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
“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
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
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
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
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
Since she hadn’t exactly gotten the idea of
“fetch” down yet, she took off running again with her
Finally, when she realized he wasn’t going to chase after
her, she returned, dropped it beneath a nearby tree. Then barked an
After retrieving a flashlight from the house, Sax sauntered
“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
“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
“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,
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
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
“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?”
“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.
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“You’re a good man, Deputy O’Roarke,”
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 are the gloves,” Edna announced. “Right
out of the package. And I brought you a Ziploc bag to put the
“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
“I always had a note,” he claimed, sounding genu
“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
“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,
“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
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
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
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
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
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.
The mutt, always eager to please her benefactor, raced
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
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
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
“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
“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
“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,
“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
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
“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
“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
“How are you doing, Kara?” he asked.
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
“I know that. But I was asking about you. Not
“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
“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
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
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
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.