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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.

 

Samhain Publishing, Ltd.

577 Mulberry Street, Suite 1520

Macon GA 31201

 

Beautiful Girl

Copyright © 2008 by Shiloh Walker

ISBN: 1-59998-873-9

Edited by Heidi Moore

Cover by Scott Carpenter

 

All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

 

First Samhain Publishing, Ltd. electronic publication: January 2008

www.samhainpublishing.com

Beautiful Girl

 

 

 

Shiloh Walker

Chapter One

Coming home was both heaven and hell. Delilah Prescott pulled her beat up Corolla off the two lane highway, right in front of the welcome sign. Welcome to Prescott, Tennessee—Small Town, Big Heart. Located in the mostly rural county of Pike near the Tennessee/Kentucky border, the town’s main claim to fame was that Daniel Boone had spent some time in the general area.

It was a nice little town, though. Just about everybody knew each other and even strangers were made to feel welcome. Lots of strangers, especially on weekends and in the summer. Just south of Lake Cumberland, Prescott was a stopping point, watering hole and overnight lodging for all the families that flocked to the lake that didn’t want to say at the campground but didn’t have the money for the rental cabins.

The lake was a popular vacation spot during the hot months of July and August. Over the past twenty years or so, Prescott had become something of an antique mecca. The result was tourism coming through the small town on a regular basis. Small shops lined Main Street and from what she could tell, some of the retail prosperity had spread out past the immediate area of downtown.

She saw what looked like a for real steakhouse. Not just the diner or Lula’s Café. A real restaurant, complete with neon sign. She wondered what else had changed in the past twelve years.

Besides her, of course.

“God.” Del closed her eyes and prayed she had the strength to do this. Divine intervention was the only thing that had given her the strength to come down here and judging from the watery state of her knees, she was going to need a lot more divine help to keep from jumping back in the car and leaving as fast as she could.

But she couldn’t keep running. She was tired of it.

Besides, she’d made herself a promise and she was going to keep it. She was going to kill the one person she’d kept in contact with. Not very frequent contact, but enough that the bastard knew where to find her. Vance Prescott was her cousin, and she loved him dearly, but she was going to kill him for passing her address on to Manda Jones. If he hadn’t shared her address with her old school friend, then Del wouldn’t have been standing here dealing with this dilemma.

For years, she hadn’t talked to anybody from her childhood home but then she’d run into Vance in Cincinnati. They’d spent a couple hours talking—not about what had sent Del running. The one friend that Del had told was dead, and Del wasn’t interesting in sharing her miserable history with anybody else.

But they’d talked. Just about things. Old friends. Life. Vance was a teacher at the county high school now. Sounded like he was good at it, too. He definitely seemed to enjoy his job.

A pity, because she was still going to kill him. The only reason she’d given him any contact information was because Vance had deduced just why she didn’t want to give it to him. I won’t share it with anybody—definitely not your mom. I just want to keep in contact.

So she had given it to him. Del wanted no contact, none, with the ice-cold woman that had given birth to her. There was no chance in hell that Louisa had changed and even if she had, the sense of betrayal, shame and outrage wouldn’t let Del forgive what the woman had done to her.

“Stop dragging your feet,” she muttered. “This probably won’t be too bad.” Del had missed home. No matter that she had made a life for herself in Cincinnati, no matter that she was making a difference there, Prescott was home.

She’d even enjoyed her short emails back and forth with Manda. Manda was one thing that definitely hadn’t changed, at least not much. Her best friend from childhood still didn’t know how to accept no for an answer. It was time for the 10 year reunion for the graduating class of Pike County High School, 1997. Manda headed up the reunion committee and she wanted Delilah there.

Manda hadn’t listened to Del when she pointed out, “I didn’t graduate with you, Manda.”

“Oh, since when did that matter? Come on, honey… I miss you.”

Those simple words had put a knot in Del’s throat. She missed Manda. She missed home. And Blake… Del turned away from the welcome sign. She wasn’t going to think about Blake Mitchell. Wouldn’t do her any good. As she circled the car, she realized was literally dragging her feet. Resolutely, she straightened her shoulders and forced down the dread sliding inside her.

She wasn’t a kid anymore. Whatever came flying at her this time, she could handle.

Del took a deep, steadying breath. “Let’s get this over with,” she muttered. With an automatic, absent gesture, she flipped her braids back over her shoulders before putting the car back into drive. She checked the rearview mirror and pulled back onto the highway.

A glance at the clock on the dashboard told her she still had a good hour to kill before she was supposed to meet Manda at the diner. Manda had wanted to meet at Lula’s but it was Wednesday. The entire time Del was growing up, her mother had afternoon tea with the Ladies’ Group at Lula’s, every Wednesday, like clockwork.

There was no way in hell that Del was ready to see her mother. Matter of fact, she’d be happy to go the entire time without that particular event taking place.

Instead of heading toward the diner, she drove up High Street until she reached Main. A left turn took her into the small heart of Prescott and she couldn’t help but smile a little as she saw the old courthouse. The town square looked the same. The big statue of Daniel Boone was still surrounded by a riot of color, flowers that the Ladies maintained. Well, money from the Ladies. The Ladies were the well-to-do women of Pike County and most of them wouldn’t dare soil their hands, even if it was to plant flowers.

The ice cream parlor was still there, the pink and white striped awning fluttering in the hot afternoon breeze. It was busy, young and old, gathering inside and taking up the little bitty tables in front of the windows. Across the street, on the courthouse grounds, were more tables, larger picnic tables that had teenaged kids sitting on the benches or the table surface itself.

A faint smile curved her lips. She could remember hot summer nights spent cruising around the square, holding Blake Mitchell’s hand in one of hers, and the other hand holding an ice cream cone. Double Chocolate Swirl, her favorite, from Macy’s Dairy Barn. Afternoons spent down at the lake.

Late one hot summer night, she had spent some very hot and heavy minutes with Blake on a table in the Square, on one of those very tables. They’d made out, gotten themselves so worked up, they just might have gone all the way, right there in the open, if Blake’s older brother hadn’t come driving up. She wondered if Travis was still the sheriff.

Travis was fifteen years older than Blake. Del had adored him. He was funny, kind and he always treated her like a kid sister. She’d asked herself a million times what would have happened if she’d gone to him. Instead of running. He would have believed her. Looking back now, she knew that. He would have believed her and her entire life might have been different.

“Don’t go there, Del,” she whispered. Propping her elbow on the car door, she rested her cheek against her palm. The light in front of her changed, but she didn’t notice until the old guy in the pickup behind her honked his horn. She waved in apology and pulled over. Driving around probably wasn’t the best idea. At least not until she could get all the memories crowding her head under control.

“I should have waited until Friday. Or not come at all,” she mumbled as a heavy ball of nausea started to churn inside her gut. She climbed out of the car and stared across the street at Lula’s. Two o’clock. Right on time to see that the Ladies did indeed still meet for afternoon tea. She could see them all filing inside, laughing and talking to one another, wearing pretty pastels and soft whites, their hair fixed to perfection. Although she wasn’t close enough to see, she’d knew they’d all be wearing their make up perfectly and their clothes would be accented with just the right amount of jewelry.

The Ladies took themselves quite seriously.

Del turned away from the café. She hadn’t seen her mother and she didn’t want to.

Behind her was Bess’s Bookstore. Faintly, she smiled and then the smile grew until it was a full-out, happy grin. Before high school, before Blake, Bess’s had been her favorite place in the whole world. She wondered if Bess was still around. Ducking her head through the driver’s window, Del snagged the strap of her small messenger-bag purse. She pulled the strap over her head and settled the purse against her hip, automatically covering it with her hand. Nobody was going to try and lift her purse here, but old habits died hard.

The scent of books, cinnamon and coffee flooded her senses. And when the old woman behind the counter lifted her head and smiled in her direction, Del decided the idea hadn’t been a total disaster.

 

***

 

“I still can’t get over how different you look,” Manda mused. She was quiet for a minute, a rare occurrence, as she sipped her coffee and studied Del. The pretty, freckle-faced redhead looked around. Over the past hour and a half, the diner had emptied out and even the guy at the counter had quit paying so much attention to them and gone out front for a smoke break.

They were completely alone and Del felt her stomach knot as Manda lowered the coffee cup and pinned her with a hard look. “So are you going to tell me what happened? Why you left? Where you went?”

Del shifted around in the padded booth and tried to figure out what to say. She’d known that Manda would ask. As would others. And she had no idea what to say. “Does it really matter? After twelve years?”

Manda looked down at her hands. She had a big, shiny rock on her left hand. She’d ended up marrying somebody from outside of Pike County, a doctor. He’d set up a family practice just off of Main Street, so Prescott actually had two doctors now. Talk about metropolitan, Del thought with a smirk.

“Your mom said she sent you off to a private school up north,” Manda said. Although her voice didn’t change, there was a flicker of doubt in her eyes. “Is that where you went?”

Del licked her lips, uncertain what to say. She’d wondered what story Louisa Prescott Sanders had concocted to explain away her daughter’s sudden disappearance.

Manda reached over and covered Del’s hand, squeezing gently. “You weren’t at some ritzy private school, were you?”

Del turned her hand over and linked her fingers with Manda’s. “Hard to believe that people thought you were the airhead of our bunch,” she said, forcing herself to smile.

“What happened, Dee? What happened with you? I mean, I expected you would look a little different. Shoot, I was even prepared to be mad at you, or not like you, taking off like that. You never wrote. You never called. Never came home for holidays. Part of me didn’t want to like you. But I know you.” Manda smiled, but it was a sad one. “We’ve been friends practically since we were in diapers. Something happened and I want to know what.”

 

***

 

The pampered princess of Pike County was back. Delilah Prescott, junior homecoming queen, had been the most beautiful girl in town and she came from one of the richest families in the county, if not the richest. Her family owned half the land in the area and had for going back more than a century.

She’d also been the love of his teenage years, the subject of more wet dreams than he could remember—and the first and only woman to break his heart.

Blake hadn’t seen Delilah yet, but everybody seemed to be humming about her return. He’d heard at least ten different times that his old girlfriend was back in town, and had seriously changed over the past twelve years.

Blake glanced in the mirror and smirked a little. Had she changed as much as he had? He smoothed a hand over the gleaming surface of his bald head before grabbing the black Bandana and covering his scalp with it. It had been five years since he’d finished chemo and radiation treatments and the doctors had diagnosed a complete recovery from the Hodgkin’s Disease. Blake had more or less accepted his hair wasn’t coming back.

As long as the cancer didn’t come back, then Blake could deal with the lack of hair just fine. Pretty damn easy, too, considering he was alive and he felt good. There was no more weakness and nagging exhaustion he’d written off as a bad flu bug, hangover, a hundred other insignificant things. Blake had been in a car wreck and his trip to the ER had saved his life. Something weird showed up in his blood count and instead of being checked out for a concussion and broken ribs, he was admitted for what seemed like two thousand tests.

Weird, all it took was one second to change a man forever. He went from being young and living hard to a full and complete stop. He could have died. He’d ignored the little nagging symptoms for too long and by the time the doctors caught it, he was in Stage III.

Blake was lucky, though. He’d had an entire town praying for him, hoping he’d come through and his own stubbornness. He hadn’t been ready to die, not at twenty-one. Even through the years of treatment that followed and he was so sick from the chemo, his desperation hadn’t ever gotten to the point that he had been ready to quit fighting.

If it wasn’t for the bald head, he could almost pretend those few years hadn’t happened. Well, if he wanted to. He didn’t want to forget. Nothing will change your life quite like the words, It’s cancer. A man hears those words and it will do some serious things to him. The years spent in hospitals, all the treatments and all the tests, made a guy reevaluate everything.

It also made him grow up—real fast.

Yeah, he’d changed. He was pretty damn sure that Delilah couldn’t have changed nearly as much as he had. The first two years after she’d left town, he’d run wild, getting into so much trouble it was a miracle his brother hadn’t killed him. Poor Travis had hauled him into jail a dozen times and threatened to throw away the key more than once.

Almost flunking out of high school, barely eking through the first couple years of college, sometimes Blake wondered it was another miracle that he’d even lived long enough for the Hodgkin’s to start trying to kill him. Those first two years of college were just a haze of nonstop parties and last minute cram sessions so he could just scrape by with a passing grade. If he hadn’t wanted to come home and see that disappointment in Mom’s eyes, he wouldn’t have bothered with the cram sessions.

Then he was in that wreck with Douglas Maynard. Doug had been driving, totally plastered. Blake hadn’t been too sober himself, but he had lived through the wreck. Doug hadn’t. Between watching a friend die right in front of him and surviving cancer, Blake figured he didn’t have too much in common with his ex-girlfriend.

Even if he did still dream about her.

As he left his room, he heard the maid talking with his mom’s personal nurse, Tammy. Two years ago, Evangeline Mitchell had suffered a series of minor strokes, culminating in a massive one that paralyzed her left side. Tammy Schultz had been with them since they’d brought Evangeline back to Bel Rive from the hospital.

 Although the doctors had argued Evangeline might do better in a rehab facility, Blake and his brother knew she needed to be at home. Bel Rive, the Mitchell family estate, had been her home for more than fifty years—It was where she belonged. Hiring the personal nurse had been a compromise, and Tammy had been with them ever since.

Their voices were too low to hear everything, but he heard Delilah’s name…and more references about her lunch with Manda at the diner. Exactly how much how Dee changed, he wondered?

Maybe put on fifty pounds and had two or three kids. Oddly enough, that thought didn’t really disturb Blake. One of the dreams that bothered him the most was the one where he’d ended up marrying Dee. The dream had them down at the lake in the cabin he’d inherited from his dad and they were making love in the bedroom. From time to time, the dream did change but what usually happened was the sound of a crying baby or a laughing kid interrupted them.

The laughing kid or crying baby didn’t bother Blake at all. He wanted kids. As his friends all got married, one by one, he wanted a family more and more, but there just wasn’t a woman he was interested in. Except Dee. Even after twelve years, she was the only one he dreamed about. The only woman who could put that ache in his chest when he thought about her too long. Blake hadn’t ever gotten over her and he knew it.

So no, thinking about Dee and a couple of kids surrounding her didn’t bother him. What bothered him about that mental image was the imagined ring on her left hand. “Shit. You’ve got to get past this.” He finished buttoning his shirt and paused to look in the mirror.

He’d been a deputy with the sheriff’s department the past three years. It had taken some time to convince everybody that he wasn’t the invalid people wanted to think he was. Not that he looked sick but the Town Council wasn’t exactly made up of the most open minded people. Cancer meant a person was sick. Even after he’d been declared cancer free and healthy. That was all there was to it, as far as they were concerned. Convincing them otherwise had taken Blake a while but it had been worth it.

Last year when Travis was voted the town mayor, his deputy Louis Conrad stepped up as sheriff and Blake was now the deputy sheriff. The first few months, he continued wearing the deputy uniform, but eventually, he started wearing a plain white shirt and jeans or khakis, the same as Louis did, the same as Travis had done. He kept his badge on his belt and his weapon under a plain sports coat and that was as good a uniform as any, as far as Blake was concerned.

Normally, he didn’t pay his reflection any more attention than necessary, but this time, he lingered. He eyed the black cloth he wore on his head and for the first time in a couple of years, it made him feel self-conscious.

People lost their hair with chemo and radiation. Most of them grew it back. Blake never did. Of course, Travis had been bald by the time he was thirty, so there was a chance Blake would have ended up like this any way. He figured going quick and clean was better than clinging to the illusion of a full head of hair and wasting money on crap that didn’t work.

But it wasn’t just that. Even without the total lack of hair, though, he looked different than he had in high school.

Older. Not just physically. The youth and innocence had been gone a long time but he hadn’t really realized just how jaded he looked now. He had put back on the weight he’d lost when he’d had been sick, and then some. He ran religiously and lifted weights, drove forty minutes so he could take Shaolin karate in Hancock three times a week.

After spending years sick and weak, he wasn’t ever doing it again so physical fitness was like a religion for him. He hadn’t turned into a leaf-eating vegetarian or anything—he wasn’t going to take it so seriously that he gave up a good steak or onion rings, but he was careful.

He didn’t look bad, he guessed.

Just different.

At least he and Dee would be on equal ground, he figured.

Chapter Two

Something happened and I want to know what, Manda had said.

Something.

Yeah. Something happened, all right. Del wasn’t ready to talk about it and she could tell by the look in Manda’s eyes that her old friend wasn’t buying Del’s vague answer, It’s been twelve years. All sorts of somethings have happened. But, bless her, Manda hadn’t pushed.

The subject wasn’t closed, though. Far from it. Manda wasn’t going to leave it alone. If Del was lucky, though, she’d leave it alone long enough for Del to get through the reunion, to prove to herself she could, and then slip away.

But Del wasn’t very convinced things would go her way.

Eight hours after the lunch with Manda, she stood in front of the brightly lit mirror in the guest bathroom. Mrs. Manda Monroe was as stubborn now as she had been in high school. When Del had said she was staying at the little lakeside resort twenty minutes outside of town, Manda had almost thrown a fit. “You’ll stay with me.” She didn’t even ask Del why she didn’t go stay at the manor. When Del tried to argue, Manda had played the ace up her sleeve. “You stay at there and your folks will show up. Louisa can’t have her daughter staying at so       me middle class hotel.”

Del’s lip curled at the reference to Louisa and her second husband. That was all it would take, and Manda had known it. Even after all these years, Manda knew Del’s sore spots.

Del wasn’t going to risk having either of them showing up at her door. Manda was one of the few who knew how distant and strained the relationship between Del and Louisa had been and she’d known exactly how to handle Del. When Del reluctantly accepted, Manda had smiled with satisfaction. “I’ll even let you watch me send them away,” Manda had promised.

But Louisa wouldn’t come to Manda’s. She wouldn’t risk Del airing their personal affairs with an audience. Not considering just how ugly those personal affairs were.

So instead of an impersonal hotel room, Del was standing in the pretty blue and white bathroom and staring at her reflection. Yes. She was different.

She had finally grown her hair out so that it was a little past her shoulders. It was a momentous thing for her. For years, she hadn’t been able to stand the feel of it around her shoulders so she’d kept it cropped to chin length. In high school, the butter-yellow curls had fallen to her waist.

He’d used her hair to… Dee moaned as the memories swarmed up, swamping her. Beautiful little slut—you know you were made for this, weren’t you, beautiful girl? The ugly, hated memories surrounded her, sucking her under. She felt like she was going to drown in them.

Del covered her eyes, as if that would help. It didn’t, though. She heard his voice, clear as if he was standing there. Beautiful girl, my beautiful little bitch, tell me you like it. She could feel his hands on her, shoving her to her knees and pulling her hair as he made her open her mouth and—

Del whimpered and the high pitched, helpless sound echoed through the bathroom. The sound of it snapped her out of the memory fog and she slapped a hand over her mouth to muffle it. “Shit. Shit. Shit.” She turned on the faucet and splashed the icy water on her face. The nausea didn’t recede but through sheer will power, she managed to throttle the memories down and she managed to keep from puking.

Barely.

That last night, after William Sanders raped her, she had taken a pair of scissors from the kitchen and chopped her hair off until it was no more than an inch long all over her head. It wasn’t enough, though. A few days after she ran away from Prescott, she had bought a box of hair dye and died the choppy blonde strands black.

A few years ago, she’d stopped dyeing it black, settling on a dark, nondescript brown. She didn’t look quite so pale and most of the kids she worked with stopped treating her like she was trying to pull a Goth routine just to establish some kind of connection. She straightened it regularly. The natural curls were another reminder of the life she ran away from, the life of Prescott’s princess and she hadn’t wanted any reminders.

A professional stylist could get rid of the curls and it just took a few regular trips to the salon each year to maintain the razor-straight tresses. She kept her hair braided, she never wore make up and instead of the fun, fashionable clothes she’d once worn, she wore cargo pants or jeans, boots or tennis shoes. And long sleeve shirts. Always long sleeves.

Water dripped from her hands and face as she turned off the water. But instead of straightening up and drying her face off, she remained bent over the sink. Her fingers shook she traced the scar on her left wrist. There was a matching one on her right wrist. Faded now, but she remembered how they had looked when she had first left the hospital ten years ago. It wasn’t the first time she’d attempted suicide, but it was the only time she’d come really close.

If that couple hadn’t taken a break and pulled their truck over when they did, Del would have bled to death in that little interstate rest stop in Ohio For a very, very long, Del wished that nice lady straight to hell for daring to save her life.

Not now, though. Not even being back here was enough to make her yearn for death. She didn’t even want blood. She had come here to see Manda—she missed her old friend. And yes, Del could admit it, she wanted to see Blake and all the friends she’d left behind when she ran away.

She’d come back to prove to herself that she could and she’d come back to face her past. Even though she sincerely didn’t want to see her mother, or William, she was going to.

Before she left, Del was going to face Louisa Prescott over what that cold-hearted bitch had allowed to happen—and she’d get answers. Not until Del was ready, though. She’d deal with her mother when she was ready and not a minute before.

Mama, he raped me

The lies you tell, Delilah. So unbecoming…

Unbecoming. That was why Louisa allowed it. If William was raping Del, he wouldn’t bother his wife. Sex was an untidy, messy business the lady didn’t want to mess with. Never mind that her daughter was being assaulted in the other wing. It kept up for two long months, the entire summer before Del would have started her junior year in high school. Manda had gone to visit her grandmother in Corpus Christi and both Blake and Vance were away at some kind of sports camp for part of the summer and then they had a trip to Ireland that Blake’s mother paid for.

Del had been alone. She had plenty of casual friends, but she hadn’t trusted any of them enough to tell them what was happening. Her own mother pretended ignorance or accused Del of lying. Who else was she going to turn to?

Del had been so humiliated, so mortified. Completely alone, terrified, ashamed and she hadn’t known what to do when William first showed up in her room.

At first, it had been oral sex. The humiliation of that had been bad enough but after a few weeks, he had gotten bored with it. He started raping her, once, twice and sometimes three nights a week. The few times she tried to fight, he beat her until she blacked out from the pain and then he raped her while she was unconscious.

The last time, he’d come in and looked at her, that cruel smile on his mouth. She’d snapped. She picked up her lamp and threw it at him. It caught him on the shoulder and she’d tried to run past him but he had grabbed her and shoved her to the ground, face first. He’d held her down with his knee digging into her back. He tore off the thick flannel pajamas and her underwear but instead of forcing himself in like he usually did, he’d…

Instinctively, Del clenched her buttocks together. If she thought the rapes were bad, they were nothing compared to the pain she’d experienced when he sodomized her. She’d been bleeding when he left and continued to bleed off and on for two days. She’d been a mess of bruises, despair and desperation when she climbed off the floor and went into the shower and she had only one thing in mind.

Getting the hell out.

She’d sworn she wouldn’t ever come back, either.

So what was she doing here now? Del heaved out a sigh and pushed away from the sink. She left the bathroom and went over to the bed. It was piled high with fat comforters and warm blankets and fluffy pillows. She grabbed a pillow and clutched it her chest as she leaned back against the headboard.

No matter how much she’d missed her friends, she hadn’t wanted to come back here. But she was tired of living in fear and if that meant returning home, even for just a few days, she’d damn well do it.

 

***

 

“She's doin’ what?” Blake repeated. He lowered his coffee cup and looked at Joe, searching for some sign the old man was pulling one over on him. All he saw was a puzzled look. Yeah, Blake was a little puzzled himself. “You’re serious. Deedee works at a homeless shelter?”

Joe swiped a cloth down the already pristine counter and shrugged. “That’s what I heard from Maude. Does counseling type stuff for runaways and that sort of thing. Up in Cincinnati.”

His wife Maude had no doubt heard it through the grapevine. “I don’t believe it,” Blake muttered.

Joe nodded toward the door. “Well, you can ask for yourself. She’s on her way in here with her cousin.”

Blake’s heart leaped inside his chest. He hoped nothing he felt showed on his face as he turned and looked out the big window. He saw Vance. His old football buddy was still as big as he’d been in high school, but some of the hard muscle had softened. His wife didn’t seem to mind. She said he was like a big teddy bear now. And every time she said it, Vance blushed like a girl.

The woman at his side, though, didn’t look a damn thing like Deedee Prescott. Her hair was dark, nearly black. It was hard to tell with the way she had it braided, but it looked straight as a pin, too. Dee had the most beautiful, amazing blonde curls, curls that looked almost too perfect to be real. A pale blonde that on most people, he’d say came out of a box, but he knew in detail just how natural a blonde she was.

Deedee had dressed like the princess she was, wearing cute, flirty clothes that showcased her pinup girl body.

The woman walked beside Vance had a weird Goth/punk thing going on. There was a black cord around her neck and Blake caught sight of something silver hanging from it. The shirt she wore was form fitting, outlining a rather magnificent pair of breasts before disappearing into a pair of loose, almost baggy pants that she kept cinched around her waist with a wide belt. Thick-soled boots completed the ensemble.

She looked like she was dressed to fight, Blake realized. Well, maybe not fight. She didn’t look like she was out cruising for trouble, but she sure as hell looked ready to deal with it if it happened her way. This dark haired woman carried herself with a tense, wary grace, ready to defend herself or take off running. Like she’d had to do both in the past, and she was prepared to do either or both again.

The bell over the door chimed and Vance held the door open. The woman stepped through and Blake almost turned away. That wasn’t Deedee. But then her eyes met his and his heart stopped.

Oh, shit.

Those pretty, misty green eyes were unmistakable. He had dreamed about those eyes more times than he cared to remember. But her gaze wasn’t so soft now—hell, with the exception of the breasts straining under the thin cotton of her shirt, nothing about her looked soft.

She wasn’t just dressed to fight. She was prepared to fight.

He’d been wrong. That was Deedee, all right, but she’d changed. The sweet, fun party girl she had been in high school was gone, long dead if the look in her eyes was any indication. The woman in front of him had nothing sweet or fun inside her.

Something hard and cold settled inside him as he studied her.

The look in her eyes, unfortunately, wasn’t one he was unfamiliar with. He knew it all too well. Prescott was a small town in a small county, but it wasn’t Mayberry. Bad shit happened here. The average citizen could overlook it, many were probably unaware of it. A man working for the sheriff’s office didn’t have the luxury of not seeing it, though.

The kind of things that caused the hardness he saw in Deedee’s eyes were the kind of things that made him hate his job. That look came from going through hell, kicking and screaming. Not everybody made it through the journey and many that did make it through were broken. All of them were different.

Nobody could survive a trip through hell and not be a different person on the other side. Dee had taken that trip but she hadn’t emerged broken. No, she was stronger. Harder.

What in the hell had happened to her?

A sick, ugly rage started to form inside him and for a minute, Blake saw nothing but red. Every protective instinct he had came snarling to the surface and the adrenaline that crashed through him had his heart pounding, his fists clenching.

Breathing through the rage took every shred of control he had.

 

***

 

Vance said something and Del smiled a little. She’d forgotten what a goofball the big guy was. After the first few minutes, she hadn’t felt so awkward around him and she was glad. At least she still felt like there was somebody she could call family.

“So you seen Blake yet?” Vance asked, his voice too casual.

“No,” Del said, trying to sound as casual as her cousin but she had a feeling she failed.

“Manda talk about him much?”

With a restless shrug, Del said, “Just to say he was still around. We had a lot of catching up to do.” Actually, they’d spent the afternoon making the almost careful small talk that two casual acquaintances might have. After Manda’s too insightful questions, Del had backpedaled and Manda, bless her heart, had let her. As graceful as you could please, Manda guided the conversation back in safe territory and safe didn’t include much mention of anything other than the weather, the new elementary school and whether or not the town was going to need yet a third doctor in a few years. And, of course, the reunion.

She looked up at Vance and saw that he was looking at the Sheriff’s car parked outside of the diner. She smiled faintly. “Don’t tell me Blake’s run wild.” He had always had a streak of it in him, but just a little. Enough to give him a mischievous charm.

“Well….” Vance drawled the word out, long and slow, as he scratched his chin. “He did do that, a bit. But it’s been a while. He’s actually with the Sheriff’s department now, second in command, as a matter of fact.”

Del arched a brow. “Really.” Blake as a cop. Well, technically, a deputy. But it all added up the same thing. She tried to wrangle him into that image, the memory of the boy she’d loved, but it didn’t quite gel.

“Yeah. He…ah…well.” Vance stopped in his tracks and waited for Del to look at him before he said anything. He didn’t try to touch her. It was weird, too, because she remembered that Vance was very much a touchy-feely kind of guy. He gave big bear hugs, he tugged on hair, he patted shoulders and backs. But all he had done was shake her hand. He’d tried to hug her, she remembered, when they’d run into each other in Cincinnati and she’d backed away.

She should have hugged him and gotten it over with, because Vance, for all his teasing and joking, saw people too clearly. He stood there, looking just a little older, but a lot wiser. His voice was quiet as he said, “Blake was sick for a while, Del. He had cancer.”

The pit of her stomach opened up and dropped out. She felt everything solid inside of her dissolve, felt her heart stop and a scream of denial echoed inside her head. And all of it silent. She never said a word and she didn’t bat an eyelash. Showing any kind of emotion revealed weakness, as far as Del was concerned, and she didn’t allow herself any weaknesses.

So she waited until she was certain she could speak normally before she asked, “Had?”

Vance shrugged. If he was disturbed by her lack of response, he didn’t show it. “Hodgkin’s Disease. Spent a few years getting all sorts of treatments up in Louisville. The doc declared him cancer free and he’s doing good.”

“And you’re telling me because…”

Vance just smiled and shrugged. “Just so you’re warned. Lots of things stayed the same ‘round here. But a few things changed…I’m not only talking about you,” He cocked his head and smiled at her, a little sadly, she thought.

Del was prepared for anything—okay, just about anything. She thought maybe Blake would look sick and weak. Maybe he was older, heavier, there could be a dozen things and Del told herself she was prepared. But the man standing at the counter talking to Joe wasn’t what she’d prepared for.

He was taller than she remembered. Much more so. Broader through the shoulders, although his hips and waist were as lean as she remembered. His long form had filled out and she suspected there was a lot of muscle hiding under the simple, white dress shirt. A plain, black leather belt held his badge and his weapon. He looked completely comfortable with both, and both suited him a lot better than Del would have imagined.

His eyes were the same blue. Robin’s egg-blue, she used to tease him because they were an exact match for the Crayola crayons she used to color with when she was a child. Robin’s egg had been her favorite. Thick, golden brown hair used to tumble into those eyes. Del had loved playing with that hair, pushing it back from his forehead, teasing him that his hair curled almost as much as hers.

Not anymore.

It didn’t look like he had any. His eyebrows weren’t blonde anymore either, but a stark black on his tan, lean face. His eyes were still that amazing blue, surrounded by lashes that would make a model envious. The black cloth covering his head didn’t look anything like a fashion statement and she had a feeling he cared about as much for fashion now as he had when they’d been younger.

She’d been the clotheshorse. Jeans and a T-shirt had always suited Blake just fine and he’d looked damn nice in them, too. He’d filled them out good in high school, but now…whoa.

Yeah, he’d changed all right. His face was harder and his eyes held a weary cynicism. It hurt some, seeing that. The boy had been a heartstopper—all her teenage fantasies, before she’d stopped having them, had centered around that beautiful face and clever mouth. The reality of the man he’d become was every bit as mesmerizing. Too bad Del had stopped having fantasies a long time ago. He would have taken the starring role.

Despite herself, Blake still had the ability to make her heart race and her mouth go dry. She almost wished she remembered how to have a fantasy. One about Blake would be a welcome respite from the nightmares that usually came visiting while she slept.

When he started in their direction, Del almost turned and darted out the door. She didn’t want to see him yet. She decided she might be ready to talk to him, over distance, in a few more years. Ten. Twenty, tops.

But she didn’t run.

Del had come here to put running behind her—not run away the first time she came face to face with her ex.

He stopped a few feet in front of her and Del held herself still as he looked her over, starting at the thick-soled boots on her feet and traveling upwards. His eyes lingered on her hair and she braced herself for the questions. They didn’t come, though. Instead, he just smirked a little and said, “Nice to see you again, Deedee.”

His voice was soft and casual, not showing one hint of the betrayal he’d felt when he had come home and his girl was gone. She hadn’t called him, hadn’t left him any kind of note—Deedee had just been gone. This was the first time Blake had seen her in twelve years, but he wasn’t prepared for it.

Not one bit.

Her eyes met his, solemn and unsmiling. Her mouth was naked and set in a flat, unyielding line. Deedee had loved to laugh but the cool stranger standing before him didn’t look like she knew how. He held his hand out. She hesitated before placing her hand in his. Her nails were unpainted. Blake didn’t think he’d ever seen her look so—bare. No makeup. No jewelry that he could see, except for that black cord around her neck. It had some sort of pendant on it, but it was hidden under the high neck of her shirt. No earrings.

Nothing.

Her voice was soft, huskier than he remembered. “I go by Del now.”

Her eyes dropped to his hand and he realized he was still holding hers Instead of letting go, he squeezed gently. Her eyes widened and her pupils flared a little. She tugged on her hand and slowly, he let go. He watched as her hand closed into a fist. In the base of her throat, he could see her pulse slamming away.

The bell hanging over the diner’s door jangled and Blake lifted his gaze. The woman standing just behind Deedee’s shoulder still looked a lot like Deedee, thanks to plastic surgery. Or rather, she looked a lot like he would have expected Deedee to look.

Well, if Deedee had been the soulless bitch her mother was.

“Hello, Blake. Have you seen Delilah?” Louisa’s voice dripped with a rich, cultivated southern accent, just a little too high society for Prescott, Tennesee. It was a pretty enough voice, but it had about the same effect on Deedee that Blake would have expected if she had swallowed a live rat.

A look of rampant disgust and distaste crossed her face before she carefully blanked her features. Except her eyes. Her eyes were cold as ice. Blake shifted so he could still see her face as she looked at her mother.

“Louisa.”

Louisa’s eyes went wide. “Delilah?” One ringed, manicured hand fluttered up and she touched her throat. “My word. Is that you?”

“Yes.” As she stared at her mother, something moved through her. Del had no idea what she thought she was going to feel, seeing her mom again. But thankfully, there was none of the hurt or betrayal that had pushed her to crying so many times. Just anger—and distaste.

Del had been told often enough growing up that she had a lot of her dad on the inside, and her mother on the outside. Right now, she wished she’d looked more like her dad than her mom. Of course, it was that part of her that came from Dad that gave her the strength to stand in front of her mother right now.

“My. Haven’t you grown up? Your hair is absolutely charming.” Louisa recovered quickly. She was too hung up on herself not to. Del figured nothing she did or said would have too much of an effect on Louisa. Well, maybe one thing. But she wasn’t going to relive her personal hell just to get back at her mother. “I simply can’t believe you didn’t let me and your father know you were coming to town.”

Del curled her lip. “That bastard is not my father.” She dropped her voice and took a step closer. She leaned in and put her mouth on level with her mother’s ear. “You call him that, ever again, and you will be sorry.” Louisa inhaled sharply, and satisfied that her mother had gotten the point, Del stepped back.

Louisa’s expression never changed but her eyes glinted like green ice. “I heard that you are staying at Manda’s. I know you must have so much to catch up on, but I’ve missed you. Won’t you come stay at home?”

“Oh, yeah. Like I’m going to do that. Not.”

Louisa’s hand flew out and caught Del’s wrist. What the… There was a very, very strange look in Louisa’s eyes as she dug her nails into Del’s wrist. “Darling, you must. There is so much for us to talk about.”

Del twisted her hand and shoved, breaking her mother’s grip with a single, effective move. She’d had to use it a time or two before. Once she’d gotten some kind of hold back on her life, self defense was the first goal she had set for herself. She wouldn’t ever be helpless again. Not ever. After the first few months, she was able to walk down the street with her head help up and she could look other people in the eye again.

Aside from the confidence it gave her, which was something of a miracle in itself, it came in handy in her line of work. The kids she worked with, for the most part, were victims. But after a while, some victims had a bad habit of becoming the victimizer. The regular self-defense courses were one way she had of making sure she didn't become one of the victimized again. Never again. It didn't happen too often, but occasionally she did have to use some of the self-defense skills. While she’d been forced to use it a few times, it hadn’t ever felt so damned good. Not until now. Del smiled a little. “Mother dear, there is nothing for us to talk about. Not now. Not ever.” She gave Louisa a cold, brittle smile. “Leave. Me. Alone.”

She glanced at Blake. Sadness filled her. He was watching her with that same, intent stare she remembered from high school. Like she was the only person in the room. And it still had the weird affect of making her heart dance in her chest. If she wasn’t so screwed up inside… She cut off the what if thoughts before they could fully form.

What ifs were fairy tales and Del was damaged goods. She wasn’t so messed up that she couldn’t realize it was the victim inside her talking. She did all the things she knew she was supposed to. She had a small, select group of friends she could talk to and there was even a support group she hit when things got too rough. The other stuff, she dealt with, attending her meetings faithfully and she was determined she wouldn’t ever slide down the dark road she’d walked for so long.

But she was also realistic enough to know that getting past all her issues was still a long, long time coming. And it may never come.

Everybody in the diner was looking their way. A few had the manners to pretend otherwise, but Del wasn’t fooled. Her reunion with Mommy Dearest was going to be fuel for gossip straight through lunch hour, maybe even into dinner, if nothing else exciting happened in town. Del didn’t care. She just wanted to get away from the bitch.

She brushed around Louisa and headed for the door without looking or talking to anybody. She’d apologize to Vance later. Right now, all she wanted was to climb in her car and get back to Cincinnati. That wasn’t an option, but at least she could—

The bell jangled over the diner as the door opened. Even before Louisa called out, Del knew who it was. She wasn’t lucky enough for Louisa to actually listen to her. She didn’t turn around, though. Del kept walking, turning the corner on High Street. Her car was at Vance’s office, a block down the road. Louisa called out her name again and Del blew out a breath.

“Might as well get it over with.” She stopped walking and turned to wait for her mother. Leaning her shoulder against the window, she glanced inside while she waited for Louisa. Louisa never ran. She strolled in her two-inch pumps like she was taking a walk on the beach.

It gave Del a minute to compose herself and she spent it staring through the window. There were a couple of pieces of canvas on the floor, splashed with paint. Seemed another store was going to open. But right now it was closed and Del had the pleasure of facing her mother without an audience.

Oh, joy.

Now that they were out of hearing range, Del didn’t bother to lower or hide her voice. “You obviously didn’t get the point, Louisa. I don’t want to see you. Period. Not for any reason.”

Louisa dropped all motherly affectations and gave Del an icy smile. “I do realize that, Delilah. But you’re a Prescott. There are certain expectations of you and you will meet them. Keeping that in mind, I’m planning a small get together. You’ll attend naturally—”

Without batting a lash, Del replied, “You wanna bet?” Louisa’s eyes narrowed. Twelve or thirteen years ago, Del would have reacted a little different. Faked obedience or worse, she might have done whatever it was that her mother wanted.

But she didn’t owe her mother any kind of loyalty. As far as Del was concerned, she didn’t even owe Louisa respect.

“Delilah—”

Del lifted a hand and shook her head. “Drop it. Now. Otherwise, I’m going to start recounting just why I don’t want to see you. Why I will not see him. And I won’t be quiet about it. Now go away.”

The ice in Louisa’s voice all but dripped from her words as she said, “You are a Prescott, Delilah. You will maintain your dignity—”

“Dignity.” Del didn’t bother to lower her voice. “You’re right. Dignity is something to prize when you laying on the floor, bleeding—”

“Delilah.” Louisa’s face went white and she looked around. Assured that they didn’t have an audience, Louisa edged closer. Her smile was brittle and her eyes were sharp. “Prescotts do not air our grievances in public.”

“Grievances,” Del repeated. “You know what, a grievance would be if I yelled at you because you wouldn’t let me stay out past curfew on prom night. A grievance would be me wrecking my car and you refusing to get another one. That’s a grievance. Being raped is a hell of a lot more than that.”

From the corner of her eye, she saw Louisa lift her hand. Del lifted her chin and said, “Go ahead. Do it. But you ought to know, I fight back now.”

Slowly, Louisa lowered her hand. But the look in her eyes clearly said that Louisa wanted to slap her daughter. “I’m not coming to the manor, Mother. Get that through your head. I’m not coming for tea, I’m not staying there while I’m in town and if you decide to throw some last minute party, you go right ahead. Just don’t count on me being there. I will never step foot in that house so long as you and that bastard live there.”

“Regardless of your issues with me and you…William,” Louisa corrected when she saw the look on Del’s face. “We have things we need to discuss. Family business.”

“Family business,” Del repeated. She smirked a little and then she outright laughed. “There is no family business that I need to know about, Mother Dear. I’ve gone twelve years without discussing family business and I’d prefer to go the rest of my life without discussing a damn thing with you. Now, I have things to do.”

Chapter Three

Oh, yeah. The party girl was definitely gone. Since she’d walked out of the diner early that morning, Blake had tried to convince himself maybe she hadn’t changed as much as he’d thought. It wasn’t like they’d said more than a few words to each other.

But he’d been wasting his time. The girl he’d known was long gone. Blake couldn’t help but miss her laugh, the way her face glowed when she smiled and the mischievous glint that would appear in her eyes.

It was Thursday night and most of the people coming to the reunion were down at the lake for the barbecue. There were two bonfires going and the attendees roamed back and forth between them, laughing, talking. There was an impromptu karaoke contest running and Blake worked hard to tune out the sound of Vance belting out a very bad rendition of Live Like You Were Dying.

The firelight flickered and danced over Dee’s face as Blake circled around to stand beside her. “He’s no Tim McGraw, is he?”

A smile curved up the corners of her mouth and she glanced towards her cousin. “Definitely not.”

He offered her one of the longnecks he grabbed a few minutes earlier and she shook her head. “No, thanks.”

“Something besides a beer? Manda couldn’t have done better if she paid somebody to set up a cash bar.” Blake gestured towards the series of folding tables set up by the tree line.

“No. I’m not into drinking.” She’d left her hair loose and Blake watched a long fingered, slender palm come up, shoving the dense, dark hair away from her face, tucking it behind her ear. With the dark hair and the pseudo-Goth clothes, he wouldn’t have been surprised to see some serious metal in her ears, or elsewhere.

But she didn’t have even a pair of earrings on.

The shirt she wore clung like a second skin and it was just a shade or two darker than said skin, giving the illusion that she wore nothing. Blake had the feeling that if she’d realized how damned sexy a picture she made, she would have found something else to wear.

“So what have you been up to the past ten years, Dee?”

She glanced at him. “Twelve,” she corrected in a soft voice. Then she shrugged. “Same as everybody else. Getting by.”

“The princess of Pike County ought to do more than get by,” Blake teased. It wasn’t a nickname she’d cared for and he’d purposely used it to see how she’d react. But he didn’t get the reaction he was hoping for. Which would have been any kind of reaction. The only response he got was a faint, polite smile. The kind of smile a person would give a stranger. Empty, meaningless and pointless.

He opened his mouth, about ready to try something else to get a reaction out of her. But instead, he reached out, cupped his hand over her elbow and guided her away from the laughter and the music. She didn’t resist but Blake couldn’t help noticing that she kept a careful distance between them. As soon as he let go of her arm, she backed away a good five feet.

Out of the blue, a memory flashed through Blake’s mind. That last night here at the lake before he left for that camp. The last time he saw Dee. They’d come down to the lake with plans to swim, fish and stay gone until way past curfew. When he’d picked Dee up, she had worn a pair of cut offs and a pale blue bikini. By the time night fell, it had cooled off and she’d ended up wearing an old denim shirt of his.

Manda had been down by the shore with Brad, while Blake and Dee were standing in possibly this same spot. Dee had her back against a tree. He could still remember how she looked, moonlight filtering down through the trees, her curls in a wild tumble around her face and shoulders. She’d reached for him, lifted her mouth to his. They’d been just a few seconds away from making love for the first time that night. Dee wouldn’t have said no, Blake didn’t think. But he was leaving in the morning for two months and he didn’t want to their first time to be followed by a separation.


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