One Texas Night

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Nominated for Best First Category Romance
by Romantic Times
 
Booksellers’ Best Award Finalist

Harlequin Intrigue
August 1999
ISBN 0-373-22527-X

Everything’s more intense in the heat of a Texas night.

Lieutenant Grady Slone wants answers about a murder. Melinda Amery has none, except that nothing good will come from remembering.

But Grady is the kind of cop who won’t let go. Then Melinda’s memories begin to return, revealing more than either of them wanted to know.

EXCERPT

Chapter 1

Fargate, Texas. September 1999.

Murder didn’t happen in this slice of Texas. In the twelve years since Grady Sloan had been an officer in the Fargate Police Department, the department hadn’t handled a single homicide. Now, less than twenty-four hours into his tenure as interim police chief, Angela Petersen lay dead in the Tarrant County morgue awaiting an autopsy.

As he’d inspected the small brick home on the edge of town, no bold clues had jumped up at him saying, “I did it!” Only blood—a lot of it—splattered over the lace curtains, ruffled pillows, and feminine frills strewn about the living room. No muddy footprints had marred any of the pink carpeting. No bloody knife had lain close by with accusing fingerprints on its handle. No signs of forced entry had marked any of the doors or windows.

Nothing, except the strange woman. And the undecipherable drawing she’d held.

He’d have to use every ounce of his resourcefulness to crack the case.

A lot of fun that would be with the critical town council breathing down his back and watching his every move. After his fiasco with Jamie—his otherwise spotless record notwithstanding—they’d expect mistakes, and be more than ready to point fingers.

In three weeks, Fargate would host their annual Fall Festival. The council had planned Seth Mullins’ retirement celebration and the announcement of his replacement as their crowning event.

That didn’t leave Grady much time to prove the town council wrong. Or to get answers from the woman who claimed not to remember her name.

His office door blustered open.

“What took you so long?” Grady snapped at his sister. Tension had him strung tighter than sun-dried leather.

“Well, hello to you, too.” Desiree Sloan dumped her briefcase and large leather purse on top of his desk, ignoring the pile of papers she scrambled in the process. Flyaway wisps of light brown hair escaped from the French braid that couldn’t be more than half an hour old. While she removed the jacket of her bright red business suit, she juggled a cup of take-out coffee between her hands, sloshing drops onto the carpet. Good thing it was the color of industrial grime.

His sister was a brilliant psychologist, but grace had never been one of her attributes. She plowed through life like a scatterbrained bull in a china shop, but when it came to business, she focused single-mindedly as if in a ring facing a matador’s cape. No one garnered more professional respect than Dr. Des. Which was why he’d sought her opinion this morning.

“I got here as fast as I could.” She plopped into a chair, popped the loose cover from her cup of coffee and blew on the hot liquid. “You know I’m not a morning person.” She leaned back into the chair and crossed one leg over the other. “So, what windmill’s got your shorts in a torque this morning, brother dear? Vigilante cow-tipper? Mad donut snatcher at Mamie’s?” She slapped one hand on the chair’s armrest. Her blue-gray eyes twinkled. “No, don’t tell me! Some low-down snake took off with the high school’s royal blue street sign again.”

“That’s enough, Desiree. I’m not in the mood for your sass today.”

“So it’s Desiree, uh. I guess I’m really in trouble now.”

He loved his sister to death, but she could push his buttons faster than anyone he knew. Her irreverent humor and light-heartedness had helped him through a lot of rough spots, but this wasn’t going to be one of them.

“I didn’t mean to snap.” He threw his pen onto the blotter, then tipped back his chair until it leaned against the wall. “I’ve been up all night.” He dragged his hands over his face and rubbed his burning eyes. “Someone murdered Angela Petersen.”

“Oh, no!” Desiree jammed her cup onto the desk, staining his report with muddy-brown coffee. “Angie’s mother must be beside herself. And the reverend. She was the apple of his eye. I’ll have to stop by and make sure they’re okay on my way to work. What happened?”

Grady plucked tissues from a box on the black metal credenza and mopped Desiree’s mess. “Lena Strong called in late last night, saying she thought she heard someone screaming at the Petersens’. I thought it might just be the storm. The winds were pretty strong last night.”

“I know. I think I lost some shingles.”

He lobbed the sodden tissue into the wastebasket beside the desk. “Anyway, there was no answer when I got there, but the front door was ajar. I found her stabbed to death on the living room floor.”

“God, Grady, how awful! Do you know who did it?”

“Not yet.”

“Angie had a voice like an angel’s.” Desiree shook her head slowly. “She was supposed to sing Seth’s retirement song at the Fall Festival. It’s going to be a grim affair now. What do you need me to do to help catch the scumbag who hurt Angie?”

Now that Desiree was here, Grady found himself hesitating. If she confirmed the woman truly suffered from amnesia, it would complicate his case to no end. He didn’t have time for gentle proddings. He needed to solve a murder.

“We found a woman at the scene. When we tried to question her, she attacked us.” Absently, he rubbed the bandage covering the bite mark on his left hand. “Now she claims she can’t remember her name.” He slipped the drawing they’d found in the woman’s hand toward his sister. “She was holding this. Des, in all the years I’ve been a cop I’ve never had to deal with someone like her. Is it possible?”

“Amnesia?” Desiree half shrugged as she concentrated on the drawing. “It depends on a lot of things. If she suffered a trauma to the head, or if she was on drugs, or if she had a syndrome called ‘complex partial seizures,’ yeah, it’d be possible. It’s hard to make a diagnosis with so little to go on.”

“That’s why I asked you here. I’m going to take her to the interview room. While I ask her some questions, I want you to watch from the one-way mirror. I need to know if she’s faking.”

Desiree ripped open her purse, then flipped through her agenda. Finger sliding down her calendar, she nodded. “I’ve got to make an appearance downtown Fort Worth in court this afternoon, but I don’t have anything that can’t wait this morning. What makes you think she’s faking?”

“That’s it, Des. I just don’t know.” He tipped the chair back again and crossed his arms over his chest. “Two years ago, I would have gone with my gut.”

“And what does your gut say?” she prodded when he hesitated.

“It says she was at the right place at the wrong time. Now, I have to wonder.” The chair snapped down. He leaned forward, placing both his forearms on the desk, fingers entwined, uncertainty riddling holes in his usual confidence. “I smelled liquor on her breath. The other officer didn’t.”

The woman hadn’t answered his question. She hadn’t blinked. She hadn’t moved. She’d simply sat huddled on the ground at the back of the woodshed with the same unfazable glare in her eyes he’d seen much too often on his mother’s face.

“And?” Desiree asked.

“The test came back with a count of zero. I mistook the smell of wet oak chips for alcohol, the glazed look in her eyes for drunkenness. I jumped to conclusions… because…”

“Of Jamie.” Desiree’s gaze softened. “Grady, why didn’t you tell me you were still having problems?”

He looked away from his sister’s too-knowing gaze. He would never dream of talking to anyone about his shortcomings, but Des had the knack of coaxing things out of him. Giving in was easier than going through one of her digging sessions. “I thought I’d gotten over it.”

She placed her agenda on the desk, reached forward and covered his hands with hers. “You’re good at what you do, Grady. Who knows how screwed up Aimee and I would’ve turned out without you.” She squeezed his hands. “Not everybody’s Jamie. And you’re not some superhero. You can’t save the whole world. Nobody even expects you to save this little corner of it. It’s impossible. Stuff happens. And if you need someone to talk to, you know I’m always there. We’ve all got our talents. Yours is finding the truth. Mine is listening. Give the rest of us mere mortals a break, will you?” She grinned at him. “Besides, you know how much I love to meddle in everybody’s business.”

He looked at her over the protective barrier of his desk. “I’m still second-guessing myself.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being careful.”

“Unless it gets in the way of the job. You know how much I want to take over the chief’s seat.”

She chuckled and nodded. “Can’t imagine you working for Winnin’ Wayne Dillon, either.” She straightened her stance and put on her serious face. “Because we can’t burden the town with a bootlicker like Wayne, let’s work on your mystery woman. What else can you tell me about her?”

Grady tipped his chair back and drummed the heel of his boot against the metal leg, reflecting on his first glimpse of the woman. Her eyes, mystery dark, had seemed impenetrable and definitely glazed. Her white skin contrasted sharply with the long black hair stuck in wavy strands to her head and cheeks. Dry, with a little makeup, those high cheekbones, aristocratic nose, and elegant mouth, she could have passed for one of the society ladies whose smiling pictures plastered the “Life” section of the Fort Worth newspaper when they promoted one or the other of their do-gooder affairs. He’d learned to regret regal features like those. Yet something about her depthless eyes had drawn his attention again and again.

“She’s good-looking,” he said tersely, losing patience with himself over the attraction he had no right to feel. “And she says she can’t remember anything. I think it’s pure manure. But then I find her searching through the phone book as if she were trying to figure out who she was. There’s something about her.” He shook his head. “I don’t know, Des….”

Desiree dropped her leather-bound agenda back into her purse and offered him a slow smile. “So which part are you hung up on, the ‘good-looking’ part, or the ‘manure’ part?”

She expected him to brush her off or argue with her, but too much was at stake. Murder wouldn’t go unpunished in Fargate. Not on his watch. He’d find the culprit and bring him—or her—to face justice. “Both.”

She shook her head and clucked her tongue. “You get too personally involved. It’s your strength, Grady, but it’s also your weakness. You’re asking for trouble.”

“I know.”

* * *

The officer took her to a small room disguised as an office. It held two padded vinyl chairs—one with arms, one without—a battered metal desk, a cheap Monet print in a black metal frame, and a token dieffenbachia in need of watering in the corner.

The large mirror on one of the side walls betrayed the room’s true purpose. He hadn’t brought her here simply for a pleasant morning chat. She swallowed hard, trying to sort through the layers of gray still fogging her mind. As she took a seat in the armless chair he offered, she wondered if anyone stood on the other side of the mirror, and shivered. What had happened? What had she done? Why was she here?

He sat across from her, the big desk separating them. She recognized the ploy for what it was. The officer was asserting his dominance. He needn’t have bothered. She already felt small and raw. He took a tape recorder out of the drawer, set the machine up on the desk’s immaculate surface, and labeled a fresh tape.

His controlled ease irritated her, probably because it contrasted so wildly with the restlessness gnashing at her nerves. And he no doubt viewed her as a criminal—like the rest of the nasty people he dealt with every day.

“Do you mind if I record our little talk?” He snapped the newly labeled tape into the machine.

Wondering if she truly had a choice, she shook her head. “I have nothing to hide.”

“Good, my name is Lieutenant Sloan,” he informed her, then spoke the day and date into the microphone. He tried to smile, but she recognized the gesture wasn’t a familiar one for him.

“For the record, why don’t you tell me your name?” he asked.

She’d become resigned to her fractured memory in the hour and a half since she’d woken up in a jail cell. This had happened before. How she knew, she couldn’t say, but she knew. Which didn’t mean she accepted the unnerving fact she couldn’t remember much of anything else. To tell the truth, her insides were shaking. She felt very much alone and defenseless. She needed a friend—someone on her side.

But nothing about the sharp planes of the lieutenant’s face suggested friendliness, except for the hint of dimples on both of his cheeks. By the directness of his gaze and his grim expression, she had a feeling she wouldn’t be privy to a full display of those dimples today. She’d find no friend there.

His rich-brown hair looked shower-damp, and his blue uniform smelled freshly starched. Everything about him appeared calm and controlled. The direct opposite of the distress threatening to explode into full-blown panic inside her. He looked like the type of man who left nothing unfinished, and she had the nagging suspicion she fell into that category. He would pry and he would press and he just wouldn’t let go until he got what he wanted.

She looked away, feeling the current of dread accelerate, and concentrated on her hand with the torn nail tip, which hung half on and half off her finger. How had she gotten here? What had happened? Why couldn’t she remember?

Instinct told her the memories would return if she didn’t force them, but instinct also told her her own time wouldn’t happen fast enough for Lieutenant Sloan. She wanted to tell him; she just couldn’t.

“Miss? Your name….”

“I don’t know right now.”

“When will you?” His tone seemed to aim for the casual, as if he were asking her what she planned to eat for dinner, but he couldn’t quite cushion the scalpel precision of his words, or the shimmer of tangible impatience in his voice.

“I’m not sure.” She held her head up, folded her hands neatly in her lap, and placed both her feet solidly on the floor. He could try to intimidate her, but he wouldn’t succeed. She knew her rights; she was…

But the last part of the sentence escaped her before she could grasp it.

“Has this happened before?” he continued.

Closed-in spaces made her edgy. He made her edgy with the room he appropriated by his mere presence. Did he have this effect on all his prisoners, or just her?

“I—I’m not certain.” She concentrated on the slashes made by the promise of dimples on his cheeks. They seemed so much friendlier than his hard gaze.

“Do you know where you live?”

She shrugged. He had a fascinating face, filled with contrasts—hard and soft angles, sharp and smooth planes. “I must live close by. I don’t think I normally leave the house without shoes.”

“What’s your date of birth?”

As she thought, the wrinkles forming on her forehead hurt. “Winter, I think. I vaguely remember it being cold when I blew out the candles on a cake as a little girl.”

“Where do you work?”

She took in a deep breath and ventured a look at his eyes once more. They were an incredible blue, almost navy. Could anyone have eyes that deep of a color? Like bluebonnets in the spring, she thought. “I don’t recall at this moment.”

“What about hobbies? Can you remember any?”

She looked down at her hands, twisted them back and forth, and noticed the calluses at the base of her fingers. “I think I do something with my hands.” She rubbed her thumbs against her fingertips. “I don’t know.”

He watched her as if he knew things about her—horrible things. “Guess it’s hard to remember after a hard night of partying.”

“I never… party.” I’m a good girl, she wanted to add, but it sounded so childish, she kept silent.

“Are you sure? You don’t seem to be able to remember much of anything else.”

She sought the contact of his gaze once more. His good looks might make him eligible for the policemen’s pin-up calendar, but she’d bet her last dollar he’d be Mr. December. And right now, she needed the warmth of Mr. July. Had she ever felt this cold before? She rubbed her arms, hoping to inject warmth into her body with the friction. Emptiness rang hollow inside her.

“I don’t think I like you very much,” she said.

“Having you like me isn’t part of my job description. Having you tell me what you know about Angela Petersen’s murder is.”

“Angela?” The name sounded familiar. Bits of shredded images rained across her mind. Soft blond hair. A quiet smile. They’d shared tea and scones in a garden. Whose? Where? She licked at her lips tasting the memories trickling in. Angela’s husband, Tommy Lee, had left her two years ago for Dallas and a new life with a new wife. Angela Petersen. Her neighbor. More. There had to be more.

“Angela was the woman murdered?” she asked tentatively. If she’d felt cold before, she was positively icebound now.

“What can you tell me about it?”

“I don’t know my name. I don’t know where I work. I don’t know where I live.” She flung her head back and closed her eyes to intensify the bits and pieces popping into her mind. “I know I like Orange Zinger tea and a toasted English muffin with crunchy peanut butter for breakfast. I know I like the feel of the earth on my fingers. I know I like movies that require a box of tissues to watch.” She almost laughed at the absurdity of her fractured recall.

Tears itched the back of her eyes. Her throat tightened. Her fingers rolled into fists. “But I don’t know anything about Angela’s murder. Don’t you think I’d tell you if I did?”

The officer rose and dragged his chair around the desk. After he’d turned her chair around to face the mirror, he sat until their knees almost touched. The tip of his black cowboy boots rested a fragment of an inch away from her bare toes. She curled them protectively away.

A shaft of panic invaded her. He was too close, much too close. She was aware of the heat emanating from him, of the fresh scent of soap carried on those heated waves, and of him, and how much his physical presence disturbed her already shaky balance—of how much she needed to be held right now.

“I know how frustrating it must be for you not knowing who you are.” A measure of warmth crept into his voice. “But it’s important you give remembering a real good try. A young woman died, and you might have witnessed her murder.”

“Witnessed?” She jerked in surprise. “You don’t think I murdered her anymore?”

“Let’s just say for the sake of argument that you didn’t.” He reached forward and placed a sheltering hand over hers. The warmth of his skin felt good on her iced fingers. The directness of his gaze, unnerving as it was, also reflected a clarity of character she wanted desperately to trust.

“I want to go home,” she said. It was getting harder to breathe in the thickening air. She had to get out. But who could she call? Did she even have anyone who cared about her?

“Where is home?”

She lowered her lashes and sighed. “I don’t know, but anywhere has to be less claustrophobic than this room.”

He leaned farther forward. Anxiety snapped and crackled along her overloaded nerves, tightening her chest. “You don’t like closed-in places,” he said. “Is that why you were wandering outside in the middle of the night?”

Once more she allowed her gaze to meet his. She held it steady this time, not letting the piercing quality of it trouble her. “You could irritate a saint.”

He shifted back again, his mouth curling into half a grin. “I’ve spent hours developing that quality. But I have a hunch you’re no saint, so why don’t you just make it easy on yourself and cooperate with me. I don’t want to hurt you. I want to find Angela Petersen’s murderer.”

She removed her hands from the protective cover of his and crossed her arms below her chest, scrunching back as far as she could in the chair. “I don’t know anything.”

“I can protect you,” he promised. Something deep inside knew she needed protection, but from what? Or from whom? “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Nothing to be afraid of. But there always had been something to be afraid of. A fear like a monster in the closet that banged to get out, that haunted her days and nights, year after year. What did it want? She didn’t know, and wasn’t sure she wanted to find out. But this fear had nothing to do with Lieutenant Sloan’s investigation. This fear was far too old to be part of this fresh nightmare. It was a private one. One she’d have to deal with on her own. She lifted her shoulders and shook her head. “Why would I need your protection?”

A trace of irritation flickered in his eyes. His jaw flinched once before he spoke again. “Listen, it’s very important that you—”

A knock on the door interrupted him. He got up to answer. Someone out of her line of sight offered him a piece of paper.

“Melinda Amery!” He said the name with such hatred she recoiled in her chair from the booming concussion of his voice. “Is she related to Ely?”

She couldn’t hear the muffled reply. He skewered her with his narrowed gaze, and as he left, he slammed the door. Why did that name bring such hatred and anger out of him? What had this Melinda Amery done to him? Her heart thudded hard once. Was she Melinda Amery?

Melinda Amery. She turned the name over and over in her mind, but it struck no chords of recognition. With a sigh, she rested an elbow on the desk and propped her head on her uplifted hand. Her free hand traveled over the dried mud on her leg, tucking her feet beneath her.

She wanted to get out of here. She wanted a shower and a good long nap. She wanted to forget this episode. Tomorrow things would start falling back into place and she could resume her normal life as if nothing had happened.

Except that “normal” wouldn’t be the same. Angela was dead. Angela who had been her neighbor. The image of moss roses, the sound of laughter flicked like wet paint onto the opaque canvas of her mind. The quiet companionship they’d shared was gone forever. And like dominoes, when one thing fell, others were bound to follow.

She knew without being told she had a lot of questions left to answer. And none of them would bring out Lieutenant Sloan’s charming dimples.