Who wants Rachel Davenport dead?
Seth Hammond won't stop until he gets answers. Tapped by the FBI to find out who's targeting the heiress gives the former Tennessee bad boy the chance to atone for his past sins. But it's his future he's worried about when Seth finds himself falling for Rachel who's in graver danger than anyone in their small mountain town of Bitterwood realizes.
Ever since she was named CEO of her family business, strange things have been happeningterrifying incidents that could be tied to Rachel's violence-shadowed past. Seth's the only one who doesn't think she's losing her mind. Her intense, rough-around-the-edges protector has blindsided her with his passion. But Rachel also believes in Sethbelieves he's a good man looking for redemption and possibly love?
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Rachel Davenport knew she was being watched, and she hated it, though the gazes directed her way that cool October morning appeared kind and full of sympathy. Only a few of her fellow mourners knew the full truth about why she'd disappeared for almost a year after her mother's sudden death fifteen years ago, but that didn't change the self-consciousness descending over her like a pall.
She locked her spine and lifted her head, refusing to give anyone reason to doubt her strength. She'd survived so far and didn't intend to fall apart now. She wasn't going to give anyone a show.
"It's a lovely gathering, isn't it?" Diane, her father's wife of the past eight years, dabbed her eyes with a delicate lace-rimmed handkerchief. "So many people."
"Yes," Rachel agreed, feeling a stab of shame. She wasn't the only person who'd lost someone she loved. Diane might be flighty and benignly self-absorbed, but she'd made George Davenport's last days happy ones. He'd loved Diane dearly and indulged her happily, and she'd been nothing but a caring, cheerful and devoted wife in his dying days. Even if Rachel had resented the other woman in her father's lifeand she hadn'tshe would have loved Diane for giving her father joy for the past eight years.
"I sometimes forget that he touched so many lives. With me he was just Georgie. Not the businessman, you know? Just a sweet, sweet man who liked to garden and sing to me at night." Fresh tears trickled from Diane's eyes. She blotted them away with the handkerchief, saved from a streaky face by good waterproof mascara. She lifted her red-rimmed eyes to Rachel. "I'm going to miss the hell out of that man."
Rachel gave her a swift, fierce hug. "So am I."
The preacher took his place at the side of the casket and spoke the scripture verses her father had chosen, hopeful words from the book of Ephesians, her father's favorite. Rachel wanted to find comfort in them, but a shroud of loss seemed to smother her whole.
She couldn't remember ever feeling quite so alone. Her father had been her rock for as long as she could remember, and now he was gone. There was her uncle Rafe, of course, but he lived two hours away and spent much of his time on the road looking for new acts for his music hall.
And as much as she liked and appreciated Diane, they had too little in common to be true friends, much less family. Nor did she really consider her stepbrother, Diane's son, Paul, anything more than a casual friend, though they'd become closer since she'd quit her job with the Maryville Public Library to take over as office manager for her father's trucking company.
She sometimes wondered why her father hadn't ceded control of the business to Paul instead of her. He'd worked at Davenport Trucking for over a decade. Her father had met Diane through her son, not the other way around. He had been assistant operations manager for several years now and knew the business about as well as anyone else.
Far better than she did, even though she'd learned a lot in the past year.
She watched her stepbrother edge closer to the casket. As his lips began moving, as if he was speaking to the man encased in shiny oak and satin, a dark-clad figure a few yards behind him snagged Rachel's attention. He was lean and composed, dressed in a suit that fit him well enough but seemed completely at odds with his slightly spiky dark hair and feral looks. A pair of dark sunglasses obscured his eyes but not the belligerently square jaw and high cheekbones.
It was Seth Hammond, one of the mechanics from the trucking company. Other Davenport Trucking employees had attended the funeral, of course, so she wasn't sure why she was surprised to see Seth here. Except he'd never been close to her father, or to anyone else at the company for that matter. She'd always figured him for a loner.
As her gaze started to slide away from him, he lifted the glasses up on his head, and his eyes snapped up to meet hers.
A zapping sensation jolted through her chest, stopping her cold. His gaze locked with hers, daring her to look away. The air in her lungs froze, then burned until she forced it out in a deep, shaky sigh.
He looked away, and she felt as if someone had cut all the strings holding her upright. Her knees wobbled, and she gripped Diane's arm.
"What is it?" Diane asked softly.
Rachel closed her eyes for a moment to regain her sense of equilibrium, then looked up at the man again.
But he was gone.
"I don't know. She looks okay, I guess." From his parking spot near the edge of the cemetery, Seth Hammond kept an eye on Rachel Davenport. The cemetery workers had lowered the oak casket into the gaping grave nearly twenty minutes ago, and most of the gathered mourners had dispersed, leaving the immediate family to say their final private goodbyes to George Davenport.
"It's not a coincidence that everyone around her is gone." The deep voice rumbling through the cell phone receiver like an annoying fly in Seth's ear belonged to Adam Brand, FBI special agent in charge. Seth had no idea why the D.C.-based federal agent was so interested in a trucking company heiress from the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, but Brand paid well, and Seth wasn't in a position to say no to an honest job.
The only alternative was a dishonest job, and while he'd once been damned good at dishonesty, he'd found little satisfaction in those endeavors. It was a curse, he supposed, when the thing you could do the best was something that sucked the soul right out of you.
"I agree. It's not a coincidence." Seth's viewpoint from the car several yards away wasn't ideal, but the last thing a man with his reputation needed was to be spotted watching a woman through binoculars. So he had to make do with body language rather than facial expressions to get a sense of what Rachel Davenport was thinking and feeling. Grief, obviously. It covered her like morning fog in the Smokies, deceptively ephemeral. She stood straight, her chin high, her movements composed and measured. But he had a strong feeling that the slightest nudge would send her crumbling into ruins.
Everyone was gone now. Her mother by her own hand fifteen years ago, her father by cancer three days ago. No brothers or sisters, save for her stepbrother, Paul, and it wasn't like they'd grown up together as real siblings the way Seth and his sister had.
"Have you seen Delilah recently?" Brand asked with his usual uncanny way of knowing the paths Seth's mind was traveling at any given moment.
"Ran into her at Ledbetter's Cafe over the weekend," Seth answered. He left it at that. He wasn't going to gossip about his sister.
Brand had never said, and Seth had never asked, why he didn't just call up Delilah himself if he wanted to know how she was doing. Seth assumed things had gone sideways between them at some point. Probably why Dee had left the FBI years ago and eventually gone to work for Cooper Security. At the time, Seth had felt relieved by his sister's choice, well aware of the risk that, sooner or later, his sister's job and his own less savory choice of occupations might collide.
Of course, now that he'd found his way onto the straight and narrow, she was having trouble believing in the new, improved Seth Hammond.
"I got some good snaps of the funeral-goers, I think. I'll check them out when I get a chance." A hard thud on the passenger window made him jerk. He looked up to find Delilah's sharp brown eyes burning holes into the glass window separating them. "Gotta go," he said to Brand and hung up, shoving the cell phone into his pocket. He slanted a quick look at the backseat to make sure he'd concealed the surveillance glasses he'd been using to take images of the funeral. They were safely hidden in his gym bag on the floorboard.
With a silent sigh, he lowered the passenger window.
"What are you doin' here?" His sister had been back in Tennessee for two weeks and already she'd shed her citified accent for the hard Appalachian twang of her childhood. "Up to somethin'?"
Her suspicious tone poked at his defensive side. "I was attending my boss's funeral."
"Funeral's over, and yet here you are." Delilah looked over the top of the car toward the Davenport family. "You thinking of conning a poor, grieving heiress out of her daddy's money?"
"I'm serious as a heart attack." Her voice rose slightly, making him wince.
He glanced at the Davenport family, wondering if they had heard. "You're making a scene, Dee."
"Hammonds are good at making scenes, Seth. You know that." Delilah reached into the open window, unlatched the car door and pulled it open, sliding into the passenger seat. "Better?"
"You ran into Mama, did you?" he asked drily, not missing the bleak expression in her dark eyes.
"The Bitterwood P.D. called me to come pick her up or they were throwing her in the drunk tank." Delilah grimaced. "Who the hell told them I was back in town, anyway?"
"Sugar, there ain't no lyin' low in Bitterwood. Too damned small and too damned nosy." Unlike his sister, he'd never really left the hills, though he'd kept clear of Bitterwood for a few years to let the dust settle. If not for Cleve Calhoun's stroke five years ago, he might never have come back. But Cleve had needed him, and Seth had found a bittersweet sort of satisfaction in trying to live clean in the place where he'd first learned the taste of iniquity.
He sneaked a glance at George Davenport's grave. The family had dispersed, Paul Bailey and his mother, Diane, walking arm in arm toward Paul's car, while Rachel headed slowly across the cemetery toward another grave nearby. Marjorie Kenner's, if he remembered correctly. Mark Bramlett's last victim.
"I know vulnerable marks are your catnip," Delilah drawled, "but can't you let the girl have a few days of unmolested grief before you bilk her out of her millions?"
"You have such a high opinion of me," he murmured, dragging his gaze away from Rachel's stiffened spine.
"Well-earned, darlin'," she answered, just as quietly.
"I don't suppose it would do any good to tell you I don't do that sort of thing anymore?"
"Yeah, and Mama swore she'd drunk her last, too, as I was puttin' her ginned-up backside to bed." Bitter resignation edged her voice.
Oh, Dee, he thought. People keep lettin'you down, don't they?
"Tell me you're not up to something."
"I'm done with that life, Dee. I've been done with it a few years now."
Her wary but hopeful look made his heart hurt. "I left the truck over on the other side of the cemetery. Why don't you drive me over there?"
He spared one more glance at Rachel Davenport, wondering how much longer she'd be able to remain upright. Someone had been working overtime the past few weeks, making sure she'd come tumbling down sooner or later.
The question was, why?
"I didn't get to talk to you at the service."
Rachel's nervous system jolted at the sound of a familiar voice a few feet away. She turned from Marjo-rie's grave to look into a pair of concerned brown eyes.
Davis Rogers hadn't changed a bit since their breakup five years ago. With his clean-cut good looks and effortless poise, he'd always come across as a confident, successful lawyer, even when he was still in law school at the University of Virginia.
She'd been sucked in by that easy self-composure, such a contrast to her own lack of confidence. It had been so easy to bask in his reflected successes.
For a while at least.
Then she'd found her own feet and realized his allencompassing influence over her life had become less a shelter and more a shackle.
Easy lesson to forget on a day like today, she thought, battered by the familiar urge to enclose herself in his arms and let him make the rest of the world go away. She straightened her spine and resisted the temptation. "I didn't realize you'd even heard about my father."
"It made the papers in Raleigh. I wanted to pay my respects and see how you were holding up." He brushed a piece of hair away from her face. "How are you holding up?"
"I'm fine." His touch left her feeling little more than mild comfort. "I'm sad," she added at his skeptical look. "And I'll be sad for a while. But I'm okay."
It wasn't a lie. She was going to be okay. Despite her crushing sense of grief, she felt confident she wasn't in danger of losing herself.
"Maybe what you need is to get out and get your mind off things." Davis cupped her elbow with his large hand. "The clerk at the bed-and-breakfast where I'm staying suggested a great bar near the university in Knoxville where we can listen to college bands and relive our misspent youth. What do you say, Rach? It'll be like Char-lottesville all over again."
She grimaced. "I never really liked those bars, you know. I just went because you liked them."
His expression of surprise was almost comical. "You didn't?"
"I'm a Tennessee girl. I liked country music and blue-grass," she said with a smile.
He looked mildly horrified, but he managed to smile. "I'm sure we can find a honky-tonk in Knoxville."
"There's a little place here in Bitterwood we could go. They have a house bluegrass band and really good loaded potato skins." After the past few months of watching her father dying one painful inch at a time, maybe what she needed was to indulge herself. Get her mind off her losses, if only for a little while.
And why not go with Davis? She wasn't still in love with him, but she'd always liked and trusted him. It was safer than going alone. The man who'd killed four of her friends might be dead and gone, but the world was still full of danger. A woman alone had to be careful.
And she was alone, she knew, bleakness seeping into her momentary optimism.
So very alone.
For the first time in years, Seth Hammond had a place to himself. It wasn't much to talk about, a ramshackle bungalow halfway up Smoky Ridge, but for the next few weeks, he wouldn't have to share it with anyone else. The house's owner, Cleve Calhoun, was in Knoxville for therapy to help him regain some of the faculties he'd lost to a stroke five years ago.
By seven o'clock, Seth had decided that alone time wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Even if the satellite reception wasn't terrible, there wasn't much on TV worth watching these days. The Vols game wasn't until Saturday, and with the Braves out of play-off contention, there wasn't much point in watching baseball, either.
He'd already gone through the photos from the funeral he'd taken with his high-tech camera glasses, but as far as he could tell, there was nobody stalking Rachel Davenport at the funeral except himself. He supposed he could go through the photos one more time, but he'd seen enough of Rachel's grief for one day. He'd uploaded the images to the FTP site Adam Brand had given him. Maybe the FBI agent would have better luck than he had. Brand, after all, at least knew what it was he was looking for.
He certainly hadn't bothered to let Seth in on the secret.