Before she can build a future, she must dig up the bones of her past…
A Hearts of the South story.
After nearly twenty years, her career in possible ruins, homicide detective Madeline Holton returns to her hometown for a temporary stint working with the local sheriff’s department. The demons of her teen years lie in wait, rising once more in the form of a cold case she must solve. And when it comes to a handsome farmer who’s making good on her family’s former land, she can’t seem to keep her foot out of her mouth—or her hands off him.
Agricultural businessman Ash Hardison won’t lie to himself—despite Madeline’s obvious issues, he’s more drawn to her than any woman he’s ever known. He’s already laid the ghosts of his past to rest, and he’s determined to help Madeline purge hers. Whether she likes it or not.
Because he knows it’s the only way they have a chance to forge a future together.
She didn’t want to go in there.
Madeline Holton paused on the top step before the Chandler County Sheriff’s Department, a wicked roll of nerves trembling through her. Going in meant admitting there was no going back, meant facing how far she’d fallen. A piss-ant backwoods department in Middle of Nowhere, Georgia. A pity job extended only because the sheriff was her brother-in-law. God, how had she come to this, anyway?
She really didn’t want to acknowledge the answer.
With a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and reached for the door. She wasn’t Virgil Holton’s daughter for nothing.
Inside, the sharp smell of dust burning off heating coils assaulted her, blending with a fierce odor of stale coffee. The desk officer, phone pressed to his ear, nodded and held up a finger in a silent plea for patience. She tapped a nail on the scarred wooden counter and surveyed the lobby.
The place hadn’t changed much since her teen years. A new front door, a fresh coat of paint on the walls, and wax on the industrial tile floors couldn’t make the ramshackle concrete-block building more than it was. Like putting red lipstick and cheap perfume on a cheaper whore. Just like she was fairly certain positioning a new sheriff at the helm didn’t make it a clean, honorable department.
“May I help you?” The desk jockey graced her with a smile so earnest it hurt.
She straightened her shoulders again. “I’m Madeline Holton. I have an appointment with Sheriff Reed.”
Recognition bloomed on his face. “Yes, ma’am. He’s in his office, said to send you back when you arrived. Down the hall, through the squad room on your left. Can’t miss his office.”
The sense of déjà vu deepened as she walked along the narrow corridor. At sixteen, she’d had to call her daddy to come get her from this very station, after she’d wrecked her mama’s car. The one she hadn’t been given permission to drive. Even now, the memory of his anger made her cringe. Lord help her, she’d never been able to make the old man happy, even when she hadn’t been screwing up.
The hallway opened on one side into a grim squad room with mismatched furniture. Someone had painted and waxed here, too, trying to make improvements, but it hadn’t worked. Across the space, a door stood partially ajar, a six-pointed star stenciled on its frosted glass insert. Yep, couldn’t miss that, could she? Male voices, lifted in irritation, drifted out.
“Are you still pissed?” Heavy exasperation coated Stanton Reed’s tone. “Get over it, Tick.”
“Hell yeah, I’m still pissed.” Tick Calvert. Madeline closed her eyes, any good feelings she had at all about this situation drying up like a pond during a record drought. “You made a personnel decision without consulting me.”
“You’d have said no.” Stanton’s rough exhale dripped with frustration. “We need another investigator, Tick. Cut me some slack here. She’s experienced, you’ve been on sick leave, Chris didn’t want to take on a permanent investigations position and it’s too much for Cookie to handle alone.”
“Bull. I’ve been back full-time over a month now. You can’t use that as an excuse. Admit you did an end-run around me, even if it’s only to yourself.”
“We need her.”
“We might need another investigator, but we don’t need her. She’s trouble, Stan, with a capital T. Just wait.”
Madeline sucked in a harsh breath. Why was she surprised? She’d harbored no illusions that Tick Calvert would be happy to see her, let alone work with her. At least she knew what she was walking into. She stepped forward and rapped on the door.
“It’s open.” At Stanton’s rumble, she pushed the slab inward and entered the office. Discomfort flashed over her brother-in-law’s face. Tick’s dark gaze lifted to hers and he grimaced before looking away. Stanton rose. “Madeline, have a seat.”
She didn’t miss the way Tick, Mr. Southern Raised-Right Manners, failed to rise at her entrance. Yes, working here was going to be fun.
Once she’d taken one of the two worn leather chairs before Stanton’s desk, he settled into his chair again. “We were just talking about your taking this position. I know you’re looking at it as a temp job, but I have to tell you, it’ll help us out while you’re here.”
At least one member of her family got it. Her mother, Pollyanna-delusional as always, still believed Madeline was home for good, and her sister Autry wanted to indulge in some sisterly bonding kick that involved helping Madeline find a local rental house.
As if she’d be here long-term. Madeline restrained herself from rolling her eyes. No, she was around long enough to begin rebuilding her reputation as a cop, to control the damage from that mess in Jacksonville… Then she was off to a real department in a real city, if the J-ville PD wouldn’t take her back. No way was the Chandler County Sheriff’s Department, with its history of small-town corruption and male chauvinism, her permanent professional home.
“Let me tell you what I had in mind…”
She listened as Stanton outlined her duties and the plan for her interim employment. Although she didn’t look straight at him, she remained aware Tick watched her with ill-tempered resignation and a cynical twist to his mouth. She stiffened her spine. Fine by her. She wasn’t any happier about working with him.
“I’ve got a county commission meeting at ten. Tick will show you around, assign you a unit, make sure you have everything you need.” Stanton rose and offered her a hand, his big palm and long fingers engulfing hers. She relaxed a little under his rare, genuine smile. In any case he seemed willing to give her a legitimate chance to redeem herself.
Tick unfolded himself as Stanton left them alone. He gestured toward the squad room and ushered her through the door. “Come on.”
Let’s get this over with.
The rest of the statement hung in the air.
Madeline cast a surreptitious glance at him. He’d aged well, maturity sharpening the lines of his face, with no silver in his black hair yet, and if pressed, she’d admit he was even better looking as a man in his late thirties than he’d been as a brash nineteen-year-old boy. She dropped her gaze to his mouth, remembering the one and only time she’d kissed him, remembering everything that had happened afterward, and revulsion shivered through her.
Jesus, she wasn’t going to make it through this.
“Well?” Irritable, he stood in the middle of the dingy squad room, exasperation darkening his expression. “Holy hell, Madeline, does everything have to be difficult with you?”
Swallowing a retort, she pinned a smartass smirk on her face. “Just waiting for the royal tour, Calvert.”
With tight gestures, he pointed out aspects of the area: officer mailboxes, supplies, time clock, baskets for filing reports.
“Yours while you’re here.” He indicated a scarred metal desk, painted a grim pea green. It fronted an identical piece of furniture. Tick jerked his chin toward it. “Cookie’s. He’s off until Thursday. He’s taking the evening shift after that so you can start on days.”
Something ugly and a lot like disdain lurked in his words. Madeline bristled. “I suppose you think I should be on nights and I’m getting special treatment because Stanton’s married to my sister.”
Tick grunted. “I think Stan’s the only reason you’ve got a job here at all.”
He continued the department walk-through, showing her the conference room, and downstairs, the jail facilities—or lack thereof, she thought—the employee locker and break rooms, the dispatch office.
The place left a lot to be desired, and she couldn’t help comparing it to the sleek modern station she’d worked in during her time in Jacksonville. Again, the sense of loss threatened to swamp her. God, she’d really messed things up.
Upstairs, he pushed open the door to his own office, a room small enough to have been a closet at one time. He dropped into his chair and reached for a leather-bound planner, the fluorescent light glinting off his wide platinum wedding band. “Have a seat and let’s take a look at your training schedule.”
She remained on her feet, arms crossed over her chest. “I’ve been in this as long as you have, remember? I don’t need ‘training’.”
His head jerked up, the line of his mouth rigid. “You need to understand how this department works. I’d say that was part of ‘training’, wouldn’t you? Now sit down.”
She waited a second before complying, just so he’d understand she did things on her time schedule, not at his command.
With an audible breath, he dropped his gaze to the binder. She flicked a look around the room. Where Stanton’s office had been spartan, with only a handful of photos on his shelf and some law enforcement certificates and awards on the walls, Tick’s pulsed with his personality. His FBI award shared space with a mounted big mouth bass. An ancient and worn Bible leaned on a shelf next to a variety of training manuals. Snapshots of his family—sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, his mother—filled any bare areas. More frames took up the corner of his desk, a wedding photo, a casual shot of him and his wife, images of their infant son, all big dark eyes and black hair.
Being here, in this space, looking at the cheerful normalcy of his life, made her edgy. His happiness sparked a long-buried resentment in her. Obviously, he was none the worse for what had happened between them so long ago. His whole life hadn’t gone to hell. Why had hers?
Awareness pricked its way down her nape and along her spine. She looked up to catch him watching her with hard eyes. A hot flush ran under her skin, the embarrassment only feeding her anger.
“All right.” He scanned the pages before him. “I’ll run you through the patrol routes this afternoon. Roger can probably review the dispatch protocol with you in the morning. I’ll be your ride-along the next couple of days, and we can turn you loose Thursday. That’ll give you Friday through Sunday off, then Monday you can start the three-two-three-two rotation. That work for you—”
The phone at his elbow jangled and he reached for it without excusing himself. “Calvert.” He listened, frowning, then lifted his gaze to Madeline’s, a mocking twist to his mouth. “Right. Got it covered.”
He replaced the receiver and leaned back, still watching her with an expression that sent nerves jangling under her skin. “Well, Holton, you said you didn’t need training. Think you’re ready to handle a run on your own?”
What could this county throw at her that she couldn’t possibly handle? “Sure.”
He scrawled directions on a notepad, tore a sheet free and thrust it at her. “The diner’s delivery van is down. Prisoner meals need to be picked up and brought back here before noon. Tell Roger in dispatch to give you the keys to unit C-4. It’ll be yours for the duration.”
A lunch run? He was sending her on a goddamn prisoner lunch run. She stared at the paper trembling in her hand and slowly raised her gaze to his. The asshole. He regarded her with silent, enigmatic challenge. He thought she’d refuse, pitch a fit, make a scene. Jacksonville would see twelve inches of snow before she gave him the satisfaction, even if telling him to shove the duty was her first overriding instinct.
“C-4, you said?” She folded the directions into a neat square and tucked it in her pocket. “I’ll be back.”
Unit C-4 turned out to be a relatively new, immaculately maintained, unmarked Crown Victoria. This was familiar, sliding behind the wheel, the smooth power of a police package beneath her, the muted crackle of radio traffic filling her being.
God, she’d missed this, hadn’t realized how much until now.
The diner wasn’t difficult to find and wasn’t far from the department, either. Within walking distance. Frowning, Madeline parked in the alley beside the historic brick building. Why hadn’t Calvert sent her on foot?
She found the answer inside as the bubbly fresh-out-of-high-school cashier loaded take-out plate after take-out plate in two large cardboard boxes. An unwilling spurt of humor tugged at Madeline’s lips. At least Calvert hadn’t been a big enough ass to send her after this on foot.
Or maybe it simply hadn’t occurred to him.
She juggled one of the awkward boxes into her arms and glared at the second. “I’ll be back for that one.”
Trying to keep her hands from slipping off, she shoved the door open with one hip and stepped onto the sidewalk. The damn carton was heavier than it looked, and it was farther to the car than she liked. Plus, she’d locked the unit. Her keys were in her pocket; she’d have to set the box down to dig them out.
“Hey, let me help you with that.” A smooth drawl filled her ears seconds before strong hands lifted the box easily from her precarious hold.
“Thanks.” She rubbed her tingling palms down her hips before tugging the keys from her pocket. She looked up at her rescuer. He was tall, his body tight with the muscles that came from good old-fashioned hard work. He balanced the box easily on one hip. Sunlight glinted off sandy-blond hair, lightened here and there by long hours outside. A denim jacket covered an untucked T-shirt. His faded blue jeans, a hole worn in one pocket, were as disreputable as his scuffed work boots.
Standard farmer attire.
Too bad she’d sworn off farmboys long ago. This one was cute, with a great smile and the prettiest pale green eyes she’d ever seen, glowing in a tanned face, thin lines spreading out beneath long lashes.
He was checking her out, too, his sea-colored gaze roaming from her hair, to her face, over her body and back up to her eyes. He grinned, white teeth flashing against his golden skin. “You’re new here.”
New? Madeline swallowed a laugh. If he only knew. She wasn’t going to explain her convoluted past to a man she’d probably never see again, though. She pointed toward the police car. “I’m parked over here.”
He settled the box on the stainless steel backseat and straightened. “Is that all?”
She wavered for a half second. “Actually, there’s one more, if you don’t mind…”
“I don’t.” The great smile lit his face again. “Or I wouldn’t have asked.” He tucked his hands in his pockets as they walked back to the diner. “Good thing I decided to call in a lunch order today, huh?”
She reached for the door and held it. “What do you mean?”
“Might have missed meeting you.”
A laugh bubbled in her throat, and she smothered it. The last thing she wanted was a man in her life, and if she was in the market for one, it would be the kind she’d always dated: smooth, polished, interested in sex and no strings.
Not the farmer-type she’d grown up with.
Not even one with a killer body and drop-dead eyes.
He hefted the second box with the same ease and economy of movement. Outside at the car, he tilted his chin toward it. “So you’re with the sheriff’s department.”
He tucked his thumbs in his back pockets, the line of his body relaxed. “Maybe I’ll see you around then.”
Not likely, but she smiled anyway. “Maybe.”
He nodded. “You have a good day, now.”
Slipping behind the wheel, she watched him amble toward the diner. My, my, he had a nice ass, and the old jeans highlighted it to perfection. Shaking off the purely feminine musings, she shifted into gear and drove back to the station. Any pleasant feelings engendered by the interlude with the good-looking farmer sputtered out as soon as she returned to the sheriff’s department. She pulled in and parked beneath the spreading oak trees. The awkward angle of the back door made wrangling the large boxes free difficult. Two deputies exiting the rear entrance came her way.
“Let us get those.” The taller of the two spoke first, his voice quiet, his icy blue eyes holding no expression. “I hate when the diner uses these huge-ass boxes. Makes it hard as hell to get them out of the car. Here, Troy Lee.”
He passed the carton off to the younger man, who regarded Madeline with blatant curiosity. God help her. There was one in every bunch. She stared him down. The first deputy straightened, balancing the box on his hip much as the farmer had earlier. Sunlight filtering through the leaves glimmered over his nametag: C. Parker.
Troy Lee slanted an inquisitive glance in her direction as they walked toward the building. “You’re the new investigator?”
People around here truly had no life if they noticed every new face. Guess some things never changed. She nodded. “That would be me.”
A third deputy swung the door open for them from inside. “Hey, Troy Lee, Calvert’s looking for you. What did you do this time?”
“Hell if I know. He’s been pissy lately.” Troy Lee shoved the carton onto the counter inside the door. “Man, he’s a prick when he’s not getting laid.”
He trudged up the stairs. Parker began setting meals on the counter. “I have this, Investigator, if there’s something else you need to do.”
Other than pull her eyelashes out one-by-one because she was stuck working here? Couldn’t think of a thing.
Waving an envelope, Troy Lee bounded back down the steps. Parker grinned. “That was fast.”
“My training certificate from Tifton is in.”
Parker started another row of plates. “Take back what you said about him?”
“No. He’s still a prick when he’s not getting laid, and lately, he’s obviously not.”
Ignoring them, Madeline wandered upstairs. In the hallway, she caught a glimpse of the small lobby. Just inside the door, Tick Calvert stood talking with the same tall, good-looking farmer who’d come to her rescue earlier. As she watched, Tick grinned and slapped the other man on the shoulder before he left. The farmer waved on his way out the door.
Madeline shook her head. Well, then. Even if she’d been interested, being Tick’s friend put him out of the running. She definitely had enough mess in her life already.
“Holton.” Tick’s grim voice pulled her from the mini-reverie. “You ready to go run through patrol routes?”
“Sure.” She pinned on a patently false enthusiastic smile, and he scowled.
For their first trip out, he put her in the driver’s seat but insisted on giving verbal directions as they drove every back road in the county. Finally, her frustration bubbled over. “Damn it, Calvert, I am a local, remember? I don’t need you to hold my hand here.”
He tapped his fingers on the door panel. “This isn’t going to work until two things happen, Madeline. One, you have to do more than go through the motions. Two, you’ve got to get off that damn high horse of yours.”
She scowled at him as she turned left onto a familiar red dirt road. “Like you want it to work.”
His brows lowered and a muscle jumped in his cheek. “It’s about more than what I want. Stan hired you. He wants you in this position, and I have to make sure my department runs smoothly.”
“Your department.” She flexed her hands on the wheel. “I thought it was Stanton’s house.”
He tossed her an infuriated look. “This is hopeless. Pull off up here.”
She obeyed without comment, steering the patrol car into the drive of a long-forgotten shack, weathered and forlorn. Tick pushed his door open and exited the car, leaning against the hood, arms over his chest.
After killing the engine, she climbed out and walked to stand at the front of the car. Tick ran a hand through his hair. “Holy hell, I need a cigarette.”
With a shrug, she snagged her pack from her jacket pocket and extended it. He stared at the package with mingled longing and repulsion. “You smoke?”
She shook one free and lit it. “When I feel like it.”
His dark gaze trailed the smoke as it curled upward. “I suppose you’re going to tell me you’re one of those people who can take it or leave it.”
She inhaled, letting the tiny bite of nicotine soothe her ragged nerves. “Pretty much.”
“Sure you don’t want one?”
He snorted. “I want it, believe me. I’m just not taking it. One leads to another with me.”
She propped a hip on the hood. “Why, so the great and mighty Tick Calvert does have a weakness after all. How shocking.”
“Don’t start that crap, Holton.”
“Maybe I’m not the only one with a high horse.”
He rubbed a hand over his nape, staring into the field beyond the house. “You know what we’re going to have to do for this to work, don’t you?”
She stiffened, her stomach dropping like she’d just peeked over the edge of some massive abyss.
He turned those dark eyes on her. “We have to deal with what happened.”