Cold Case in Cherokee Crossing

BOOK: Cold Case in Cherokee Crossing
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A decades-old cold case is testing everything one Texas Ranger thought he knew about obtaining justice…

A lot of men on death row profess their innocence. Those men are mostly just scared of dying. Jaxon Ward understands that, but as a Texas Ranger he needs to uphold the law. Yet the story Avery Tierney tells him… He’s convinced her brother is awaiting execution while the real killer remains at large.

Searching for the murderer opens old wounds for Avery, and now she has to face a past so traumatic she blocked it out. A past not so dissimilar to Jax’s. Before long, the only comfort they find is in each other’s arms. Avery’s lost everything once before. And now, if she loses Jaxon, she fears she’ll never recover.

“Send her in.”

Nothing Jaxon had read in the file prepared him for the beautiful woman who stepped inside. Avery Tierney had been a skinny, homely looking kid with scraggly, dirty brown hair and freckles, wearing hand-me-downs. She'd looked lost, alone and frightened.

This Avery was petite with chocolate-brown eyes that would melt a man's heart and curves that twisted his gut into a knot.

Although fear still lingered in those eyes. The kind of fear that made a man want to drag her in his arms and promise her everything would be all right.

“You have to help me stop the execution and get my brother released from prison,” Avery said, her voice urgent.

“Why would I do that, Miss Tierney?”

A pained sound ripped from Avery Tierney's throat. “Because he's innocent.”

COLD CASE IN
CHEROKEE
CROSSING

Rita Herron

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Award-winning author Rita Herron wrote her first book when she was twelve, but didn’t think real people grew up to be writers. Now she writes so she doesn’t have to get a
real
job. A former kindergarten teacher and workshop leader, she traded storytelling to kids for writing romance, and now she writes romantic comedies and romantic suspense. She lives in Georgia with her own romance hero and three kids. She loves to hear from readers, so please write her at PO Box 921225, Norcross, GA 30092-1225, or visit her website,
www.ritaherron.com
.

Books by Rita Herron

HARLEQUIN INTRIGUE

861—MYSTERIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES+
892—VOWS OF VENGEANCE+
918—RETURN TO FALCON RIDGE
939—LOOK-ALIKE+
957—FORCE OF THE FALCON
977—JUSTICE FOR A RANGER
1006—ANYTHING FOR HIS SON
1029—UP IN FLAMES+
1043—UNDER HIS SKIN+
1063—IN THE FLESH+
1081—BENEATH THE BADGE
1097—SILENT NIGHT SANCTUARY$$
1115—PLATINUM COWBOY
1132—COLLECTING EVIDENCE
1159—PEEK-A-BOO PROTECTOR
1174—HIS SECRET CHRISTMAS BABY$$
1192—RAWHIDE RANGER
1218—UNBREAKABLE BOND$$
1251—BRANDISHING A CROWN
1284—THE MISSING TWIN%
1290—HER STOLEN SON%
1323—CERTIFIED COWBOY**
1329—COWBOY IN THE EXTREME**
1336—COWBOY TO THE MAX**
1390—COWBOY COP**
1396—NATIVE COWBOY**
1401—ULTIMATE COWBOY**
1407—COVER ME “Bayou Jeopardy”
1463—COLD CASE AT CAMDEN CROSSING
1468—COLD CASE AT CARLTON’S CANYON
1531—COLD CASE AT COBRA CREEK
1535—COLD CASE IN CHEROKEE CROSSING

+Nighthawk Island
$$Guardian Angel Investigations
%Guardian Angel Investigations: Lost and Found
**Bucking Bronc Lodge

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Sergeant Jaxon Ward—
He’s supposed to make sure Hank Tierney’s execution is on track—but once he meets Hank’s sister, Avery, he wants to prove Hank’s innocence.

Avery Tierney—
She testified against her brother years ago for the murder of her foster father, Wade Mulligan. Now she must save him from death row.

Hank Tierney—
He’s spent his life in prison for murder. But now he claims he’s innocent.

Roth Tierney—
Avery and Hank’s father was incarcerated for murder. Did he try to save his children by killing Wade Mulligan?

Joleen Mulligan—
Wade’s wife was scared of her husband. Did she kill him out of fear?

Director Landers—
He worked the case when Hank was arrested. Is he hiding something?

DA William Snyderman—
He was the ADA during Hank’s trial. Does he know more than he’s telling?

Erma Brant and Delia Hanover—
The social workers who worked with the Mulligans. Did either of them know that Wade Mulligan was abusive?

Shane Fowler, Lois Thacker, BJ & Imogene Wilson—
Other foster children who were abused by the Mulligans. Did one of them kill Wade and let Hank take the fall?

To my beautiful daughters who, as counselors,
are the real heroes.

Love you, Mom

Prologue

Blood splattered the wood floor and walls. So much blood.

A scream lodged in nine-year-old Avery Tierney's throat. Her foster father, Wade Mulligan, lay on the floor. Limp. Helpless. Bleeding.

His eyes were bulging. The whites milky looking. His lips blue. His shirt torn from dozens of knife wounds.

The room was cold. The wind whistled through the old house like a ghost. Windowpanes rattled. The floor squeaked.

Horror made her shake all over.

Then relief.

That mean old bully could never hurt her again. Never come into her bedroom. Never whisper vile things in her ear.

Never make her do
those
things....

A noise sounded. She dragged her eyes from the bloody mess, then looked up. Her brother, Hank, stood beside the body.

A knife in his hand.

He grunted, raised the knife and stabbed Wade again. Wade's body jerked. Hank did it again. Over and over.

Blood dripped from the handle and blade. More soaked his shirt. His hands were covered....

His eyes looked wild. Excited. Full of rage.

She opened her mouth to scream again, but Hank lifted his finger to his lips and whispered, “Shh.”

Avery nodded, although she thought she might get sick. She wanted him to stop.

She wanted him to stab Wade again. To make sure he was dead.

A siren wailed outside. Blue lights suddenly twirled, shining through the front window.

Hank jerked his head around, eyes flashing with fear.

Then the door crashed open and two policemen stormed in.

Hank dropped the knife to the floor with a clatter and tried to run. The bigger cop caught him around the waist.

“Let me go! Stop it!” Hank bellowed.

The skinny cop moved toward her. Then he knelt and felt Wade's neck. A second later, he looked at his partner and shook his head. “Dead.”

The cop turned to her with a frown. “What happened?”

“Don't say anything!” Hank yelled.

Avery's cry caught in her throat. She didn't know what to do. What to say. She'd seen the knife in Hank's hand. Seen him stabbing Wade over and over.

Something niggled at the back of her mind. Something that had happened. Wade had come into her room.... She'd heard a noise....

“Where's your mother?” the policeman asked.

She didn't know that, either. The foster homes had been her life.

“Stop fighting me, kid.” The big cop shoved Hank up against the wall, pushed his knee in Hank's back, then jerked his arms behind him.

Tears blurred Avery's eyes as he handcuffed her brother.

“It'll be okay, sis,” Hank shouted.

Avery let out a sob. Hank was all she had.

What were they going to do to him? Would they take him to jail?

If they did, what would happen to her?

Chapter One

Twenty years later

“Thirty-four-year-old Hank Tierney is scheduled for execution in just a few days. Protestors against the death penalty have begun to rally, but due to Tierney’s confession, his appeals have been denied.”

Avery stared at the local television news in Cherokee Crossing, her heart in her throat as images from the past assaulted her.

Hank holding the bloody knife, Hank repeatedly stabbing Wade Mulligan...

Her doing nothing... She’d been in shock. Traumatized, the therapist had said. Dr. Weingarten had tried to protect her from the press. Had sat with her during the grueling forensic police interviews. Had tried to get her placed in a safe, stable home.

But nobody wanted Hank Tierney’s sister.

Especially knowing their father was also in prison for murder.

That fact had worked against Hank. The assistant D.A. at the time had argued that Hank was genetically predisposed to violence. The altercations between him and their foster parents hadn’t helped his case.

A couple of the neighbors had witnessed Hank lashing out at Wade when Wade had reprimanded him.

Wade’s wife, Joleen, their foster mother at the time, had testified that Hank was troubled, angry, rebellious, even mean. That she’d been afraid of him for months.

Avery had been too confused to stand up for him.

But she’d secretly been relieved that Wade was dead.

And too ashamed of what the man had done to her to speak out.

“Hank Tierney was only fourteen at the time he stabbed Wade Mulligan. But due to the maliciousness of the crime, he was tried as an adult and has spent the past twenty years on death row. His sister, Avery, who was nine when the murder occurred and the sole witness of the crime, has refused interviews.”

The nightmares that had been haunting Avery made her shiver. Hank’s arrest and the publicity surrounding it had dogged her all her life, affecting every relationship she’d ever had.

Just as Wade’s abuse had.

She was shy around men, reluctant to trust. Cautious about letting anyone in her life because once they heard her story, they usually ran.

A photo of Hank at fourteen, the day of the arrest, flashed on the screen, then a photo of him now. He was thirty-four. Not a teenager but a man.

His once thin, freckled face had filled out; his nose was crooked as if it had been broken. And he’d beefed up, added muscles to his lanky frame.

There were scars on his face that hadn’t been there before, a long jagged one along his temple. But the scars in his eyes were the ones that made her lungs strain for air.

Still, he was that young boy who’d stepped in front of her and taken blows for her when Wade was drinking. Who’d sneaked her food when Wade was on one of his rampages and she was hiding in the shed out back to escape his wrath.

Hank had spent his life in jail for what he’d done. For taking away the monster who’d made her young life hell.

She should have told.

Although the therapist had assured her it wouldn’t have mattered, that the number of stab wounds alone indicated Hank suffered from extreme rage and was a danger to society.

But Hank had killed Wade in self-defense. And Wade had deserved to die.

Still, her brother would be put to death in just a few days. It wasn’t fair.

She looked outside the window at the dusty road and woods. The prison was only an hour from Cherokee Crossing. Subconsciously she must have chosen to settle back here because she’d be close to Hank.

Or maybe because she’d needed to confront her demons so she could move on.

Just like she had to see Hank before he died and thank him for saving her life.

* * *

T
EXAS
R
ANGER
J
AXON
W
ARD
took a seat in the office of Director Landers, his nerves on edge. He’d just gotten off a case and his adrenaline was still running high. Beating the suspect the way he had done could get him kicked off the job.

Hell, he didn’t care.

He was ready to hang up his badge anyway. Maybe open his own P.I. agency. Then he wouldn’t have to play by the rules.

“You asked to see me?”

“Yes, I’ve decided to grant your request to work the domestic-violence team.”

Jaxon tried not to react. The director knew his background, that he’d grown up in the system and that domestic violence was personal for him.

In fact, it had been a strike against him. The director had expressed concerns that Jaxon might allow his own experiences, and his anger, to cloud his judgment, and that he’d end up taking his personal feelings out on the alleged abusers.

The director had good reason to worry.

Today was the perfect example. When he’d seen Horace Mumford go after his kid with a wood board, Jaxon had taken the board to him.

“Thank you, sir.” Jaxon stood, waiting on the reprimand.

But it never came. Instead the director cleared his throat. “Your first assignment is to make sure the Tierney execution goes forward.”

Jaxon frowned. “I didn’t realize there was a problem.”

Director Landers ran a hand over his balding head. “Some young do-gooder attorney wanting to make a name for herself is trying to get a stay and a retrial.”

Jaxon had seen the recent protests against the execution in the news. Not unusual with death row cases.

“Go talk to Tierney. Make sure everything stays on track.”

Jaxon’s gut tightened with an uneasy feeling. “Why the interest?” According to the news, the guy was only a teenager when he murdered his foster father. And he’d been railroaded into a confession.

“Because that case was one of the first ones I worked when I was a young cop. It built my career.”

Now Jaxon understood. The director was worried about his damn job, not whether or not a man was innocent.

“Wipe that scowl off your face. I didn’t screw up. Hank Tierney was as guilty as his father was of murder,” Director Landers said. “The kid was caught with the bloody knife in hand, blood splattered all over him. Hell, even his sister said he stabbed Mulligan.”

“Fine. I’ll go talk to him myself.” He’d also ask about his motive. He didn’t remember that being reported, only that the police thought the kid was violent and dangerous.

Director Landers gave him a warning look. “Listen, Ward, I know your history, so don’t go making this kid out to be some hero or I’ll can your ass. Your job is to make sure that case does not go back for a retrial. If it does, it could affect all the cases I worked after that.”

That would be a nightmare.

Still, Jaxon silently cursed as he walked out of the office. Was this some kind of test to see if he followed orders?

Or did Landers just want to make sure nothing happened to tarnish his reputation?

* * *

A
VERY
SHIVERED
AT
the stark gray walls of the prison as the guard led her to a private visitors’ room. Apparently the warden had arranged for them to actually be in the room together versus being divided by a Plexiglas wall.

Because she was saying a final goodbye to her brother.

She twisted her hands together as she sank into the metal chair, guilt making her stomach cramp.

She should have visited Hank before now. Should have come and thanked him for that night. Should have made sure he was all right.

The door closed, locking her in the room, and her vision blurred. Suddenly she was back there in that cold room at the Mulligan house. Lying in the metal bed with the ratty blanket...

Joleen was gone. She’d left earlier that day to take care of her mama. Avery knew it was going to be a bad night. Wade had started with the booze as soon as he’d come home from his job at the garage.

She clutched the covers and stared at the spider spinning a web on the windowpane. Rain pounded on the tin roof. Wind whistled through the eaves, rattling the glass.

“Get in there, boy.”

“Don’t tie me up tonight,” Hank shouted. “And leave Avery alone.”

Avery fought a scream. She wanted to lock the door, but she’d done that before, and it hadn’t stopped him. It only made him madder. He’d broken it down with a hatchet and threatened to kill her if she locked it again.

Something slammed against the wall. Wade punching Hank. Grunts followed. Hank was fighting Wade, but Wade would win. He always won.

Footsteps shuffled a minute later, coming closer to her room. Hank shouted Wade’s name, cussing him and calling him sick names.

She bit her tongue until she tasted blood. The door screeched open.

Wade’s hulking shadow filled the doorway. She could smell the sweat and beer and grease from the shop. His breathing got faster.

He started toward her, and she closed her eyes. She had to go somewhere in her mind, someplace safe where she couldn’t feel him touching her.

Then everything went black....

The sound of keys jangling outside the prison door startled her back to reality. The door screeched open, a guard appeared, one hand on the arm of the man shackled and chained beside him.

Hank. God... Her heart stuttered, tears filling her eyes. She remembered him as a young boy—choppy sandy blond hair, skinny legs, eyes too hard for his age, mouth always an angry line.

But he was a man now, six feet tall with muscles. His eyes were cold and hard, his face and arms scarred from prison life. He was even angrier, too, his jaw locked, a vein pulsing in his neck.

He shuffled over to the chair, pulled it out, handcuffs rattling as he sank into it. The guard stepped to the door, folded his arms and kept watch.

She waited on Hank to look at her, and when he did, animosity filled the air between them. He hated her for not visiting.

She hated herself.

A deep sense of grief nearly overwhelmed her, and she wanted to cry for the years they’d lost. She’d spent so much of her life struggling against the gossip people had directed toward her because of her father’s arrest, and then Hank’s, that she hadn’t thought about how he was suffering.

For what seemed like an eternity, he simply stared at her, studying her as if she were a stranger. He shifted, restless, and guilt ate at her.

“You came,” he finally said in a flat voice. “I didn’t think you would.”

The acceptance in his tone tore at her. Maybe he didn’t blame her, but he was still hurt. “I’m sorry I didn’t visit you before. I should have.”

Hank shrugged as if he didn’t care, his orange jumpsuit stark against his pale skin. But he did care. He’d always acted tough, but on the inside he was a softie. When she was little, he used to kiss her boo-boos to make them better.

No one had been here to soothe him the past few years, though.

“I’m so sorry, Hank. At first, there was so much happening—the Department of Children and Family Services the foster system, your trial...” And then she’d had to testify to what she’d remembered.

Her testimony had sealed his fate. “I should have lied back then, said I didn’t see anything.”

Another tense second passed. “You were only a kid, Avery.”

“So were you.”

His gaze locked with hers, the memories of the two of them huddled together out in the rain after their mother had left them returning.
I’ll take care of you,
Hank had promised.

And he did.

How had she paid him back? By abandoning him.

He cleared his throat. “I tried to find out what happened to you after I got locked up, but no one would tell me anything.”

Avery twined her fingers on the table. “Nobody wanted to take me,” she admitted. “I wound up in a group home.”

He made a low sound of disgust in his throat. “Was it bad?”

Avery picked at her fingernails to keep from rubbing that damned scar. “Not as bad as...the Mulligans.” Nothing had been as bad as living with them.

Of course, Hank might argue that prison was.

“They told me you didn’t remember the details of that night.” Hank lowered his head, then spoke through gritted teeth. “I’m glad. I hated what he did to you. He was a monster.”

Shame washed over Avery. She’d never told anyone except the therapist the truth. But Hank knew her darkest secret.

Avery reached across the table and laid one hand on his.

“I’m so sorry for everything, Hank. I know you killed Wade for me.” Tears clogged her throat. “I...should have spoken up, told someone about what he was doing. Maybe it would have helped get you off, or at least they’d have given you some leniency and a lighter sentence.”

Hank studied her for a long few minutes, his expression altering between anger and confusion. “You still don’t remember?”

She swallowed hard. “Just that he was drinking. That you fought with him, and he tied you up. Then he came in my room.” She pressed a finger to her temple, massaging where a headache pounded. The headaches always came when she struggled to recall the details. “Then everything went black until I saw you with that knife.”

Hank pulled his hand away and dropped his head into his hands. “God, I don’t believe this.”

Avery watched him struggle, her heart pounding.

“Hank, I’m sorry. I should have lied about seeing you with that knife. You always stood up for me, and I let you down.” Her voice cracked with regret.

The handcuffs clanged again, as he reached for her hands this time. The guard stepped forward and cleared his throat in a warning, and Hank pulled his hands back.

“Look at me, Avery,” Hank said in a deep voice. “I didn’t kill Wade.”

“What?”

“I didn’t kill him,” Wade said again, his voice a hoarse whisper.

Avery gaped at him. Was this a last-minute attempt to save himself from death? “But...you told them you hated him, that you were glad you’d stabbed him.”

He leaned closer over the table, his look feral. “I did stab him, but he was already dead when I stuck that blade in him.”

“What?” Avery’s head reeled. “Why didn’t you tell the police that?”

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