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A Crimson Homecoming:

A Payne’s Creek Romantic Suspense Serial, Part III

Lil

Bryn was chatting with a woman and her young daughter at the far end of the counter when I walked into the coffee house.

She straightened, and her face quickly fell when she saw mine. Lifting her chin, she motioned for me to head toward the back where she kept an office.

“Tricia, I need to take care of something in the back,” she called to one of her waitresses.

I’d left Grammy’s soon after confiding to Coop and the sheriff my fear of carrying excess baggage from New York in the form of trouble—that I was more than likely responsible for the rabbit blood slung all over the back porch of Grammy’s house. The sheriff asked if I would come into his office and give a statement to start evidence against whoever spilled the blood and sent me the creepy taxidermy rabbit.

Meanwhile, Cooper and the sheriff were taking a ride out to Tuck Bishop’s place. Tuck was a trapper and liked to collect and sell the furs of rabbits and foxes. I never did like him, but the idea that he might collect rabbit blood and throw it all over Grammy’s house didn’t make much sense.

However, their little field trip gave me time to hunt down my cousin and interrogate her about what happened to Coop.

Once Bryn and I were in the office, she closed the door.

“What happened? You look like you just lost your favorite—”

I spun around and let her see the tears that had formed in my eyes. Tears from hurt. From anger. From betrayal.

“You know.”

“I know what, Bryn? What do I supposedly know?”

She took a step forward. Her eyes were wide. “Okay… Let’s sit down. I know this is bad, but we are going to talk our way through it.” Bryn motioned toward a love seat on the opposite wall.

“If you need to sit, sit,” I said. “But start talking.”

She walked over and sat, then patted a cushion beside her. “I really need you to sit, too.”

“Fine.” I walked over and sat on the edge of the sofa. “I’m sitting. Now tell me why Coop came back to Payne’s Creek, and why the hell Drew is so pissed at him.”

“Oh, God,” Bryn said. “Here we go. Where do I start?” She twisted her hands in her lap. She looked up at me. “Cooper came home about six months ago after an FBI case he was working on went bad. I don’t know the details. Grammy might know more about the specifics. I’m not sure.”

“Cases go bad all the time. What was so special about this case?”

“All I know is that one day I heard Coop had returned to Payne’s Creek. I didn’t know why, but Grammy told me that it was for more than just a short visit.”

“Did he quit? Was he injured? Is that why he’s working some ridiculous glorified traffic cop job?”

“I get the impression he blamed himself or maybe his fellow special agents blamed him. I don’t know.”

I stood and began pacing, then faced Bryn. “So you knew. Grammy knew. Obviously Drew knows something. Why have none of you told me about Cooper coming home?” I could see why Cooper hadn’t told me. We hadn’t actually been on speaking terms for way too long.

“Cooper asked Grammy not to tell you.”

“Which means she asked you, Drew, and the rest of the family to keep it from me as well.”

Bryn nodded weakly. “He claimed he needed to heal, and he said you were happy in New York. Insisted he was thrilled that you were following your dreams with the whole writing thing. He didn’t want to ruin your chance at happiness.”

“You knew when you came to see me at Christmas.”

“I did.” She bowed her head.

“You saw me.” My voice rose slightly as I slammed a fist against my chest directly over my heart. “Did I seem happy to you?”

A tear slid down Bryn’s face as she shook her head. “You swore me to secrecy. Made me promise I wouldn’t tell anyone that you were struggling in New York. You said you were just getting over a breakup, but that you were fine.” She buried her face into her hands. “I knew better though. I knew something was wrong.”

And because I made Bryn promise that, I was alone as my problems got worse. That isolation was on me. “You’re supposed to be my best friend. What if I could have helped him? You of all people know how much Cooper Adams has meant to me all these years.” I walked to the door and had a hand on the doorknob when Bryn called out.

“Where you going? Please don’t leave like this.”

I faced her. “You and Grammy kept something really important from me. I’ll accept my role in asking you to keep a secret, but did you think I wouldn’t find out Coop was back in town? And that something awful had happened to him?”

She stood. “I know. You have no idea how sorry I am. But Coop—”

I pulled open her office door and left before I could hear the end of that sentence.

◊◊◊◊◊

On my way to the car Grammy had let me borrow, my phone rang. It was my agent. I’d ignored her daily calls since I’d flown home. I carried a finished manuscript, complete with illustrations, with me to Payne’s Creek. It was in my bag in the back of Grammy’s car, actually. The day before I flew home, my publisher had called my agent and broken the news that they would not be renewing my contract. They sited “disappointing fourth quarter sales” as the reason, but word on the internet was that all the big children’s book publishers had struggled in the fourth quarter, and that they had cut many of their biggest names.

In other words, publishers had decided to cut their expensive clients in hopes of picking up lesser-known authors who they could lure into far less lucrative contracts.

And because Grammy happened to call me in New York about the same time that I was hit with this disappointing news, I had a great excuse for getting away. Not to mention, the police had informed me that, although it did appear someone seemed to be harassing me, I had no hard evidence, and therefore there was nothing they could do.

Staring at my phone now, I decided I couldn’t avoid my agent forever, even if now was really bad timing.

“Hi, Rachelle.”

“Hey, Lil, hon,” she said in a thick New York accent. “I know you’re trying to spend time with family, but I was hoping to submit your latest manuscript to some other publishers. I think I have a boutique firm who’s interested in picking up your series. Can you send that manuscript over to me ASAP?”

I squeezed the bridge of my nose. “Sorry, Rachelle. I should have called you back sooner. Here’s the thing. I just don’t know if that’s what I want to do now. Losing that contract was a big blow, but I’m wondering now if it was a sign.”

“A sign? The only thing that was a sign of was that your acquisitions editor is a jackass and those executives don’t know what the hell they’re doing anymore. There are plenty of other publishers.”

And they’re all the same, I thought to myself. They want me to do all the work, while they collect the majority of the royalties.

I smiled. “That’s kind of you to say, Rachelle, but you and I both know that they’re just trying to run a profitable business.” I tilted my head back and stared up at the sky. It was partly sunny, and the temperature had risen. The gentle breeze felt good on my face. “Look, I’ve got a few things going on here. I’m going to take the weekend to think about it. We’ll talk about it early next week.”

“Okay, hon, but don’t wait too long. There are many authors out there just waiting to take your spot.”

Reassuring.I hung up and tapped the phone to my forehead. “Who needs their stupid contract anyway?”

“Lil,” a male voice said behind me.

I whipped around to find Coop standing in the middle of the sidewalk. “Coop.” My stomach did an immediate flip-flop.

“Is it true?”

“That it’s rude to eavesdrop? Why yes, it is. I would have thought your mama taught you better.” I hadn’t had enough time to process what Bryn had just told me, and now I was reeling from the reality of losing my main source of income.

“Did you lose your New York contract?”

I let out a laugh. “Why do you want to know if I lost my contact?”

“So that I can say ‘I’m sorry?'” he said in more the form of a question than statement.

“There is no reason for you to be sorry for me. I’ll be fine.”

“I think I can be sorry, without pitying you. We were friends once.”

My lips twitched at the corners, catlike. “Yes. Once, we told each other every little detail of our lives.” I turned and continued the walk to Grammy’s car. “All I need from you now is to find who threw blood all over my grandmother’s house,” I said over my shoulder, then stopped when I saw the car.

“About that,” Coop said, following me. “I was about—” His words cut off when he saw why I had stopped.

I turned as he pulled his phone from his belt. “Hi, Donna. It’s Cooper. I need you to send a uniform over to the coffeehouse. Barb Kaufman’s car has a tire that’s been slashed.” While he spoke, he was scanning the streets, I assumed for any sign of someone he didn’t recognize or something suspicious. “Yes, I realize I could take care of it, but I’m helping the sheriff with something. Send a patrol officer over now. The car is directly out front.”

I also glanced down the sidewalk and looked for movement inside store windows, suddenly feeling like I had a target somewhere on my body.

“Why the hell is someone targeting me, Coop?” I asked when he hung up.

“I don’t know, but we’re going to find out.” He took a couple steps toward me and started to lift his arms, but I stepped backwards. I watched the hurt form on his face, and I felt bad for being the one who put that there, but what had he expected? “Come on.” He reached out a hand. “Take a ride with me.”

I stared at his hand. Part of me wanted to cross my arms, tap my foot, and refuse to go anywhere with him, but the other part of me—the part that would always care for the man in front of me—yearned to go with him. I wanted to know where his promising career as an FBI agent had gone awry. I wanted to know why he didn’t think he could trust me with the information. And I wanted to let him help me.

“Please,” he pleaded. “I want to show you something. You need anything out of the car? I’ll have someone call your grandmother.”

I looked back at the car. “Actually, I had packed up a blanket and my drawing pad. I planned to take an hour or two to sneak onto the old Kuster place and… I don’t know… think, draw, sort some stuff out.” I walked to the car and grabbed a large tote bag out of the back seat.

When I faced Coop again, his face had morphed into an expression of curiosity with a bit of humor. “Were you planning to trespass just like old times?” He nodded toward my large bag where a blanket was peeking out of the top.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I just needed to think. So much is happening so quickly. And drawing and writing are my ways of escaping.”

“I remember.”

◊◊◊◊◊

The Kuster place was almost exactly like I had remembered it. Coop pulled into a drive. We were driving an SUV that I assumed was his, and not a squad car. After getting out and unlatching a metal gate, he drove the vehicle through, not bothering to close the gate behind us.

We pulled up to what used to be an old tobacco barn in dire need of a fresh coat of paint. The barn standing in front of me now had received a complete makeover, including new wood siding. “Is this the same barn?”

“Same location. All new lumber. And a new layout.” Cooper put the vehicle in park and shut off the engine. He grabbed my tote and exited the SUV.

I watched him a second, then pushed my way out. “Coop, I know I said I was planning to drive out here…” I said as I followed him cautiously. I looked all around for anyone who might have seen us drive onto land that was not our own. I even glanced up at the large white house on the hill—a long time favorite of mine. “…but I wouldn’t really have trespassed.” At the very least, I wouldn’t have driven my car onto the land and announced I was trespassing.

“No one is calling the cops on us.” He continued around the side of the barn and headed toward a large white oak tree.

I stopped and watched him spread out the blanket I had brought, and was suddenly overcome with dread. This was the place we’d spent our last night together before our lives had changed forever.

“Cooper,” I said in a soft voice.

He looked up, and immediately closed the distance between us. “When you said you were planning to come out here, isn’t this the spot you had in mind?”

“Yes, but…” I backed away, then turned and started back toward his vehicle. “I was mistaken. I would have known it had been a mistake if I had come out here by myself.”

He ran, quickly caught up with me, and maneuvered in front or me. “No, you would have been fine if you’d come out here on your own. It’s being here with me that’s got you worked up now.”

He was right. I’ve come to this special place many times without him. But being here with him was different. It dredged up too many memories I wasn’t ready to face. “It doesn’t matter what’s got me worked up, we have to leave now.” I tried to get around him, but he only blocked my path again.

“I’ve spent the last six months working through many issues that had been building for the last eleven-and-a-half years. Whether you like it or not, you’re a part of that.”

“Are you trying to say that I’m the reason you left the Bureau?”

“What? Of course not.” He grabbed my hand. “But I want to tell you what happened.” He closed his eyes. “Actually, that’s not true. I have no desire to tell you, because I don’t want to hurt you. But after you stormed out of your grandmother’s house, she and I talked.”

I looked away from him. “Grammy, Bryn, and the rest of my family have been keeping things from me.”

“Because I asked them to. Don’t blame them. After many long arguments, I convinced Barb that you were better off not knowing.” He touched his fingers to my cheek and steered my face to look at him. His touch was gentle, but his skin at the tips of his fingers was slightly rough and calloused. “Barb, my parents, and Sheriff Daniels are the only four people in this town who know the whole truth about what happened.”

I studied his eyes. “Why Barb?”

“Because I couldn’t have you knowing anything about why I returned until I was ready. And Barb is my mother’s best friend.” He shrugged. “My mother needed someone to help her through it, and I needed Barb to protect you.”

I stepped away from him. “Do you hear yourself, Coop? Why do I even matter? You and I have barely spoken in twelve years. Twelve years, Coop!”

“Because you do matter. You’ve always mattered, Lil. Besides, it hasn’t been that long. I seem to remember we saw each other over Christmas one year.”

My face darkened at least a half-dozen shades. “That was one night. And if I’m remembering correctly, you never called me after that.”

“I remember you telling me you were in a serious relationship.”

I squeezed the bridge of my nose. “Did you bring me out here to argue? To rehash the past?”

I had thought Cooper and I were going to work through our issues seven years ago after we’d spent a spectacular evening together while home visiting family for Christmas. But I didn’t hear from him after that. He went back to DC, and I flew back to New York.

“No. I brought you out here so that I could tell you everything. You are the one person in this world that I wanted when my entire world came crashing down around me six months ago.”

“Then why didn’t you call?”

“Because I didn’t want to hurt you. You had worked so hard to build a life and a career for yourself in New York. I couldn’t mess that up for you. And wanting you here with me would have been selfish.”

“Cooper, we hadn’t seen or talked to each other in seven years. How could you possibly have known what my life was like?”

“Because I came to see you. Last fall, before the holidays.”

“You what?”

“I came to one of your book signings in Washington. I saw it on the schedule on your website. I kept hoping you would call me and tell me you would be in town, but you didn’t. But I went anyway.”

I looked away and spoke softly. “My boyfriend was with me.”

“Yes. You looked happy. And as much as I’d like to say I didn’t want to mess things up for you, I know now that I was simply protecting my own heart from the inevitable crushing pain of only being able to talk to you for a few seconds.”

“So, you just assumed that everything in my life was going great because of how I appeared at one of my signings?”

Cooper stepped back. “What was I supposed to think?” He sucked in a deep breath. He appeared shocked by my reaction.

“You are supposed to talk to me. Ask me how things were going instead of assuming.”

“What happened to the boyfriend? He acted like he planned to marry you when he posted pictures of the two of you all over social media.”

“Seriously? You’re getting your facts from social media now?” I managed to laugh at that. Then I gave my head a little shake. We were arguing over things of the past that we could not change. We were both bitter over so much, but the bottom line was that Cooper Adams and I had shared something in our past that no one understood. And I was afraid that was why everyone had protected me from Cooper’s story. “It doesn’t matter, Cooper,” I whispered finally. I walked to him, and for the first time since I’d seen him earlier this week, I did what I had been craving to do. I lifted both hands and I ran my palms down his arms, starting at his shoulders until I reached his wrists. “I’m sorry for my part in making you feel like you couldn’t reach out to me. Bryn told me something had gone wrong in a case. It was obviously something that was very bad for you to leave your career.” I looked up at him through a veil of eyelashes. “I want to be here for you now if you’ll let me. We were friends once.”

“Best friends.”

“If you’ll let me, I’d like to be your friend again.” I let one of my hands slip into his. Wrapping my fingers around his, I squeezed, then led him to the blanket he had spread under the tree.

Just as I was about to sit down on the blanket, he grabbed me and pulled me to him. He framed my face and before I could protest, he crushed his lips to mine. His arms wrapped around me, and I clutched the fabric of his shirt into my fists at his waist, and I held on. Our lips melded together, and as he deepened the kiss, my arms went up his well-defined back, and he squeezed my body even closer. I could feel his body reacting to me, and a moan escaped from my throat in such a way that there was no denying that I had missed Cooper very much.

When he released the kiss, he leaned his forehead against mine. “I should tell you that I’m sorry for that, but I have waited so long to kiss you again. Even if you tell me that you’re still with some jerk in New York, I will do my best to be happy for you. And if you are with some jerk in New York, I won’t touch you again, but I needed to feel you before I confess to what everyone, including me, has kept from you.

◊◊◊◊◊

“What Bryn told you was only the beginning of the story. The rest centers around the kind of cases I worked in Washington DC and in Virginia. This is not something I’ve spoken about to many outside the few you already know about plus a couple of bureau therapists, which is why very few people know the extent of why this case screwed me up so badly.”

Cooper leaned up against the tree; his legs stretched out in front of him. Sensing how deeply the trauma affected him, I tried to ease his pain by scooting to his side. He slid an arm around me, and I leaned into his chest and shoulder.

As much as I wanted to look into his eyes while he told me this story, I decided to let him off the hook for now.

He absently ran a hand up and down my arm, playing with my hair intermittently.

“I had been tracking a ring of sex traffickers, some of the lowest scum on earth, for more than five years. Every time we made a bust and thought we had broken up the ring, another group would slide into the operation and change things up just enough to keep us from cracking the ring for good. About seven months ago, I believed I had identified ten men at the top of the organization responsible for targeting middle-class suburban teenage girls in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. As you well know, young women from affluent families fetch top dollar from disgusting predators the traffickers call their clients.”

When my body reflexively stiffened—a torrent of horrible memories rising to the surface—he held tighter.

“I had even tracked a couple of them to the Lexington, Kentucky area, which put them too damn close to Payne’s Creek. This is how Sheriff Daniels found out what kind of cases I was working.”

“You told him,” I whispered. I did everything in my power not to move. To let him tell me the whole story. But the moment he had mentioned sex traffickers, I had a horrible feeling of where this was headed.

“I had to. I couldn’t let what happened here almost a dozen years ago happen again.” Coop pressed his lips to the top of my head and kissed me there. “One Thursday afternoon, I received an anonymous tip that a shipment of three girls were being flown on a private jet from Virginia to Russia the following night.

“I had everything set up. FBI and Virginia State Police established a perimeter. SWAT moved in on the plane parked in its hangar just as they were loading their cargo. They had these three girls in freaking cages. The poor girls probably spent the last week planning homecoming dance, and now they were being loaded onto the plane like animals in the circus.

“We thought we had them surrounded, but had miscalculated the number of men protecting the operation. The SWAT team ordered everyone visible to lay down their arms, and moved in. I was on the outer perimeter watching an infrared computer screen so that I knew where all warm bodies were, and like slow motion, I watched a man materialize from inside the plane and open fire with an automatic rifle on the SWAT team. The girls were stuck in between the shooter and the SWAT team.”

I closed my eyes tight.

“All three teenagers were hit. Two of the girls survived but one was shot in the head and killed.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” I said, my voice cracking.

“I was supposed to know where everyone was. I had missed a target. It was my fault. I had to tell a mother and father that we found their daughter, but that we couldn’t save her.”

I pushed myself up and gazed into Cooper’s eyes. “It wasn’t your fault.” I traced a finger down the line that formed between his eyes. “Just like what happened twelve years ago wasn’t your fault.”

Moisture formed in Cooper’s eyes. He attempted to blink it away. “Then why does it feel like I lost everything all over again?”


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