Sax Douchett had heard about people who didn’t dream.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t one of them. Sometimes he even dreamed while he was awake.
Like he might be doing now, as he felt a familiar prickling beneath his skin. Hair rose on his arms and at the back of his neck. A jolt of fight-or-flight adrenaline hit his bloodstream like a Patriot missile.
He bent over. Put his hands on his knees and drew in several deep breaths.
“You are not in the frigging Kush.” Sometimes saying the words out loud gave them more power.
The thick fog on this lonely stretch of beach he was walking on at sunset with his adopted dog turned ordinary things --- seaweed, wind-bent cypress, stacks of driftwood --- into shadowy objects of mystery. Unlike the placid blue waters of nearby Shelter Bay, the rocky Oregon coastline had claimed scores of ships and their crews over the centuries.
When he’d been trudging through the snow up a steep Afghan mountainside with bad guys blasting away at him and his SEAL teammates, memories of home had kept him putting one boot in front of the other.
When he’d spent another six days all alone on those desolate peaks in the Hindu Kush, wounded, half out of his mind and presumed dead, anticipation for the Dungeness crab jambalaya he intended to fill up on once he got stateside had kept him battling the Taliban assassins sent to finish him off.
And during that lost time when he’d been held prisoner in an enemy village, fantasies of sitting on the porch of the cliff house, an icy bottle of Doryman’s Dark Ale in his hand, listening to the rain on the roof, had kept him sane.
After a few frustrating weeks held prisoner again --- this time in Bethesda Naval Hospital --- like Odysseus, he’d finally made his way home. Physically healthy and, well, mostly sane.
And determined to put war behind him and get on with his life. Which was turning out to be a lot easier said than done. Especially with this weekend’s damn welcome-home parade the Shelter Bay council and local VFW chapter had planned.
Although everyone in town might have insisted on elevating him onto some gleaming marble pedestal, if there was one thing Sax knew he wasn’t, it was a hero.
“Maybe I’ll get to kiss me a beauty queen,” he said, trying to find something positive about the experience he knew would mean a lot to his parents. Which was the only reason he’d agreed to go along with a celebration that, if reports were true, and he feared they were, was threatening to outdo the annual Whale Watch Weekend and Kites and Crab Fest combined. “That might be cool.”
It had been an age since Sax had kissed any woman. Let alone a current Miss Shelter Bay, who’d been crowned during a Whale Watch Weekend he’d had to miss. Given that he’d been tied up. Literally.
Just happy to be along for her evening walk, the Irish wolfhound mix he’d named Velcro answered with an enthusiastic bark that startled a heron that had been wading along the tide line, causing the bird to disappear into the fog with a flurry of wide blue wings.
The home he’d grown up in --- located over Bon Temps, his parents’ sprawling Cajun restaurant and dance hall --- had taken a hit two years ago by a vicious winter ice storm. Two months later, it was given a knockout blow when hurricane-force winds triggered by a Pacific typhoon came barreling through. Which was when Maureen and Lucien Douchett had thrown in the towel and retired.
Currently they were running a bait shop on the harbor and seemed content with how things had turned out. Mostly, Sax thought, because they were so content with each other. They were also proud. And stubborn. It had taken every ounce of Sax’s considerable powers of persuasion to talk them into accepting the money to build a new house in town.
Meanwhile, when Sax had returned home, his grandparents moved in with his parents, giving him the keys to their house overlooking the sea, which had become too large for them to keep up. Although he was still toying with the idea, the thought of rebuilding Bon Temps was growing more and more appealing. A lot of people in Shelter Bay could use the work. Along with the opportunity to eat themselves a good meal, kick up their heels, and have some fun, which seemed in short supply these days.
In the distance, lightning flashed, turning the whitecapped water shimmering neon green. Although she didn’t seem afraid of storms, the dog suddenly took off like a shot down the beach, her strident barks being ripped away by the wind.
Velcro appeared to have made it her responsibility to rid the coast of the ubiquitous gulls.
“Good luck with that,” Sax said as he climbed the stone steps to the top of the cliff.
He’d just reached the house when she came racing back with what appeared to be a bleached-out piece of driftwood in her mouth.
She dropped it at his feet and began wiggling her fuzzy black butt --- her canine way of letting him know it was time to play fetch. Having nothing vital to do at the moment, Sax bent to pick it up.
Since she hadn’t exactly gotten the idea of “fetch” down yet, she took off running again with her prize.
Finally, when she realized he wasn’t going to chase after her, she returned, dropped it beneath a nearby tree. Then barked an invitation.
After retrieving a flashlight from the house, Sax sauntered over.
“Hell,” he muttered.
He’d left the Navy and returned to Shelter Bay determined to put death behind him. Only to have feckless fate --- and a clingy, ninety-five-pound mutt --- deposit a human bone at his feet.
“It was a murder most foul,” the crime victim insisted for the umpteenth time since Kara Conway, Shelter Bar’s sheriff, had arrived at her home.
“That’s from Sherlock Holmes, right?” Kara’s deputy asked.
“No.” The elderly woman shook a head covered in foam rollers that matched her Pepto-Bismol pink chenille bathrobe. “Really, John O’Roarke, if you’d paid more attention to my lectures in your senior-year English class you’d recognize the description as being written by none other than the Bard himself. It’s from Hamlet. Where the ghost, musing over his own death, states, ‘Murder most foul as in the best it is. But this most foul, strange and unnatural.’
“And murdering my poor, innocent mailbox,” she said on a burst of annoyance, “for the second time in a month is definitely strange and unnatural.”
They all looked down at the mailbox in question, bathed in the glow of the security lights the woman had set up around her house. It had been beheaded, knocked off its post with what Kara would guess had been a baseball bat.
Stifling a sigh, Kara reminded herself that she’d moved back home from southern California to take over her father’s job in order to provide a safer environment for her eight-year-old son. A small town where roots went deep into the sandy soil, where everyone knew your name, where people looked out for one another, and children could play in the town park without anxious helicopter parents feeling the need to hover protectively over them.
And where a crime spree consisted of misdemeanor offenses such as barking dogs, jaywalking, and the occasional brawl at the Cracked Crab, the local watering hole favored by hardworking, hard-drinking fishermen.
And, apparently, mailbox bashing.
Be careful what you wish for.
Before John had called to let her know that Edna Lawton was demanding to have the sheriff herself check out the crime scene, Kara had finished dinner, overseen her son’s homework assignment and been looking forward to a long soak in a bubble bath with a feel-good romance novel where, unlike real life, despite various trials and tribulations, characters and readers were guaranteed a happy ending.
“See those tire tracks?” Edna pointed a gnarled finger at the tread marks that had been left in the mud at the side of the road. “You’ll need to take a casting of those right away. While they’re still fresh. Then run a DMV computer check on all the vehicles in the county and you’ll find the culprit. Then bring the criminals to justice.”
“It doesn’t exactly work that way.” Kara reached down deep for patience.
The woman tossed up her chin. “I’ve seen it on CSI. And Law and Order.”
“What Sheriff Conway’s saying,” her deputy broke in before Kara could point out that the television shows were, in fact, fiction, “is that our crime scene techs are currently working with the feds on an important joint task force up in Salem.”
Feds? Crime scene techs? Since when did her department of three deputies and two dispatchers have any crime scene techs? And what could those imaginary techs possibly be doing in the state capital?
“But it doesn’t look like it’s going to rain tonight.” He deftly cut off any comment Kara might be planning to make.
Studiously ignoring her questioning look, John O’Roarke rocked back on the wedged heels of his cowboy boots and glanced up at the star-studded sky.
“So, Sheriff Conway will send a tech out first thing in the morning to take the casting. Won’t you, Sheriff?” he asked.
“I guess,” Kara said. And was immediately hit by a razor-sharp look that reminded her of stories of how the elderly woman had once run her classroom with an iron hand. “Sure.” She tacked more enthusiasm onto her tone. “Absolutely.”
“Well, I’m glad to see you’re taking this seriously,” the older woman said.
“I always take crime seriously,” Kara said. It was the unvarnished truth.
“Your father was a good man,” Edna volunteered suddenly. The curlers bobbed as she shook her head with regret. “It was a crying shame, what happened to him, getting shot that way.”
“Yes.” Her father’s too-early death in what had been ruled a hunting accident—eighteen months after Kara had been widowed --- still hurt. She suspected it always would.
“A terrible tragedy.” Edna looked a long way up at O’Roarke. “You never found the shooter.”
“No, ma’am.” Kara knew this was a sore point with the man who’d not only been her father’s deputy, but his best friend for nearly three decades. The two had gone hunting together in the fall, fishing together in the spring and summer, and argued about sports year-round, although the one thing they could both agree on was that the best place to spend a Friday night was at a Shelter Bay Dolphins high school football game.
“But you’re not going to close the case?” Edna pressed.
“No, ma’am.” His deep, cigarette-roughened voice was firm with resolve, but Kara knew they were both thinking the same thing: that unless the hunter who’d mistaken her father for a deer came forward, all they had was a spent shell --- the same kind sold in gun stores, sporting-goods stores, and even Walmart --- all over the country.
“Good.” Edna aimed her flashlight down at the flower bed overflowing with pink and purple petunias that surrounded the mailbox post. “That beer bottle wasn’t there when I brought my mail in this afternoon. Do you know what that means?”
Not having realized when she’d gotten the call to come out here that she’d be facing a pop quiz, Kara said, “It could have been thrown out of the car by whoever bashed your mailbox?”
“Murdered it,” Edna corrected briskly. “Thing’s a goner. You should take it in. The bottle, not the mailbox. Get DNA off it. Throw the little miscreant in the slammer.”
“That’s a good idea,” John O’Roarke jumped in again. “Would you happen to have a pair of gloves we could use to pick it up? Wouldn’t want to destroy trace evidence.”
“As a stroke of luck, I just bought myself a new pair of Rubbermaids while doing my marketing today. So we won’t have to worry about contaminating the evidence with any dish detergent residue.” Turning on a bunny-slipper-clad foot, she marched back to her weathered gray house.
“DNA tests?” Kara asked with an arched brow once they were alone. “Tire tread print castings? What did I miss while I was home working on long division problems with Trey? Did Shelter Bay’s sheriff’s department suddenly win the lottery? Which is the only way we’d have enough bucks to buy all that equipment.”
“Doesn’t take any equipment or all that much time to have Lonnie come over here in the morning and lay down some plaster of Paris,” John said with a shrug of his wide shoulders.
Although her deputy was in his sixties, his body was as lean and rangy as back in the day when he’d worked on trawlers. His deeply tanned face was lined, but in a comfortable, lived-in way that made people immediately trust him. Another thing he’d had in common with her father.
“As for the DNA, my niece Sydney --- that’d be my brother Webb’s middle girl --- comes in once a week to tidy up for Edna. She says the old lady TiVos every damn one of those crime shows.”
“Which explains why she’s constantly calling the sheriff’s office,” Kara guessed.
“Could be. Though mostly I think she’s lonely. But whatever, since she considers herself a criminality expert, it shouldn’t be that hard to blame any delay in results on the state police crime lab’s being a little busy with major crimes and port terrorism stuff these days.”
They watched as Edna came back out of the house, moving with exceptional purpose and vigor for a woman who had to be pushing ninety.
“You’re a good man, Deputy O’Roarke,” Kara said.
Another shrug that told her he was uncomfortable with personal compliments. “Our job is to protect and serve the community. Way I figure it, serving’s just what we’re doing out here tonight.”
“Here are the gloves,” Edna announced. “Right out of the package. And I brought you a Ziploc bag to put the evidence in.”
“That was good thinking, Miz Lawton.” He struggled to shove his large hands into the bright yellow rubber gloves. “Lonnie will be bringing you out a new box in the morning. Once he gets done taking that plaster cast ing of the tire tracks, he’ll put it up for you.”
“I do appreciate that, John,” she said. Taking no heed of the formality of the badge he wore on his khaki shirt, she reached up and patted his cheek. “You always were a good boy. Even if you did skip school the first day of deer hunting season every year.”
“I always had a note,” he claimed, sounding genu inely surprised.
“Which you forged your mother’s handwriting to,” she countered.
The chuckle rumbled from deep in his chest as he didn’t even attempt to deny the accusation.
As he bagged the empty brown beer bottle, Kara’s cell phone trilled. The caller ID display read her office.
“Conway,” she answered.
“Sheriff.” The young night dispatcher’s voice sounded excited. “Someone just called in a possible crime.”
“Well, we are the law.”
“But this is a real crime.” Yes, that was definitely ex citement causing the tremor in Ashley Melson’s voice. “You know about Sax Douchett coming back home, right?”
“I believe I heard something about that.”
It would’ve been difficult not to, since the entire town was abuzz with celebration plans for their local military hero. Knowing and liking his parents, and having a per sonal reason to be grateful to his brother, Kara hoped the town’s most infamous bad boy hadn’t fallen back into old habits.
“Well, he’s gone and gotten himself a dog. Some oversize mutt he supposedly bought from bikers up in Portland.”
Hanging out with bikers wasn’t exactly hero behav ior. Then again, maybe they weren’t the Hell’s Angels type, but some regular guys who just happened to ride bikes. Or maybe even the Rolling Thunder group, who showed up at vets’ funerals all around the country.
“The dog dug up a bone down on the beach below Douchett’s house.” There was a long, dramatic pause. Then her voice dropped to a near whisper. “A human bone.”
Despite having assured herself that she’d happily left the fast lane of police work behind in the rearview mir ror of her patrol car, Kara experienced a little zing of excitement at Ashley’s breathless announcement.
“I’m leaving now,” she said. “Meanwhile, tell Douchett, along with whoever else might be out there with him, to stay put and not move around the area. And tell him to lock the dog in the house.”
If, by any chance, it was an actual crime scene, Kara didn’t need civilians screwing it up.
After saying good night to Edna, who’d been openly eavesdropping on the one-sided call, Kara left John to wrap things up.
Then, after calling her mother, with whom she and Trey lived, and letting her know she’d been delayed, Kara headed her black-and-white Crown Vic cruiser out of Shelter Bay toward the coast. And the cliff house that held so many bittersweet memories.
Sax was sitting out in a rocking chair on the porch, staying put, as he’d been instructed by the dispatcher --- who’d sounded as if she should’ve been home playing with Barbie dolls rather than answering the phone --- when he saw the headlights cutting through the dark.
“Looks like we’ve got ourselves some company,” he told the dog whose collar he was holding on to. Not that she needed that much restraining, since she was pressed against his leg.
Velcro barked in happy agreement.
“Let’s see how enthusiastic you are when you’re locked inside and have to miss all the fun.” He took a pull on the bottle of beer, then pushed to his feet. “Let’s go.”
The mutt, always eager to please her benefactor, raced inside.
Feeling like a traitor, Sax shut the door behind her, then ambled down the steps toward the gravel driveway.
Having expected John O’Roarke, he was momentarily surprised to see the long female leg come out of the driver’s side of the car. The leg, currently covered in a really ugly pair of khaki trousers, was followed by a girl he remembered well.
No. No longer a girl, he considered as Kara Conway strode toward the house. During the decade since he’d last seen her, along with ditching those glasses that had given her the look of a studious owl, she’d shed her gangly teenage frame for a woman’s slender curves.
Her hair, which she’d once worn to the middle of her back, was pulled shorter, accentuating her long neck.
Her face, like her body, was fuller than it had been back when she was in high school, but her cheekbones could still cut crystal, and as she entered the circle of light created by the porch lamp, the yellow glow caught sparks in almond-shaped eyes nearly the same deep, burnished reddish gold of her hair.
Damn. Until Jared’s death, Sax had almost managed to put Kara Blanchard Conway out of his memory. Even on the rare occasions he’d think of her, he’d assured himself that she was no longer that seventeen-year-old girl who’d kissed him silly the night of the prom. She’d been married a long time. Had a kid. Spent the intervening years as a cop, and although he knew those doughnut stories were a cliché, lots of cops seemed to get butt spread riding around in a patrol car all day.
Not this one.
“If I’d known an old bone would get me a visit from a beautiful woman, I’d have started digging up the beach a long time ago,” he said in his best bad-boy drawl. Which would probably piss her off. Which would undoubtedly be a good thing. Because getting mixed up with any woman right now wasn’t in the cards. Getting mixed up with this woman would be a mistake of major proportions.
She paused for just a heartbeat, obviously surprised by such a personal opening gambit. Hell, he’d surprised himself. Then again, as he’d discovered that long-ago night, not only had Kara always had him acting in ways he’d sure as hell never planned, but she was also an enticing surprise wrapped in an enigma.
He’d never been able to figure her out. Which, he admitted as she squared shoulders clad in a shirt every bit as unattractive as her pants, had been part of her appeal.
“I sincerely doubt you have any problem getting women to visit.” Her tone was as dry as the Iraqi sandbox where he’d spent way too much time.
The same sandbox where her high school sweetheart husband had survived two tours, only to join the police department and get himself shot to death by a hotheaded wife beater back home.
“Maybe I’m choosy.”
Because he was male, and to please himself, he took a slow, masculine appraisal: from the top of her head down to those unbelievably ugly black cop shoes.
Then back up again.
And really found himself really wishing she’d gotten doughnut-dumpy.
“I’m five-six,” she told him briskly. “One hundred and twenty-five pounds. Hair red. Eyes brown. No distinguishing scars or tattoos. Just in case you were wondering.”
“Your eyes --- which, by the way, are fabulous now that they’re not covered up with those Coke-bottle glasses you wore back in the day, are more amber than brown,” he corrected. “Though they do have an intriguing little rim of mahogany around the iris. And being sidetracked by those way-sexy gold flecks in them, I hadn’t gotten to thinking about tattoos yet.
“Though it’s an intriguing possibility,” he allowed. “You’re looking well, Kara.” Even if it was downright strange seeing that nine-millimeter strapped on the hip of his graduating class’s valedictorian. Then again, there was definitely something to be said for a woman who carried her own handcuffs on her belt.
“Thanks. But brown’s brown and flowery descriptions don’t fit in those narrow little driver’s license boxes.” His compliment didn’t exactly appear to have her heart going all pitter-pat as she subjected him to the same judicial study he’d given her. “You’re not looking so bad yourself, Douchett. And now that we’ve both passed muster, how about you show me your bone?”
The unintended double entendre hung in the air between them. Deciding it was too easy --- and too dangerous --- Sax didn’t pick up on it.
“It’s not mine,” he said. “But you’re welcome to it.” He pointed toward the tree. “It’s over there.”
As they walked over to it, Sax got a whiff of that glossy hair. Her scent reminded him of something fresh and pure. Like an ocean breeze. Or his grandmother’s sheets hanging out on the line in the sun.
Reminding himself how much their lives had changed since the last time they’d spent the night out here at the beach, he said, “I was damn sorry to hear about Jared. I would’ve come to the funeral, but --- ”
“Cole explained you were on some top-secret black-ops SEAL mission. But thanks for the condolences.”
Her smile, while not as dazzling as he knew it could be, appeared genuine.
“I appreciated your brother coming down to Oceanside to help bring Jared’s body back home.”
“Cole’s a Marine. Even if he and Jared hadn’t had that Semper Fi thing going, no way would he have left that up to you to handle by yourself.”
“He’s a good guy.”
“The best,” Sax agreed.
And hadn’t everyone in Shelter Bay always said the same thing? Eagle Scout Coleridge Douchett, named after the great Jamaican jazz bassist Coleridge George Emerson Goode, had been a damn tough act to live up to. Which was why Sax had quit trying during middle school and taken out on his own, often rocky path.
By the time the third Douchett son, J.T., named for blues trumpeter Jack Teagarden, had come along, the roles of overachiever and bad boy had already been taken. Which was why, Sax had always believed, J.T. was the most easygoing of the three brothers.
“I was surprised to hear Cole’s getting married.”
“So they say.”
She arched a tawny brow in a way that reminded him of her mother. “Is there a question about that?”
“Nah. As much as he loves Kelli, I just suspect he’d rather face a horde of terrorists armed with AK-47s than put on his dress uniform and jump through all the hoops a wedding seems to require.”
“I wouldn’t know about hoops. Jared and I eloped to Tijuana, so I guess he got off easy.”
Not so easy in the long run, Sax thought. Given that the former Marine turned cop had gotten himself killed responding to a damn domestic dispute.
“How are you doing, Kara?” he asked. “Really?”
They were close enough to the porch light he could see her eyes widen momentarily and guessed she was surprised by such a personal question. Hell, being a guy who’d always been more interested in getting a girl into the backseat of his Camaro than sharing confidences, Sax was surprised himself.
But then again, Kara Conway hadn’t been just any girl. She’d been the high school sweetheart of his big brother’s best friend.
But she’d also been the girl who’d spent an entire night after the spring prom sitting by a fire down on the beach with him. Just talking.
Well, mostly talking. There’d been tears involved, as well. And . .
Sax wondered if she remembered that hot, impetuous kiss they’d shared. Wondered even more why he should give a damn one way or the other.
She shrugged. “It’s been over two years since Jared died.”
“I know that. But I was asking about you. Not him.”
“I’ve been through all the appropriate stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. So I guess I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
Perhaps realizing that she sounded just a little lost at that declaration, she squared those slender shoulders again. Lifted her chin. Met his gaze with a no-nonsense, just-the-facts-ma’am stare he suspected probably worked dandy when she was interrogating criminals.
“I was told that you called me out here because you had evidence of a possible crime. Not to chat about my personal life, which, no offense, Sax, is none of your business.”
She sure wasn’t the shy bookworm she used to be, who’d pretty much clung to Jared the way Velcro did to him.
Sax figured being a military wife left to fend for herself for months at a time, following her father into law enforcement, losing a husband to violence, and becoming a single mom struggling to make ends meet would make any woman a lot stronger. And as sorry as he was about Jared Conway’s death, the intriguing thing was, that edge she’d acquired looked good on her. As good as those curves.
“Jared was my friend, too,” he reminded. “Maybe he and I hadn’t done the Tom Sawyer–Huck Finn finger-pricking, blood-brother thing, like he and Cole did that summer when they were eleven. But your husband was the guy who taught me how to pitch a curveball. And go in for a layup.”
Because the memory of that balmy summer day when Jared and Cole had trounced him on the basketball court tugged yet more emotions he’d rather keep locked in that boiling cauldron inside him, Sax turned his thoughts to another memory.
“He also treated me to my first look at a naked woman --- outside the ones in National Geographic --- from the Penthouse magazine he bought from Jake Woods.”
Woods, who’d run the bait shop Sax’s parents had bought from Jake’s kids after the old man had passed on, had rented out girlie magazines and soft-porn videos to half the high school guys in Shelter Bay. It was probably a good thing he’d keeled over from a heart attack a few years ago, because these days he’d undoubtedly be arrested. Maybe even by the woman standing in front of Sax.
“Jake Woods was a pervert.”
Yep. She would’ve had the porn entrepreneur in handcuffs within days of taking over her dad’s job.
“Some might call him that. But others might merely consider him a connoisseur of the female form. If he’d been taking all the boys from Shelter Bay on a field trip to Portland to check out the nude paintings at PAM, he could’ve well been considered a good citizen.”
“There happens to be a big difference between a nude by Cézanne at the Portland Art Museum and pornography.”
“Art’s subjective,” he pointed out. “Though, for the record, the stuff he was renting out probably wouldn’t have rated a double X these days.”
Then, because they’d gotten offtrack, he decided it was time to change the subject. Not wanting to push her any more about her feelings regarding widowhood, since he really didn’t want to give a shit, he pointed his flashlight beam toward the bleached bone he hadn’t touched since Velcro had dropped it at his feet.
“Here it is.”
“Well.” She looked
Excerpted from THE HOMECOMING © Copyright 2011 by JoAnn Ross. Reprinted with permission by Signet. All rights reserved.