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Authors: Rita Herron

A Breath Away

BOOK: A Breath Away
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The innocent victim of a childhood tragedy must turn to a sexy sheriff for protection in this classic tale from
USA TODAY
bestselling author Rita Herron…

Ever since Violet Baker's childhood companion was brutally murdered, she's been plagued with visions of the girl's last hours. Now, on the twentieth anniversary of Darlene's death, Violet's father is found dead, a note beside him confessing to the murder. But something doesn't
feel
right, and Violet returns to Crow's Landing looking for answers.

Facing the judgmental town as a murderer's daughter is difficult enough, but dealing with the scalding tension between her and Sheriff Grady Monroe, Darlene's half brother, is worse. As the two of them race to unravel the mystery, it quickly becomes clear that Violet is in grave danger...and Grady suddenly knows that he'll do anything to protect her, no matter what the cost...

Romantic Times
raves about Rita Herron!

HER EYEWITNESS

“Rita Herron will grab your attention.”

SAVING HIS SON

“4 stars! Romance and suspense prove an awesome combination…Rita Herron produces a prime intrigue.”

SILENT SURRENDER

“The beauty of [this book] is the wonderful chemistry between [hero and heroine] and the emotional growth we see when they're together.”

MEMORIES OF MEGAN

“[This] suspenseful tale will leave readers breathless with its unexpected twists and turns and characters caught up in a ruthless conspiracy.”

THE CRADLE MISSION

“An exciting and engaging read.”

MARRY ME, MADDIE

“An author to watch!”

RITA HERRON—CONDENSED BOOKLIST

The Heroes of Horseshoe Creek

Lock, Stock and McCullen

McCullen's Secret Son

Roping Ray McCullen

Warrior Son

Bucking Bronc Lodge

Certified Cowboy

Cowboy in the Extreme

Cowboy to the Max

Cowboy Cop

Native Cowboy

Ultimate Cowboy

Harlequin Intrigue

Cold Case at Camden Crossing

Cold Case at Carlton's Canyon

Cold Case at Cobra Creek

Cold Case in Cherokee Crossing

HQN Books

A Breath Away

In a Heartbeat

Last Kiss Goodbye

Say You Love Me

Don't Say a Word

A Breath Away
RITA HERRON

To:
Karen Solem for believing in this story,
Tracy Farrell and Kim Nadelson for bringing it to print,
Carmen, Stephanie, Jennifer and Jenni
for your constant support,
and to my husband, Lee, for lending his expertise
in medical research to the sinister plot!

PROLOGUE

Crow's Landing, Tennessee

“H
ELP ME
….”
Darlene's whispery plea echoed inside eight-year-old Violet Baker's head.
“Please…s-somebody…help me.”

Violet wrapped her arms around her teddy bear, Bobo, rocking back and forth on her bed. Even though the thunderstorm raged outside, she'd heard Darlene's terrified cries in her head all night. Poor Darlene hated storms.

A tree branch scraped the window, and lightning zigzagged across the black sky. Violet rubbed her fingers over her half of the Best Friends necklace Darlene had given her. Violet had a strange connection with Darlene. They'd had it since they were little. Probably because they were both motherless. Nobody in Crow's Landing knew about their connection, though. It had been their little secret.

Until Violet had told her daddy.

He'd spanked her. Said if she claimed she heard things in her head, the whole dang town would think she was as mad as old Miss Laudy. Old Miss Laudy had ended up in a crazy house.

“Nobody needs to know what goes on behind closed
doors,” her father had yelled. “And stay away from that family—them Monroes ain't nothin' but snobs.”

But Darlene Monroe wasn't a snob. When kids at school teased Violet about wearing Goodwill clothes and standing in the free-lunch line, Darlene yelled at them to shut up. Darlene told Violet secrets and invited her to her playhouse, where they had tea parties. And they dressed up in Darlene's mama's old ball dresses and pretended they were princesses.

“Violet, p…lease. I'm…sca…” The whisper faded, as if Darlene was growing weaker. She was shivering and wet. Cold. All the way to her bones. The smell of a dead animal turned Violet's stomach. There was muddy creek water. And blood.

She had to help Darlene!

She jumped off the bed and peered through the crack in the door. Grammy Baker sat in the old wooden chair in the den. Sheriff Tate stood beside her. His khaki uniform was splattered with mud. Darlene's father, a big man with a woolly beard, paced back and forth, tugging at his chin. Darlene's thirteen-year-old brother, Grady, stared at Violet's door, his dark eyes hard and cold. Accusing. Violet lurched back as if he'd burned her. Did he know about the connection she and Darlene shared?

If he did, he knew she'd told her daddy where to hunt for Darlene. Violet was trying to help. She loved Darlene. Darlene was her best friend in the whole wide world.

Or maybe Grady knew it was her fault Darlene was missing. If
she
hadn't begged Darlene to hurry over to see her new birthday bear, her friend wouldn't have set off by herself. She'd have waited for Grady….

“You didn't find her?” Violet's father asked.

The sheriff shook his head. “We checked the old
schoolhouse like you suggested, but weren't nothing there.”

Oh, no. She'd made a mistake. She'd thought Darlene was at the schoolhouse because that's where Darlene had
wanted
to be. Someplace safe.

But she wasn't safe.

Images flashed like photographs in Violet's mind. Dirty water gurgling. Copperheads and water moccasins slithering through the wet leaves. The smell of rotting wood. The well house out by Shanty Annie's. Violet and Darlene had played around it before the scary old woman had run them off. What if Grammy was right about that old haint Soap Sally, who lived in the well? What if Soap Sally had dragged Darlene down inside?

Violet twisted the knob again, her nails biting into the cold metal. But the door didn't budge.

Her daddy had locked her inside!

She swayed and clawed at the door until blood stained the wood. She felt Darlene's pain. Darlene's panic. Her lungs begging for air.

She was so cold and scared. She'd tried to be a big girl and not cry. But she couldn't help it. He didn't like her crying. He yelled at her to be quiet. Then he slapped her. She pressed a hand to her stinging cheek. He had big hands. And mean eyes. She wanted her mommy, but her mommy was dead….

Footsteps clattered as everyone went outside. Violet dragged herself to the window and tried to yell, but her throat closed. Someone was choking Darlene!

She had to stop him. Get the sheriff. But Grady, his father and the sheriff climbed into the police car and roared down the graveled drive.

“Stop!” Violet screamed.

They couldn't hear her. Mud and gravel spewed behind them. Violet collapsed on her knees on the wood floor, heaving for air. Her father wrenched open the door. She lunged forward, gasping. “Tell them, look at Shanty Annie's. T-tell them, Daddy. Soap Sally got her!”

Violet's father dragged her to her feet. “There ain't no such thing as Soap Sally. That's a stupid legend your grammy told you to keep you from the well. Now hush.” He shook her so hard her teeth rattled. Bobo skittered across the floor. “I told you not to go around talking crazy like this—it's evil that's got inside you. Pure evil.” He turned black eyes on her grammy. “Pack her things and get her out of here tonight. She can't stay here no more.”

Grammy nodded. Her hands jerked as she yanked open the bureau drawer. Then she stuffed handfuls of Violet's clothes in a duffel bag as if she feared the devil himself would swoop down and take Violet straight to hell.

Violet's daddy hauled her to the rusty Ford station wagon. She begged him to stop, but he shoved her inside and slammed the door.

Violet beat on the glass. “Daddy, please tell them Shanty Annie's. Save Darlene….”

But he walked away from her. Grammy climbed in, started the engine, then threw the car into gear and tore off. Violet pressed her face against the door, sobs racking her body. Rain pounded the hood and the wind howled, bowing trees and shrubs. The car bounced over a pothole, jarring her head against the window. The house disappeared from sight. Just as they rounded the corner near the sweet gum tree, the voices in Violet's head suddenly quieted.

Another image flashed there.

Darlene. Lying still on the ground. Dead leaves, soggy red clay beneath her. Rain splattered her colorless face. Her eyes were wide open in terror.

Cold. She was so cold. As if ice had frozen her veins.

A screeching sound echoed behind her—the whine of a harmonica.

No, a horrible sound. The whistle of wind blowing through something else. Something Violet didn't recognize. Maybe bone.

She doubled over and reached for Bobo. But she'd left him behind. She'd lost him, too. How could she go on?

Maybe her daddy was right. Maybe she was evil. Maybe that was the reason Darlene had been taken.

Tears gushed out and poured down Violet's face. She would never forgive herself or her father.

It was too late for Darlene….

CHAPTER ONE

Twenty Years Later

H
E HAD COME BACK
to get her. She heard the sound, breath against bone….

Violet bolted upright from a dead sleep and searched the darkness. She'd known this day would come. That he'd find her and kill her just as he had Darlene.

Shadows from the room clawed at her. A reedy, whistling sound rippled in her ears. What was it? An animal crying? No, it was lower, softer but sharp.

Almost like…like the sound she'd heard the night Darlene died.

Had the sound been in her dreams or was someone really outside this time?

She flicked on the fringed lamp, searching the room, angry that she still hadn't conquered her fear of the dark. Or storms. She had dreamed of Darlene's death a thousand times over the years. And that noise—she'd heard it before, too.

But never like this.

Not like it was right outside, coming nearer.

And this dream was different. In her earlier nightmares, Darlene had remained the same sweet, red-haired child. This time the victim had been a woman.
What did it mean? Was the evil back? Was it inside Violet?

Or was her subconscious aging Darlene so she could see what her friend might have looked like if she'd lived? Violet dropped her head into her hands. Or maybe her grief and guilt had finally robbed her senseless, and she'd lost her mind.

Outside, ocean waves crashed against the Savannah shore. The wind howled off the coast, rain splattering against the roof of the cottage she and her grandmother had rented a few months ago when they'd moved to Tybee Island.

The wind had seeped through the thin panes and weathered wood, causing the whistling sound. That was the logical explanation.

The
only
explanation.

Sweat-soaked and shaking, Violet tugged the quilt around her legs. The clock chimed midnight. The steady crashing of the waves faded into a hypnotic drone. But her heart pounded in her chest like ancient Indian war drums. The last time she'd had a psychic vision or heard voices in her head had been twenty years ago. The day her father had sent her away. The day her best friend had died.

It couldn't be happening again.

Although a few times in a crowded room she'd experienced strange sensations—odd snippets of a stranger's voice whispering in her head—she'd written them off as her overactive imagination. And on a date in Charleston, she'd sensed something dangerous about the man. It was almost as if she'd met him before. As if he'd known more about her than he was telling.

She tossed aside the covers and padded barefoot across the braided rug, then stared through the win
dowpane at the moonless night. Her fingers toyed with her half of the Best Friends necklace she had shared with Darlene. The rain and fog rolling off the shore obliterated the normally crystal images of the cove and the constellations. Ominous shadows tore at her self-control. It was almost as if someone was watching her.

As if the past had returned to haunt her.

No. Tomorrow marked the twentieth anniversary of Darlene's death. Thoughts of Darlene always dominated Violet's mind at this time of year. Like an obsession that grew stronger, the incessant guilt dogged her like a demon.

Yet as she looked into the inky sky, fear snaked through her and she sensed that it was only the beginning. That just as the tides changed in the ocean, they were about to change in her life.

Just like everything had changed that horrible day when she was eight years old, and she'd stood by and let her best friend die.

* * *

“A
RE YOU ALL RIGHT
this morning, dear?” With gnarled fingers Violet's grandmother gripped the coffee cup painted with magnolia blossoms, and slid into a kitchen chair. “You look tired.”

Violet shrugged, pushing away her half-eaten piece of dried toast. “I didn't sleep well.”

“Having nightmares again?”

She nodded, her gaze straying to the rain still drizzling in soft sheets onto the beach sand outside. “It's that time of year, I suppose.”

Sympathy lined her grandmother's face. “I know it's hard, Violet. Try not to dwell on the past, though.”

Violet nodded, resigned. She wouldn't upset her
grandmother by confessing about the voices. She was twenty-eight now, independent and strong. She'd even invested in a gift shop in downtown Savannah, Strictly Southern, determined to plant roots and build a life here. She'd save some money, buy this cabin and fix it up for herself and her grandmother. In fact, she'd already mapped out the first decorating plans: she'd paint the fading, chipped walls yellow; sew some frilly curtains; add a window seat by the bay window so she could bask in the sunlight there to read and draw.

And maybe she would finally escape the ghosts. “I'm going to the shop for a while. Do you need anything?”

Her grandmother pointed to the list on the butcher block counter. “Thanks, dear. I hate that I can't get about like I used to.”

“You're doing fine, Grammy.” Violet patted her hand, then scraped the dry toast into the trash, a twinge of anxiety pulling at her. The doctor had cautioned Violet about her grandmother's high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat. Occasionally she suffered memory lapses, and her arthritis was becoming more of a problem.

At one time, Violet had told her grandmother everything. Had shared her fears, all her nightmares, the bitter sense of loss that had eaten at her over the years when her father had never called or visited.

“Maybe you'll find a nice young man here in Savannah,” Grammy said with a teasing smile. “Get married, make me some great-grandbabies.”

“Maybe.” Violet feigned a smile for her grandmother's benefit, although she didn't foresee marriage or a man in her near future. If her own father hadn't
loved her, how could someone else? Besides, her failures with men were too many to count. The psychologist she'd finally spoken with about her phobia of the dark had suggested she was punishing herself for Darlene's death by denying her own happiness. So she had forced herself to accept a few dates.

But Donald Irving, the man in Charleston, had given her the creeps. When she'd refused to see him again, he started showing up at odd times, calling at all hours of the night. Then the hangup calls…

Her grandmother had become so distraught, Violet had finally agreed to move.

Violet had no plans for marriage or men. She had been a loner most of her life.

And she probably always would be.

“Oh, my goodness.” Her grandmother paled. “Did you see this, Violet?”

Violet leaned over her shoulder and stared at the newspaper, her stomach knotting at the headlines.

Twenty-five-year-old Woman from Savannah College of Art & Design Reported Missing. Police Suspect Foul Play.

* * *

G
RADY
M
ONROE STACKED
the files on his desk, wishing he could rearrange his attitude and life as easily. He traced a finger over the edge of Darlene's photo. She'd been so damn young and innocent, just a freckled-faced kid with a heart-shaped face, who'd liked everyone. And trusted them.

But she'd died a violent death.

He pressed the pencil down to scribble the date on the file, his gaze shooting to the desk calendar. The pencil point broke. The date stared back at him, daring
him to forget it, the red circle around the fifteenth a staunch reminder of the reason he couldn't.

The single reason he'd studied law himself. Only so far he had no clue as to who had committed the vile crime or how the killer had eluded the police for two decades. The police referred to it as a cold case—a dead file.

The file would never be shut until he found his half sister's killer.

Jamming the pencil in the electric sharpener, he mentally sorted through the recent cases on his desk. Crow's Landing had the usual small-town upheavals. Traffic citations. Domestic crimes. A complaint against a stray dog that might be rabid. Not like crime in the big cities. A man murdered in Nashville two days ago. A drive-by shooting in an apartment complex in Atlanta. And this morning, reports of a woman missing in Savannah.

As if to mock him, the phone trilled. “Sheriff Monroe here.”

“Sheriff, this is Beula Simms.”

Oh, Lord. What now?

“Get out to Jed Baker's house right away. Your daddy and Jed's at it again.”

She didn't have to say at what; Jed and Grady's father had hated each other for years. “I'll be right there.” He hung up and snagged the keys to his patrol car. A headache pounded at his skull, the painkillers he'd managed to swallow barely touching the incessant throbbing. He should have left off the tequila the night before, but the approaching anniversary of his half sister's death always brought out his dark side, the destructive one.

And now this call.

Five minutes later, he screeched up the graveled drive
to Baker's clapboard house. His father and Baker were yelling at each other on the sagging front porch. Grady opened the squad car door and climbed out, although both men seemed oblivious that he'd arrived.

“You should have left town a long time ago.” His father waved a fist at Jed.

“I did what I had to do and so did you,” Jed yelled.

Grady's father raised a Scotch bottle and downed another swallow, staggering backward and nearly falling off the porch. “But if we'd done things differently, my little girl might be alive. And so would my Teresa.”

“I know the guilt's eatin' at you, Walt.” Jed ran his hand through his sweaty, thinning hair. “We'll both be burning in hell for keeping quiet.”

“Hell, I've been living there for years.”

“But you don't get it—someone's been asking around.” Jed's voice sounded raw with panic. “Claims he's a reporter.”

His father coughed. “You didn't tell him anything, did you?”

“Hell, no, but I don't like him asking questions. What are we gonna do?”

“Keep your goddamn mouth shut, that's what.”

“I ain't the one who wanted to blab years ago. And what if he gets to Violet?”

“It's always about
her.
What about what I lost?” Walt lunged at Jed, ripping his plaid shirt and dragging them both to the floor. Jed fought back, and they tumbled down the stairs, wood splintering beneath them, before they crashed to the dirt.

The late evening heat blistered his back as Grady strode over to them. “Get up, Dad.” He yanked his fa
ther off Jed, and the other man rolled away, spitting out dry dirt and brittle grass.

Walt swung a fist at his son. “Leave us alone!”

Grady grabbed him by both arms and tried to shake some sense into him. “For God's sake, Dad, do you want me to haul your ass to jail for the night?”

Jed swiped a handkerchief across his bloody nose and climbed onto the lowest step. Grady's father wobbled backward, a trickle of blood seeping from his dust-coated lower lip.

Grady jerked a finger toward his vehicle. “Get in the damn car before I handcuff you.”

His father muttered an obscenity as Grady shoved him into the back seat. He slammed the door and glared at Baker. “Are you all right?

Jed merely grunted.

“You want to press charges?”

“No.”

Grady narrowed his eyes, wondering why Baker would allow his dad to assault him and get away with it. But as usual when the two men fought, neither Jed nor his father offered an explanation. Although this time the conversation had triggered more questions than usual.

It was senseless to ask, though. Something had happened years ago that had caused a permanent rift between the men. Something they refused to talk about.

Judging from their conversation, it had to do with Darlene.

And sooner or later, Grady was going to find out exactly what it was. Then maybe he'd figure out who had killed his sister.

* * *

A
FEW MINUTES LATER
, he pulled up to his dad's house. The Georgian style two-story had once been impress
ive, almost stately with its front columns, but had deteriorated in the past twenty years from lack of upkeep. Paint peeled from the weathered boards, shingles had blown off the roof in the recent storm, and the columns needing painting. A sad testament to his father's life. “You'd better stay put tonight, Dad,” Grady ordered.

His father staggered toward the den, his face ruddy with rage. “You should have left us alone.”

“Sleep it off, Dad.” Grady slammed the door and jogged to his car. Dammit, just as he'd expected, his father had clammed up, refusing to talk about his fight with Baker or offer an explanation.

His nerves shot, Grady reached for a cigarette, then remembered he'd quit smoking for the dozenth time this year. Rummaging through the papers littering the console, he grabbed a piece of Juicy Fruit gum and shoved it in his mouth instead. The shortest span without his Marlboros had been six days. The longest, six months.

He automatically veered toward the graveyard beside Crow's Landing Church, the daisies he'd bought for his little sister's grave a reminder of the reason he'd started smoking in the first place.

Darlene's death.

Everything in his life could somehow be related to that one crucial event. And the fact that her killer had never been caught.

Twenty years ago today she had been kidnapped. Twenty years ago tomorrow, they had found her dead. He knew his father was in pain. Hell, so was he. Grady had lost his entire family that day.

He'd never forgive himself for it, either.

If only he hadn't stopped to hang out with the boys…If he'd come straight home to watch Darlene, she
wouldn't have set off across the hollow by herself to see that little friend of hers, Violet. And she wouldn't be dead.

The small graveyard loomed ahead, shadows of tombstones darkening with age. Some graves were littered with debris, others better tended, a few decorated with artificial flowers. The dank air and smell of freshly turned dirt from a new grave enveloped Grady as he forced his rubbery legs to carry him through the aisles of cement landmarks. It was almost midnight, the day of mourning upon him.

BOOK: A Breath Away
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