Always a Lawman
She had died here. Temporarily, anyway.
But she was alive now, and Jodi Canton could feel the nerves just beneath the surface of her skin. With the Smith & Wesson gripped in her hand, she inched closer to the dump site where he had left her for dead.
There were no signs of the site now. Nearly ten years had passed, and the thick Texas woods had reclaimed the ground. It didn’t look nearly so sinister dotted with wildflowers and a honeysuckle vine coiling over it. No drag marks.
The years had washed it all away, but Jodi could see it, smell it and even taste it as if it were that sweltering July night when a killer had come within a breath of ending her life. The nearby house had succumbed to time and the elements, too. It’d been a home then. Now, the white paint was blistered, several of the windows on the bottom floor closed off with boards that had grayed with age. Of course, she hadn’t expected this place to ever feel like anything but the crime scene that it had once been.
Considering that two people had been murdered inside.
Jodi adjusted the grip on the gun when she heard the footsteps. They weren’t hurried, but her visitor wasn’t trying to sneak up on her, either. Jodi had been listening for that. Listening for everything that could get her killed.
Permanently this time.
Just in case she was wrong about who this might be, Jodi pivoted and took aim at him.
“You shouldn’t have come here,” he said. His voice was husky and deep, part lawman’s growl, part Texas drawl.
The man was exactly who she thought it might be. Sheriff Gabriel Beckett. No surprise that he had arrived since this was Beckett land, and she’d parked in plain sight on the side of the road that led to the house. Even though the Becketts no longer lived here, Gabriel would have likely used the road to get to his current house.
“You came,” Jodi answered, and she lowered her gun.
Muttering some profanity with that husky drawl, Gabriel walked to her side, his attention on the same area where hers was fixed. Or at least it was until he looked at her the same exact moment that she looked at him.
Their gazes connected.
And now it was Jodi who wanted to curse. Really? After all this time that punch of attraction was still there? She had huge reasons for the attraction to go away and not a single reason for it to stay.
Yet it remained.
At least on her part anyway. That wasn’t heat she saw in Gabriel’s eyes. Not attraction heat anyway. He was riled to the bone that she was back at the scene of the crime.
Gabriel hadn’t changed much over the years. He was as lanky as he had been a decade ago. His dark brown hair was shorter now, but he still had those sizzling blue eyes. Still had the face that could make most women do a triple take. Simply put, he was one hot cowboy cop.
“Is it true?” Gabriel asked. “Are you actually remembering more details from the night of the attack?”
She’d expected the question and heard the skepticism in his voice. Skepticism that she deserved. Because her remembering anything else was a lie. “No. I told the press that because I thought it would draw out the real killer.”
He gave her a look that could have frozen the hottest parts of hell. “That’s not only stupid, it’s dangerous. You made yourself a target.”
“I’m already a target,” she mumbled under her breath. And because she thought they needed a change of subject, Jodi tipped her head to the house. “I’m surprised it’s still standing. Why haven’t you bulldozed it?”
A muscle tightened in his jaw. “There’s a difference of opinion about that in the family.”
Yes, Jodi had heard about some of those opinions. One of his sisters had wanted the place to remain standing, though Jodi had no idea why. She couldn’t imagine any of them wanting to live in the house again. Still, maybe it was hard to demolish a childhood home even when that place was now a reminder of the nightmare.
“It’s not a good time to be out here,” he growled as if delivering an order that she would jump to obey. “And not just because you put out that lie to the press.”
Jodi stayed put, and she darn sure didn’t jump. “I was hoping if I saw the place again, it actually would help me remember, that what I told the press would no longer be a lie.”
He aimed a scowl at her. Then, another scowl at the house and the spot where he’d found her bleeding and dying nearly a decade ago. “Why the heck would you want to remember that?" He had a point. But so did Jodi. It wasn’t a point that would likely make sense to Gabriel.
“I want to see his face.” She shook her head. “I want to remember his face.”
Ironically, it was one of the few things about that night that she couldn’t recall. That particular detail was lost in the tangle of memories in her head. She could feel the slice of the knife as it cut into her body.
Jodi could remember the blood draining from her. But she couldn’t see the man who’d been responsible for turning her life on a dime.
“Why come back now?” Gabriel demanded. “Why tell the press that you’re remembering after all this time?”
Good questions. And she had good answers.
“I got an email.” Jodi figured that would get his attention, and it did.
Gabriel turned those lethal blue eyes on her. “What kind of email?”
She took out the printed copy from the front pocket of her jeans and handed it to him. Jodi didn’t need to see what was written there. She’d memorized every word.
"Nearly ten years. I’ve waited long enough to finish what I started on the Blue River Ranch. This time, no one will be there to save you. This time, you will die."
Gabriel cursed again. “You got this, and you still came here?”
Jodi shrugged, tried to make it seem as if this message didn’t have her in knots. It did. But then, she’d been in knots for a long time now. For ten painful years. In some sick way, maybe this meant there’d be a showdown, and the knots would finally loosen.
“This proves my father’s innocent,” she said and waited for Gabriel to blast that to smithereens.
It didn’t take long before he attempted that blast. “No. A copycat could have written it. Or your father could have paid someone to do it.”
Both could be true, and she acknowledged that with a slight sound of agreement. “But I have to believe it wasn’t a copycat. It’s either that or accept that my father murdered both of your parents, attacked me and then left me for dead.” She paused, shook her head. “Of course, no one in your family had trouble believing it.”
“Neither did a jury,” Gabriel pointed out.
It was true. A jury had indeed convicted her father, Travis, of two counts of murder and also of her own attack, and the jurors had given him two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. He was rotting away in a jail cell, exactly where the Becketts wanted him. Of course, it could have been worse. Travis could have gotten the death penalty, but thankfully the DA had backed off on that because of some weaknesses in the case.
No eye witness to put Travis at the scene, and the fact that her father couldn’t recall what’d gone on that night.
“My father was convicted on circumstantial evidence,” Jodi said, though she was preaching to the choir. Because as the sheriff and the son of the murdered couple, Gabriel knew the case better than everyone else.
Everyone but the real killer, that is.
“My father didn’t have the murder weapon on him when the cops found him,” she went on. Yes, Gabriel knew that, too, but she wanted to remind him. “And the wounds to your parents and to me were made with a unique knife.”
“A skinning knife with a crescent-shaped blade. Is this going somewhere?” he continued without hesitating. “Because it doesn’t matter that your father claimed he didn’t own a knife like that—”
“He didn’t,” she interrupted. “I was the one who cleaned the house. Cleaned his room. The barn. You name it, I cleaned it, and I never saw a blade that resembled anything like a crescent.”
It wasn’t easy for her to talk about the knife. But even when she didn’t talk about it, the image of it was still clear in her head. Not from that night, though. Jodi hadn’t actually seen it, but the FBI had shown her photos of a skinning knife. And they were certain that’s what had been used on her because the tip of it had broken off during the attack. The surgeon had removed it from what’d been left of her spleen.
“That doesn’t mean Travis didn’t have that knife hidden away,” Gabriel countered. “And I don’t care if he says he didn’t. Nor do I care that he claims he can’t remember anything from that night because he had three times more than the legal limit of alcohol. The bottom line is that he had motive, and my father’s blood on his shirt.”
Blood that someone could have planted there when Travis was passed out drunk by the Blue River where the deputies had found him hours after the murders and her own attack.
Jodi could have argued that her alcoholic father hadn’t been in any shape to murder two people, one of them sheriff at the time. That’s because the DA had successfully argued that Travis could have gotten drunk afterwards.
And yes, her father did have motive.
Bad blood between him and the Becketts. Feuds over land and water rights that had been going on before Jodi was born. It had created the perfect trifecta for law enforcement. Her father had had the means, motive and opportunity to butcher two people and then turn that knife on Jodi when he thought maybe she’d witnessed what he had done.
Because of the blasted tears she’d been crying over Gabriel’s rejection, she hadn’t seen anything. She’d barely had time to hear the footsteps before her attacker had clubbed her on the head and started stabbing her.
“Have you considered the reason you don’t remember your attacker’s face is because you blocked it out?” Gabriel asked a moment later. “Because it was too traumatic for you to see the face of the man that you thought loved you?”
Jodi had to take a moment to try to tamp down the panic rising inside her. No way could she believe that.
“My father never confessed to the murders,” she pointed out.
“That doesn’t mean he didn’t do it,” he countered and then huffed. No doubt signaling an end to an argument they’d been having for a decade. He looked at the email again. “You gave a copy of this to the FBI?”
She nodded, annoyed that it was a question. “Of course, I gave it to them since they’re the ones who handled this investigation. With you and your brother’s help, of course.”
In fact, Gabriel’s brother, Jameson, had pretty much spearheaded the case in the beginning. Not that anyone had been dragging their feet. No. Everyone seemed to be racing toward any evidence that would result in her father’s conviction. But Jameson had been a key player in getting that guilty verdict.
“I just wanted to make sure you didn’t withhold anything from the FBI,” Gabriel added. “Because they need to see any and all threats, so they can put a stop to them.”
Jodi’s annoyance went up a notch. Gabriel was talking down to her. Talking to her as if she were a criminal. Or an idiot. “I know you don’t think much of what I do for a living, but I’d have no reason to keep something like that to myself.”
He handed her back the email, his gaze connecting with hers again, and she got another dose of his doubt.
Gabriel definitely didn’t think much of what she did. Consultant for Sentry, a private security firm. Many cops thought that Sentry toed the line when it came to investigations.
And sometimes they did.
“I don’t wear one of these,” she said, tapping his badge, “but that doesn’t mean I’m not out for justice just like you, Jameson and your deputies.”
“Justice at any price,” he argued.
She shrugged, tried to make sure she didn’t look as if that’d stung a little. “Repeating my boss’s motto—the law isn’t always justice.”
“Hector March.” Gabriel said her boss’s name as if it were profanity. To him, it was. “Is he out of jail yet?”
That was another jab. And another sting. “Yes. And for the record, what Hector did was definitely justice. The illegal wiretap he set up eventually led to the arrest of a pimp who was known for beating up his girls. He used his fists to do whatever he wanted, and now he’s been stopped.”
There was too much emotion in her voice now. Too much emotion inside her, as well. It was hard to rein in the feelings of being powerless against a much stronger attacker, but Jodi had had a lot of practice doing just that.
“The pimp would have gone to jail eventually through legal means,” Gabriel growled.
It was probably the truth. Probably. But Hector had made it happen a little sooner than the cops could have managed it.
“If I can save one woman from getting beaten or killed, I’ll do it,” Jodi insisted. “And yes, I’m over-identifying.”
She waved off any other part of this discussion that might happen because she’d admitted that. It was obvious Gabriel and she were never going to agree when it came to Sentry, Hector or her job. Jodi also didn’t want to keep talking about something that couldn’t change. She’d nearly died. Had the scars to prove it. Nothing was going to undo that.
“You blame me for what happened to you,” Gabriel threw out there like a gauntlet.
She turned toward him so fast that her neck popped. Jodi wanted to say no, that she didn’t. Better yet, she wanted to believe it. But she didn’t. Not completely anyway.
“I know in here it wasn’t your fault.” She touched her fingers to her head. “But everything that happened that night has gotten all rolled into one tangled mess inside me. A mess that involves you, me…and the killer. I don’t want to include you in that nightmare, but it did begin with you, and I can’t just forget that.”
“Yeah,” he said and looked away. Gabriel always looked away whenever the subject of attraction or sex came up between them. And despite her near murder not actually being about sex, it was sex that had started it all.
Or rather lack of sex.
“You were nineteen,” he reminded her. “Too young to be with me.”
Obviously, his mind had hitched a ride on the exact train of thought as hers. “I was an adult.”
“Barely. You were also one of my kid sister’s best friends. And I was five years older than you. There’s a world of difference between a nineteen-year-old college student and a twenty-four-year-old deputy sheriff. Legally, you weren’t jail bait, but that still didn’t make being with you right.”
It was his old argument that she knew all too well since it was the same one he’d used the night of the attack. She’d been staying in the Beckett house, a guest of Gabriel’s sister Ivy, who at the time was also her college roommate. Around 10:00 p.m., Jodi had walked the less than a quarter of a mile distance between the Becketts’ and Gabriel’s place, the house left to him by his grandparents. And Jodi had done that for the sole purpose of seducing Gabriel.
It hadn’t worked.
“You turned me down,” she said under her breath. Thankfully, it didn’t sound as if she still carried a decade of hurt. But it had certainly hurt then. Simply put, Gabriel Beckett was the only man she’d ever wanted. It was ironic, though, that after the night of the attack she’d never wanted him or another man again.
She silently cursed. That was a partial lie. A lie she could feel now that she was standing so close to Gabriel. Much to her disgust, she still wanted him.
“Sex is a commitment,” she mumbled. “That’s what you told me when you turned me away.” Jodi huffed. “Which wasn’t the truth since you had sex with half the women in town, and you didn’t commit to any of them.”
He said something under his breath that she didn’t catch. Then, something she did catch. Bad profanity. “Why did you really come here? Because I’m not buying it that you’re here just to remember. Are you trying to draw out the person who sent you the email?”
She didn’t deny it. Jodi did indeed want to draw him out in the open and put an end to this once and for all.
“He could just shoot you,” Gabriel reminded her.
“I don’t think so. I think he wants his hands on me again.” Just saying it nearly made her gag. “I won’t be the victim for the rest of my life.”
“Then start by not being here.” Gabriel paused and glanced around. The kind of glance that a lawman made as if checking to make sure no one else was there. “You’re not the only one who got a threatening email.”
Everything inside her went still. “Who else? You?”
Gabriel nodded. “All three of my siblings, too. Jameson, Ivy and Lauren.”
Jodi hadn’t needed their names. She’d grown up next to the Becketts and knew them well enough to know their birthdays. Now, of course, they were her enemies. Enemies who’d apparently gotten death threats.
“What’d the emails say?” she asked.
Gabriel drew in a weary breath. “Almost the same as yours. Except for mine. The threat was, well, more explicit. Probably because I’m the sheriff now.”
Jodi tried to process that. “What possible reason would my father have to send threats like this?”
“I’ve given up trying to figure out why killers do what they do.” He hesitated again. “But I’m leaning more toward a copycat. There are a lot of sick people out there, and the story got plenty of press. With the tenth anniversary coming up in three months, I believe it’s bringing out the lunatics.”
“So, you think the emails are empty threats?” Jodi hated to sound disappointed. Hated even more that she was disappointed that it might be true. It sickened her to think the truth had already played out.
And that her father had left her for dead.
“Copycat threats aren’t always empty,” Gabriel corrected. “That’s why I don’t want you out here. Not alone anyway. If you want to try to jog your memory again, call me, and I’ll have someone meet you.”
Jodi probably should be insulted because she was an expert marksman and trained in hand-to-hand combat. She could protect herself.
And it was the fact that the probably was not a certainty that kept her up at night.
She turned, ready to head back to her car, but something caught her eye. Some movement in one of the second floor windows. Gabriel must have seen it, too, because he stepped in front of her. And he drew his gun.
Jodi pulled her weapon, too. “Should there be anyone in the house?” she asked.
“No.” That time he absolutely didn’t hesitate, and Gabriel started toward the porch. “Before you jump to conclusion, it’s probably just a teenager out for a stupid thrill. Or maybe a reporter. Either way, you should go to your car now.”
“Just in case it turns out to be something more than a teen or a reporter, I can back you up if you’re going inside.”
Which he apparently was.
Gabriel didn’t turn down her offer of backup. Didn’t order her to her car again, either. Maybe because he figured she could be attacked while heading to the road. It was obvious he was thinking this was more than just a false alarm. Of course, after those threatening emails, Jodi doubted there was anything false about it either.
Mercy. Was the killer here?
That sent her heartbeat racing, the sound of it throbbing in her ears. The memories came. Too many of them too fast. She had to force them back into that little box she’d built in her mind. This was no time for a panic attack. Not in front of a killer.
Not in front of Gabriel, either.
He took slow, cautious steps, his gaze firing not just to the window but all around them. “I’m Sheriff Gabriel Beckett,” he called out. “You’re trespassing. Come out with your hands in the air.”
It was hard to hear because of her racing pulse and the breeze rattling through the live oaks, but Jodi thought she heard someone moving around inside. There were plenty of windows on the back part of the house that the intruder could use to escape. But maybe he didn’t have escape in mind.
Maybe this would turn into another attempt to murder her.
If so, she was ready.
“Stay behind me,” Gabriel insisted. “And watch our backs.”
She did, and Jodi continued to keep an eye out as they made their way up the steps to the porch. But as soon as Gabriel reached the top step, he stopped.
Then, he froze.
Jodi was near enough to him to sense the muscles tensing in his body. And she soon realized why.
Her heart jumped to her throat. “Oh, mercy.” Jodi shook her head and inched closer. Not that she needed to be closer to realize what she was seeing.
With a crescent-shaped blade. The tip was missing.
And there was blood on it.