HER COWBOY AVENGER
He didn’t know what he was doing here.
Matt Alvarez eased his foot off the gas pedal as the sign announcing the town limits of Western Bluff, Texas, appeared up ahead. The truck slowly decelerated, gradually coming to a stop just before the sign.
Welcome to Western Bluff.
It was likely to be the only welcome he received in this town. It hadn’t been a particularly friendly place the first time he’d been here, and he wasn’t counting on that having changed much. When he’d left eight years ago, no one had bothered telling him goodbye, and he doubted there were many who’d remember him all these years later.
No, there was only one person he could count on remembering him. The person who’d reached out and brought him back after all this time.
From the look of the town up ahead it hadn’t changed much. Short, square buildings were lined up along what passed for a Main Street. Around it stretched the dry desert landscape as far as the eye could see.
It wasn’t too late to turn back. It sure as heck would make a lot more sense than driving all the way from New Mexico to this dusty West Texas town in the middle of nowhere, all because of a newspaper article he’d received in the mail.
That article lay heavily in the front pocket of his shirt, tucked in the envelope it had arrived in. He didn’t know for sure who’d sent it; there hadn’t been a return address on the envelope. But there was only one person he could imagine sending it. He just couldn’t imagine why. For help, he supposed. If the story in the article was true, she could probably use it.
That didn’t explain why she would have sent it to him of all people, nor why he had come.
He’d been asking himself that last one from the moment he’d climbed in the truck and on every stretch of the drive.
Now he was finally here, and he still didn’t have an answer.
Whatever the reason, he couldn’t sit there in the middle of the highway forever. The road was clear enough—he didn’t see anyone coming up behind him in the rearview mirror—probably not a surprise given the size of the town up ahead. Few people would have a reason to pass through this out-of-the-way place.
But here he was nonetheless.
With a sigh, he moved his foot back to the accelerator and put the truck back into motion.
He slowly drove into town, taking in his surroundings as he passed along the main drag. Just as he’d expected, an up-close inspection of the town revealed it really hadn’t changed at all. The buildings were all the same, with no signs of any new ones having been built and no alterations on the existing ones as far as he could tell. He still recognized the names of some of the businesses—the lawyer’s office, the bank, the Realtor. It was almost like he’d never left, he realized as an uncomfortable feeling slid down his spine, with the town preserved exactly as it had been the last time he’d been here.
He didn’t see many people around, which was kind of odd for two o’clock in the afternoon in any town. But then, it wasn’t as though there were that many people in this town to begin with, and he supposed most were at work. There were only a few pedestrians on the sidewalks. He couldn’t help but search out the faces of those he did see, even before he realized he was doing it, looking for anyone who appeared familiar.
Or a particular someone, he had to acknowledge, even though the idea gave him no pleasure.
He started to focus back on the road when he caught sight of a dark blue pickup truck up ahead pulling into a parking space on the street. It had barely come to a stop before the driver’s side door opened. A moment later a lean, unmistakably female body emerged, shoulder-length black hair ruffling slightly in the wind.
And there she was.
Damned if his heart didn’t stop in his chest, just for an instant.
He hadn’t seen her in eight years, a long enough period of time that he shouldn’t have been able to recognize her immediately. Eight years was a long time. People changed. But the moment he caught sight of her, he knew it was her.
Elena Reyes—Elena Weston now, evidently.
The only woman he’d ever believed himself in love with.
A woman who—if there was any truth to the newspaper article in his pocket—was now a murderer.
EVEN BEFORE SHE CLIMBED out of the truck, Elena could feel eyes on her. She would have been surprised if it had been any other way—after all, this was her first trip into town in nearly a week—but in this instance she would have loved to be surprised. She resisted the instinctive urge to glance around and see who was watching her, unwilling to let them know she was uncomfortable with their scrutiny.
Let them look. She didn’t have anything to be ashamed of. She hadn’t done anything wrong.
It took some effort to remember that as she closed the door of the truck and headed to the grocery store, that oppressive feeling of being watched growing in intensity. Luckily there’d been a parking space close to the entrance so she wouldn’t have to walk far, which was the first bit of luck she’d had in weeks. She made herself keep her head high and her shoulders straight as she walked, refusing to do anything that would make it look like she felt guilty.
Still, when she reached the door she paused on the threshold for the briefest of moments and took a deep breath to prepare herself before stepping inside.
As soon as she did, she wasted no time, quickly picking up a basket from inside the door and heading down the nearest aisle. It took less than ten seconds before she felt the air inside the store change, the shift as noticeable as a sudden chill wind blowing in her wake. The light buzz of conversation in the space evaporated, replaced by an eerie stillness that seemed to fill the store.
She wanted to believe it was her imagination. She knew better than to think it was.
She knew how judgmental this town could be, knew what it was like to have people look at her a certain way because of who she was. She’d grown up enduring those looks. But there was a big difference between being the daughter of Ed Reyes, the town drunk, and having everyone believe she’d killed her husband.
As she moved through the aisles, a few people turned rather sharply away as she approached. Several others openly stared. Glared, was more like it. Elena did her best to avoid eye contact. Lord knew she didn’t exactly have the energy to deal with outright hostility. Still, she couldn’t help but see them out of the corner of her eye and place names to the faces. Connie Raymond, who worked at the local beauty parlor. Delia Hart, whose son had worked for Bobby last summer.
No one said a word to her. No one had to. She knew exactly what they were thinking.
She’d known coming into town would be an ordeal, but there’d been no way around it. She was completely out of supplies, and if she didn’t want to starve she was going to have to come and buy groceries. There was no one around to do it for her. The few ranch hands Bobby had still had around had quit, having no interest in working for her, most of them likely knowing she had no way of paying them anyway. Joann Bloom, the cook who’d worked for the Westons for years, had left as well. She’d said her husband was making her quit, but Elena figured Joann hadn’t fought the order too hard, if she had at all. Joann’s loyalty had to be with the Westons. Even if Elena could pay her, Joann wouldn’t want to keep working for the person accused of killing the last of them.
So it was just Elena, rambling around in the old ranch house with the walls rapidly closing in around her, trying to figure a way out of this mess, wondering what she was going to do. Until the need for supplies had finally forced her into town.
Now though, feeling the stares of half the people around her and the cold shoulders of the others, she couldn’t help but wonder if starvation wouldn’t have been the better option.
As she rounded the corner to the dairy section, she suddenly found herself facing Cassie Gerard, whose husband Travis was Bobby’s closest friend—and one of the deputies determined to prove Elena’s guilt. Cassie stood in front of the milk cooler, looking toward Elena as if she’d known she was coming.
Their eyes met. Elena froze, uncertain what to say. They’d never exactly been best friends, had only been thrown together because their husbands were, but they’d socialized for years, had dinner at each others’ homes, spent holidays together. Yet Cassie stared at her, her expression completely blank, as though she didn’t know her at all.
Finally Elena tried to muster a smile.
Before she could manage it, Cassie turned on her heel and pointedly walked away.
Everything inside Elena deflated like a punctured balloon.
These were people she’d known for years. Her neighbors. They knew her.
They knew she wasn’t a murderer. At least they should.
But their responses proved they didn’t.
Figuring she had enough in her basket to make do for a while, she made her way back to the front of the store. There was no one in line to check out when she got there. Moving to the counter, she quickly unloaded the basket, then set it aside in the stack on the floor.
Only when she straightened did she realize the cashier—Candice Dobson, a local girl Elena had known practically the girl’s whole life—hadn’t made a move to begin ringing her up. She stood frozen, simply staring at Elena, eyes wide, as if she didn’t know what to do.
“Is there a problem?” Elena asked, keeping her tone as pleasant and neutral as possible.
Uncertainty etched across her face, Candice glanced over her shoulder.
Elena followed her gaze. Jacob Higgs, the store manager, stood in the doorway of his office, arms folded over his chest, staring at her.
Finally he nodded once.
Candice immediately began grabbing Elena’s purchases and ringing them up, her motions jerky as she moved as quickly as possible.
Elena never took her eyes from Jacob. She nearly had the ridiculous urge to thank him. But for what? For doing what he was supposed to do and not refusing to serve her? Not to mention, there wasn’t the slightest hint of kindness in his hard face as he continued staring at her. Whatever his reasons for not blocking her purchases, it hadn’t been to be nice.
Heck, he probably wanted to make sure she didn’t drop dead before she could stand trial.
I haven’t even been arrested! she wanted to yell, but it was clear she’d be wasting her breath. Nobody here wanted to hear it. They probably thought it was only a matter of time.
It was an opinion she shared much of the time, she acknowledged, her stomach clenching with fear. Sheriff Bremer had made no secret of the fact he thought she was guilty and was doing everything he could to prove it. The only company she’d had at the house during the past week had been him and his men as they’d searched the house, not bothering to be gentle as they’d tossed all her possessions here and there in an attempt to find evidence. They hadn’t, but Elena knew better than to think that would mean they’d stop trying.
Candice finally finished ringing her up. “Twenty-three fifty.” She announced the total without looking up, focusing on bagging Elena’s purchases. Once she was done, she extended her hand for Elena’s money, quickly making change and handing it back to her.
“Thank you,” Elena said politely as she accepted it.
Candice didn’t say anything, simply lowering her head and not looking at Elena any longer.
Cheeks burning, Elena picked up the two bags and headed to the exit.
Once outside, she began to fumble in her purse for her keys, more than ready to get out of here as quickly as possible. Her attention on juggling the bags in her arms, it wasn’t until she was almost to her truck that she noticed something was wrong. The truck was leaning oddly on one side. She glanced down.
The front tire was flat.
No, she realized, her gaze shifting. Both the front and back tires on this side were flat.
She skidded to a stop, clutching the bags in her arms, her heart suddenly pounding in her chest as she came to the inescapable conclusion.
Someone had slashed the tires.
Part of her immediately tried to reject the idea, not wanting to believe it, not wanting to believe someone she knew could do such a thing.
But it was the only explanation. Two tires on the same side of a truck didn’t just go flat on their own. No, this was deliberate. Someone had done this, purposely, maliciously, to hurt her. Someone she knew. A neighbor. Someone she might have once considered a friend.
Tears of frustration suddenly burned the back of her eyes. She did everything she could to hold them at bay, not about to let a single person in this town know they’d driven her to that and grant them the satisfaction. The mere thought of the smug, vengeful expressions that would no doubt greet her tears was enough to make them dry up.
Unable to bear the sight of her flattened tires, she started to back away, only to immediately collide with something. Big hands closed around her upper arms. A man.
Anger surged through her, killing the numbness that had fallen over her. She lunged forward and jerked out of his grip. The cold stares and whispers were bad enough, but damned if she was going to put up with being physically accosted. She whirled around to face her attacker, her mouth opening to tell him exactly what she thought—
The words died, every thought in her head and every trace of anger vanishing, as she laid eyes on the man in front of her. She could only stare, unable to fully comprehend what she was seeing.
A single word rose in her mind, like a distant echo spoken by someone else.
Copyright © 2012 by Kerry Connor. All Rights Reserved.
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.