, and a spider spun an intricate web in the corner to trap its prey. Why did Ivy feel that someone might be spinning a web to trap her? Her chest tightened. She’d varied the routines. Broken the patterns. Ventured to a new place. And now the ominous threat of danger ate at her nerves. Hoping the man had gone, she glanced again at the SUV, but it remained. She tried to remember if she’d seen it earlier, maybe in town. It looked black, although with her color blindness she never could be quite sure. The windows were tinted. Nothing else distinguishable. Shivering, she grabbed the afghan off the couch and wrapped it around her shoulders, trying to warm herself and stop the trembling. What if the man came after her tonight? A flash of lightning illuminated the room, and she startled, her breath catching. The familiar stirring of another panic attack teetered on the surface, and she forced herself to take steady, deep breaths as she rubbed her hands up and down her arms. Just because Miss Nellie had filled her head with superstitious stories didn’t mean they were real. And just because a man was parked near her cabin didn’t mean he intended to harm her. Suddenly, the door of the SUV swung open, and a giant emerged, silhouetted in shadows, rain drenching his face and body. He had to be at least six-four, with the broadest shoulders she’d ever seen, dark shaggy hair and stark features that gave him a wolfish look. Another bolt of lightning highlighted his profile, and she gasped at the jagged scar on his left cheek. Matt Mahoney. She recognized him from the television newscast. He stalked slowly across the muddy ground, and she gripped the window ledge for support. But a few feet from her cabin, he veered off toward the neighboring one. Her breath gushed out in relief, and she raked her trembling hand through her hair in frantic movements. He must be staying in the cabin beside her. Dear Lord, did he know she was here? Had he been waiting for her to return, to go inside? Forcing herself away from the window, she flipped on the lamp, then let out a bloodcurdling scream. Jagged bold letters were scrawled on the wall: Leave Town Or Die. Although the words looked brown to her, a dark, thick substance smeared the knotty pine walls. Another shudder rippled through her as the stench enveloped her, and she screamed again in horror. The warning had been written in blood, and a dead chicken lay on the bed below it, its body and feathers bloody and mangled. MATT FROZE, silently telling himself he’d imagined the scream from the cabin next door, that the shrill sound had been the wind blowing. But he glanced at Ivy’s cabin, anyway, and a sense of foreboding washed over him. If she had cried out, he was the last person to help her. He had his own agenda this go-around, and it sure as hell didn’t include rescuing her ass again. Even if it was the prettiest piece he’d seen in years. No, his boots remained firmly planted on the ground. But his conscience kicked in. If the real killer still lived in town, he’d be nervous about Ivy’s return. Just as he wouldn’t be thrilled to see him. What if he was in there now? What if he attacked Ivy…. Muttering a curse, limbs tight with agitation, Matt stalked through the mud to her cabin, then pounded on the door. A mixture of emotions pummeled him—dread, excitement, the need for revenge. After all these years, he’d finally meet her face-to-face, look into those eyes and watch her reaction to him in person. Several tense seconds passed and he knocked again, but Ivy didn’t answer. The pounding storm filled the air with foreboding. Christ. Various ugly scenarios roared through his head. Ivy being raped and murdered. Her throat slashed like her mother’s had been. Blood covering the goddamn floor. Even as he assured himself Ivy was fine, that he had imagined her cry for help, his hand snaked forward to reach for the doorknob. He wouldn’t sleep unless he knew she was safe. Besides, if a murder occurred in the cabin next to him, he’d probably wind up in jail once more, taking the fall. He couldn’t be locked behind bars. Not ever again. Self-preservation kicked in, and he halted just before his hand closed on the knob. His fingerprints had landed him in trouble the first time. He wouldn’t make the same mistake. Instead, he dragged his shirttail from his jeans, wrapped it around his hand and clutched the doorknob. Slowly, he pushed open the wooden door, the rusty hinges squeaking. Ivy cried out again, then flung herself against the sofa, clenching the back. He raised his hand to calm her, at the same time searching the dimly lit room for an intruder. “Wh-what do you want?” Ivy whispered. “Is someone here?” “No…” He jerked his head toward her with a frown. She was cowering from him. Then her gaze flashed sideways quickly, as if to search for something to protect herself, and his temper spiked. “You don’t remember me, Ivy?” Those big green eyes that had tugged at him when she was little did a number on him now. They snatched at his sanity and resolve. She was afraid of him. Her reaction shouldn’t bother him, but it cut him like a knife. He knew he looked like hell. His hair was too long and he needed a shave. Scarred as he was, he probably looked downright scary. The past few days, little kids had stared at him on the street. Women had yanked their heads away. Old ladies had whispered and rushed past as if he were some hideous beast. Ivy’s fingers dug into the upholstery. “Yes, I saw you on the news. You’re Matt Mahoney.” He balled his hands into fists. Her gaze followed the movement, and she backed up another step. She thought he intended to hit her, he realized. Then he remembered her old man beating on her and her mama, and understood her reaction. “I heard you scream,” he said in a gruff voice. “I came to see if you were all right.” Her gaze flashed sideways again, and he followed the movement. “What the hell?” His gut tightened at the sight of the bloody warning on the wall. Then he saw the dead animal and cursed. “You were outside in that SUV, watching me.” Her voice rose in hysteria. “You’ve been following me, haven’t you? You were in Chattanooga, too. And now this…” He narrowed his eyes. “I didn’t do this, Ivy. And I haven’t been following you.” Not technically, anyway. She flinched as lightning illuminated the room, and he found himself wanting to turn his head to spare her from seeing his scar. But he forced himself to remain immobile, his gaze pinning her in place. It was her fault he’d ended up in jail. Her fault he’d been convicted. She needed to face the reality of what her silence had cost him. The brutality he’d suffered because he’d helped her. And she needed to give him some answers. IVY CLUNG TO THE AFGHAN, the anger and bitterness in Matt Mahoney’s body language stealing her breath. He’d been tough back when she’d known him, but just a teenager looking for trouble and a good time. Now, he seemed hard. Cold. Aged and bitter. Prison had probably done that to him. She tried not to think about the horrors he must have endured inside. She’d read stories, seen articles, news reports…. She’d wanted to think that he’d survived. But the icy bleakness in his eyes told a different story. Still physically fit, he stood tall and proud, though, like a warrior prepared for battle. The long gash on his cheek appeared even more stark in real life, but the rest of his body was sculpted like an athlete’s. His muscular arms were defined, and he didn’t have a fat cell anywhere that she could see. And in spite of his shaggy wet hair, the scar and his brooding expression, he was more masculine, sexier, than she’d ever imagined. But his soul was completely black. It had been destroyed. She offered a tentative smile, but a warning flashed in his eyes. A warning she would definitely heed. Maybe he had left the bloody message and chicken as a sick idea of revenge. “I was watching you outside,” he snarled, “but I didn’t write that threat or kill that chicken, Ivy. Unlike your father, my style is not to terrorize women.” He cut his eyes toward the wall, then started toward her, his fists still clenched, his long arms swinging by his side. Reacting on autopilot, from memories Ivy thought she’d long ago forgotten, she threw up a hand. “Stop. Let’s talk.” He didn’t stop, though. He kept coming, his heavy boots hammering the wood floor, his husky, angry breathing rattling the tension-laden air. She frantically searched for a weapon. Glanced at the phone, gauging whether or not she could reach it. His gaze fell to it, and he gestured toward the handset. His hand was steady. Scarred, too, with large knuckles, his fingernails short and blunt. “You going to call the sheriff, or am I?” Her pulse clamored in her throat. “You really want me to phone the sheriff?” “Hell, no,” Matt muttered. “The law is the last damn thing I want to see my first night in town. But if someone’s threatening you, you have to inform the cops.” He was right. She grabbed the phone and punched 911. Seconds later, an operator’s voice echoed over the line, and Ivy explained the situation. “I’ll send Sheriff Boles right over,” the operator said. “Are you sure you’re all right, miss?” Ivy squeezed the phone so tightly her fingers grew numb. No, she wasn’t sure. Matt Mahoney’s steely look had started her heart pounding. “Miss?” “Y-yes, just send the sheriff.” “All right. Hang tight.” Ivy’s hands trembled as she placed the handset back into the cradle. “The sheriff’s on his way.” Matt grimaced. “It looks like someone doesn’t want you in town, Ivy.” Her frayed nerves shattered at his blunt tone. “But no one here knows my real identity.” A deep sarcastic chuckle rumbled from his chest. “Apparently someone does.” She shuddered. He was right. The sideswipe incident earlier suddenly took on a more dire meaning. But who had figured out her identity? And why would they want to run her out of town? Matt cleared his throat. “I imagine they won’t be too happy to see me, either.” She bit her lip, a million questions racing through her mind. “Why did you come back?” “Why do you think?” He stepped closer, so close she inhaled the scent of soap, something clean and fresh like Irish Spring. But another more woodsy odor radiated from him, as well, all primal male. A muscle ticked in his jaw as he waited for her reply. But she couldn’t find her voice. “I came to see you,” he finally said in a gruff voice. “Me?” Her voice quivered. “But…why?” He lifted his big hand and twirled a damp strand of hair around his finger. Tension radiated from every pore in his body, the heat between them igniting a mixture of fear and excitement in her belly. He had the darkest, deepest eyes she’d ever seen. Brown. No, black. He looked so lost and angry. So alone. The way she’d felt so many times. His pain drew her. She suddenly wanted to wipe it from his eyes. Assure him that life wasn’t all evil. Miss Nellie would say she was a sucker. That erotic dream floated back. Matt Mahoney kissing her. Stripping off her clothes. Touching her in secret places. Eliciting feelings she’d never felt before. Making her come alive. A bold and sexy look flared in his eyes. Hunger. Lust. The urgent need of a man to take what he wanted. She backed away, frightened by the potency of that desire. Half wanting it, half terrified of the desperate need that accompanied it. He chuckled sardonically. “Don’t worry, Ivy, I’m not going to attack you.” Still, he moved closer again, until he was only a breath away, until his masculine scent trapped her like honey did a fly. With a soft sigh, he traced a finger down the side of her cheek, and her skin tingled. “I’ve been waiting a long time for us to meet face-to-face, so you could explain why you didn’t tell everyone what happened that night,” he said in a husky voice. “Why you let them throw me in a cell to rot for the rest of my life when you knew I was innocent?” MATT STEELED HIMSELF AGAINST the pain that flashed on Ivy’s face. He had every right to be angry. To confront her. After all, he’d waited fifteen damn years to do so. Half a lifetime, during which his life had disintegrated, where he’d been shunned and cast aside. But he hadn’t banked on the fact that frightening Ivy would carve a pit of guilt in his belly. Make him feel like the low-down criminal everyone thought him to be. Or that the sudden attraction he felt for her might be reflected in her own expressive eyes. No, he’d imagined her reaction. Been so desperate for a woman that he’d twisted fear into desire. Ivy was too young, too beautiful, too innocent for a man like him. She licked her lips and his throat went dry. “I…I’m sorry, Matt.” “Sorry?” he hissed. “Sorry doesn’t make up for prison, Ivy.” “I know.” Her eyes flickered with regret, and he silently cursed, wishing he could drag his gaze away from her soft, luscious-looking mouth. The other half of him wanted to kiss her. Taste those sweet pink lips. Swirl his tongue inside and watch her fall apart in his arms. Damn. Ivy was not a little girl anymore. And he wanted her with a vengeance. Yet, just as they had fifteen years ago, emotions moved inside him, careening around like he was on a free fall ride. A gut instinct to protect her rifled through him. Even if it meant protecting her from him. Only Ivy did that to him. Made him think. Feel. Want things he couldn’t have. Dreams he couldn’t afford to acknowledge. “I don’t remember what happened that night, Matt,” she said in a low, strained voice. “I…that’s the reason I came back here. I need to remember.” He flattened his mouth in a thin line. Wanted to tell her he didn’t believe her. But the truth radiated in her tortured eyes. Disturbed by his reaction to her, he dragged his gaze away. Scanned the room. Saw a dingy-looking, cloth Santa perched on top of the faded wooden dresser. Memories crashed back. Ivy clinging to a Santa doll that night. Dropping it in the mud. Him picking it up and carrying her, trying to shield her against the rain. His gut clenched as another memory followed. One he’d forgotten. Ivy in town, stopping to give half of her peanut butter sandwich to a homeless blind man begging on the street. Her clothes had been hanging off of her, her shoes ratty. She’d barely had enough to eat herself. But she’d been kind to the old man. A siren wailed from outside, and Matt swallowed, every nerve in his body bunched tight. She’d seen him looking at the Santa, and her face had turned ashen. Had she really blocked out memories of that night? The siren grew louder. His first instinct urged him to flee as fast as he could. But running would only make him look guilty, just as hiding out the night of the Stantons’ slaying had. Good God. How had he landed himself into this mess his first night back in Kudzu Hollow? A pounding on the door brought reality back, and Ivy rushed to answer it. A.J. Boles, his teenage buddy, stood in the doorway, wearing a sheriff’s uniform, rain dripping off the brim of his hat. Matt couldn’t have been more surprised if his own sorry-assed daddy had returned to welcome him home. A.J. had been a hellion in their day, had liked vandalizing cars, playing with fire, drinking and women. Yeah, he’d especially liked women. He’d even bragged about screwing the married ones, choosing who to bang just because he hated their rich husbands. A.J.’s own daddy had been pretty well-off, was some big shot real estate developer. Matt had never understood their relationship, only known that A.J. and his old man hadn’t gotten along. Like he and his own old man hadn’t, but for different reasons. “Sheriff Boles. You’re Ann Ivy?” Ivy nodded, glanced sideways and met Matt’s gaze, silently asking if he’d reveal her real identity. But Matt remained silent, hidden by the shadows studying his former friend. The cocky attitude remained as A.J. skimmed his eyes over Ivy, mentally undressing her. Matt clenched his fists, that protective instinct swelling inside him again. No, A.J. hadn’t changed. He still liked women. Was a taker. Then again, all the women had liked him, and had given it up pretty easily. But the idea of him taking anything from Ivy roused Matt’s anger. Reining in the control he’d mastered in prison, he forced himself to tamp down his temper. A.J.’s sandy-blond hair had gotten darker. His lean body had filled out, and he’d grown an inch or two, putting him around five-eleven. “What’s the problem, ma’am?” A.J. asked. Ivy waved him in. “Come on inside, and I’ll show you.” Three steps in, A.J. finally noticed Matt. He froze, thumbs in his belt loops, feet spread wide. “Holy hell, if it isn’t Matt Mahoney. I heard you got released.” “Word spreads fast.” A.J.’s gaze shot toward the wall, and his eyes widened as he spotted the blood-smeared writing and dead animal. “Shit.” He turned to Ivy. “When did this happen?” “It was like that when I arrived here tonight.” A.J. quickly glanced at Matt, his eyebrows raised as if waiting on an explanation. Matt squared his shoulders, searched for the old familiar connection between him and his buddy, felt tension knot his neck at A.J.’s assessment. He’d had fifteen years of being stared at with suspicion, as if he was a rabid dog that preyed on children. As if he deserved to die. He hadn’t expected it from A.J. “Mahoney?” A.J. finally asked. Disappointment assaulted Matt at the silent implication. He’d hoped that his friend would remember old alliances. After all, they’d fished together. Set off stink bombs in the girls’ locker room so they could watch them run outside in their underwear. Hidden in the closet with nude girlie magazines and laughed at the raunchy jokes. And they’d taken their first trip to Red Row together, another bonding of sorts. Then Matt had ended up in jail, and A.J. had wound up sheriff. Strange how the world went around. “Matt’s staying next door. I screamed and he came to check on me,” Ivy answered for him. “You two are here together?” A.J. asked in an incredulous voice. “No,” Matt cut in before Ivy could bother. A.J. scowled. “We don’t want trouble around here, Mahoney.” Matt shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “Who says I’m here to cause trouble?” “Why else would you have come back?” Matt grinned. “To see my old friends, of course.” A.J. didn’t take the bait. “When did you get to town?” “Tonight,” Matt said, meeting A.J.’s glare head-on. “Just a few hours ago.” “You’re here one day and now this?” A.J. gestured toward the bloody writing, then shifted on the balls of his feet. “Do you have any idea who did this, ma’am?” Ivy shook her head. “No…” “Why would someone want to hurt you?” A.J. asked. “I don’t know,” Ivy said quietly. A.J. hesitated, then turned on that charming smile. The ladies’ man was back. “If you don’t tell me the truth, I can’t help you.” A heartbeat of silence stretched through the room. The question stood in the air—should she confess the truth about her identity? Could she trust the sheriff to keep her secret? Could he help her if she didn’t? Matt refrained from offering advice. He didn’t trust anyone in this town. Including her. And A.J. wanted Ivy. That much was evident, at least to him. But he couldn’t tell her that. After all, her personal life was none of his business. “My real name is Ivy Stanton,” she said. “I came here under the pen name I use in my magazine.” Realization quickly flared in A.J.’s eyes. “I see. So no one else in Kudzu Hollow knows who you really are?” “Not that I know of. And I’d like to keep it that way for a while.” “Probably wise. It’s a small town. Gossip spreads fast.” Matt grimaced. And friendships died quickly. A.J. frowned. “How long have you been in town, Miss Stanton?” “About a week.” He gestured around the cabin. “Is there anything missing?” Ivy bit her lip. “I…I haven’t really checked.” “Look around and see.” A.J. strode back to the door and checked the lock, while Ivy began to search the room. “There’s no sign of forced entry. Did you leave the cabin unlocked?” “No.” Matt assessed the cabin, too, watching A.J. Essentially, the rental unit consisted of one big room, sparsely furnished. An iron bed dominated the center, with an old-fashioned quilt in green and rose covering it. A simple pine dresser sat in one corner, a desk in the opposite. A breakfast bar separated the small kitchen nook from the den. Across from the bed a small sitting area held a sofa and chair situated around a ceiling-high stone fireplace. Built-in bookshelves held a few paperback novels, a small TV set and a stereo. The floors were made of heart of pine, the walls the same, making the room dark and cozy. Except the “present” Ivy had received had destroyed the relaxing atmosphere. “I don’t see anything missing,” she said after checking the closet. A.J. took a quick run through the cabin. “The window’s open in the bathroom. My guess is that’s how the guy got in and out.” Ivy sighed. “I…I don’t know if this is related or not, but in town earlier, a car sideswiped me after I left the diner. I…thought it was just some teenagers, or maybe a drunk leaving the bar.” Matt’s instincts roared to life. Twice in one night, something strange had happened to Ivy. Someone definitely knew her identity, and didn’t want her here. A.J. gently stroked her arm as if to comfort her. “Are you all right? Were you hurt?” Ivy pulled away. “I’m fine, but the driver damaged my car.” “Did you get the make of the vehicle or see anyone inside?” A.J. asked. “No, it all happened so fast. The windows were tinted, and it was raining,” Ivy whispered. “I did file a report with your deputy for insurance purposes.” “So you had to give your name?” Matt asked. Ivy twitched, shifting uncomfortably, but nodded. Matt gestured toward the wall, irritated that A.J. was so close to Ivy, although he had no idea why it irked him so. “Are you going to collect blood samples to have tested?” A.J.’s mouth twisted. “Yeah. And I’ll take some pictures, too.” “Do you send them away to a crime lab?” Matt asked. A.J. grunted. “Are you questioning my abilities as a law enforcement agent, Matt?” “No,” he replied. “But proper testing is crucial. After all, faulty DNA evidence sent me to jail.” “Is that right?” A.J. asked with an eyebrow raise. Matt’s cold gaze met his former friend’s. “If you don’t believe me, you can look at the transcripts. And hell, test my damn blood. It won’t match that smear on the wall.” “Don’t worry. I will.” Matt glared at him. Was this the way he’d be treated the rest of his life? Every time a crime took place, no matter how petty, the cops would suspect him first. IVY DIDN’T UNDERSTAND the dynamics, but tension simmered in the air as the sheriff retrieved his camera and a crime scene kit from the car. Tension between her and Matt. And between him and the sheriff. “I’m going to call the owner of the cabins,” Matt said. “He should know about this.” “She’ll need another room,” A.J. said. “This is a crime scene now.” Ivy nodded. Still shaken, she slumped into the rocking chair in the corner and watched as the sheriff photographed the wall, then took a sample of the blood, and dusted the wall, doorknobs, the bathroom windowsill, even the phone for fingerprints. Matt remained silent, having perched on one of the bar stools as if he intended to supervise A.J.’s investigation. Miss Nellie’s warning echoed back: Don’t go to Kudzu Hollow. It’s too dangerous. It was dangerous only if someone still had secrets. If the person who’d really killed her parents had gotten away with it and didn’t want her back. Which meant Matt was innocent, as the judge had decreed. Ivy massaged her temple where a headache pulsed. Finally, just as the sheriff finished the fingerprinting, Cliff appeared. He looked haggard and upset at the sight of the blood on the wall. When he saw the chicken’s head, he staggered on his feet. Matt caught him. “Are you okay?” Matt asked. Ivy fanned the man’s face and rushed to get him a glass of water. “I ain’t had no trouble out here before,” Cliff said in a weak voice. “What’s going on now?” “I don’t know,” Sheriff Boles replied. “Some prankster kids may have vandalized the room just to stir up trouble. You know how this weather affects them.” The old man nodded. “I should have moved away from here when my Gertie died. But I couldn’t bear to leave her.” “Cliff, I need to move to another cabin,” Ivy said. “Good Lord, yes. I wouldn’t feel right you staying here.” He rubbed a freckled hand over his chin, but his color was improving. “I’ll get a cleaning crew to take care of this mess.” He stood, composing himself. “Let me unlock the cabin on the other side of Mr. Mahoney. I’ll leave the key inside.” Ivy thanked him and walked him to the door, worried about the man’s health. He was too old for such a shock, but he assured her that he was fine as he toddled outside. Sheriff Boles’s cell phone jangled, and he flipped it open. “Boles here.” He hesitated. “Yeah. Jesus. I’ll be right there.” The sheriff stopped beside Ivy and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Call me if anything else strange happens, Ivy. That’s what I’m here for, to protect the citizens.” He removed a business card from his pocket and handed it to her. “My home phone number’s on there as well as my cell.” “Thanks, Sheriff. I appreciate your concern.” Matt followed the sheriff to the door with a frown. “What’s wrong, A.J.? What was that call about?” A.J. hesitated. “It’s started again.” “What’s started again?” Ivy asked. “The trouble. A fight broke out with some teens in front of one of the gas stations. And there’s been a murder out near the junkyard.” The sheriff leveled his gaze at Matt, an insinuation in his eyes. “You weren’t out there earlier, were you?” Matt’s jaw tightened. “I dropped by to see my mother, but that’s the only place I stopped.” “And how did it go? Was she glad to see you, Matt?” His shoulders stiffened. “Yeah, she welcomed me with open arms.” Sarcasm laced his voice and anguish radiated from him, stirring Ivy’s compassion. The sheriff stared at Matt for a long minute, eyes locked. “You didn’t have a run-in with anyone else while you were out there?” Matt’s expression turned lethal. “No. Who was murdered?” “I’m not at liberty to divulge the victim’s identity. We have to notify the next of kin.” Sheriff Boles turned back to Ivy with a smile. “Like I said, call me if you have any more problems, Miss Stanton, day or night. And if I were you, I’d keep my doors locked.” He tugged his hat lower on his head, then opened the door, the wind hurling rain inside. “In fact, if I were the two of you, I’d get out of town. There’s nothing for either one of you here anymore. Nothing but trouble.” Ivy barely suppressed a shudder. In the next second, she wondered if his comment had been a threat instead of a warning. AS SOON AS A.J. LEFT, A strained silence engulfed the room. The air was charged with tension, the accusations A.J. had posed lingering, leaving the rancid smell of suspicion. Did A.J. really think Matt had committed murder the first night he was back? What had happened to make his buddy distrust him? “I can’t believe someone knows who I am,” Ivy said in a strained voice. “But that is blood, isn’t it?” He narrowed his eyes. “Yes, what did you think it was?” “I…wasn’t sure.” She paused, heat staining her cheeks. “I…don’t see red anymore. The color red. Not since that night.” The reality of her words slammed into him. He’d heard she’d been traumatized, had blacked out her memories. But she’d blocked out colors, as well? Maybe that explained her drab clothing. A woman like her should be dressed in pretty bright colors, not denim or brown. His earlier need to seek vengeance against her vanished, shame replacing his anger. “Let’s get you moved. Go ahead and pack your things.” Ivy licked her lips. “You don’t have to come with me, Matt.” He banked his own emotions. “I want to make sure you get safely situated inside.” Her gaze locked with his, fear still lingering. But something else—a different kind of emotion—flickered in her eyes. Regret? Surprise? Gratitude? She didn’t want to be alone. Any fool could see that. Although she was desperately trying to put up a brave front, she was terrified. Who could blame her? The bloody message on the wall and dead animal turned his stomach, and he’d seen worse shit in the pen. Things he would never discuss. That stupid macho part of him wanted to rescue her again. Wipe the fear off her face. Hold her until she stopped shaking. They reached for her suitcase at the same time. Her hand touched his, sending a shard of desire straight through him. She had the softest skin he’d ever felt. The most tender touch. And those hands were fine-boned, with long slender fingers. He wanted to twine her fingers in his, bring them to his lips, kiss the soft pads of each one, then feel them on his skin. Stroking. Teasing. Touching. Loving. Yes, she had the hands of an angel. But those hands shouldn’t be touched by a man’s dirty ones. Not by his hands, especially. Hands that had done things he wasn’t proud of. Hands that had shaken the devil’s more than once—hands that knew what it was like to murder. THE DEVIL HAD GOTTEN INTO him. That was the only explanation. Tommy Werth stared at his hands, turning the palms over to study the bruises and scratches, remembering the first time he’d taken the notion to kill. The idea had started in his mind years ago, but he’d put it on hold, like a phone call he didn’t want to answer. But the urge had grown stronger lately, that phone ringing incessantly, urging him to follow through. So often that the need had finally possessed him, possessed his body, as if someone else’s soul had slipped inside him. Whispering the things he had to do. Telling him it was all right. Urging him to choke his mama. That she deserved it. Suggesting ways he could pull it off and not get caught. Leave her out in the old junkyard. Hide her beneath the kudzu with the other ghosts of people long gone. Let the snakes and rats destroy any evidence he might have left behind. So that’s what he’d done. Squeezed the breath out of her. Watched her eyes pop wide open in shock and terror. He’d let her know that he was in charge now. That her reign as dictator had ended. He no longer had to listen to her mind-numbing chatter. To her bitching and ranting. Calling him weak. Ridiculing him because he had stupid allergies. Hoarding money from him while she blew all their cash on stupid garage sale finds, and that home shopping channel where she bought those ridiculous little trinkets. Ceramic kitty cats and frogs to sit around and collect dust. Hell, he’d dump them all in the trash tomorrow. Yes, he was free now. Free from his mother. A laugh rumbled in his chest as he let himself inside the house. He kicked off his boots, not bothering to wipe the mud off before traipsing across the white linoleum. She wouldn’t be here to fuss at him in the morning. Or ever again, for that matter. Adrenaline pumped through him as he grabbed a beer from the fridge, opened it and took a long swig. She couldn’t tell him not to drink anymore, either. Or what to eat or where to go or who he could hang out with. No, he was free of the old witch. Finally. He yanked his T-shirt over his head as he walked to the den, tossed it on the sofa and turned on the tube, settling the remote on MTV. The loud, heavy metal music rocked through him as the cold beer settled in his belly. His mother’s face floated into his mind again, and he smiled, adrenaline surging through him as he remembered the sight of her panicked expression. The first moment she realized he was going to kill her. Then the sound of her last breath, whistling out with her life, growing weaker, more feeble. The rain dripping down her cheeks like teardrops. The kudzu vine he’d wrapped around her neck until he’d choked the life from her. She would never scream at him again. Or call him a worthless ass or cuss him for being lazy and stupid. Because he had outsmarted her. Yes, he had just kissed his mother goodbye, along with all his problems. He cranked up the TV volume a little louder and strummed his imaginary electric guitar, keeping perfect time with the rhythm. Tomorrow he’d call his buddies and arrange a party to celebrate. Tell Trash to bring over some pot. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926890&lfrom=390579938) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.