Thirty years ago
The Humpty-Dumpty night-light cast a soft, honey-white glow over the nursery, from the 5' x 7' Mother Goose rug on the wooden floor to the fluffy clouds painted on the ceiling. A large Raggedy Andy doll, with a mop of red hair and a perpetual smile, sat atop a brightly decorated toy box in the corner. Billowy blue and white gingham curtains covered the double windows that overlooked the backyard, and a matching gingham quilt, neatly folded, lay at the foot of the baby bed in the center of the small room.
Humming quietly, Regina Bennett sat in the white spindle rocking chair, her precious little Cody asleep in her arms. Even in sleep, he still clutched his favorite toy, a little yellow teddy bear. Earlier that evening, he had been terribly fussy, crying incessantly, the sound of his pitiful gulping sobs breaking her heart. But after she had given him his medication, he had gradually quieted and gone to sleep.
But for how long? An hour? Two hours? The medication’s effects seemed to wear off more quickly with each passing day. Eventually, the medication wouldn’t ease his pain.
She brushed aside his damp blond curls, leaned down, and kissed his warm forehead. Before the chemotherapy treatments, his hair had been thick and shiny, but the new growth was thin and dull. “You won’t suffer anymore, my precious darling. Mommy promises.”
Rocking back and forth, she cuddled Cody protectively against her breast. Still humming “Hush Little Baby,” an old Southern lullaby, Regina slid her hand down to the side of the rocker and grasped the small pillow she had placed there earlier that evening.
“Mommy loves her little boy. Mommy’s going to do what’s best for you.”
Regina lifted the pillow off the floor.
Tears misting her eyes.
“Hush, little baby, don’t you cry.”
Regina laid the handmade pillow over her son’s nose and mouth. Tears seeped from the corners of her eyes and cascaded down either side of her face. She pressed her hand in the center of the pillow and held it in place until she was certain Cody was at peace. She lifted the pillow, tossed it aside, and looked at her tiny two-year-old son.
No more pain. No more suffering.
Charlie Scott kept his arm clutched tightly around his wife’s shoulders, the strength of his hold the only thing stopping her from breaking through the yellow barricade tape that separated the onlookers from the crime scene. While Mary Nell pleaded with her husband to release her, Audrey held eighteen-year-old Mindy’s damp, shaky hand as she tried to talk to Mary Nell. But Mary Nell was beyond listening, beyond anyone helping her at this point. There would be a time, later on, days from now or perhaps weeks or months, that Audrey might be able to help her. But not today.
“Why won’t someone tell us if it’s Jill or not?” Mindy’s soft voice was barely audible over her mother’s loud, pitiful cries.
“The police probably haven’t identified the victim,” Audrey said. “Until they do, we cannot lose hope that the woman they found isn’t Jill.”
“I can’t stand it.” Mindy gripped Audrey’s hand. “Mom’s falling apart and…” Unable to control her tears, Mindy jerked away from Audrey and dropped her head, hunched her trembling shoulders, and covered her face with her hands.
As Audrey turned to comfort Mindy, she spotted her friend Tamara Lovelady, lifting the crime scene tape, walking under it, and heading in their direction. She and Tam had been friends all their lives. Both of their dads had been Chattanooga policemen. Oddly enough, she and Tam had been born exactly two days apart. How many birthday parties had they shared over the years? Their last party had been four years ago when they turned thirty, an event hosted by Tam’s parents.
Tam’s eyes widened with a hint of surprise when she saw Audrey. Despite Mary Nell reaching out to Tam, she passed by Jill’s mother and came straight to Audrey.
“Are you here with the Scott family?” Tam asked.
“Yes. Mary Nell --- Mrs. Scott --- was with me when we got the news about the body being found here in Lookout Valley.” Audrey leaned down and whispered, “Is it Jill Scott?”
Tam, who stood five-three in her bare feet, looked up at Audrey, who towered over her at five-nine, and replied, “We’ll need a family member to officially ID the body, but, yes, we’re pretty sure it’s her.”
“What are y’all talking about?” Mary Nell demanded, her eyes wild with fear. “Tell me! I have every right to know if...” She gulped down her hysterical sobs. “If it’s Jill, I want to see her.”
“Mrs. Scott, I’m Officer Lovelady.” Tam’s gaze settled sympathetically on Mary Nell. “The body is being taken to the ME’s office. We’d appreciate it if a member of the family” --- Tam looked directly at Charlie Scott ---“would identify the body.”
Mary Nell keened shrilly, the sound gaining everyone’s immediate attention.
“Isn’t there some way that Mr. and Mrs. Scott could see the body now?” Audrey asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll check with Garth --- ”
“Please, let me see her,” Mary Nell whimpered.
“Why don’t y’all give me a few minutes,” Tam said. “Audrey, want to come with me?”
When they were out of earshot of the Scott family, Tam said, “Mrs. Scott is going to fall apart if she sees her daughter’s body.”
“I’ve already called her GP to alert him that she’s going to need medication.”
Tam took Audrey with her past the tape barricade as she rushed to catch up with Pete Tipton’s assistants, who were carrying the body bag toward the ME’s van parked in the restaurant’s back parking lot.
“Wait up, guys,” Tam called to them.
Tipton, who was still talking to Garth and another man, someone Audrey didn’t know, quickly ended his conversation and threw up his hand. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Tam said. “I just need y’all to wait a couple of minutes.”
Tipton, Garth, and the stranger came over to where Tam and Audrey stood only a few feet away from the body bag.
“Look, the parents want to see the body now,” Tam explained. “The mother is hysterical as it is. I don’t think letting her see the body can make it any worse.”
“If anything, it might help her.” Audrey injected her opinion. “The not knowing is often far worse than the knowing.” She glanced at Garth, her step-uncle, and saw the flash of painful memories in his eyes. “If it is Jill, then why make her parents wait any longer to find out the truth?”
“And you are?” The tall, rough-around-the-edges stranger looked right at Audrey. The midday sun turned his salt and pepper hair to black-streaked silver.
Garth looked questioningly at Audrey and asked, “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here with --- ” Audrey said, but Tam interrupted her and rushed straight into introductions.
“Audrey, this is Special Agent Cass with the TBI.”
Garth added, “J.D., this is my niece, Dr. Sherrod.”
Audrey and J.D. Cass exchanged quick, intense inspections. She wasn’t sure exactly what he thought of her and really didn’t care. As a general rule, people tended to like her and she liked almost everyone she met. But there was something about the way this man looked at her, as if he found some flaw she wasn’t aware of, that annoyed her.
His black-eyed gaze settled on her face and then he smiled. “You’re not an M.D., are you?” He rubbed his chin. “Hmm…Let me guess --- ”
“Doctorate of philosophy in psychology,” Audrey told him. “I’m a mental health therapist.”
“Audrey is Mary Nell Scott’s counselor,” Tam explained. “She came here with Jill Scott’s family because Mrs. Scott is one of her patients.”
“Damn,” Garth grumbled under his breath.
“Is it your professional opinion that Mrs. Scott can handle seeing her daughter’s corpse?” J.D. asked, his gaze intensely focused on Audrey.
“It’s my opinion that seeing her daughter’s body --- if indeed that’s Jill” --- she nodded toward the body bag --- “will harm her less than not knowing.”
Audrey glared at J.D. Cass. Admittedly, she found him attractive. Who wouldn’t? He was about six-three, broad shouldered, and extremely masculine, although not classically handsome. But for some reason, he irritated her. Maybe it was because of the almost condescending way he’d said, “You’re not an M.D.” Or it could be because she sensed that he found her lacking in one way or another?
And that bothers you, doesn’t it?
Damn right it did. After all, she was reasonably attractive, some even said pretty. She was highly intelligent and well educated and possessed more than competent social graces. Who was he to look down his imperfect nose at her?
“Let’s get this over with,” Pete Tipton said. “Bring the parents over and let them ID the body.” He motioned to his assistants.
“Thank you.” Audrey focused on the ME, offering him a genuine smile.
“I’ll tell the Scotts.” By the time the statement left her lips, Tam was in motion.
Garth received a phone call, excused himself, and left Audrey and the TBI agent standing side by side. Usually quite adept at conversation, even idle chitchat when necessary, Audrey suddenly found herself unnaturally silent.
Sensing the TBI agent looking at her, she turned back around and faced him. “Is there something you wanted to say, Special Agent Cass?”
With a sly smile curving his lips, the man shrugged. “No, ma’am, Dr. Sherrod.”
“Here they come,” Pete Tipton said as the Scott family approached. “No matter how many times I’ve done this, it doesn’t get any easier.”
Tam escorted the Scotts, Charlie with his arm around Mary Nell, and Mindy following her parents.
“May we see her, please?” Charlie asked.
Tipton nodded. Tam led the family to where the ME’s assistants held the body bag. Tipton unzipped the bag, removed the small, protective bag covering the victim’s head, and stepped back to allow the family an unobstructed view.
Mary Nell gasped and then burst into tears as she crumpled right before their eyes. Weeping uncontrollably, she doubled over in pain. Charlie held her, his arms circling her waist, supporting her twisted body. Mindy stood silent and alone a few feet behind her parents. She had turned an ash gray, her glazed eyes overflowing with tears.
Charlie pulled Mary Nell up and into his arms. He looked Peter Tipton right in the eye. “It’s our daughter. It’s Jill.”
Tam and her husband Marcus, an engineer with the Tennessee Valley Authority in Chattanooga, met Audrey and her current boyfriend, Porter Bryant, for dinner that evening. Audrey and Tam arrived late, less than two minutes apart, so they paused outside J. Alexander’s for a quick chat before entering the upscale restaurant on Hamilton Place Boulevard. Neither had changed clothes from earlier that day. Tam still wore black slacks, a lightweight camel blazer, and sensible but stylish one-inch pumps. She had discarded her shoulder holster, something she had forgotten to do a few weeks ago when the foursome had met for dinner. Of course, it had been her first week as a detective.
How Tam could look so good with practically no makeup at the age of thirty-four, Audrey would never know. Maybe it was her flawless golden brown skin or her large, luminous, dark chocolate eyes and thick black lashes.
Although Audrey hadn’t taken time to change from her tailored navy pin-striped slacks and matching jacket into something more femininely casual, she had added fresh blush and lipstick, which she kept in her handbag. She had almost phoned Porter and canceled, but a girl had to eat, and what better company could she find tonight than three good friends? The last thing she wanted to do after a day like today was go home to an empty house. She kept thinking about getting a pet, a cat or a dog or even a goldfish. She thought about it, but never did it.
“You look beat,” Tam said. “Have you been with the Scotts all this time?”
She nodded. “Yes, I stayed and talked to Charlie and Mindy after Dr. Jarnigan’s nurse practitioner came by and gave Mary Beth an injection. A strong sedative. And I helped Charlie deal with countless phone calls and an endless parade of family and friends who came and went all afternoon. Their priest is there with them, as well as Charlie’s sister and her husband and several cousins.”
“It’s been a difficult day all around,” Tam said. “I left your uncle Garth at headquarters. No wonder he’s been divorced four times. What woman would put up with a man married to his job?”
“Every missing persons case is personal for him.”
“Because of Blake,” Tam said. “Garth is a dedicated policeman for the same reason you’re a dedicated counselor. You both want to help people in pain.”
Although Audrey managed to go days, often weeks, without thinking very much about Blake, any missing persons case stirred up old memories. And when she was personally involved in the case, a counselor to someone with a missing family member, she occasionally still had nightmares, decades-old nightmares, about her little brother Blake’s disappearance. The two-year-old had been abducted twenty-five years ago and was still missing. Missing and presumed dead.
“I know you can’t talk about evidence and all that,” Audrey said. “But can you tell me one thing --- do y’all think that whoever kidnapped and killed Jill Scott is the same person who abducted Debra Gregory?”
“Possibly. It’s common knowledge that the two women are both in their mid-twenties, both average height and weight, both white females, both brunettes with long dark hair. The Chattanooga Times Free Press ran their photographs side by side on the front page this morning. At the mayor’s insistence, I’m sure. Did you see it?”
“I saw it. And before you ask, yes, I thought there was a resemblance.”
“Enough of a resemblance that they could pass for sisters,” Tam said. “Debra Gregory looks more like Jill than her own sister Mindy does.”
“But the CPD is downplaying the resemblance, aren’t they? The fact that the women resembled each other wasn’t mentioned in the press conference.”
“We don’t want to panic all the young, dark-haired women in Hamilton County who fit the same description. Not when we can’t be a hundred percent sure the two cases are connected. Debra hasn’t been missing twenty-four hours.”
“Then why bring in the TBI?” Audrey asked.
“They’re not officially involved. Not yet.” Tam forced a smile. “We’d better find our dates. We’re already twenty minutes late. Marcus has called me twice since he arrived.”
As they entered the restaurant, Audrey asked, “How well do you know Special Agent Cass?”
Tam spoke to the hostess, who offered to show them to their table.
“I never met him before today,” Tam replied. “Why do you ask?”
“No reason. Just curious.”
“There they are.” Tam waved at Marcus and Porter, who were seated in a booth halfway across the restaurant. “FYI --- the DA called in the TBI. We did not request assistance.”
“He seems like the type who’d expect to take over.”
“Who? Special Agent Cass? What makes you think that?” Tam’s smile widened. “Yeah, I know. He was sending out some powerful He-Man vibes, wasn’t he? And I noticed the way you two kept looking at each other. What was that all about?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Audrey lied.
When they approached the booth where their dates sat, both men stood, gentlemen that they were. Marcus gave Tam a quick kiss on the mouth and a big I’m-glad-to-see-you smile. Porter gave Audrey a peck on the cheek. She and Porter had been dating for nearly six months now and she suspected he was ready for more than the friendship they shared. He hadn’t pushed her into a sexual relationship and she was grateful, although she knew that it was only a matter of time. More than once recently, he had hinted about them moving in together, but she had ignored the hints. She had no desire to live with Porter or any other man. And marriage was out of the question. No way, no how.
“Sorry I’m late,” Tam said. “We’re in the middle of --- ”
“No shop talk this evening,” Marcus told her. “We’re going to have drinks and a nice dinner and relax.”
“Sounds good to me.” Tam picked up her husband’s glass of Chardonnay and took a sip. “This could be the last halfway relaxing evening I have for quite some time.”
J.D. dropped his keys on the kitchen counter as he entered his Signal Mountain rental house through the door that led inside from the two-car garage. By the time he reached the living room, he had removed his jacket and his hip holster. He tossed the jacket over the back of the nearest chair and dumped the holster down on the coffee table. It had been a long, seemingly endless day and he was tired. And still horny. He had hoped his breakfast date with Holly that morning would lead to an invitation for him to come over to her place that night. So much for well-laid plans. Per his boss’s instructions, he had stuck with the lead investigators on the Jill Scott case all day and had finally left Sergeant Hudson at the police station half an hour ago. The man was dedicated beyond the norm for any officer.
It wasn’t that J.D. didn’t give his all to his job. He did. But he didn’t live and breathe his job 24/7. There had been a time when he had. Now he couldn’t even if he wanted to. He had other responsibilities, ones in his personal life that required his time and attention.
Just as he kicked off his shoes and wiggled his sock-clad toes, he heard the phone ring. Not his phone. The ringtone belonged to his daughter. Some idiotic song titled “Boom Boom Pow” by a group Zoe had informed him was called the Black Eyed Peas.
Even now, after she’d been living with him for more than a year, he still sometimes forgot he had a kid. A fourteenyear-old daughter. A teenager with an attitude. Zoe was far too pretty and looked way too mature not to gain male attention. When he had told her that she was too young to date, she’d thrown a hissy fit. The girl had a temper. And as much as he’d like to blame her mother for that genetic defect, he couldn’t. Carrie Davidson had been promiscuous, self-centered, vain, and sexy as hell, but not once during their brief affair had he ever seen her lose her temper. No, Zoe had inherited that personality flaw from him.
J.D. traipsed into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and retrieved a bottle of beer. Just as he removed the cap and took his first sip, he heard a loud crash, followed by a string of equally loud curse words. Carrying the beer with him, he went through the living room and down the hall and stopped outside his daughter’s closed bedroom door. He knocked.
“Go away!” she screamed.
“What’s going on in there?”
“Not a damn thing. All my friends are together and having a good time tonight and I’m stuck here in my room, a virtual prisoner.”
“It’s a school night,” J.D. reminded her. “I hardly think all your friends are out partying tonight.”
“A bunch are studying together over at Presley’s house.
They ordered pizza and are having fun. Fun that I’m missing, thanks to you.” Zoe eased open her bedroom door and peered out into the hall. “Hi. How was your day?”
“Rough,” he replied. “How was yours?”
“It was okay, but it could end really good.” She opened the door all the way and plastered a big smile on her gorgeous face.
What the hell was she wearing? They’d had more than one row about her clothes. Tonight it was green tights, suede knee-high boots, a too short, too tight knit sweater, and a skirt that barely covered her butt. All the clothes she had brought with her last year when he’d moved her in with him had looked like they belonged to a hooker. She’d promptly informed him that her clothes were what girls were wearing these days, as opposed to when he’d been a kid, back in the Dark Ages.
“What do you want?” J.D asked. From his experience, whenever Zoe was pleasant to him, she wanted something.
“Let me go over to Presley’s. Please, please. I promise I’ll be back by eleven.”
“I don’t think so. It’s after eight now. Besides, I’m too tired to drive you over to --- ”
“That’s okay, J.D.” Zoe came out of her room, her leather shoulder bag slung over her arm. “Presley’s brother Dawson will pick me up. All I have to do is call her back right now.” Zoe held up her bright pink cell phone. “Please.”
He didn’t like playing the stern, disciplinarian parent, but God knew it was way past time that someone did. Apparently Carrie had allowed Zoe to do whatever she wanted to do. And now that she was forced to live with a parent who more often than not said no to her demands, she was a miserable young girl.
“Not tonight,” J.D. told her. “It’s a school night. You know the rules.”
“Screw your rules! I hate you! I hate living here with you!” She scrunched up her face, glowered at him, and then went back into her room, slamming the door behind her.
J.D. heaved a deep, labored breath. What had he ever done to deserve this? You got Carrie Davidson pregnant, that’s what.
J.D. took a hefty swig from the beer bottle as he walked back to the kitchen. He wasn’t cut out to be a father. Although he was doing his best with Zoe, his best wasn’t good enough. She was miserable and she made him miserable. She was his daughter. The DNA tests proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt. He should love her. She should love him. But she hated him and he tolerated her. He finished off the first beer as he made himself a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches and then drank another beer with his meal.
He wondered what Dr. Audrey Sherrod would think of his relationship with Zoe. They were a dysfunctional family if ever there was one. Neither had known the other existed until eighteen months ago when Carrie, dying from breast cancer, had called J.D. to say, “Congratulations, you’re the father of a bouncing baby girl.”
Burrowing into his worn leather lounge chair, J.D. picked up the remote and channel surfed, finally pausing on CNN.
Why was he thinking about Audrey Sherrod? Why had she suddenly popped into his head?
He had gotten the distinct impression that the lady didn’t like him. She certainly had looked down her nose at him. And she had a cute little nose and a rather pretty face. Not beautiful, but pretty enough if you liked her type, which he didn’t. She was tall for a woman, a good five-nine. Slender, but not quite skinny. He had noticed the way her breasts filled out the neat pin-striped jacket she had been wearing. Sufficient but not large by any means.
If you had gotten laid recently, you wouldn’t find Audrey Sherrod the least bit attractive.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Just because he had always preferred his women hot and eager didn’t mean it might not be interesting to see just what it would take to defrost Dr. Sherrod’s icy façade.
What the hell was he thinking? He sure didn’t need another woman in his life. The casual relationship he shared with Holly suited them both just fine. He didn’t think Audrey Sherrod was the type for casual, and that’s all he wanted from a woman, all he could ever offer, especially now that he had Zoe in his life.
J.D. was ashamed of the way he felt, that he considered Zoe a nuisance. What kind of parent was he? Think about what the Scotts are going through tonight. They’ve lost their daughter, and here you are moaning and groaning about your kid. You should be thankful that she’s alive and well and creating havoc in your life. I’d bet Charlie Scott would tell you that you’re one lucky SOB.
Two hours later, after consuming his third beer and falling asleep in front of the TV, J.D. woke, gathered up his shoes, jacket, and holster, and headed down the hall. He paused outside of Zoe’s closed door. He knocked softly. She didn’t respond. He turned the doorknob and to his surprise found the door unlocked. He eased open the door and peered inside the semidark room. With her hair still damp from her recent shower and wearing an oversized Jeff Gordon NASCAR sweatshirt, she lay asleep atop the covers.
J.D. slipped into the room, freed one hand from the load he was carrying, and then drew the folded bedspread up and over his daughter. He stood there for a few minutes and watched his little girl sleep. In the looks department, she’d gotten the best of Carrie and him. Actually, she looked a lot like J.D.’s sister Julia.
I’m sorry I’m not a better father. I’m sorry that I never knew you existed. I’m doing the best I can, kiddo. I promise that I’ll try not to screw things up too bad.
He reached down and ran his fingertips across her forehead, brushing aside a strand of long black hair.
You deserve better than me, Zoe. But you’re stuck with me. Like it or not, I’m your dad.
For most of her life --- certainly after the car wreck that had claimed her mother’s life when she was six --- Audrey had enjoyed a close bond with Tam’s parents, Geraldine and Willie Mullins. Geraldine was the type of mother every little girl should have --- loving, caring, attentive, putting her child’s needs before her own. A mother to her child, not a girlfriend. Tam had been raised with a strict set of rules and regulations, but at the same time her parents had trusted her completely.
“I trust Tam to always do the right thing,” Geraldine had said. “And until she proves to me that I can’t trust her, I will always believe what she tells me is the truth.”
Audrey was pretty sure that Tam’s parents felt that she had never disappointed them. She’d been salutatorian of her high school graduating class, graduated magna cum laude from UT, and had gone on to graduate first in her class at the police academy. Although Geraldine would have preferred her daughter choose a less dangerous profession, Willie had been a very proud papa when his only child chose to follow in his footsteps and join the CPD. Willie had worked his way up the ladder from patrolman to chief of police.
Audrey envied her best friend her parents and the nurturing environment in which she had grown up. And even if they had known about Tam’s one and only fall from grace, they would have forgiven her and not loved her any less. Audrey’s earliest memories were of her parents arguing. Wayne Sherrod’s job as a Chattanooga policeman had come first with him. His wife and daughter had come in a distant second. Why the bubbly, sweet-natured social butterfly Norma Colton had married a stoic, cynical, hard-nosed cop, no one understood, least of all Audrey. Maybe it had been nothing more than opposites attracting.
She had always believed that if she’d been a boy, her father would have paid more attention to her. And that theory, one she had formed early on, had been proven correct when his second wife had presented him with a son. From the moment he was born, Blake had been the center of Wayne’s life, even more important to him than his job.
She had been jealous of her baby brother and had sometimes resented him terribly. But she had also loved him. Blake had been so sweet, so adorable, so very precious. When, a month before his second birthday, he had disappeared --- assumed kidnapped --- she had been consumed with guilt. Had it been her fault in some way because she had resented that her father so obviously loved Blake more than he did her? In her nine-year-old mind, she had felt somehow at fault. It hadn’t helped that, in his desperate grief, her father had accused her and her stepbrother Hart of being glad that Blake had been abducted.
As an adult, she had come to realize that her father had known what he’d said wasn’t true, that later, he had probably regretted the harsh, unjust accusation. And although her father had never apologized, Audrey had long ago forgiven him for lashing out at two innocent children. But she hadn’t forgotten, couldn’t forget no matter how much she wished she could. She wasn’t sure her father even remembered that day in detail. But that one moment in time, that one unjust accusation, had erected a barrier between father and daughter that still existed.
Audrey saw her dad infrequently --- holidays, mostly. She called him occasionally --- on his birthday and on her birth- day --- but he seldom called her. Her dad’s relationship with his stepson Hart wasn’t any better, but at least Hart had his uncle Garth, who had stepped in and become a surrogate father to him. And even though she thought Garth was a brash, cocky, womanizing SOB, she respected him for being a dedicated policeman and for looking after Hart, for always being there for his nephew. Her stepbrother practically worshipped the man.
Audrey would have felt completely alone in the world if not for the love and attention Tam and her parents had shown her over the years. But that was only one of the many reasons she adored Geraldine and Willie Mullins.
It was her love for Tam’s parents that had brought her there tonight despite the emotionally grueling day she’d had. Nine days after her murder, Jill Scott had been laid to rest. Audrey had cleared her afternoon schedule so she could attend the funeral and be available if Mary Nell needed her. But it had been obvious to everyone that Mary Nell had been medicated, possibly overmedicated. She had done little more than sleepwalk through the church service and the burial ceremony.
It had been nine days since Jill’s parents learned their daughter’s fate. Nine days since Jill’s body had been found in a rocking chair on the Cracker Barrel porch in Lookout Valley. Nine agonizing days, and the police still didn’t have a suspect. Nine days, and Debra Gregory was still missing.
When Audrey entered the Read House in downtown Chattanooga, she searched the lobby area for Porter. They had agreed to meet there instead of him picking her up at home. He wasn’t difficult to find since he was waiting right inside the front entrance.
Spit and polish. That was Porter Bryant to a T. Always dressed impeccably, clean-shaven, styled hair, manicured nails buffed to a gloss finish, and wearing a delicate hint of expensive men’s cologne.
Porter was to the manor born, so to speak. His father had been a wealthy, high-profile lawyer and his mother a socialite who had dabbled in interior design. Audrey suspected that Porter’s mother and her mother would have gotten on famously.
“Sorry I’m late,” she told him. “After I left the Scotts, I barely had time to go home and change clothes.”
“You missed Chief Mullins’s grand entrance and the big surprise moment.” Porter’s tone held a note of censure. When she gave him a screw-you glare, he quickly added, “You look lovely, so it was worth the wait. And I’m sure with so many people here, the chief and Mrs. Mullins weren’t aware of your absence.”
When he held out his arm for her to take, Audrey graciously accepted and they walked across the lobby and entered the Hamilton Room. Geraldine and Tam had rented that room and the adjoining River City Room for the surprise sixtieth birthday party they were hosting for Willie. The moment the door opened, music, laughter, and the roar of at least two hundred voices enveloped them.
“My God, I know Geraldine didn’t invite half of Hamilton County,” Audrey said. “She wanted it to be a close friends and family event.”
“Well, if only a third of the invited guests brought a date, that would dramatically increase the number of people attending tonight. Considering that Willie Mullins is the Chattanooga police chief, one would expect a large gathering.
Certain things are expected of a high-ranking public servant.”
“I’m sure Geraldine was pressured into expanding the guest list.” No doubt by some well-meaning bureaucrat whose opinions matched Porter’s. Tam had told her there were rumors circulating that the state Democratic Party was interested in backing Willie for the U.S. Congress in the next election.
“If so, then she was a wise woman to agree. What the Mullins family does now can affect his political future,” Porter said as if Audrey was clueless about how the game of politics was played. “And Mrs. Mullins showed remarkable good taste in adhering to acceptable social etiquette for such a huge party by requesting no gifts.”
Audrey had to bite her tongue to keep from snapping at Porter. His last comment had come across as a backhanded compliment if she’d ever heard one.
Dating Porter had become a habit, one she needed to break sooner rather than later. He was handsome and could, on occasion, be charming, but he was such a snob. He seemed to be every woman’s dream --- intelligent, well-mannered, attentive, and handsome. Everyone said that he was a young man with a bright future. Even Tam had liked him when he and Audrey had first started dating, but had revised her opinion within a few weeks.
“Porter’s okay,” Tam had told her. “If you like the stuffed- shirt type. But, girlfriend, he’s so not the man for you.”
Despite Tam’s opinion and her own nagging doubts, Audrey had fallen into a comfortable routine with Porter. And what she had liked most about dating him was the fact that he hadn’t been demanding. Whenever she had to break a date, he was more than understanding. When she continuously told him she wasn’t ready for a serious relationship, he accepted the fact that she wasn’t ready, that she wanted to wait.
But wait for what? She hadn’t been specific. He hadn’t asked.
What are you waiting for, Audrey?
As Porter led her through the throng of celebrators, he said, “This is a come-and-go thing, so we don’t have to stay the entire four hours. I thought you could make your presence known, wish happy birthday to Chief Mullins, grab a few tidbits from the buffet table, drink a glass of bubbly, and then --- ”
“I intend to stay for a good while,” Audrey informed him.
“How long? I had hoped --- ”
“Porter, do not go there. Not tonight of all nights. You have to understand what a difficult day this has been for me.”
He pouted like a petulant child who had been sent to bed without his supper. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry. No pressure, darling.”
She paused alongside the dance floor and turned to the ever-accommodating Porter. “Willie Mullins is my dearest friend’s father. I love the man. I think of him and Geraldine as family. I’m not going to make a brief appearance at his sixtieth birthday party and just disappear.”
“Yes, of course, I really do understand.” Porter released his hold on her elbow. “Why don’t I find a waiter and get us some champagne.”
“Thank you. That would be nice.”
As if from out of nowhere, Tam appeared the minute Porter left. Wearing a lemon yellow silk dress that clung to her rounded curves and a pair of dewdrop pearl earrings as her only jewelry, Tam was stunningly beautiful.
She slipped her arm around Audrey’s waist. “Look at Mom and Dad. It must be wonderful to still be that much in love after all these years.”
Audrey gave her friend a squeezing hug and then glanced at the dance floor where Geraldine swayed dreamily in Willie’s big, strong arms. “Your parents are proof that there really is such a thing as happily-ever-after.”
“Your dad’s here,” Tam said. “He and your uncle Garth. And Hart.”
“How is he?” Audrey asked.
“Clean and sober, at least for tonight. He looks nice. I think he’s wearing that new suit you bought him for his last job interview.”
Audrey forced a smile. She loved her stepbrother. After Blake’s disappearance twenty-five years ago, they had bonded as siblings. They had both known that they were the expendable kids, the ones who would never be as important to her father and his mother as Blake had been. And each of them had dealt with their family’s tragedies in different ways. Audrey had focused all her energy on a profession where she could help other people deal with their own tragedy, with grief, with suffering of any kind. Hart had sought solace in drugs and alcohol. He’d been in and out of rehab half a dozen times during the past two decades, and he’d never held down a job for more than six months at a time.
“I wish I could do more to help him than just buying him a new suit.”
“My God, you’ve done all you can. And you’ve done it over and over again. What more could you do? I’m not saying Hart’s a lost cause, but...” Tam grimaced. “Hart’s got problems that you can’t fix, problems that maybe nobody can fix.”
“I know. In here” --- Audrey tapped her head --- “I know. But in here” --- she patted her chest --- “I want to believe that somehow, some way, someday...”
“Fairy Godmother Audrey.” Tam smiled. “Always wishing you could wave a magic wand and make everything all right for everyone.”
Audrey snorted, the sound quite unladylike. “Yeah, all the good that wishing does me when my damn magic wand is broken.”
“It’s good to hear you laugh,” Audrey said. “Neither of us has done much of that recently, have we. You know, in a way, it seems strange to be enjoying such a happy occasion tonight when only a few hours ago I was at Jill Scott’s funeral.”
“I try to keep my professional life and my personal life separate,” Tam said. “Most of the time, I can, but sometimes… He’s still out there, the guy who kidnapped and murdered Jill Scott. We’re no closer now to catching him than we were nine days ago. And unless all the experts are wrong, there’s a good chance that the same man abducted Debra Gregory and will kill her, too.”
“I shouldn’t have mentioned Jill tonight,” Audrey said. “I’m afraid I’m seldom able to separate myself from my client’s problems. What does that say about my professionalism?”
“Screw your professionalism. Caring too damn much about everyone else is what makes you you, and I wouldn’t change that or anything else about you.”
“Only because you love me like a sister.”
“Got that damn straight.” Tam’s gaze fixed on something or someone behind Audrey. Her eyes widened and a quirky smile played at the corners of her mouth. “Don’t look now, but tall, dark, and could-eat-him-with-a-spoon is here, right behind us and coming this way.”
“Who are you talking about?”
When Audrey started to turn around, Tam grabbed her by the forearms. “Don’t turn around. Not yet,” Tam said under her breath. “Damn, he’s not alone.”
“For goodness sakes, who are you --- ?”
“Well, hello there,” Tam said to the person standing behind Audrey. “How are you tonight?”
Why was Tam acting so odd? Audrey turned and, despite her six-foot height in her three-inch heels, had to look up slightly to be face-to-face with the man. J.D. Cass, the TBI agent she’d met nine days ago when she had accompanied the Scott family to the Lookout Valley Cracker Barrel, smiled at her. He was the guy whose “you’re not an M.D.” comment had irritated her. Not only that, but the way he’d looked at her had irritated her, too. And the fact that she had found him attractive irritated her. Hell, everything about the man irritated her.
“Audrey, you remember Special Agent Cass, don’t you?” Tam glanced from the TBI agent to the bosomy woman hanging on his arm.
For some reason, Audrey disliked the lovely blond on sight. It wasn’t like her to feel instant hostility toward someone. Maybe it was because the woman was so gorgeous and obviously sexy, her attitude all but screaming, I’m prettier than you are. Ha-ha-ha.
Okay, so she still had a few hang-ups about her looks, especially whenever she compared herself to someone as blatantly feminine and sexy as J.D. Cass’s date. Audrey had always been big for her age. Above average height, small breasts, big feet, and at best moderately attractive instead of beautiful. And she’d certainly never filled out a dress the way this woman did.
“Nice to see you again, Tam,” J.D. said, but he was looking at Audrey. “And you, too, Dr. Sherrod.” Without taking his eyes off Audrey, he introduced the woman at his side. “You both know Holly Johnston, don’t you?”
“Ms. Johnston and I have met,” Tam replied.
Before Audrey could mention that she didn’t know Ms. Johnston, Porter reappeared with their champagne. When he saw the other couple, he smiled at the voluptuous blonde in the slinky red dress. The dress barely reached the woman’s knees, revealed a great deal of cleavage, and dipped to her waist in the back.
“You’re looking beautiful, as always, Counselor,” Porter said, his glance blatantly enjoying the scenery. “Holly, have you met my date, Dr. Audrey Sherrod?” He placed his arm possessively around Audrey’s waist. “Sweetheart, you’ve heard me mention Holly. We work together.”
“We were just getting around to introductions.” Audrey did her best to smile. She had learned over the years how to put on a pleasant face and act agreeable regardless of how she actually felt.
So, Holly, the blond goddess, was an assistant district attorney, just as Porter was. She vaguely remembered him mentioning this drop-dead-gorgeous woman in the DA’s office who was a real barracuda in the courtroom. Audrey suspected that J.D. Cass’s date was a barracuda in the bedroom, too.
“Y’all will have to excuse me,” Tam said. “I see my husband motioning for me. I think it’s almost time to bring out Dad’s birthday cake.”
Within minutes of Tam’s departure, DA Everett Harrelson joined them and the conversation quickly turned into shop talk with Porter, Holly, and their boss. Audrey took several discreet steps back and away from the foursome, hoping she could inconspicuously slip away so that she could wish Willie a happy birthday before they presented him with his cake. Audrey thought she wouldn’t be missed for several minutes and was about to make her escape when Special Agent Cass smoothly maneuvered himself away from Holly, who didn’t seem to notice that she was losing her date. At least temporarily.
J.D. came up beside Audrey. “Looks like our dates are ignoring us.” He held out his hand. “Would you care to dance, Dr. Sherrod?’
Audrey hesitated for half a second. “I...uh...”
“It’s just a dance, not a lifetime commitment,” he said jokingly.
“Thank you, Special Agent Cass, I’d love to dance.”
She took his hand and he led her onto the dance floor.
“My name’s J.D.,” he told her as he slipped his arm around her.
“Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
“What?” She eyed him quizzically.
“Our getting on a first-name basis.”
“Are we playing some sort of game, J.D.? If we are, clue me in.”
He chuckled, and damn it, she liked the sound. Deep and robust and genuine.
“You have a nice smile,” he told her.
She hadn’t even been aware that she was smiling. “Do you always flirt with every woman you meet?”
“Who says I’m flirting?”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing, flirting with me because you’re aggravated that your date is distracted by her boss and coworker?”
He chuckled again, as if he found her comment highly amusing.
Audrey felt a flush of heat warm her from head to toes. She hoped her sudden awareness of just how close her dance partner was holding her didn’t show on her face.
“You’re an open book,” Tam had once told her. “Everything you’re feeling shows on your face.”
“Holly and I don’t have that kind of relationship,” J.D. said.
“What kind is that?”
“The kind where I’d be aggravated or jealous that she’s ignoring me in favor of spending time with her boss and her coworker.”
“Then you two aren’t seriously involved?”
“I’m never seriously involved. Not since my divorce six years ago. What about you --- are you and Beau Brummell engaged, going steady, or just sleeping together?”
Audrey laughed spontaneously, thoroughly amused by J.D. dubbing the fastidious Porter with the name of the best- known dandy of all time.
“Porter and I are not engaged,” she said. “And we’re a little too old to go steady. Besides, I think that term is passé, but I have no idea what teenagers call it these days.” She gave her last statement several moments of consideration before saying, “And whether or not we’re sleeping together is none of your business.”
Damn if the man wasn’t dangerously sexy. And he probably knew it. Guys like that always did, didn’t they?
“You’re absolutely right,” he said. “It would be my business only if you and I were --- ”
“And we are not!” Audrey, Audrey, why did you finish the man’s sentence for him? Why such an adamant statement of fact?
With that damn sexy smile unwavering, he agreed. “No, we aren’t.”
As if on cue the music stopped, the dance ended, and J.D. led her off the dance floor. She pulled away from him.
“I’m going to find Willie and wish --- ”
Too late. The waiters wheeled out an enormous six-tier cake placed in the center of a serving cart and the band played “Happy Birthday.” The partygoers, including Audrey and J.D., joined in the song. As the well-wishers crowded together around the guest of honor, J.D. eased his arm around Audrey’s waist. Ambivalent feelings toward the man warred inside her and a damn army of butterflies did a war dance in her belly.
Debra didn’t know if it was daylight or dark outside in the real world. Here in the macabre otherworld in which she existed, it was always night. It could be twelve noon or twelve midnight for all she knew. It could be Monday or Friday. Perhaps she had been here for a week, or it could have been a month.
What did it matter?
“Rock him to sleep,” the voice told her. “Lovingly. Tenderly. He needs a mother’s gentle touch.”
She held the bundle in her arms and immediately began crooning the lullaby she knew he expected her to sing to the object wrapped in the soft blue blanket. How many times had they repeated this ritual? Dozens? Hundreds? She had lost count. Odd how rocking and singing to the skeleton of a small child had become a routine, one she no longer viewed with utter horror. Her entire world was now confined to this small space, an area with hard floors and walls too distant to see in the semidarkness in which she now lived. As far as she knew, the rocking chair where she was confined was the only piece of furniture in the room.
He had not harmed her, at least not physically. He kept her feet loosely bound so that even when she was allowed to move around, she had to hobble. And whenever he left her, he tied her wrists to the chair arms. He brought her food and water. He allowed her to wash herself and even brush her hair; and he provided an old-fashioned slop jar for her to use. But the indignity of having to bathe in front of him and even relieve herself with him standing nearby had added to the emotional trauma she had endured every moment of her captivity.
In the beginning, she had been afraid that he would rape her, but it soon became apparent that his reasons for abducting her and holding her prisoner had nothing to do with sex.
Then she’d wondered if he would eventually torture her. He hadn’t. But the psychological torment was just as bad as physical torture would have been, perhaps worse.
She felt him move away from his stance behind the rocker, where he always stood when she performed. And that’s what it felt like --- a performance. Where was he going? His leaving while she still held the blanket-wrapped bundle was not part of the normal routine.
Her voice momentarily faltered.
“Keep singing,” he told her.
She continued with the lullaby, repeating the words over and over, making up new verses as she went along.
Within minutes, he came up behind her again, but instead of standing guard over her, he reached around her and laid a small pillow across her lap. Since that first time when he had placed what she had thought was a doll in her arms, she had avoided glancing down at it, but she looked at her lap, at the age-yellowed white satin pillow trimmed with tattered blue ribbons. It was a baby’s pillow.
“Do what you know you must do,” he said.
“I don’t understand.”
“You must send him to heaven where he’ll be one of the little angels.”
“What? I don’t know what you mean. What do you want me to do?”
“Pick up the pillow.”
“Lay it gently over his face.”
“Hold it there and keep singing and rocking him until he goes to sleep.”
Until he goes to sleep?
Realization dawned. Until he’s dead.
“You want me to smother him?” she asked.
“You don’t want him to suffer any longer, do you?”
She lifted the pillow and placed it over the bundle she held.
“It’ll all be over soon,” the man’s voice whispered softly... sadly.
Believing he meant the make-believe child in her arms would soon stop breathing, she felt a sense of immediate relief when he lifted the pillow, put it in her lap, and took the bundle from her. For now, it was over. He would tie her wrists to the chair and leave her here. Until the next time.
In the beginning, she had tried to get away from him, but each time he’d caught her before she had gotten more than a few feet. After being shoved onto the floor, face down, several times, she had stopped trying to escape.
She waited there in the rocking chair, waited for him to tie her wrists to the arms and then leave her. But when he reached around her from behind, there were no ropes in his hands.
Instead, he lifted the pillow from her lap and brought it up and over her face. She didn’t realize what he intended to do, not until he pushed the pillow against her face and held it there.
Excerpted from DON'T CRY © Copyright 2010 by Beverly Barton. Reprinted with permission by Zebra Books. All rights reserved.