The Closer He Gets (Brothers, Strangers)
Harlequin Superromance (March, 2016)
She can't save herself…but he can.
It took the twenty-fifth anniversary of his kid sister's death to bring Zach Carter home. Determined to solve her murder with his training as a homicide detective, he discovers that his estranged brother has beaten him to the punch and is already on the local force. The two, divided in their parental loyalties and their suspicions, struggle to make headway, until Zach is witness to a fatal beating where the guy left standing is a cop. And a second witness is a gorgeous brunette. Zach is in the impossible situation of protecting Tess Granath from the sheriff's department while fighting his attraction to her. He's always known he's a man who can't commit. Except now he's met a woman he can't walk away from…
Bran Murphy would have said he wasn't given to self-reflection. He made one major exception, however. Something like every six months he would feel the pull and next thing he knew he'd be driving slowly by his childhood home instead of parking in his assigned spot at his condo.
This was one of those times, and he had an idea what had provided the impetus today. A couple of months ago he'd decided the time had come to find a wife and start a family. Three weeks ago he'd asked Paige to marry him and she'd agreed. They'd just taken a vacation together to Hawaii. Last night, after they flew into SeaTac, he had dropped her at her place, carrying her suitcase in for her and then gone home alone. He hadn't slept well and had found himself feeling edgy this morning.
What if his desire for a family and the logical way he'd gone about it had started him on a trajectory that would end in a crash landing like the one that had destroyed the not-so-happy family that had lived here in this house?
Maybe every life had a Before and After. Divorce. A death. Another kind of loss that created a divide. His own happened to be a little more violent than most.
Today he sat brooding in his car, remembering a time when his family had been whole. There were signs the family who lived in the house now might be. A kid's bike lay on the lawn, and the barbecue and lawn mower under cover of the carport made him think all-American.
As tense as if he was about to kick in a door to arrest a violent offender, he got out and followed the sidewalk to the corner, turning and going far enough to be able to glimpse the backyard, possible because none of the houses on this block had fences. The neighborhood was holding its own—not upscale but not run-down, either.
He'd put some work into this place before he'd sold it after Dad died. Sometimes he still had trouble believing his father had stayed in this house when he knew the local cops and plenty of the neighbors thought he had killed his own daughter.
And Bran had stayed with him until he'd graduated from high school, using his fists on any kid who dared say anything about Dad or Sheila.
People forgot, of course. The tragedy that fractured his family irrevocably had taken place twenty-four years and eight months ago. Probably he was the only one who ever thought about it.
No, wherever his brother was, he wouldn't be able to help remembering, either. He'd made a different choice than Bran but would have suffered the same wounds.
Today, seeing how little the house had changed unsettled Bran. As a teenager he'd convinced his father to paint it a pale gray with white and black trim instead of the white it had always been. Wouldn't you know the latest homeowners had gone back to white. Nothing had changed the basic lines of the house. Seeing it today was like stepping through a time warp.
God, he thought, what makes me think I'm capable of being a husband and father?
The basics wouldn't have changed inside, either. Two bedrooms downstairs and one up, that one tucked under the eaves with a single window in the small dormer that looked over the front porch. He and his brother had shared it.
From here he could see some boards still clinging drunkenly to a Y high up in the maple that filled the backyard and shed a bounty of leaves every fall. Dad had helped his boys build the tree fort. Bran didn't remember ever going up in it again after Sheila died. He didn't think Zach had, either.
From the tree fort they would have been looking right down at where her body had been found. What am I doing here?
It was a compulsion. Unresolved issues. He snorted at the thought, however accurate it might be. Open questions ate at him. If Sheila's killer was ever arrested, Bran doubted he'd feel the need to turn down this street again.
A police detective, he knew how to find answers. He'd even worked cold cases.
There were any numbers of problems to prevent him from pursuing this one, however.
To start with, this house—where his little sister had been killed—wasn't in his jurisdiction. The small city of Clear Creek had its own police force, which consisted of a police chief and twenty officers. He worked for the county sheriff's department.
The general ineptitude of the Clear Creek PD back then was problem number two. Unless he'd missed a whole lot, the investigation hadn't gone anywhere. He knew more than his parents ever would have guessed, having eavesdropped on police interviews and even Mom and Dad's whispered arguments in bed. Would evidence even have been saved? If so, carefully enough to allow DNA to be run?
Problem three? Several of the current Clear Creek officers had lived in the area as long as he had and knew Bran's connection to the unsolved case. The way they looked at him when he asked questions made him wonder whether detectives had ever considered him a suspect. He'd been young but not so young he wasn't thinking about sex.
The chilling thought had only recently occurred to him. He'd spent a lot of years refusing to think about the murder at all. Convinced that knowing what really happened wouldn't change a thing for him.
But the twenty-fifth anniversary of Sheila's death was approaching. A lot that had been buried in his psyche had begun crawling out, giving him nightmares.
Who was there to give a damn but him? Zach had been even younger than him when it happened and had probably forgotten more. Bran had no idea, since he hadn't seen his brother in twenty-four years. Anyway, Zach wasn't here in Clear Creek. Bran was.
And Sheila deserved justice. Now that Dad was gone, there was nothing to stop him.
Skin prickling despite the warmth of the sun, he walked back around to the front of the house. He'd swear the cracks on the sidewalk were unchanged, too. Took him right back in time.
He could feel the book bag bumping on his back as he headed home. He'd do his homework…later. It was cool having an hour before Sheila and Zach got off, when he became unwillingly responsible for them. Except…that was partly posturing for friends. Really, he and Zach were tight. He couldn't talk to his little brother about girls or these strange, physical urges he was starting to feel, but that was okay. Zach would get there. And Bran loved his little sister. She thought he was a superhero, which felt good—
Bran blinked, made a rough sound and ran a hand over his face. Damn. He hadn't expected to flash back like that. If he was going to go back at all, it should be to the night when Sheila was taken from her bed. When—
"Shit," he muttered, getting into his car. Flashing back to the kid he'd been? What good would that do? He had to look at the crime with a cop's ability to be dispassionate. To do that, he needed to get past the memories.
Paige had never said anything to make him think she knew about his past. He sure as hell hadn't told her. Didn't plan to unless it became absolutely necessary. Except for his regular six-month visit to this damn house, he was focused on the future not the past.
As he pulled away from the curb, he took a last look at his childhood home and felt an unexpected pang. How many times had he thought of searching for his brother? Too many. Kids or not, they'd parted as bitterly as their parents had. Chances were they'd pass on the street without even recognizing each other. There was no going back.
Then why am I trying?
A good question. It wasn't as if he believed in the psychobabble about needing closure or any crap like that.
But he couldn't deny that the tragedy had shaped his life and still hung over him. He would soon be starting a family of his own. He wanted the foundation to be solid, that was all.
Zach Carter's gaze roved unceasingly as he drove, touching on his rearview mirror every few seconds before scanning for movement on each side of the street. He identified the speed of cars ahead and behind without conscious thought. Although returning to patrol had been an adjustment for him, the instincts were still there. He made constant, automatic judgments.
The man coming out of a garage? Homeowner. The cluster of tattooed young guys clustered around a car with its hood raised? Currently harmless, although the way they all turned as a unit to watch as he passed had him keeping an eye on them in the rearview mirror for another block. Car that swerved and corrected course? A momentarily distracted driver.
He'd been on the job for not quite three weeks. The population of this rural county wasn't large but the square mileage was. Logging trucks still traveled an east-west highway that followed the river deep into the forested foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range. Only one big lumber mill remained in operation, however, which meant logging as an industry was in decline.
The dairy farms he remembered from when he was a kid had mostly disappeared. In fact, the east county communities all had an air of desperation. For Rent, For Sale and Going Out of Business signs were common, boarded-up shop windows even more so. It was beautiful country, but tourism hadn't taken hold. Didn't help that the couple motels he'd spotted were pretty rundown, in keeping with the general atmosphere.
So far, he'd been assigned to patrol the river valley part of the county. Today's route combined new developments, older housing sprawls just outside the city limits of the county seat and farms.
It had been an incredibly mild winter. With it now the first week of April, daffodils were showing hints of bloom and tulips would follow, weeks earlier than usual. He'd seen the fresh green spikes of corn in fields. Peas weren't the big crop they'd been when he was a kid, but were still grown, and strawberries, too.
He'd already discovered that the older neighborhood he'd just turned into was heavily Hispanic. New immigrants and probably some undocumented aliens provided cheap labor for agriculture. He'd been instructed to leave Customs issues to ICE—Immigration and Customs Enforcement—and stick to local law enforcement, which was fine by him.
Whatever his assignment, Zach varied his route every day, trying to learn every byroad. Despite flashes of familiarity, most of it was new to him. What kid paid attention when he was slumped in the backseat of a car?
The stretch of county closer to the freeway had changed the most. Real estate in Seattle and its suburbs was priced beyond a lot of people's means these days, which meant if they wanted to own a home, they bought farther out and resigned themselves to a two-hour-plus round-trip commute to work. Most of the residents of the newer, more upscale developments eating up what had been farmland were commuters. Midday, he could drive up and down the winding streets of any of those developments and hardly see a soul.
In contrast, this neighborhood was what he thought of as in-between: the houses modest but still decently cared for. At least some were owned rather than rented, at a guess. No traffic and the last human he'd seen had been a couple of blocks ago: an old man peering suspiciously from his front porch.
A rack of lights atop a car down the block on a cross street caught his eye. Surprised, Zach made the turn. What was another sheriff's department car doing here? By necessity, patrols didn't have a lot of overlap and he hadn't heard any calls from dispatch that would have sent another deputy out here. Currently empty, the police car was parked on the gravel verge—no sidewalks in this neighborhood. Guy might live here, it occurred to Zach. He'd taken his own lunch break not half an hour ago.
He was still half a block away when he spotted two men arguing. They stood toe-to-toe on a concrete walk leading to the front porch of a small house. Whatever was happening was intense. The one with his back to the street wore the same olive-green uniform as Zach's. Then… What the hell? The deputy pushed the other guy, pulled his arm back and punched.
Oh, shit, Zach thought. No. The cop was using his baton, not his fist. Hammering with it. Blood sprayed.
Zach slammed to a stop and leaped out, now able to hear the snarls, the cries for help.
A good thirty feet away, he broke into a hard run. A woman was tearing across the lawn toward the men from the house beyond, too. She was screaming.
Showing no awareness of anyone else, the deputy threw his baton away and began using his fists instead. "I warned you! Stay away from her. But—" smack "—did you listen?"
"Socorro! i Socorro!" The Hispanic man stumbled back.
Zach caught a glimpse of his face, already battered to a pulp before another fist caught him dead-on and his lights went out.
Time seemed to have slowed. Zach saw what was coming and knew he was too late to stop it. The Hispanic guy toppled back. His head struck the edge of the concrete step. The sound was terrible. A pumpkin being smashed.
One step too late, Zach grabbed the deputy's shoulder and yanked him back. "What the hell are you doing?" he yelled.
The guy staggered, righted himself and lurched around in a fighter's stance. Face crimson with rage, he started to swing at Zach before recognition dawned in his eyes and he stopped himself.
"He went for my gun." He gasped for air. "He went for my gun, goddamn it! I had to defend myself."
Hayes, that was his name. Andrew Hayes. Big, beefy guy starting to go soft. Ugly sense of humor. Zach knew him only from the locker room.
"Oh, my God. Oh, my God." Keening, the woman had dropped to her knees beside the victim, who wasn't moving. "Is he dead? I think he might be dead."
Hayes looked past Zach and said sharply, "Ma'am, you need to back away. This is police business. Return to your house."
She lifted her head to sizzle him with green-gold eyes. "Antonio is harmless. You killed him."
"Ma'am, you need to listen—"
Zach gave him a hard push. "Back off and shut up. Do you hear me?"
That earned him some invectives.
Ignoring him, Zach turned his attention to the victim when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hayes lean over to pick up his baton. Swearing, Zach slapped a hand onto the deputy's chest. "Do I have to cuff you?" he asked, voice hard. "You will keep back. Don't move. Don't touch. Do you hear me?"
"What the hell? We're on the same side. The asshole grabbed for my weapon! I did what I had to."
"This is now a crime scene. Don't touch anything. Wait."
Zach called for backup and an ambulance. When he saw Hayes take a step toward his vehicle anyway, he snapped, "Do not move!"
Then, finally, he crouched beside the fallen man and gently touched his throat.