Last Kiss Goodbye 2017-11-09T13:58:39+00:00

Project Description

Last Kiss Goodbye

Last Kiss Goodbye

Fearful yet determined, Ivy Stanton returns to the small Appalachian town she left fifteen years ago? The night her parents were murdered. But in coming home to Kudzu Hollow, she discovers she is not alone in her search for the truth: Matt Mahoney, the man who saved her life, who haunts her dreams, who was wrongfully accused of the crime, has come back, too, demanding answers — and justice.

When Matt looks into Ivy’s eyes, he sees a woman whose pain mirrors his own. The feelings she stirs within him promise a life he never thought he’d have. But evil still resides in this sleepy mountain town, as do secrets worth killing for. Now danger stalks them both, and Matt is fighting for more than vengeance he’s fighting for their future.

“I LOVED this book! From the very first page I was hooked. Each character I was introduced to was fascinating and unique. Kudzu Hollow sent chills down my spine, with every turned page. Rita Herron has packed everything I ever wanted in a book into LAST KISS GOODBYE, which is why it has earned five blue ribbons!” 5 Blue Ribbons – Kerensa Wilson, Romance Junkies

“Rita Herron has once again given us a story that will pull you in and not let go until the last page and word has been read. LAST KISS GOODBYE is a wonderful story. It has all the small town elements, set in the mountains that have some disturbing elements every time it rains. If you haven’t read a book by Ms. Herron, you don’t know what you’re missing, the suspense and drama of a beautifully written romantic thriller.” 5 Roses! – Pam Clifton, A Romance Review

“Herron pens a fast-paced, romantic thriller that captivates readers from the first page. This is a masterpiece of multilayered plots and memorable characters. With its romance, suspense, supernatural undertones and brilliant dialogue, readers will not be able to put this book down. Be sure you have the lights on and all windows and doors locked; this novel will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.” 4 1/2 Stars Autumn M. Harrison, Romantic Times

Prologue

“MOMMY!” Eight-year-old Ivy Stanton stared at the blood on her hands in horror. There was so much of it. All over her. Her mother. The floor.

“Ivy, Jesus, look what you’ve done!” Her daddy’s gray eyes seared her like fire pokers. Outside the wind howled, rattling the windowpanes and metal of their trailer. The Christmas tree lights blinked, flashing a rainbow of colors across the room.

“She’s dead,” her daddy said, “and it’s all your fault.”

Ivy shook her head in denial, but he shoved her blood-soaked hands toward her face, and she started to cry. Then she looked down at the knife on the floor. And her mother’s lifeless body sprawled across the carpet. Her pretty brown eyes stared up at the ceiling, icy now.

No! Her mama couldn’t be dead. If Ivy just kissed her, she’d wake up. Then she’d smile and hug Ivy and tell her everything was going to be all right. That tomorrow they’d finish decorating the Christmas tree and wrap the presents.

Ivy pressed her lips against her mama’s cheek, but it was so cold and stiff, she shivered.

Then her father yanked her up by the arm. “You’re poison, Ivy. You’ve ruined this family.”

“No!” She struggled against him, but he shoved her so close to her mother, Ivy saw the whites of her mama’s bulging eyes. Ivy’s stomach cramped, and she coughed, choking. All that blood. So red.

No, not red. The color faded. Just yucky brown.

Even the colored Christmas lights disappeared, turned to black dots before her eyes.

He snagged her hair and flung her backward. Pain exploded in her head as she hit the wall. She scrambled to her knees, tried to run toward the door, but he lunged after her, grabbed her ankle and twisted it so hard she thought she heard it snap. She cried out and kicked at his hands until she was free. A bolt of thunder jolted the trailer, shaking it as if a tornado was coming. Two of her mama’s ceramic Santa Clauses crashed to the floor.

Ivy crawled across the glass, felt shards stab her palms. She had to save the Santas. Save them for when her mama came back.

Her daddy reached for her again. No. No time to get the glass Santas. She had to escape.

She grabbed the cloth Santa instead, the new one her mama had just sewed from felt scraps. Clutching it, Ivy vaulted up and out the trailer door. Her ankle throbbed as she hobbled down the wooden steps and darted toward the junkyard. Her father chased her, his screech echoing over the wind. Tree limbs reached like claws above her in the shadows. Lightning flashed in jagged patterns.

It was dark, and she could barely see. She tripped over a tire rim. A stabbing pain shot through her ankle and leg, and she had to heave for air. But she forced herself up, fighting the wind. It was so strong it hurled her forward. Rain began to splatter down, mud squishing inside her sneakers. Behind her, her father shouted a curse. His bad knee slowed him down.

Her chest ached as she dashed through the rows of broken down cars. Ones people didn’t want anymore.

Just like her daddy didn’t want her.

He’d told her so dozens of times.

Ivy’s legs gave way again, and she collapsed on the soggy ground. The Santa flew from her hands. Mud soaked her clothes, splashed her face.

Then someone grabbed her from behind.

Flailing, she yelled and kicked.

“Stop fighting me, dammit.”

He released her, and she scrambled away on her knees. It wasn’t her father. Bad-boy Matt Mahoney was standing in the shadows. He stood motionless, his chin jutting up, a pair of ragged jeans hanging off his hips. He was soaked with rain and smelled like car grease. And he was so muscular and big he could stomp her into the ground. His black eyes tracked her as if she was an ant he wanted to kill.

“Dammit to hell, Ivy.” He launched forward with one giant step, picked her up, then the Santa, and carried her toward a rusty van. Kudzu vines covered the roof and dangled over the windows, blocking all light.

Ivy shuddered. It was pitch-black. She knew the nasty things men did to women in the dark. Had heard her daddy and mama. And those other men from Red Row.

Knew what bad boys like Matt wanted.

He opened the door, then shoved her on the bench seat in the back. With one hand, he untied the bandanna from around his head and wiped at the blood on her mouth. She couldn’t breathe. He was going to choke her just like the kudzu choked the wildflowers in the yard.

Suddenly he yanked a knife from his pocket. The blade shimmered in the dark as he ripped away the front seat cover. His expression changed as he gently spread it over her. Then he pushed the cloth Santa back into her hands. “Shh, no one can see you in here,” he murmured softly. “It’s a good place to hide. Rest now, little Ivy.”

She searched his big black eyes. She knew what he saw. She was covered in mud and leaves and blood. A bad girl just like her daddy said.

She willed away the memory. Told herself it wasn’t true. Her mama hadn’t died. She would come back tomorrow. Glue the Santas together. Pick Ivy up and kiss her again. And this time her mama’s lips would be warm.

Ivy’s head spun, and the bloody red color faded to brown again. She didn’t want to remember. To see the red. Not ever again.

No, she had to forget . . . .

She closed her eyes, dragging the makeshift blanket over her head to shut out the night and the grisly images.

****

CHAPTER ONE

Fifteen years later

“Don’t go back to Kudzu Hollow, Ivy. Please. I’m begging you, it’s too dangerous. There’s nothing but evil and death in that town.”

Ivy squeezed her adopted mother’s hand, then bent to kiss her check, her cool leathery skin reminding her of the time she’d kissed her birth mother goodbye.

The day she’d died.

In fact that kiss was the last thing Ivy remembered about that horrible night. That and the terrified cries echoing in her head. Her mother’s. Her own. She couldn’t be sure which. Or maybe it was both, all mingled together, haunting her in the night.

Miss Nellie wheezed, cutting into Ivy’s morbid thoughts. Her adopted mother was close to death now, too. She’d suddenly taken ill a few days ago, and had gone downhill fast. She claimed she’d made peace with her maker, but Ivy wasn’t so sure. Sometimes she saw doubt, worry, secrets in Miss Nellie’s eyes. Secrets the woman refused to share.

Secrets that told her Miss Nellie had a dark side.

“I have to go back, Miss Nellie,” she said in a low whisper. “I . . . I’ve been having nightmares. Panic attacks.” And sometimes I see images from the past in the night, monsters that can’t be real. Cries and whispers of death. Screams of ghosts and spirits crying out for salvation. And I’m lost in the middle. . . .

Miss Nellie’s hand trembled as she lifted it to brush a strand of hair from Ivy’s cheek. “Forget about the past dear. You have to let it go.”

“How can I?” Fading sunlight dappled the patchwork quilt in gold and created a halo around Miss Nellie’s pale face. Ivy stood and faced the bedroom window, the scents of illness and dust surrounding her. She hated to lose Miss Nellie, but the elderly woman had looked so pale and her cheeks were sallow. The doctors weren’t certain what had caused her illness, but they’d said she wouldn’t make it another week, much less to Christmas.

Christmas – the Santas . . . .

Ivy shuddered and fought against the fear that gnawed at her at the thought of the upcoming holidays, with all the twinkling lights, festive ornaments and decorations. Snowmen and reindeer, and of course, the Santas. Those Santas were the only thing she had left of her mother. Dozens of them. Soft ones sculpted from fine red and white velvet, with tiny black boots and belts and long cottony beards. Crystal and homemade crafted Santas with glass eyes and painted smiles. Wooden ones carved from bark and painted in a folk art style. Ivy kept them boxed up, though, couldn’t bear to look at them.

Just as she couldn’t look at Miss Nellie now. She’d always felt Miss Nellie held something back, some part of herself she kept at a distance from Ivy. She knew it had to do with Nellie losing her own son when he was small, but her foster mother refused to talk about him or even show Ivy pictures.

A sob built in Ivy’s throat. Miss Nellie was all she had. Another reason she wanted answers. When Miss Nellie passed, she’d take her secrets with her to the grave. Just as Ivy’s parents had.

And Miss Nellie had secrets.

“Please tell me what you meant in the journal, Miss Nellie. How did you come to get me?”

“That journal was private, you shouldn’t have been snooping.” Miss Nellie clammed up abruptly, her thin lips pinched and almost blue as she turned her head away.

“I didn’t mean to snoop, Miss Nellie, but I need to know.”

“All that matters is that God wanted me to raise you. And I got you out of Kudzu Hollow. That town is tainted, I tell you,” Miss Nellie hissed. “There’s evil there. I knew it when I lived there. And I’ve seen the papers, heard stories on the news over the years. Ever since your folks were murdered, bad things have been happening. Livestock and animals attacking one another. Children dying before their time. Folks rising from the grave. Men becoming animals. Teenagers turning against their folks that raised them.”

Miss Nellie was superstitious. It was the way of the people of Appalachia. But Ivy couldn’t argue. She’d seen the stories, too, had read the papers. Every few years, always after a bout of bad thunderstorms and rain, the entire town seemed to go crazy. Crime spiked to a high. There had been several killings.

Even more odd was the fact that very few people ever left the town – alive anyway. And the ones who’d lost loved ones seemed trapped by the old legends. Either that or they were held there by the spirits of the dead, who supposedly roamed the graveyard on the side of the mountain.

“No town or person is all bad,” Ivy said, clinging to her optimistic nature. “There has to be some good there, too.”

Miss Nellie’s expression softened slightly. “You’re so na?ve, Ivy. You always try to find good in everything. But there ain’t no good there. Just ghosts and the devil.” The old woman coughed and reached for her oxygen mask, inhaled a deep breath, then continued in a wheezing voice. “I used to hear the children chant when they were skipping rope,

      ‘Evil in the kudzu
      devil in the men
      Death in the hollow
    again and again.’

“And it’s true. People are afraid to stay. Afraid to leave.”

Ivy shivered. She’d been so afraid to return.

But those old fears were keeping her from having a sane life. From being with a man. From loving.

Even the colors hadn’t returned. The fall leaves outside had already started changing, but all she would see was brown and hints of yellow. There was no red. Even oranges appeared a muddy color.

She crossed the room to Miss Nellie’s bed and sat down beside her in the hard wooden chair. “If you don’t want me to go back, then tell me the truth about the night my parents died.”

****
Miss Nellie’s face turned ashen. “The only thing you need to know is that they locked up the killer. None of them Mahoney boys were ever any account.”

Ivy bit her bottom lip, her stomach knotting. Matt Mahoney hadn’t been all bad. She wasn’t sure how she knew that, but she did.

So why had everyone been so quick to blame him? She’d written him letters to find out, but he’d never responded. And six months ago, she’d drummed up enough courage to drive to the prison to hear his side, but he’d refused her visit.

The past few months, the local paper had featured articles on a lawyer named Willis who was writing a book on old cases and corruption in small-town politics. He’d managed to clear prisoners who’d been falsely arrested, citing new evidence based on advances in DNA testing. He was working on Matt’s case now.

What if they’d convicted the wrong man for her parents’ murders? Matt had been sixteen at the time. Why would he have killed her folks? That question had haunted her for years now.

That and the fact that if he was innocent, Matt had spent fifteen years in jail for a crime he hadn’t committed.

All because she’d been too much of a coward to remember the events of that night.

****
Six weeks later

Matt Mahoney had spent the last fifteen years in jail for a murder he hadn’t committed. And someone was going to pay for the way he’d been wronged.

Thank God Abram Willis had taken an interest in his case. Willis had chosen to devote half of his practice to cold case files, to “the Innocents,” as he referred to them. Men and women falsely imprisoned.

And he’d been digging into Matt’s case for months now. Today would tell if he’d been successful.

Matt glanced at the lawyer and hoped he’d presented the case effectively, that he’d crossed all his t’s and dotted all the i’s. The judge had reviewed the evidence and called them to reconvene for his decision.

Willis fidgeted with his tie, then adjusted his wire-rims. The damn lawyer looked as nervous as Matt felt. Except Matt’s future was on the line here.

What was left of it.

The bailiff called the court to order, and the judge slammed down the gavel, then cleared his throat. Tufts of white hair stood up on the back of his balding head, making him look almost approachable. But his lack of expression during the hours Willis had presented the case made Matt wonder. And the steady gaze that he settled on Matt at that moment added to the mounting tension in the courtroom. Matt glanced at the sunlight streaming through the window, aching to step outside and bask in it. This judge was the only thing standing between him and freedom. He could almost taste the fresh air, smell the grass and leaves, feel the heat beating on his face and back.

But if he didn’t win today, he would go back inside.

Back to the dismal existence and that damn cell block that had become his life.

The judge cleared his throat. “After studying the evidence collected fifteen years ago, and after reviewing the current DNA evidence supplied, the court agrees that a mistake was made in this case. I’m ruling to overturn your conviction.” His expression turned grave. “The court offers its deepest apologies to you, Mr. Mahoney, but also issues you a warning. We’re trying to right a wrong here today. Remember that, and don’t use your incarceration as an excuse to make trouble.”

Matt exhaled slowly, the burning ache of disbelief rolling through him. Had he really heard the judge correctly? After all this time, was he ruling in Matt’s favor?

“You are free to go, Mr. Mahoney. With the court’s regrets, of course.”

He pounded the gavel, ending the session, and Willis jumped up and slapped Matt on the back in congratulations. A deputy stepped forward and removed the ankle bracelet. Matt stood immobile, breathless, as the metal fell away. He couldn’t believe it. He was free. Free to walk out the door for the first time in fifteen years. Free to go anywhere he wanted without a guard breathing down his shoulder, without handcuffs and chains around his ankles. Free to go to bed at night without another man watching him, or worrying that he might never live to see freedom.

But if the judge thought he’d righted the wrong just by releasing him, he was a damn idiot.

Matt had lost fifteen years of his life.

And someone had to answer for that. The town of Kudzu Hollow. Ivy Stanton.

And the person responsible for the Stanton slayings. The real killer had to be punished this time. And Matt would make certain that happened.

Even if it killed him.

****
“I know you’re still grieving over Miss Nellie’s death, Ivy,” George Riddon said. “And I want to help you if you’d let me.”

Ivy stared at her partner at Southern Scrapbooks, the magazine she’d birthed with the help of her own savings and George’s funding, and bit her lip. She’d thought George had stopped by her house to talk business. But so far, his visit had seemed personal. He’d been pushing her to date him for months now, had hinted that he wanted more.

Much more than she could give.

“I’m sorry, George, but it’s too soon.”

He slid his hands around her arms and held her still when she would have walked away. “Listen, I want you, Ivy. I’ve been patient, but a man can only wait so long. We would be really good together. All you need to do is give us a chance.”

She froze, the note of anger in his voice spiking her own. “No one is asking you to wait.”

A fierce look flashed in his hazel eyes. Eyes before that had always been kind and businesslike. “What are you saying? That you won’t ever . . . that you can’t see me that way? Is it my age?”

“No, of course not. You’re not that much older that me.” Ivy simply couldn’t see any man that way. She wished she could.

Sometimes she was so lonely.

He released her abruptly and snapped open the September layout she’d completed on Southern romantic rendezvous. “Look at all these places. Maybe if we took a trip together we could kindle the fire between us.”

She glanced down at the rows of pictures she’d scrapbooked for the magazine. Idyllic, charming bed-and-breakfasts in the mountains, the Grand Ole Opry Hotel in Nashville, a cozy inn on the river in New Orleans, the Chattanooga Choo-choo. A deep sadness washed over her. When she’d photographed and finished the layout, she had imagined herself there, walking hand in hand with a lover, making love as the river rushed over rocks nearby. She longed for a companion in life. But as much as she’d tried, she couldn’t imagine that person as George.

“Please just let it go.” She sighed. “I have too much on my mind right now.”

His jaw tightened as he ran a hand over his sandy-blond beard. “I’m beginning to think you’re a cold fish. That you use your past as an excuse so you won’t have to get close to anyone.”

Ivy glared at him. Granted, she hadn’t made a lot of friends, but she wasn’t a cold fish. She needed order to keep the demons at bay. The endless patterns of her day, the routines, the sameness kept her sane and safe.

Get up at seven. Shower. Go to the office. Hit the gym after work for a three-mile run around the track to help her sleep at night. Dinner. Reading. Tea. Bed. Then start it all over the next day, a vicious circle where she was never moving forward.

Sometimes the routines kept the nightmares away. And when those nightmares left her, erotic dreams filled her sleeping hours. Dreams of being touched, loved, caressed by an anonymous dark-haired man. He seemed familiar, but she couldn’t quite see his face or discern his features.

If or when she gave her body to a man, he had to be someone she really wanted to be with, a man who made her feel alive and special. A man who moved emotions inside her. A man she could trust enough to share her secrets.

That man wasn’t George.

“I’m sorry.” He sighed, looking frustrated but resigned. “I know you’re still troubled over Miss Nellie’s diary. But if you don’t get over it, Ivy, this magazine is going to fall apart because you’re not focused.”

She swallowed hard. The magazine was her baby, the only thing she’d ever put her heart into. Failure was not an option.

“What do you have planned for the October issue?” George asked. “The deadlines are approaching.”

“I was thinking about featuring Appalachian folklore and ghost stories. That would fit with the Halloween theme.”

He plucked at his beard again as he chewed over the idea. “That could work. Do you have a specific place in mind?”

“Kudzu Hollow.”

He frowned. “I thought Miss Nellie convinced you not to go back there.”

The television droned in the background, but Ivy froze, momentarily caught off guard when a special news segment flashed on the screen. Abram Willis, the lawyer who’d been working on Matt Mahoney’s case, appeared in front of a massive stone, columned structure, a flock of reporters on his heels. The courthouse in Nashville.

A tall man with thinning hair and tanning-bed-bronzed complexion stopped in front of the lawyer, blocking his exit. “This is Don Rivers reporting to you from C & N News. We have a live interview with Abram Willis, the nationally acclaimed attorney currently fighting to free falsely accused prisoners.”

“Ivy –“

“Shh.” She pushed past George and turned up the volume, her eyes glued to the set, her adrenaline churning. The distinguished attorney paused to address the group, absentmindedly straightening his tie, which matched his streaked gray hair. But it was the man beside him who captured Ivy’s attention.

Well over six feet tall with jet-black hair, and eyes so dark brown they looked black. His powerful body exuded pure raw masculinity, as well as bitterness and anger. The scar that zigzagged down his left cheek added an air of brutality that bordered on frightening. But something about his darkness drew her, made her wonder if he really was the hard, cold man he appeared on the surface. Pain radiated from his body, and his eyes held such deep sadness that Ivy literally trembled with compassion.

For a fleeting second, another image passed through the far recesses of her brain, the image of Matt Mahoney as a teenager. He’d been fierce, angry, frightening. But all the teenage girls had wanted him, had whispered about the girls he’d taken in the back of his daddy’s ’75 Chevy.

Now he looked exhausted, half-dead from defeat. Yet a small spark lit his eyes – relief at his sudden and unexpected freedom.

“Mr. Willis, is it true that the court overturned the ruling on Mr. Mahoney’s murder conviction?” Rivers asked. “That he spent fifteen years in jail for a crime that evidence now proves he didn’t commit?”

Willis nodded, puffing up his chest as he straightened his suit jacket, but Matt averted his face as if shying away from the camera. “That’s correct,” the attorney said. “Justice has finally been served. Mr. Mahoney has been cleared of charges and has been pardoned.”

The reporter shoved a microphone in Matt’s face. “Mr. Mahoney, tell us how it feels to be free.”

“What are you going to do now?” another reporter shouted.

A chorus of others followed. “Are you receiving monetary retribution for the past fifteen years?”

“Are you going home?”

“If you didn’t kill that family, do you know who did?”

Ivy pressed her hand to her mouth, waiting for his answer. But Matt scowled at the camera, pushed the microphone away with an angry swipe of his hand and stalked through the crowd without responding.

“What the hell is it, Ivy?” George said, sliding his hand to her waist. “You act like you’ve seen a ghost.”

She gestured toward the screen with a shaky hand, the black hole of her past threatening to swallow her. “That’s the man who was convicted of killing my parents.”

****
Matt inhaled the crisp fall air as he walked away from the courthouse, barely noting that the smells of grass, honeysuckle and clean air that he’d craved were missing, that the city with its concrete buildings and sidewalks had destroyed those things, just as prison had decimated his dignity. Goddamn bloodsucking reporters. He’d half wanted to use them as a tool to vent his case, since they’d sure as hell done a number on him years ago. But he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.

And what could he say?

That he was bitter. That he hated the system that had failed him. That he despised the citizens who still stared at him as if he was guilty. That he wished he had a nice home to go to. Someone waiting on him. A family. A loving wife or lover. Anyone who cared about him. A future.

He didn’t.

In fact, going home meant facing the very people who’d condemned him. The neighbors and family who’d gossiped about his family, testified against his character, thrown him away and forgotten about him.

The ones who believed he was a murderer.

But he would face them, anyway. Because someone in Kudzu Hollow knew the truth about the Stanton slayings and had allowed him to take the fall.

One last glance at the columns of the courthouse and its stately presence, and he remembered all he’d learned in prison. Laws varied, depending on a person’s financial status. For the poor, the old adage “Innocent until proven guilty” didn’t matter one iota. In fact it was the opposite—you were guilty from the beginning, and nothing you said made a damn bit of difference. From the moment the sheriff had slapped handcuffs on him, Matt had been labeled a killer. Not one person in Kudzu Hollow had spoken up to defend him.

Then in prison . . . hell, everyone screamed they were innocent. He’d had a hard time telling the difference himself. He’d met men bad to the bone, some meaner and more depraved than he’d ever imagined. But other innocents like him, convicted by bad cops, seedy lawyers, piss-poor judges and shoddy crime scene techs, filled the cells, too. Trouble was, once the prisoners were all thrown in there together, fighting for survival took priority.

And they all became animals.

Sweat beaded his forehead at the memory of the acts he’d committed in the name of survival.

His life would never be the same. He’d lost his youth, and for a while his chance for an education, although the last few years he’d pulled himself together and had been studying the law. One day soon, he’d obtain his license and take the bar exam. Become a respectable citizen and prove to the world that it had been wrong about him. Maybe he’d even work with Willis to help free other innocents.

Matt’s chest squeezed, though, as he climbed into the lawyer’s black Cadillac. Now only one thing drove him – bittersweet revenge on the man responsible.

If he only knew his identity.

That fateful night raced back as Willis drove through Nashville, Matt’s mind wandering back in time as the sea of cars and traffic noises swirled around him.

Fifteen years ago, he’d been up to no good, stealing tires from the junkyard, when he’d spotted that little Stanton girl running for her life. Hell, he’d felt sorry for the kid. They’d both grown up in the trailer park that backed up to the junkyard. He knew the kind of life she had. Had heard folks in town gossiping that her mother liked the men, that if she wasn’t married she’d be shacked up in one of Talulah’s Red Row trailers making money on her back. And some said that she did spend her days there with her legs spread wide, entertaining customer after customer while her old man sold car parts and pedaled junk for a living. And Matt had finally learned that was true, although he wasn’t proud of the way he’d found out.

Old man Stanton had beat his wife. They were white trash just like his family. Ivy had been such a puny little thing, with bundles of curly blond hair and those big green eyes that he hated to think of her big-bellied father taking his fists to her. The poor kid didn’t have enough meat or muscle on her to fend off a spider, much less a drunk, two-hundred-pound, pissed old fart who wreaked of whiskey and a bad temper.

When Matt had seen all that blood on her hands and shirt, the devil had climbed inside him. He’d wanted to kill her bastard daddy. Teach him to pound on somebody his own size. And he had gone to the trailer, the one with the torn, yellow curtains, the broken-down swing set and the beer cans smashed against the porch.

But he hadn’t killed anyone.

No, her mother had been dead when he arrived. A vicious slaying, as if animals had been at it. Matt had nearly lost his dinner seeing all the blood on the floor, like a damned river. And her daddy had been found later, buried beneath the kudzu, his body slashed and bloody, his face carved as if an animal had ripped him apart.

Not that Matt’s pleas of innocence had mattered.

The sheriff had found his boot prints, his damn fingerprints on the doorknob, and he’d been railroaded to jail for the crime, anyway.

Craving fresh air, and suddenly claustrophobic as prison memories assaulted him, Matt cranked down the window, uncaring that the air that assaulted him was tainted with smog and exhaust fumes. It spelled freedom.

He was thirty-one now. Thirty-one with nowhere to go, nothing to do, and not a soul in the world who gave a damn that he was out. Thirty-one and so damn scarred inside and out that no sane woman would ever want him.

All because he’d had a tender streak for a little girl who hadn’t bothered to show up at his trial and defend him.

Damn fool. That’s what he was. What he’d always been.

But never again.

The sun warmed his face as Willis wove through the heavy rush hour traffic, and he dragged his mind from the depths of despair where he’d lived for so long and tried to soak up the changes in the city. New businesses and skyscrapers had cropped up on every corner, rising toward the heavens. The car horns, motors humming, rush of SUV’s and mini-vans whizzing by and machinery from a new construction site bombarded him. The sight of modern vehicles, the styles so different from fifteen years ago, reminded him of all that he’d missed.

“How about a motel on the outskirts of the city?” Willis asked. “There’s a used car lot across the street, and a motor vehicle place a few blocks away so you can renew your driver’s license tomorrow.”

Matt nodded. “Sounds good.” Willis pulled into a Motel Six and cut the engine. Matt turned to him, forever grateful. “Thank you for all you did for me, Abram.”

A smile lifted the older man’s lips. “Just don’t make me regret it.”

Matt’s gaze met his, and he nodded. He just hoped he could keep that promise.

Willis handed him an envelope. “Here’s some cash from your account and a credit card. I’ll let you know when the state compensation comes in. It won’t be near enough, but it should help you get started.”

Matt accepted the envelope. “Thanks again.” He shook Abram’s hand, then climbed out, smiling at the fact that he could step outside alone, then went inside and registered. A few minutes later, he walked across the street to the Wal-mart, bought a couple of pairs of jeans and t-shirts, along with some toiletries. All mundane tasks that felt so liberating. Like a kid, excitement stirred inside him as he stopped at the Burger King and ordered a couple of whoppers and fries. He grabbed the bag, inhaling the smell of fast food with a grin, then walked to the convenience store on the corner, bought a six-pack of beer, and headed back to the motel for his celebration.

He had to go back to Kudzu Hollow and face his demons soon, but not tonight.

Tonight he’d celebrate his freedom. Tomorrow, he’d renew his driver’s license, buy a car, and a used computer, then locate Ivy Stanton. And when he found her, he’d surprise her with a little visit.

Unlike the day the police had questioned her about her parents’ murders, this time she wouldn’t claim she didn’t know what happened.

This time, she’d damn well do some talking.

****
Arthur Boles waved his son into his office with a glare, popped an antacid tablet into his mouth and released a string of expletives. “Damn it, Crandall, I’ve paid you a small fortune to keep that Mahoney boy in jail. How did you let that confounded fool Willis get him free?”

“Listen, calm down, Arthur,” his attorney screeched over the telephone line. “I did everything I could. By all rights, the boy should have been paroled years ago.”

“But you managed to keep that from happening, so why couldn’t you stop this disaster?”

“I’ve used up all my favors and jeopardized my own reputation for you,” Crandall snapped. “Now, I’m through, Arthur. Through doing your dirty work for you, through putting myself on the line. I fully intend to salvage my career and wash my hands of the whole mess.”

Arthur ran a hand over his thinning hair, watching as his son A.J. paced the room like a caged animal. The boy was nervous. Hell, they all were.

“You can’t walk away from me now, Crandall.”

“I can and I will,” Crandall snapped. “And if you dare try to use what I’ve done to blackmail me, I will expose you and your son.”

Crandall slammed down the phone, and Arthur cursed again, then raked a hand across his desk sending papers flying in fury. Crandall wouldn’t reveal a damn word. Arthur would see to that.

“Dad,” A.J. said in a worried voice as he paused, jerked open the liquor cabinet and grabbed a fifth of bourbon. His son turned it up and like a heathen, drank straight from the bottle, the brown liquid dribbling down his chin. Just like fifteen years ago. The night the trouble had started.

“What in the hell are we going to do?” A.J. swiped a hand over his mouth. “Mahoney’s out. And you know the first place he’ll come.”

Traces of desperation and fear lined A.J.’s face, suddenly aging his son another ten years. Arthur’s own panic gripped his chest into a vise, but he stalked toward A.J., took the bottle from his hand. “I’ll take care of things. Don’t worry.”

A.J. relaxed slightly, but remnants of memories lingered in his eyes. The same ones that troubled Arthur. They both had made mistakes fifteen years ago. But they’d survived this long without anyone knowing.

And those mistakes would go with them to their graves.

Even if he had to kill Crandall and Mahoney to keep them buried.

****
Ivy had been alone for so long.

His dark eyes skated over her, and her body tingled in response. She wasn’t a cold fish. No, she craved his touch. Could not get enough.

His shaggy black hair nudged his collar, the desire in his dark eyes nearly bringing her to her knees. She reached for him, but he shook her hand away and made her wait. With one finger he flicked the buttons on her shirt free, the corner of his mouth twitching as he peeled it from her shoulders. Cool air brushed her skin, and her nipples budded beneath the flimsy lace of her bra. A hot look of hunger colored his irises, but he still didn’t move to kiss her. He simply stood stone still, watching her chest rise and fall as he slid her panties down her thighs. She stepped out of them, suddenly feeling shy.

But the hiss of his breath was so erotic that all shyness fled.

He smiled, then cupped one hand behind her neck, lowered his mouth and claimed hers. Her heart pounded as he tasted and explored, teased her lips apart and thrust his tongue inside. Then he trailed kisses down her neck and lower, to her breasts. Pleasure rippled through her. She had been waiting all her life for this moment. For his touch. His lips. His hands.

His fingers slid along her spine, over the curve of her hips, then lower to tangle in the blond curls that were already wet from wanting him. A groan erupted from his throat as he pulled back and looked at her. A fierce need glimmered in his eyes, making her ache to strip him and touch him all over.

But when she reached for him, he drifted away, swallowed by the darkness..

Ivy jerked awake, panting and sweating, the sheets twisted around her legs and arms where she’d rolled from side to side as waves of erotic satisfaction splintered through her. She wasn’t the cold fish George had accused her of being. She was starved for love, for a man’s comfort, for his touches and kisses.

Only the man in her dreams…this time she had seen his face.

And that face had belonged to the man who’d been imprisoned for killing her parents — Matt Mahoney.

God. She dropped her head into her hands, trembling. Matt Mahoney was not a man she would ever have sex with. Not a man who would want her.

The dark coldness of the room closed around her, suffocating her. The screams of terror suddenly exploded in her head again, and her heart pounded. A monster’s face replaced Matt’s, and she saw the blood. Brown, not red. Floating like a river around her mother’s head. A wail lodged in her throat as the smell of death bombarded her. She had to run but her legs wouldn’t move. The silent voices screeched in her head.

Run like the wind. Run from the monster or he’ll get you again.

Just like she had fifteen years ago. Anything to escape the horror.

Or he would kill her, too. And there would be no tomorrow.

****
Tomorrow was the beginning of another bad day. The beginning of the end for some in Kudzu Hollow.

For years now, the dark cloud, as Lady Bella Rue called it, had hovered about the small mountain community, floating away only occasionally, only long enough to give the locals a momentary reprieve. But before hope could be rekindled, the cloud returned with a vengeance to dump more sorrow and misfortune on the town.

She gathered her shawl around her trembling shoulders, fighting the wind as she walked outside and descended the steps to her root cellar. Storm clouds brewed above, the smell of rain and trouble filling her nostrils, a streak of lightning splintering off the mountain ridges. Thunder followed like an unwelcome guest announcing it’s arrival.

The frizzled hen she kept in the yard scratched at the ground, a reminder of the West African legends. She had learned from the best. And she had visited the crossroads and prayed to the Devil for nine days and nights to strengthen her powers.

But she did not practice evil sorcery as the locals said. She desperately wanted to save the town.

Thunder rumbled again, growing louder, and the impending pain and fear of what was to come pierced her heart, settling so deeply in her bones that she could almost feel the brittle edges poking through her paper-thin skin. Folks whispered that the evil had started the day the Stanton family had been murdered. Others thought that Lady Bella Rue was the cause. That she had killed her own child and cast a wretched spell on the town years ago beginning a vicious cycle of families turning on one another.

But they were wrong.

The gods and goddesses of the rivers, mountains and land were angry at the people, and fought the devil at every turn. Just as she did.

And the ones who’d lost family over the years were trapped here, just as she was herself. Forced to listen to her baby’s cry at night as it echoed in the wind from the tangled vines of the kudzu. As long as she was alive, she would visit her son’s grave and pray for his spirit.

She touched the red flannel charm bag she kept tucked inside her blouse, hoping the mixture of Jerusalem bean, devil’s shoestring, High John the Conqueror root, bloodroot, snake root and Adam and Eve root would be strong enough to stave off the evil when the rain came. After all, how could she protect the town if she was dead herself?

Methodically, she gathered the roots and ingredients for the protection spell she hoped would help stave off the dangers. She would need eggs, candles, sulfur and chimney dust. She also needed graveyard dust, so she climbed the steps from the root cellar and headed toward her son’s grave. There, she would pray and chant and maybe be able to see the future. If she knew the man who brought danger this time, the man already possessed, perhaps she could make a spell to strip the devil from him before the killing began.

If not, God help them all. More would die.

And the devil would win again.

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