Ebook ISBN: 978-1-60504-943-4
Print ISBN: 978-1-60504-962-5
[ Romantic Suspense, MF ]
When fireman Reyn Erikson returns to the Louisiana town that branded him a killer, he encounters two flashpoints: his grandmother’s plea to investigate his mother’s death. And sexy Olivia Crenshaw.
As Reyn and Olivia search for answers, they fight a sizzling attraction—and a killer who’s come out of hiding….
[bctt tweet=”Read #excerpt of by Reyn’s Redemption @BethCornelison #romsuspense”]
Reyn Erikson wrapped his sweaty hand around the church’s cross-shaped door handle and steeled himself with a deep breath. He’d known coming back to Clairmont, Louisiana, would be difficult. So many ghosts lived here. But walking back inside this small country church could well be the hardest test of all.
The last time he’d darkened the door of Clairmont Baptist Church had been his mother’s funeral twenty years ago. That day, as a guilt-ridden ten-year-old, he’d only wanted to run as far and as fast as he could. Away from that church. Away from Clairmont. Away from the fingers pointed at him.
And never come back.
If not for the message from his grandmother’s friend, he wouldn’t be back now. He wouldn’t be standing on the stoop of the aged sanctuary with his heart thumping like a trapped animal trying to escape through his ribs. The merciless July sun baked down on his back, and the oppressive Louisiana humidity stuck his dress shirt to his clammy skin. But he could only blame dread for the sense of suffocation that squeezed his chest.
Of all the places where Gram’s friend could have asked to meet him, why the church, damn it?
Open the door, coward. What’s wrong with you? Just go in.
When he tugged the door open, it squeaked a loud protest, drawing the gaze of the man in the pulpit as well as most of the congregation. Reyn stepped inside and caught the door before it banged closed.
“As I drove through Arkansas last week,” the minister continued, despite Reyn’s late arrival, “I saw a church billboard that read, ‘So you think it’s hot here?’”
With another glance at Reyn, the minister waited for the soft stir of chuckles to quiet before he continued.
The man’s voice faded to a muted drone when Reyn turned his attention to the stained-glass windows that had glared down at him through his mother’s funeral. Angels in flowing robes condemned him from the brightly colored glass. Saints and prophets stared back at him with contempt and censure.
You let your mother down. You let her die, the figures shouted at him. Coward.
His mouth grew dry. His feet seemed rooted where he stood. Like dense, acrid smoke filling a burning house, guilt and resurrected grief billowed in his chest. He struggled to suck air into leaden lungs. Out of habit, he reached down to adjust the flow of oxygen into his breathing apparatus, only to remember he wasn’t wearing his turnout gear.
A tug on his shirtsleeve yanked him back to the present. Glancing down, he found a freckle-faced boy grinning at him.
“…to have a seat, sir?”
He realized belatedly the minister was talking to him, and he snapped his gaze to the pulpit. Scanning the curious faces turned toward him, he recognized a few members of the aged congregation. Obviously Principal Horton remembered him too, judging from the scowl that darkened the man’s face. Mrs. Skinner directed a suspicious glare toward Reyn, and her lips thinned and frowned. No Clairmont Welcome Wagon for him.
He hadn’t expected a warm reception. At least not from the people who remembered him. These same people had accused him, judged him and driven him out of his tiny hometown.
Reyn stepped to the back pew and folded his large body onto the hard bench. At ten, the narrow wooden seats had been uncomfortable. For a thirty-year-old man of his considerable size, the pew promised nothing but stiff muscles.
The minister continued his sermon, despite the growing buzz as more people recognized him and whispered to their neighbor. Had he really thought he could come to town, see Gram and make arrangements for her care, then quietly leave Clairmont without the rumor mill catching wind of it? He wouldn’t care what the people of Clairmont said about him if not for Gram. He hated to think of his grandmother being subjected to the pettiness of this small town. With his return, the Clairmont gossips would breathe new life into the embers of old fires. His name would be vilified again. He couldn’t deny that he’d earned his reputation as a troublemaker. So why should they have believed in his innocence when it mattered most?
When the sermon ended, Reyn rubbed the tension building at the back of his neck, and the choir stood to lead the last hymn. A flash of color caught his eye, and he focused his attention on a young woman in the choir loft. As if her youth in this elderly congregation didn’t already make her stand out, a bright sunbeam shone through the stained glass, spotlighting her heavenly face. The ray of light set her thick halo of red hair on fire and made her ivory skin glow.
The young woman raised her eyes and caught him staring. Before he could awkwardly look away, a lopsided grin tugged the corner of her mouth. Her seductive mouth. Her extremely hot, kiss-me-you-fool mouth.
Intrigued, Reyn held her gaze and lifted one eyebrow, acknowledging her grin. Before his eyes, the angel with the flaming hair and the sexy mouth transformed into a full-fledged temptress. A come-on in a choir robe. Her lopsided grin melted into an alluring, come-hither invitation. Her eyes glittered and danced with mischief.
“Hi,” she mouthed.
In response to her none-too-subtle flirting, liquid heat pooled in his belly and spread through his veins. He shoved his hands in his pockets and jerked his gaze away when he recognized the heaviness collecting in his groin.
He drew several deep breaths and shook himself from the siren’s spell. Though he no longer cared what got whispered about him, Gram didn’t need to hear that her grandson had become aroused at church.
After the minister dismissed the congregation with a benediction, the pianist played another verse of the last hymn. The congregation filled the aisles, and Reyn sighed his relief, eager to get out of the church that held so many bad memories. A few of the people who knew his history sent him disapproving looks, and he clenched his teeth.
To hell with them. They couldn’t hurt him now. He was no longer the frightened boy they’d run out of town.
He searched the crowd, wondering which of the white heads or beehive hairdos belonged to Gram’s friend, Olivia Crenshaw. He knew the name, since Gram mentioned her friend from time to time in their Sunday phone calls. But like most everything else about Clairmont, he’d forgotten the face that went with the Crenshaw name. All he had to go on was the message Mrs. Crenshaw left at the fire station when she’d called about Gram’s broken hip and asked him to meet her at the church.
Mrs. Crenshaw had been Gram’s friend for several years now, keeping tabs on her as his grandmother became frailer. She’d been the one who found Gram on her bathroom floor, unable to walk and in desperate pain.
Reyn’s gut clenched thinking of Gram laid out on the cold tile floor and suffering. While he worked in Atlanta, fighting the enemy fire week after week, praying for redemption, Gram was alone. Though he’d urged Gram to move to Georgia, had flown her to Atlanta every Christmas and Easter for years, he still worried about Gram living alone. He owed Mrs. Crenshaw, whoever she was, a tremendous debt for her attentiveness to his grandmother.
He searched the milling congregation, the townsfolk apparently in no hurry to get home, and noticed the redheaded seductress from the choir making a beeline for him. She’d removed her choir robe and draped it over her arm. Without the robe to hide her figure, he discovered she had dangerous curves to match the promise of trouble glinting in her eyes.
Reyn groaned. Tempting as she was, the last thing he needed during his brief stay in Clairmont was trouble. He couldn’t do anything to cause tongues to wag and leave another scandal to haunt Gram.
He turned to leave through the back door of the church, hoping Miss Trouble would take the hint and find another target. But the press of bodies clogging the doorway, where people waited to shake the minister’s hand, blocked his path.
The redhead came up behind him and gripped his arm. “James Reynold Erikson, better known to his family and friends as Reyn, lieutenant with the Atlanta Fire Department and Mr. August of the Firefighter’s Association’s charity calendar.”
Stunned, Reyn turned to the beauty with the flaming hair.
She stuck her hand out for him to shake. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
After staring at her outstretched hand for a moment, he gave her a polite smile and wrapped his fingers around hers. Her hand was small, but her grip was strong.
He cleared his throat. “How did you know—?”
“Oh, puh-leeze. Your grandmother can’t stop talking about you and your heroic deeds with the fire department. I’ve heard about every cat you’ve rescued and every blaze you’ve put out. She loves to brag on you. Why, she talked for six months about the little girl you pulled out of the burning car.”
A prickling suspicion crawled through him. “You’re—”
“Olivia Crenshaw. I called you a few days ago about your grandmother. My car’s outside, and I’m headed to the hospital to visit Lila now if you want to ride along.” She gave him another lopsided grin.
His focus dropped to her mouth, riveted by the wicked allure of her full lips. The idea of being alone in a car with the loquacious flirt tantalized him, but his conscience reared its head. Better not play with fire.
“Um…yeah. Sure. But I can take my truck and fol—”
“Leave it here. I’ll drop you back here after we visit Lila and maybe grab a bite of lunch at Burdeaux’s.”
“How is Gram? She was asleep when I called the hospital last night, and I haven’t gotten a chance to call again this morning. I left Atlanta at three a.m. and drove straight through.”
Her expression modulated. “Physically she’s doing quite well, considering. But her spirits have been low lately. I know having you here will do her a world of good. She misses you.”
Did he detect a note of censure in the woman’s tone?
With a short, wry laugh and a wry grin, he dragged a hand along his jaw. “You’re Mrs. Crenshaw? I was expecting an old biddy. Someone with gray hair and support hose.”
“Ah.” Her smile brightened again, and laughter sparkled in her eyes. “Sorry to disappoint you. And it’s Ms. Crenshaw, not Mrs. Furthermore, I don’t wear pantyhose of any kind, especially not in the summer. The things are too dang hot.”
Reyn battled the urge to check out her legs and confirm what she’d said. Instead he locked his gaze on her face, studied the parade of freckles across her nose and cheeks, the shimmer of peach lipstick on her lips.
She cocked her head to one side and caught her bottom lip in her teeth. “Hmm. Your pictures don’t do you justice. Well, that calendar shot does maybe, but—” she picked a loose string off his shirt at the shoulder, “—with that shot, who’s looking at your face, huh?”
She gave him another devilish grin, echoed by the gleam in her eyes.
No doubt about it. The woman was a mistake waiting to happen. He’d made enough mistakes to last him a lifetime, thank you. And she clearly had misconceived notions about him based on his grandmother’s boasting and the damn calendar picture.
He wasn’t surprised to learn Gram bragged on him. She always gushed about how proud she was of him when he called her. She’d always had a blind faith in him, even when he was a kid. Even when the rest of the town condemned him and his penchant for trouble. Guilt rose up to prick him again. Gram refused to see the truth, which was just as well. She didn’t know the whole story about the night of the house fire that killed his mother. He hadn’t had the guts to tell her what had happened, hadn’t wanted to hurt her any more than his inaction already had.
Reyn ran a finger under his collar to loosen the tie that threatened to strangle him. “Can we get outta here? This place is starting to close in on me.”
“Sure. Follow me.” Olivia pivoted gracefully on her toes and sauntered up the center aisle of the church. Her hips swayed beneath her short, flouncy skirt, and heat coiled inside Reyn as he watched her walk away. Recklessness and curiosity overrode the voice of caution, and he peered down to check out her legs. Long, sleek and sexy. Just as he’d expected.
It would have been a hell of a lot easier if Olivia Crenshaw had been old and arthritic. But when had anything in his life ever been easy? The sooner he took care of Gram and got out of town the better.
“’Livia, wait!” A girl, who looked to be about five years old, waved to Olivia from the pews. “I wanna ride with you.”
Olivia stopped and waited for the girl who, Reyn realized with a second look, wore braces on pencil-thin legs. Tucking a wisp of dark hair behind the girl’s ear, Olivia shook her head.
“I’m not going home yet, sweetie. I’m taking Lila’s grandson up to the hospital to see her.” The girl pouted, and Olivia tugged her ponytail. “Reyn, this brat is my sister, Katy. Katy, this is Reyn.”
Katy turned wide eyes to Reyn. “The fireman?”
Reyn held his hand out to Olivia’s sister and gave her a friendly smile. “Nice to meet you, Katy.”
Katy shook his hand with hero-worship in her eyes. The girl’s awe caused a funny catch in his chest, his usual discomfort with receiving undeserved adulation.
“Ride with your dad, Katy. I’ll see you at home later, and we’ll play Clue. Okay?”
Her sister nodded and plodded down the aisle toward the crowd near the exit. Turning, Reyn followed Olivia to a side door. When he stepped out of the church and into the blinding sun, he slipped on his shades and glanced around the parking lot. Gravel crunched under his feet, and the fresh scent of cut grass perfumed the air. Olivia headed to a rusty sub-compact parked in the shade of a live oak.
“I’m gonna have to move some things off the front seat before you can get in.” She dangled her keys from one finger while she opened the driver’s side.
“If you’d rather take my truck, I don’t mind—”
“It’ll only take a second. I just have to move a few books. I take a night class at ULM, finishing my degree in pharmacy.”
“ULM, huh? That’s a long commute. You go every night?”
“Naw, just Tuesdays and Thursdays this semester.” Her short skirt rode higher when she bent and stretched to clear a seat for him. He looked away from the tantalizing view and watched the family parked beside them pile into their van.
“Reyn? Reyn Erikson, is that you?”
He turned to the middle-aged woman with graying black hair who addressed him as she approached from the opposite end of the lot. He searched his memory to place the familiar face.
“I’m Hannah Russell,” she said. “Your mother was a dear friend of mine for years.”
“Was she? Well, then it’s a pleasure to meet you.” He offered his hand, but she bypassed his proffered handshake and gripped his shoulders. “My goodness, look at you.” She grinned at him. “All grown up and handsome as the devil.”
He fumbled for a response to the compliment, but before he could reply, Hannah added, “You must be home to see your grandmother. I heard she was in the hospital.”
“Yes, ma’am. A broken hip.”
Hannah clapped a hand to her chest. “Oh, the poor dear. Give her my best, will you?”
“We sure will. That’s where we’re headed now.” Olivia stepped up beside him, and he cut a sideways glance to her.
Reyn detected a slight shift in Hannah’s mood. She greeted the younger redhead with cool reserve. “Olivia. How’re you?”
“Never better. And you?”
“Hannah, what the devil’s keeping you?” A tall man wearing a straw cowboy hat stalked up behind Hannah and scowled at Reyn.
“Just sayin’ howdy to Reyn, George. You remember Claire Erikson’s son, don’t you?”
“Remember him?” George scoffed and gave him a dark glare. “Course I do. I lost a perfectly good barn and several thousand dollars worth of equipment thanks to him and his arson. Not likely to forget a thing like that.”
Reyn tensed. He sensed Olivia’s curious gaze, but he kept his eyes trained on the man across from him. Animosity radiated from the farmer like the heat waves rippling from the pavement.
He remembered George Russell. The farmer had been one of his accusers, one of the men who’d convinced the sheriff that the town wasn’t safe with Reyn in it.
Hannah faced her husband and planted her hands on her hips. “George, that’s ancient history. Leave it alone.”
“Arson?” Olivia took a step toward George, her stance combative. “He’s no arsonist. I’ll have you know, Reyn’s a lieutenant with the Atlanta Fire Department. He’s been honored several times for his valor and job performance.”
Reyn gritted his teeth and took Olivia by the arm. “Don’t. Let’s go.”
Geez, the last thing he wanted was a showdown with George Russell. He’d only been in town a couple of hours, and already the trouble had started.
“How would you know, missy? You were too young to know Reyn back then, to know the trouble he caused.” George shot Olivia a stern glance. “Your daddy let him get by with it too. Didn’t do his job like he oughta.”
Olivia drew a sharp breath. “Don’t you dare malign my father! He was a good man, and if he believed in Reyn and gave him the benefit of the doubt, that’s good enough for me.”
George narrowed a menacing scrutiny on Olivia, and Reyn tightened his grip on her arm, tugged her back from the man challenging her.
“Olivia, don’t,” he repeated tightly. “Let’s go.”
“It don’t surprise me none that this boy’d take up with the likes of you soon as he hits town. Billy told us plenty about the kind of Jezebel you are. You and this boy…y’all are birds of a feather.”
Reyn felt Olivia stiffen and saw a flicker of emotion in her gold eyes. A vulnerability or sadness. Instantly his defenses came up. The slam against Olivia grated his nerves. He had no respect for a man who’d harass a woman. He faced George, drew his shoulders back, and balled his hands in fists at his side.
His instinct to protect her rivaled his need to protect himself—from her. He didn’t want to identify with her hurt, couldn’t afford to drop his guard around those wounded gold eyes.
But almost as quickly as the pain had clouded her eyes, a spark of defiance lit them.
George aimed a finger at Reyn. “You best not make trouble while you’re in town. Hear me? I’ll be watching you, boy.”
“I’m not here to make trouble.” Keeping his tone even, Reyn met the man’s icy glare. “And I haven’t been a boy for many years.”
When her husband turned and stalked away, Hannah gave them an apologetic look before following.
Reyn sighed and rolled the tension out of his shoulders.
“Welcome to Clairmont,” Olivia said with a wry sideways glance.
“Maybe it’d be best if I went to see Gram by myself. I don’t want to make any problems for you.”
“Don’t be silly. That old windbag doesn’t intimidate me.” She tossed her mane of fiery hair over her shoulder and climbed behind the wheel of her Chevette. “Shall we go?”
Reyn watched George cross the parking lot, the farmer’s back stiff with hostility. He’d have to be careful to avoid George. He didn’t want to cause any more grief for Gram. Or Olivia.
Across the parking lot, George approached Principal Horton. Horton wore the same dark scowl he’d given Reyn inside the church. The two men conferred, cast glares back at Reyn, then parted ways.
“Reyn? You comin’?” Olivia called.
“Yeah.” He rounded the back end of her car, wondering whether the men genuinely thought he posed a threat or if they simply bore a grudge after so many years.
Popping open the passenger’s door, he stared down at the tiny front seat and contemplated how to best fit his long legs in the limited space. Ducking his head, he lowered himself onto the ripped seat and slowly tucked his feet inside. He bit back a curse when his knees bumped the dashboard.
“Maybe we should have taken your truck.” Olivia’s eyes sparkled with amusement.
He shrugged and gave her a wry smile. “Too late now. I’m not sure I could get back out if I wanted to.”
She laughed as she put the Chevette in reverse and backed out. “I just need the old jalopy to make it until I finish school. I can’t afford a new car now. It runs—usually.” She quirked a sexy, crooked grin and cut a quick glance toward him. “And that’s what counts.”
“I suppose.” Reyn stared with an eerie detachment out the side window at the aged town. He noted a few changes along Main Street, but everything largely remained the same. Still, time had faded enough of his memories that even what he recognized seemed like echoes of a dream.
He glanced at Olivia, studied her sun-lit profile. She had a radiant quality that fascinated him, an inner spark evident in the confident way she carried herself.
“What did George Russell mean about your father? That he didn’t do his job and let me get by with stuff?”
She gave him an unlady-like snort. “Just sour grapes, I imagine. Don’t worry about it.”
“I mean…who was your father? Should I remember him?”
She met and held his gaze. The smoky depths of her eyes, the intelligence and energy glittering there, mesmerized him. Without wanting to be, he found himself intrigued by and drawn to this woman.
“My father was Ray Crenshaw. He was the sheriff here until he died in a hunting accident when I was five.”
A vague memory of a lawman coming by their house after the incident at the Russells’ barn lurked in the back of his mind. He dredged up a slightly clearer memory of the same lawman talking with Gram before he was sent to Georgia to live with a relative. But the most vivid memory was of a kind man with strong arms who had restrained him from running to his mother as her draped body was wheeled from their smoldering house.
Reyn tamped the surge of guilt and grief that particular memory stirred.
“Did you know him?” Olivia’s voice cut through his daze, held a wistful note that stabbed at him.
“I think so.” He didn’t elaborate, even though he could tell from her expression she wanted more about his memories of her father. But recalling memories of her father would mean opening the door to events he’d long ago locked away where they couldn’t hurt him. He had no intention of opening the past and all its painful memories while he was in town.
She turned her attention back to the road, and he heard disappointment in her sigh. Wearing a thoughtful expression, she wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. He followed the erotic movement of her tongue and stared at the glistening moisture left in its wake. Desire pumped through him and wound in his gut. He wanted a taste of those lips, but he knew better than to act on his urges.
Starting anything with Olivia would be a mistake. Starting something would raise her expectations—expectations he couldn’t meet. Starting something would inevitably hurt her, and he’d caused enough pain in this town.
“Answer something for me now.” Olivia’s auburn eyebrows drew together. “Did you really burn down the Russells’ barn when you were a kid?”
Reyn hesitated a beat then lifted an eyebrow. “You just told George Russell I wasn’t an arsonist. Don’t you believe what you said?”
“I… He was just being so ugly to you that I had to say something. Knowing what I do about you, it just seems so ludicrous that you would have—”
“Well, I did.” His admission drew a startled look from her. “And as much as I appreciate your vote of confidence, you’re wasting your breath defending me in this town.”
She stopped for a red light, one of the few traffic lights in town, then cast him a curious glance. “I just—”
He held up a hand to stop her and shook his head. “I’d rather not go into the reasons why. Just know I earned the reputation I have, and I’m not proud of it.”
“I know more than you think. Lila tells me a lot.”
His chest tightened, but he covered his unease with an embarrassed grin. “All of it glowing, I’m sure.”
He scratched his chin, telling himself he had no reason to worry about what Gram might have revealed to the red-haired spitfire. Even Gram didn’t know the whole truth. “Don’t judge me based on what Gram has told you. She has a distorted version of reality.”
Her sly smile, one that said she knew a titillating secret about him, triggered alarms in his head. He looked out the passenger’s window, signaling he was through discussing himself.
Before long, she turned in at the visitor parking lot of the small hospital and took the first available spot. “I guess while you’re home, I’ll have the chance to see for myself who’s right about you, won’t I?”
Reyn faced her, and her eyes glittered with anticipation, as if rooting out his deepest secrets was an exciting challenge.
“Clairmont has never been my home…even when I lived here.” He released a sigh, full of his regret and resignation. With that, he pried his legs out from under the dashboard and levered himself out of her tiny front seat.
He’d have to be careful. A woman like Olivia Crenshaw could be dangerous. She could sneak past his carefully erected defenses and discover things he’d kept hidden for years—things best left locked away where they couldn’t hurt anyone. For her sake, as well as his own, he couldn’t let that happen.
Like standing too near a fire, if Olivia got too close to him, she would get burned.
Olivia followed Reyn to the hospital entrance, musing over his last statement. Obviously, he wanted to keep her at arm’s length with his brusque manner. But she saw much more than he probably realized. She sensed an underlying bitterness—and yearning—in his comment about Clairmont.
Everyone needed a place to call home.
She studied the flesh and blood man whose calendar picture had ignited numerous steamy daydreams over recent months. The summer sun highlighted his golden tan and made his short, wheat-colored hair appear more blond than light brown. He moved with a controlled power, and the muscles under his shirt told her he kept his body in top form. He was taller than she’d expected, and he exuded a magnetism that photographs couldn’t capture.
Until that moment, she hadn’t realized how eagerly she’d been anticipating the chance to meet Reyn. Now, finally, she had the opportunity to see for herself if he was everything Lila said and match a voice, a smile, a soul to the two-dimensional calendar image that had fascinated her, mesmerized her. She desperately hoped the real man was as beautiful inside as out. Not only did Lila deserve a worthy grandson, but thanks to her own disastrous relationship with Billy Russell, Olivia had already had her fill of handsome men with little other redeeming characteristics.
She’d reserve judgment on Reyn’s character until she learned what was inside the man with the athletic body and GQ face. She sensed a sadness, a distance in Reyn that puzzled her. His remoteness resounded inside her like a lonely echo and cautioned her to stay away. She didn’t need to be disappointed, broken-hearted again.
When he held the front door for her, she rewarded his thoughtfulness with a smile. The brisk chill of the air-conditioned hospital nipped her skin, and she rubbed her arms as they headed to the elevator. “She’s in room three-eleven.”
He nodded again and stepped into the elevator. “I appreciate your being there for Gram.”
“I’m glad I could help. Lila’s certainly been there for me enough times. She’s very dear to me.”
His gray gaze slid over her, seeming to size her up, lingering on her lips. She’d noticed his focus on her lips earlier, and his continued interest in her mouth left her feeling decidedly self-conscious. She’d never given her mouth much consideration, other than to slap on a bit of lipstick. Why did it intrigue him so? Curious, she studied his mouth in return.
His smooth lips weren’t too full but looked soft and skilled. No doubt Mr. August had plenty of practice kissing. The idea unsettled her, and she jerked her gaze away. She may have kissed him plenty of times in her calendar-driven fantasies, but she had no intention of tangling herself up with a man she knew so little about.
“Did Gram need surgery?” He shot her a worried glance.
Olivia nodded. “They operated yesterday, replaced her hip joint. I’m sorry you couldn’t be here then, but when I couldn’t reach you at home, I had a hard time tracking down the phone number for the right fire station.”
Looking away, Reyn pulled his broad shoulders back, leveling them as if squaring off to face a challenger. She watched him wipe his palms on his pants and fill his lungs with a deep breath as the elevator shuddered and creaked.
Was he nervous about visiting Lila? Or could his jitters have anything to do with his reason for staying away from Clairmont for so many years? She wanted to believe he had a good reason for his absence, that he wasn’t just selfish. Thanks to Billy, she’d had her fill of jerks and immature jocks. Lila deserved better too.
Olivia found it hard to reconcile the heroic firefighter, who risked his life to save others, with someone self-centered enough to ignore his family’s needs. Although Reyn arranged for Lila to visit him regularly in Georgia, he couldn’t seem to be bothered to come to Clairmont. Didn’t he know how lonely Lila got? Didn’t he care that his grandmother needed him? He was the only family Lila had left, and Olivia had been raised to believe family always came first. Family mattered most. No matter what.
Yet he was here now, despite his nerves, whatever their cause. That said a lot.
He glanced toward her. “Did you tell Gram I was coming?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t want her to be disappointed in case something happened and you couldn’t make it.”
His eyes darkened like the sky before a storm, and a muscle in his jaw jumped. “Like me backing out and not showing?”
She raised her chin defensively. “I didn’t say that.”
“But you thought it.”
When the elevator doors slid open with a ding, she stepped in front of him, blocking his path. “What I thought was that you might not be able to get away from the fire station, might not be able to find someone to work your shift on such short notice.”
His steely eyes drilled into her. “My grandmother will always come before work.”
She matched his hard look with one of her own. “Then why is this your first trip back to Clairmont in twenty years? Do you have any idea how much your grandmother misses you?”
Dark emotions flashed in his eyes. “My reasons are my business.”
He stepped around her and headed down the corridor toward Lila’s room. His defensiveness intrigued her. What nerve had she touched to set him off?
Clairmont has never been my home…even when I lived here. Maybe by the time he left town, she could root out some answers. For herself. For Lila.
She watched him stalk down the hall and wondered how he’d react when she told him about the papers she’d found in her father’s files. Apprehension tightened its grip on her stomach. She couldn’t help but wonder if Lila’s distress over the mysterious documents hadn’t contributed to her fall. Olivia had been distracted the past few days herself, wondering what the strange notes her father had made about Claire Erikson could mean for Reyn and Lila.
As she usually did when she thought of her father, she ran her fingers over the ladybug pendant dangling from a gold chain around her neck. It might not be fine jewelry, but to her, the necklace was priceless. The ladybug—her father’s pet name for her—had been his last gift to her before he died.
Merry Christmas, ladybug.
Then fifteen years later, during Olivia’s sophomore year in college, an aggressive tumor had claimed her mother. Her stepfather, Hank, had been left to raise Katy, barely one year old, by himself. Olivia had put college on hold and become Katy’s mother as well as her sister.
God, she missed her parents. As much as she cared for Hank, her parents’ deaths had stolen a piece of her soul.
She shook herself from her memories and had to jog to keep up with Reyn’s long-legged strides. When she knocked on Lila’s door, they received a weak, “Yes? Come in.”
Lila’s face registered shock, then sheer delight when she spotted her grandson. “Oh, Reyn, you sweet boy. What are you doing here?”
“Question is what are you doing here?” Reyn crossed to Lila’s bedside and leaned down to gently hug her. “I thought I asked you to give up bungee jumping. Now look at you.”
Olivia moved to the opposite side of the bed, noticing the tears welling in Lila’s eyes, despite her chuckle at his joke.
“I wish I could claim it was something as exciting as bungee jumping. No, it was a wrinkle in my throw rug that tripped me. Dratted thing.” Lila clung to her grandson’s broad shoulders and patted his back.
When Reyn pulled out of the hug and gazed down at his grandmother, the warmth and affection in his eyes stole Olivia’s breath. He took Lila’s hand and clasped it between his. The man that stood before her, greeting his grandmother, bore little resemblance to the stony, withdrawn man she’d ridden with in the car. More proof that Reyn Erikson was a complex and multi-faceted man. A man she wanted to learn more about.
“Olivia, dear, did you go and call my Reyn? You shouldn’t have done that. I’m fine.” She shook a finger at Olivia then turned back to her grandson with a satisfied sigh. “But I’m glad you did.”
“Tell you what, Gram. We’ll get rid of your rugs. I’ll put in wall-to-wall carpeting for you before you leave the hospital, if you want.”
She noticed that Lila had yet to release Reyn’s hand. Or vice versa. Olivia grinned. So the tough guy had a soft spot for his granny? Interesting. And encouraging. But puzzling too. Something didn’t add up.
“Oh, darling, you don’t need to do that. It’s just that I’m getting old. I’d trip over something else if not the rug.” Lila shook her head and patted Reyn’s hand.
“Old?” Reyn scoffed. “You don’t look a day older than thirty. In fact, the guys at the fire station all want to know when you’re coming back for another visit. You have several admirers in Georgia.”
He winked, and Lila hooted with laughter.
“I can still turn you over my knee for lying, young man.” She lightly touched the covers near her injured hip. “Well, maybe I can’t at the moment, but I’ll have Olivia tan your backside for me.”
Reyn’s gaze darted to Olivia’s, and his slate-gray eyes grew warm. “Promise?”
A lusty rasp deepened his voice, and prickly heat skittered over her skin as she held his gaze. She couldn’t help but conjure up the image of Reyn from the firemen’s calendar, the image that had starred in her sexual fantasies since she’d first seen it. In the photo, Reyn wore nothing but his bunker pants and suspenders. He stood beside a gushing fire hydrant while he poured water from his cupped hands onto his upturned face, down his hard chest, inside the loose bunker pants.
Olivia’s mouth went dry thinking about the picture, and she had to swallow hard before she could speak. “Hey, if Lila thinks you need a spanking, I’m perfectly willing to dole it out.”
In response, Reyn lifted one light brown eyebrow, just as he had at the church when she caught him staring. The gesture held a hint of mystery…and a lot of potential.
Her pulse raced at the prospect, while a nagging voice in her conscience reminded her what had happened the last time she’d fallen for a pretty face. In Billy’s case, beauty was indeed only skin deep.
To distract herself from the sensual track of her thoughts, Olivia reached in her purse and pulled out the hairbrush she’d brought from Lila’s house. She held it up for the woman to see. “Shall I?”
Lila patted her head. “Please, dear. I’m afraid I look a fright. Do you have a lipstick in there for me?”
“Absolutely. Plum Passion.”
“Wonderful,” Lila said with a sigh.
Reyn gave Olivia an inscrutable look before turning to his grandmother. “If you don’t want carpeting, is there something else around the house I can take care of while I’m here?”
Olivia pulled the brush through Lila’s fine white hair, coiling the thin wisps around her fingers and patting the curls in place. The older woman closed her eyes as she worked. Olivia waited for Lila to mention her father’s mysterious papers. Reyn had just given her the perfect opening, yet Lila said nothing.
“What about your medical care after you leave the hospital?” Reyn pressed. “I need to line up a physical therapist and perhaps a home health nurse to help you at first.”
“Don’t bother with the nurse. Olivia can help me.”
Reyn glanced up at Olivia and scowled.
“Unless I’m mistaken, Olivia’s not a nurse. I’m glad she’s been able to help you in the past, but now you’ll need—”
“I want Olivia. The nurse can show her what to do.” Lila peered up at her as if seeking confirmation and agreement.
“I’ll be glad to do what I can. You know I will, but I think Reyn is talking about—”
“Good. It’s settled.” Lila closed her eyes again and waved her hand to say Olivia should continue brushing her hair.
Reyn met Olivia’s gaze and shook his head, indicating nothing was settled. He silently watched Olivia brushing Lila’s hair with a peculiar knit in his brow. One by one, he bent his fingers down with his opposite hand until each knuckle popped. The nervous habit intrigued her. Clearly he loved his grandmother. So why did visiting her make him so anxious?
“There is something you can do for me while you’re home, Reyn.” Lila’s voice was little more than a whisper.
He stopped fidgeting and leaned forward. “What is it, Gram? You name it.”
Olivia held her breath and waited, her heart tapping an expectant rhythm.
“I’ve recently learned some things that concern me.” A sad, tired quality tinged Lila’s normally cheerful voice.
A glance at Reyn’s face confirmed that he heard the difference too. His thick eyebrows drew together, and his lips pressed in a thin, grim line. “What…kind of things?”
“Things about your mother’s death. About the fire. I won’t have any peace until I have answers—” The old woman’s voice cracked, and Olivia’s heart twisted.
She hated stirring up this worry for Lila, but what else could she have done with the troubling information she’d found?
Lila’s eyes fluttered open and held a blaze of purpose. Her gaze found her grandson’s and held. Olivia saw the color drain from Reyn’s face.
“Olivia was cleaning her attic the other day and found some old files in a box of her father’s things. He was the sheriff once, you know.”
Reyn’s gaze lifted to Olivia’s, suspicion narrowing his eyes.
“She showed me the files, because they mentioned the fire that killed your mother, my Claire. It seems he wasn’t satisfied with the coroner’s findings. He still had questions about Claire’s death. Things that were never mentioned to me.”
Reyn squeezed Lila’s hand. “What did the papers say?”
“Nothing concrete,” Olivia volunteered when Lila faltered. “Just lots of speculation and a handwritten note mentioning questions he had about the coroner’s report.”
Lila found her voice again. “I want you to find out everything you can about the fire that killed your mother, Reyn.” Lila raised a gnarled finger and aimed it at him to punctuate her point. “Ray Crenshaw had decided the facts didn’t add up, and I want to know why. I’m betting you’ll find that your mother’s death was no accident.”
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