Hiding In Plain Sight by Angela Evans
 

Prologue

 

May 2005

A full moon lit up the sidewalk better than any street light ever could, casting shadows through the tree branches and making everything just a bit mysterious. The air was warm enough to not need a jacket, but the oppressive heat of summer wasn’t yet sending everyone hurrying to the comfort of air conditioning. The entire evening had the hint of magic to it, warm summer temperatures, impending freedom from school, and a sky combined to make a night of amazing memories.

It had been a night of trying new things for Kierra Centrand. The first time she had sneaked out of the house. The first time she had kissed a boy. First time she let that same boy feel her up. First time she drank a beer. First time she felt like she could walk on air!

A few months ago she would have never thought that life had anything like tonight in store for her. Before moving to Briarview with her mom, her life had revolved around avoiding her stepfather’s wicked temper. Walking the balancing act of when he had just enough alcohol to be in a good mood, but not too much because then he became unpredictable. Making sure she changed clothes quickly enough so he couldn’t accidentally walk in on her. Double checking the lock on the bathroom door before she got in the shower. Avoiding his lingering gaze on her backside and down her top.

Since she and her mom had been living with her grandparents and going to the high school in town, her life felt like one of those “happily ever after” type of movies. Transferring to a new school halfway through her junior year of high school was something that might have made some girls nervous. But since Kierra had never really had close friends at school anyway, she considered at it like a chance to start over and reinvent herself at the ripe old age of sixteen.

She would always remember how they had packed their most important necessities in secret. That final night waiting for him to pass out so they could slip away without him noticing until morning. She had never been so terrified in her life. She hadn’t been able to eat a bite of dinner for fear she would get sick right there at the table. Luckily her family hadn’t been big on family dinners so no one had thought it odd she chose to stay in her room instead of eating.

Things were so different now, so much better. Spontaneously, she threw her arms over her head and twirled, letting the skirt from her short sun dress spin around her. Her heart felt like it was overflowing with happiness she couldn’t contain. The late night air was warm on her bare arms, and she could feel the slight sting of a sunburn on her shoulders from spending most of the day outside working in the garden with her grandmother. She loved getting to know her grandparents better while they were staying with them, and she hoped her mom never wanted to leave. She would happily sleep on the sofa for the rest of her life if it meant every day was as amazing as this one had been.

It was after 2 a.m., but she felt like she could stay up all night. She knew she had to be back home and tucked into the pull-out sofa bed before her grandpa got up to go and open his hardware store. Apparently the people who bought things at his hardware store expected to be able to do so at the butt-crack of dawn because he left the house every morning by 4 a.m. at the latest. She loved spending Saturday afternoons at the store, but she was glad he didn’t expect her to go in that early. There was a group of her grandpa’s friends who seemed to hang out at the store most of the day, and they would tease her and make her laugh all day. She was happy to fetch their lunch from the diner downtown, or make a pot of coffee for them. She loved hearing their stories, half of which she suspected they either boldly made up, or at least embellished for her benefit.

Getting home before Grandpa got up was the only thought that had her hurrying home, and was the only reason she had told Bryan Donaldson he could absolutely not walk her home. The temptation to let him had been huge. The mental picture of walking home holding hands, maybe even another delicious kiss on the back porch before she slipped inside, was enough to send the butterflies in her stomach on another wild flight. She had never had a real boyfriend before, not that Bryan was her boyfriend … yet. Spending the evening at the party with him had felt like heaven to Kierra. Sitting on the back of his tailgate, watching the fire flicker while some of the other kids danced around to the music playing, while they talked, and kissed, and held each other close.

Two more blocks and then she was home, all she had to do was sneak past that squeaky screen door and slip under the covers. If she had known sneaking out was this easy she might have tried it sooner.

Rounding the corner onto South Lincoln Street, Kierra immediately had a feeling that something was wrong. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood up on end, and years of living with an abusive stepfather had already taught her to never, ever ignore that warning. At that moment the full moon ducked behind a cloud, casting the street in shadows. The warm breeze sent the branches swaying, their silhouette on the sidewalk no longer dancing happily, but seeming ominous and threatening.

Glancing over her shoulder, Kierra saw something moving in the dark down the street. Not willing to risk running into whoever else was out here at this hour, she took off toward her grandparents’ house at a jog, her flip-flop sandals making a soft slapping noise on the concrete sidewalk.

Her only objective was getting in the back door, and away from whatever was behind her. Fast.

She was so focused on getting inside to safety, she didn’t notice the smell of gas hanging in the air until she was already on the sidewalk that wrapped around to the back of the house. Something—or more specifically someone—moved behind her Grandpa’s garage, and the next thing she knew she was slammed from behind and hoisted into a fireman’s carry by someone running across the street and away from her house.

“No!” She screamed, pounding on the broad shoulders of Bryan Donaldson. “What are you…?”

The rest of her question was lost in the noise of the explosion as her grandparents’ house, and everything and everyone she loved in this world, went up in a giant fireball. The force sent Bryan sprawling on the sidewalk, still clutching Kierra tightly. Kierra’s only thought was that she had to get to her mother, and her grandparents, but Bryan had a firm grip on her and she couldn’t shake him. All she could do was scream their names and cry.

 

 

Chapter One

 

October 2015

Kierra slowed her gray Honda Civic as she circled the town square, yielding to the only other car she saw on the road, and navigated her way around the fountain that stood as both the town landmark, and main traffic hazard. In Briarview the only major intersection in town was actually a roundabout that surrounded a large fountain. Everyone gave directions in terms of where the destination was in relation to the impossible to miss icon.

In her mind, Briarview had stayed frozen in time. She expected it to look exactly the same as it had that night she had left, not knowing where she was going just knowing that home no longer existed. Briarview hadn’t changed much, it was still a quaint, small town in southern Illinois where not much happened, from the looks of things. As she drove down Main Street, she glanced around, seeing the old familiar buildings, most with a fresh coat of paint, some with new signs, but all looking eerily familiar to her. The movie theater was still there, showing just one movie at a time—so different from the multiplex theaters she saw most of the time near Chicago. She had purposely made a life for herself in a city, not a small town. It was much easier to blend into the crowd if the crowd was larger. In Briarview everyone saw everything, knew everyone. There was no blending into the crowd because there was no crowd.

Everything where she lived was bigger, flashier, and most of all, noisier. The quiet of Briarview seemed to surround her even inside her car. There were no traffic noises. There was no traffic! Kierra reached over, turned off the radio, and lowered her windows. Quiet. Even though there were people walking down the sidewalks, entering shops, the movie theater, and the diner, there was no real noise. It was peaceful and unnerving at the same time.

Turning left and heading down First Street, Kierra tried to pretend she didn’t have a specific destination in mind, but deep down she knew exactly where she was heading. She wouldn’t stop, or get out of the car, she just wanted to drive past and see what the building looked like.

Two blocks down Kierra slowed and made another left turn onto the street that she had called her home away from home that summer. In the center of the block stood the familiar red brick building where she had spent countless hours with her grandfather. In the ten years since Kierra had laid eyes on this building she had expected some changes. Time ages everything, right? But the sight that greeted her stopped her in her tracks. Or, rather, in the middle of Washington Street. Luckily there was no one behind her or her first act back in town might have been filling out an accident report. That was definitely not how she planned to announce her arrival back in town.

The aging brick building had the windows boarded up, paint was peeling off the sign that still hung out front, and the front door looked like it wouldn’t open without some serious persuasion. When the hardware store been thriving there had been a bell above the door that signaled each time someone new arrived. She could hear that bell now in her mind, just as clearly as if she had heard it just that morning. She had thought about a lot of things over the years, but that bell hadn’t been one of them until this moment. The building sat in the center of the block, but today there was only a pile of rubble and an overgrown, empty lot on either side.

Pulling her car over to the side of the road, Kierra parked and quickly got out. Standing on the sidewalk, she stared up at what remained of the Briarview Hardware sign, swinging awkwardly from a broken hinge. The sign was barely legible, the paint was peeling, cracking, and faded, to almost nothing. It was definitely not the busy store she remembered from her youth. It was sad to see somewhere she had only happy memories of looking so sad and abandoned.

Who owned it? Why weren’t they doing the basic maintenance the building required?

Would they sell it to her?

Where had that idea come from? She was here for one reason, to put her demons to rest and find the missing pieces of the story. Coming here to see her grandfather’s old store hadn’t been part of the plan, but now that she was here, it somehow felt right. Saying goodbye to this old building was definitely part of the healing process, and that’s what she had come here for.

The sun felt warm on her black pants as she stood on the sidewalk looking up at the building. Black and gray were her go-to wardrobe choices these days, more of an effort to blend into the crowd. No bright colors, nothing that would draw attention to her. Her gray blouse was plain and baggy, covering any hint of the curves that might be beneath it. Her round-toed black flats were comfortable and functional. That was all she required in that department. Long forgotten was the girl who had worn flirtatious sun dresses, and high heels. Nowhere to be seen was the young lady who had desperately wanted a boy to notice her, to ask her out, to find her attractive.

These days she put far more effort into avoiding all of those things as she ever had put into making them happen.

A wave of melancholy washed over her as she started to slowly walk around the building. There was a gravel alley behind the building, and weeds grew up on either side of it, concealing the back door she knew was there. Pushing her way through the weeds, she quickly noticed someone else had been this way recently. The path was worn down, and the grass was smashed flat.

Climbing the three faded red steps, Kierra tried the back door and was surprised to find it unlocked. The door creaked quietly as she pushed it open and walked into the dark room. Boxes and clutter was all that she could see in the faint light, and the scent of dust and stale beer greeted her. The beer scent revealed to Kierra why the path was worn. Clearly the neighborhood kids had been using the building as a place to party.

Picking her way across the room, she headed toward the stairs on the far side of the room. Upstairs had been her grandfather’s private office, it was the place filled with her most cherished memories of the old man. He’d sit behind his desk tallying up the day’s receipts and tell her stories about his life. She could still picture him sitting behind the enormous, worn oak desk using the ancient adding machine. The coffee pot was always full, and the radio was always playing.

Her foot on the bottom step, she froze when she heard a loud thud from above her. Someone was up there, she realized, and it was probably the same kids who had worn the path to the door and helped themselves to a quiet place to drink their stolen beer.

****

Bryan Donaldson paused to survey the damage he had caused. His labored breathing was testament to how hard he’d been working. All around him debris littered the floor, more evidence of his hard work. Broken beams and smashed drywall were spread all around him, along with the trash he had discovered when he first entered the abandoned shop. Dust hung in the hot air and stuck to his sweat covered skin. It might be cool and crisp outside, but inside was a different story.

Long ago, when he had been in high school, he remembered this building being a hardware store. Since then it had stood empty, practically a beacon for bored teenagers and delinquents to cause damage. This part of town had gone downhill over the last ten years. Shops had closed and left empty buildings as well as unemployed people, causing a vicious cycle of unrest and poverty. The lack of supervision meant many of the buildings had boarded up windows and graffiti spray painted on the exterior walls. He didn’t know what was inside the rest, but this one had contained enough empty beer cans and discarded bottles of Jack Daniels to prove this had been party central for kids with nowhere to be, and nothing to do.

He had intentionally left the windows boarded up because he didn’t want anyone passing by to get any idea he might have left tools or anything else valuable inside. This renovation was being kept under wraps for the time being. Dropping the heavy sledgehammer on the hardwood floors, he pulled his sweat soaked t-shirt over his head, used it to wipe the sweat off his forehead, and tossed it aside. A single light bulb overhead provided the only source of light in the room. For a moment he reconsidered pulling off the old plywood off the windows. At least he could catch a breeze if he could open a window.

Crossing the room, he grabbed the over-size trash can and drug it closer to the pile of debris. He had already dumped a lot of debris in the can, so it was heavy and dragging it across the room wasn’t easy. As hard as that was, he knew lugging the heavy thing up and down the rickety old staircase wasn’t going to be fun.  He intended to fill the trash as much as possible before he made that trip.

The building needed a ton of work—no, the building probably needed ten tons of work as in a ten ton wrecking ball to the side of it. The idea depressed him. The night the former owner had died was forever emblazoned on his brain, and for some odd reason it gave him some comfort to know that the building was still standing if Kierra should ever happen to come back. Chances of that were exactly slim and none—emphasis on none—since it had already been ten years and he didn’t even really know if she was still out there somewhere or not. He knew she had survived that night, but the foster care system had swallowed her up and he hadn’t been able to find her. Anything could have happened, and in his line of work, first as a cop, and now as sheriff, he had seen a lot of things that could end a person’s life, or at least change it radically in another direction. Since he was sheriff, he had additional tools at his disposal. Maybe he’d put out a few feelers and see if anything turned up.

So, instead of tearing this old dump down, here he was only tearing it down enough to build it back up again. His plan was to use it as some type of community center, maybe teach self-defense classes in his off hours, and get someone to teach an art class for the kids. If he was being totally honest—and if he was anything, he was always brutally honest even with himself—he didn’t have a plan at all. Which was totally out of character for him, yet another reason he didn’t want anyone to know he was doing this. He didn’t have answers for the millions of questions he was bound to be asked. If he couldn’t answer them for himself, he sure couldn’t answer them for anyone else.

The building had more creaks and moans than he expected. There wasn’t even any wind today and he heard the back door creak. He had long given up going to investigate every sound he heard. If he spent all his time running to check out every unexpected sound, he would never get anything accomplished. Off hours were a premium, when he could get here, he didn’t want to waste a minute of his time.

Dumping another shovelful of debris into the trash can, Bryan turned to pick up a handful of smashed beer cans when he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. His first thought was a bored teenager was about to get the surprise of a lifetime. He rested the tip of the shovel down on the floor, and just as he opened his mouth to talk to the misguided teenager who was undoubtedly about to get caught with a twelve pack of beer by the newly appointed town sheriff. Talk about having a bad day, some poor kid was about to end up with a great story to tell his buddies.

“What do you think you’re doing?” A very annoyed female demanded from near the staircase. A glance in her direction didn’t do anything to reveal who was talking. She stood in the shadows deep enough to completely conceal her face. Still, something about her voice was definitely familiar.

Bryan took a step toward the intruder, intent on not only discovering who was in the building without permission, but also why she seemed so oddly familiar to him. It didn’t even occur to him to answer her question. He had far too many questions of his own.

Without even realizing that he still held the shovel in his hand, he took two or three steps toward her, squinting into the shadows to try and see her face.

****

The man took a menacing step toward her. Kierra instinctively started to back up, but there was nowhere to go. He was big and his broad shoulders seemed to fill the entire room. His bare chest glistened with sweat—proving he had been hard at work when she interrupted—and revealed both chiseled abs and well-muscled arms. Her gaze never wandered any higher than the broad expanse of his chest. If she hadn’t been absolutely terrified, she might have appreciated the sight, but as it was all she could think was a steady stream of “Oh shit!” or variations on that theme. She did not do this, she did not confront people, especially not strange men. She avoided situations like this. She didn’t seek them out.

Her options were down the stairs or against the wall, and she definitely wasn’t getting backed up against the wall by a total stranger in an abandoned building. She could hear the voice of her martial arts instructor in her head reminding her to always keep her escape route clear, never get backed into a corner. Of course, Master Li would probably also point out she shouldn’t take unnecessary risks or put herself in situations where she would be forced to defend herself. She had taken all of those classes in hopes that the training would help her feel calm and in control. Right now, she would say that was a total failure.

Why in the hell had she come inside?

Years of martial arts classes had her instincts taking over. She knew she wouldn’t be a match for this big, musclebound guy, but she was determined to at least not go down without a fight. When he got close enough, she swung out her leg in a perfect roundhouse kick. Good luck, for once, was on her side and she caught him in the temple, sending him stumbling back.

“What the hell?” He grasped his temple for a split second before his own instincts took over, and he blocked her next kick effortlessly.

As she prepared to launch another kick if he came near her, he dropped the shovel, giving her some reassurance. She felt even better when he took a step back, putting some space between them.

“Stay back!” she yelped, in what she hoped was a voice that sounded more authoritative to him than it did to her own ears. Hopefully he’d think the slight quiver that was plainly heard in her command was due to adrenaline and not the terror she actually felt.

“All right, I’m staying back! I hope you know you just assaulted a police officer, by the way.” Is he laughing at me? “And you’re trespassing.”

“You’re a cop?” she asked incredulously, letting the trespassing part go without comment. She wasn’t sure who would own the building, and she wasn’t ready to reveal her identity to anyone in town just yet.

“Do I know you? Why don’t you come out of the shadows and show me your face, you seem to have me at a disadvantage here.” There was definitely humor in his voice, but mostly it was annoyance. Which, she supposed she couldn’t blame him for, she had just kicked him in the head.

“Oh my God … Bryan?’ Suddenly the light hit his face just right and she was transported back in time ten years, she was sitting on the tailgate of his truck enjoying her first real kiss, among other things, and couldn’t imagine that something horrific was about to change her life forever. “Bryan Donaldson?” She was mortified.  Bryan Donaldson was the only boy who had ever made her toes curl. Yet she’d just managed to kick him in the side of the head within minutes of getting back into town.

“Kierra?”

She deeply regretted her decision to come inside, for multiple reasons. She did not want to have a conversation with Bryan Donaldson of all people. Just the mention of his name evoked memories she had long ago buried.

“I have to go, I’m sorry … sorry for everything,” she mumbled, and turned as quickly as she could, determined to get out the door as quickly as possible.

Before she got two steps down the rickety staircase, he had a hold of her arm. The grip wasn’t threatening and any other woman on the planet wouldn’t have taken it as anything other than his intent to keep her standing still so he could talk to her. Only she wasn’t any other person, she was Kierra, and she freaked out at the simplest of touches. At the mere thought that he might prevent her from leaving, she reacted without thinking, her training took over.

With her free arm, she reached around and grabbed the palm of Bryan’s hand in her own. At the same time, she twisted his hand in an awkward position forcing him to release her arm or be pulled down the stairs with her. The instant she was free she ran down the stairs and rounded the corner toward the back door. Her motions were jerky with panic, and her breathing erratic. She knew an anxiety attack was inevitable, but she didn’t want to fall apart in front of Bryan.

He was fast on her heels, and beat her to the door, but wisely didn’t block her path.

“Look, Kierra, I just wanted to see if it was really you. I didn’t mean to freak you out.” He held his hands up, palm out, as if he was surrendering to her.

Kierra allowed herself one glance at his face. He was as handsome as she remembered. His brown hair was slightly damp with sweat, his blue eyes were fringed with dark lashes, and his jaw was covered with a five o’clock shadow. He appeared apologetic and sincere, but still the panic won out. “I have to go!” Was all she said as she rushed around him and out the door, slamming it behind her.

****

Kierra rushed to her car and sped away as fast as she could. She could feel sweat beginning to trickle down her back, coat her palms, and moisten her upper lip. Her hands and face were both tingling and she knew that a panic attack was clawing at her. She barely managed to control herself enough to obey basic traffic laws and not run over young children playing in the street nearby.

She was well and truly rattled, which in itself wasn’t all that uncommon, but she hadn’t been rattled to this extreme in quite a while. Never had she imagined running into Bryan Donaldson. Sure she had considered he might still live in town, but she intended to do everything she could to avoid running into him during her short stay.

What a laugh, not only had she not avoided him, she had barged in on him, and then literally kicked him in the head.

Ugh! She should never have come back to this damn town. Stopping at a stoplight, she pressed the heels of both hands to her eyes in an effort to not let the tears that were beginning to form in her eyes start falling. Just being back in town was overwhelming in itself. Visiting her grandfather’s hardware store had brought a ton of emotions flooding back. Hearing Bryan’s voice and being in the same room with him was just too much to bear.

When a horn sounded behind her, she looked up to realize the light had changed to green. She pulled herself together enough to drive down the block until she spotted the diner.

The same diner where she had fetched lunch for her Grandpa and his friends when she was a teenager. The same diner that claimed to have the best coffee in town, which was probably tongue-in-cheek since it was the only place in town to get a cup of coffee unless one made it for oneself. Still, her mouth watered at the idea of a cup of coffee. Her last cup of coffee had been from a fast food joint on the highway and had long since been forgotten in her cup holder, so she pulled over and parked at a meter in front of the diner. Flipping down her visor, she checked her face in the mirror. The last thing she wanted to do was draw attention to herself by giving the appearance that she’d just been crying.

Satisfied that she had repaired her appearance enough to run in for a cup of coffee, she left the car and walked toward the door of the diner.

****

Kierra entered the diner, and sat at the table near the window, so she could watch the traffic going past as she sipped her coffee. Watching the traffic was merely an excuse to avoid eye contact and being drawn into conversation with any of the other diners. She wanted to be alone. Small talk and answering questions about why she was in Briarview were the last things she wanted to do. On a whim, she had ordered a slice of pie to go with her coffee. What could be more small-town-American-diner than a cup of coffee and a slice of freshly made pie?

She half expected Aunt Bea to pop in the diner any moment, it was all so quaint and picturesque. She remembered feeling so important when her grandfather and his buddies had sent her here to pick up a lunch order for them. In reality, she had loved everything about her time in this small town.

It didn’t take long at all for her senses to start to tingle and let her know there was someone watching her. She chalked it up to being an unknown face in a town where everyone probably knew everyone on sight, and she tried to ignore it. She suddenly wished she had headed right back out of town the way she had come in and not stopped at the diner at all. Being stared at by anyone was a terrifying experience for her, but being stared at right here in Briarview was her worst nightmare come back to haunt her.

Still rattled from her encounter with Bryan, she couldn’t believe she had overreacted like that, and yet in another way, she wasn’t surprised at all.

He must have recognized her purely from her voice, or he was better at seeing through her disguise than most. The only thing that remained the same was her name. She had changed everything else that she could possibly change. Her hair was colored a dull as dishwater mouse-brown, concealing the natural blonde that she had been as a teenager. At sixteen she had enjoyed all things girlie, including makeup and flirty little dresses. Today she avoided any makeup outside of mascara occasionally, and there were no dresses in her closet. A handful of utilitarian jeans was all the variety her closet had to offer. Her clothes were always baggy and did everything to conceal her shape. Black boots with a square heel and a rounded toe, or plain black flats were her only shoe options. Long forgotten were the days of running around in sandals or heels. She lived in the shadows of life, going out of her way to avoid being noticed, or worse, becoming the center of anyone’s attention.

All of this was done for two reasons. When she looked in the mirror she didn’t want to see that scared sixteen-year-old girl looking back at her. Almost more importantly though, it was to avoid drawing attention to herself. She would happily go through the rest of her life and never experience the feeling of having everyone stare at her with pity—or anything else—in their eyes.

All she had to do was think back to that night of the explosion, sitting in the back of the ambulance while it felt like the entire town, strangers and acquaintances alike, had all stared at her. Their expressions ranged from curiosity, to horror, to pity. She had heard their whispers, the prayers of thanks that it hadn’t been their family. She had even heard one woman boldly proclaim her mother had brought this on herself by being no more than a white trash whore who had gotten what she had coming to her.

Tears stung the back of her eyes at the memories. She blinked hard and forced them back. Crying in public only drew attention to her, and she was a master at blending into the woodwork.

Stirring a sugar into her coffee, she feigned intense interest in what was happening out the window. Avoiding eye contact with the elderly waitress who seemed ready to pounce if she even looked like she might want to order a second cup of coffee. Or, she suspected it was far more likely that the waitress was dying to pepper her with questions about who she was, why she was in Briarview, and how long she planned to stay. Small towns, there was definitely a lot to love about them, but the lack of privacy was more than enough to outweigh any positives in Kierra’s mind. It was much more difficult to blend in and go unnoticed in a small town.

Now that she was here, she was second guessing her reason for coming. She had intended to request an official copy of the police report from the night of the explosion. Her thinking was that if she faced what really happened she could move past it, stop thinking about it every day, and live a normal life. She couldn’t help but wonder if maybe she wasn’t better off not really knowing what that report said. Did she want to know the gory details? Absolutely not. But she wanted, no she needed, to know for sure if her stepfather was in prison somewhere, or if he’d died in the explosion, like those murder suicide stories she’d seen on the news. She had always assumed he had died along with the rest of her family, but somewhere in the back of her mind she had doubts that needed to be laid to rest.

Once, when she was living with a kind foster family, she had asked her case worker, and the overworked, underpaid, state social worker had looked at her blankly and stated, “Why, I’m sure I have no idea!” As if it were the most ludicrous thing in the world to ask. After that she had never asked anyone again, and she had tried her best to convince herself that the death of her family had included her stepfather. But the doubts persisted. He could have set the gas leak and then slipped out of the house before the explosion. Couldn’t he?

She had done a Google search once and found only a single newspaper article from Briarview that had stated, “everyone inside the home was killed.” The article had also said it was most likely a gas leak that caused the explosion, but there had been no mention of it being intentional. That’s what had really set Kierra’s wheels in motion, thinking about seeing what the official record had to say. She hadn’t even considered making a phone call and having a copy mailed to her. Once the idea had formed in her mind, she felt compelled to act on it directly.

The door of the diner had a chime connected that played a sound each time someone entered. It made that sound as a woman hurried in and was immediately greeted by seemingly everyone in the restaurant. The woman wore a hot pink top and a black pencil skirt. Her blonde hair was curled and styled perfectly. She was wearing makeup that accented all her features beautifully, but didn’t make her look overly made up. Kierra wondered for a moment if she was a model, but then ruled it out because surely no model would be hanging out at the corner diner in Briarview.

The woman was stunning. Her smile took in the entire room at once. She stopped and greeted people—old and young alike—with a warm greeting, occasionally a hug, and always the smile. Kierra watched, mesmerized, as the woman glided through the diner, stopping to talk to everyone she knew. She received hugs from everyone, the old men she gave a kiss on the cheek or a wink, and the old women couldn’t help but chuckle at her. She flirted, but in a way that offended no one.

“Kimmie! I need a large coffee and a muffin, to go, I’m late as usual,” the woman called out to the waitress, who stood chuckling behind the counter.

“I am so shocked.” The waitress laughed as she handed over a coffee and a white bakery bag over the counter.

“Put it on my tab,” the blonde called out as she headed out the door, taking a big sip of her coffee on the way out.

Kierra wondered what it was like to be her, to seek out the attention of others instead of hiding from it. To be so completely comfortable in her own skin that it didn’t occur to her to be self-conscious at all. She envied the blonde woman and she didn’t even know who she was.

The diner was noticeably noisier after the woman left than it had been before she entered, as if her mere presence had woken up everyone in the room. They talked and laughed, they teased the waitress, and ordered an extra cup of coffee. The woman had been in the restaurant for less than five minutes and yet her energy lived on after she left. The room had an excitement to it that could only have come from her.

Kierra thought about ordering more than a slice of pie and a cup of coffee, considered lingering in the energy that filled the diner for a while longer. She spotted the waitress staring at her again, and watched as she walked over to the window that connected the dining room to the kitchen and spoke to someone in the back.

No doubt Kierra was the subject of that conversation.

Throwing enough money on the table to cover her bill and a hefty tip for the nosy waitress, she headed toward the door. Her shoulders square and a bit of determination in her steps. She needed to find a little bit of the woman in pink’s confidence, and until she could find it, she would just have to fake it.

****

Kimmie called him over to the window, pointing out the brunette sitting near the window. The moment he laid eyes on her, his gut clenched in a way it hadn’t in a long time. Hatred burned in his stomach like an acid, churning and destroying everything in its path.

He would recognize her anywhere. He hadn’t seen her in years, since she had proved what a slut she was and snuck out to meet a boy instead of staying home. If she had been home, she’d be dead just like the rest of her family. Just like they assumed he was.

She looked exactly like her mother. That bitch! It was his biggest regret she hadn’t been home when he’d gotten rid of the rest of her family. The state had done a good job of hiding her, not that he had many resources to search for her, but what digging he had done had turned up nothing.

He never thought he’d see her again. Why was she here? What did she want? Of course the answer was as plain as the grease stains on his apron. She was looking for answers, and that made her dangerous. As long as she wasn’t here, wasn’t asking questions, she was no threat to him. Now, that had changed.

And ten years later, she walked right in the door of the diner where he’d been working for most of that time. He hated that he had to work for a living and he always considered doing any manual labor beneath him. Collecting a check from the government was more his style, but he couldn’t risk getting on their radar. This work was easy enough, and he’d managed to convince the people of this town he was a lovable, and most importantly, harmless guy who worked as a cook because he truly enjoyed it.

What a joke. He hated the people of this town as much as he hated making their burgers and fries. Before he had killed his wife, he had lived off the money she made and the check he received regularly from the government. He had to make enough flipping burgers to keep a roof over his head. He didn’t need to live like a king, he just needed enough cash to put some food in the fridge, and keep him in whiskey. Whiskey being the main concern, of course.

The bell in the window dinged, alerting him that the waitress, Kimmie, had put another order in for table four, and brought him back to reality. Suddenly he had bigger concerns than getting enough money to quit this godforsaken diner job. He had to make sure the little bitch wasn’t going to figure out who he really was, and turn him in.

There was only one way to do that. Make sure she turned up as dead as her bitch of a mother and that whiny brat she had claimed was his son had ten years ago. Lucky for him it seemed the only talent he had in this world was making people turn up dead. It was a talent that had served him well over the years, and this would be his best work yet.

That bitch was going to suffer, he’d make damn sure of that. But first, he would finally get to enjoy her, the way he’d wanted to when she was sixteen and was forbidden fruit to him.

He smiled at the memory of watching the explosion that killed his bitch of a wife. The explosion had been fun, but he much preferred killing up close and personal. Since she wasn’t his blood daughter, he could even have a little fun with her before he got rid of her, that was his favorite thing of all. Her mother was no longer here to protect her, there was nothing to keep him from having her. He’d waited a long time, and he was not a patient man, so this was going to be the ultimate reward.

With a definite smile on his face, he turned back to the grill and finished up the orders waiting for him there. Tonight his fantasies would be the stuff he loved the most, watching someone’s life drain out of them while she begged him for the mercy that he never, ever gave.

The rest of the day, everyone commented on what a great mood he was in. If only they knew why.

****

Bryan finished cleaning up the last of the mess at the hardware store and locked the door behind himself. As he walked to his pickup truck, parked in the alley behind the building, he was still shaking his head in amazement over the fact that Kierra Centrand was back in town after ten years. He’d often considered tracking her down just to reassure himself that she was okay, that despite the trauma of that night she had managed to have a good life. He was never sure what he would say to her, if she would appreciate the reminder of what was most assuredly the worst night of her life, or if she had moved on and didn’t want to look back.

For him, that night still haunted him. As a cop, and as sheriff, God knows he had seen some horrible things. But still it was that night—the night he’d held Kierra in his arms while she sobbed and screamed for her family—that he couldn’t forget.

They had thought they were so grown up, sixteen and seventeen years old and ready to embrace their independence. He had swiped beers from his dad’s refrigerator and talked Kierra into sneaking out of the house. They’d talked for hours, while they each nursed their one beer apiece. Bryan hadn’t been naive, even at seventeen, thanks to his dad being the town sheriff, he knew there were people in this world who didn’t have it nearly as good as he did, but still Kierra’s story had made his heart clench in sympathy.

It hadn’t been sympathy that had drawn him to her, though. He had been like a helpless moth flying directly toward a flickering flame. Being the quarterback of a small town football team had meant he had never had to work very hard to find a date, or a girl willing to climb into the backseat of his parent’s car with him. Kierra had been so different from anyone else he’d ever known. She had a strength and a resolve to her that had impressed him even at seventeen years old. She had been more than attractive to him physically—and she had definitely been attractive to him physically—she had mesmerized him in every way.

His friends had teased him mercilessly. Their senior year, they had said, wasn’t about chasing just one skirt, it was about chasing all the skirts. But he only had eyes for Kierra.

Now here she was, ten years later, looking nothing like the girl he had remembered. Hell, if he was being honest he hadn’t just remembered her, he had fantasized about her all these years. The differences in her were too numerous to count, she had none of that strong resolve, her blonde hair was gone, and the curves he had lusted after back then were nowhere to be seen. But the most jarring difference was the terror in her eyes.

He wondered why she was back in town, it was pretty obvious she hadn’t come back to find him since as soon as she realized it had been him in the room with her, she couldn’t get away from him fast enough. As he drove home to grab a shower and headed to the station, he made a mental note to make sure and find her again soon. Hopefully she would be in town for a few days. There were a few perks to being the sheriff of a small town, and one of them was definitely hearing everything that happened in town. Kierra Centrand being back in town was bound to get the gossip mill going, and for once, he was going to take advantage of it.

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