Hell must have finally frozen over in Justice, Texas.
That was the only explanation for the phone call requesting his services from his half brothers, Lieu-tenant Zane McKinney and Sergeant Sloan McKinney, both Texas Rangers.
As was Cole, but they had never met or asked for his help on a case before.
Not him—the bastard, bad-boy brother they all hated.
Cole traced a proud finger over the silver star he’d earned through his own blood, sweat and tears. He was a sergeant now himself. He’d made the grade with no help. No financial support or fancy education. No loving, doting parents.
Not like Zane and Sloan.
A bitter laugh rumbled from deep within his gut as he threw his clothes into a duffel bag, stepped into the hot sunshine and climbed on his Harley. Dammit. He’d been ordered to leave his current case behind, come straight out of the trenches where he’d been working a lead on a smuggling ring along the border, to assist in Justice.
Of course, his half brothers must be desperate to exonerate their father, to finally free him of the murder charges that had hung around his neck like an albatross the past sixteen years.A murder investigation that had been revived because Sarah Wallace, daughter of Lou Anne Wallace, the woman his father had slept with and had been accused of strangling with her own designer purse, had just been murdered in the same hotel room, in the same manner.
And most likely by the same person who’d killed her mother.
Bitterness swelled inside Cole as choking as the insufferable summer heat. Did his brothers actually think he gave a damn about the outcome? That he’d come running to team up with them to save their fa-ther because he wanted to see Jim McKinney’s good name restored?
Jim McKinney—the father who’d abandoned him and his mother. The father who’d never acknowledged his existence. The father who had been nothing more than a sperm donor on his behalf.
The man who’d broken his mother’s heart. Barb Tyler had never married after her short affair with Jim McKinney. She’d claimed Jim had ruined her for another man. And she’d taken that love with her to her grave no more than a year after Jim McKinney’s arrest. If Cole hadn’t known better, he’d have thought she’d died of grief for the man’s lost reputation herself.
He hated Jim for it.
Still, he was a Texas Ranger. Part of the most revered, effective investigative law enforcement agency in the world. And he was damn proud to be a lawman. God knows he’d been on a crash course to jail himself when Clete McHaven, the rancher his mother had cooked for, had caught him trying to steal from his ranch and had made him work off the debt or go to the pen.
He scrubbed a hand over his three days’ growth of beard stubble, knowing he looked like hell as he strapped on his biker’s helmet, cranked up the Harley’s engine and tore down the driveway. Dust and pebbles spewed from his tires as he careened onto the highway. Anger and determination had him pushing the speed limit.
Not that he was in a hurry to see the long-lost family that had cast him aside as if he was a leper.
But he had a chance to prove that a real Texas Ranger didn’t need book education or to be a good ole boy. That his tracking skills had earned him a spot as a top-notch lawman.
He had no intention of begging for accolades from the McKinneys, of trying to worm his way into their snotty huddle. Hell, he didn’t need them or their approval.
And he would not play favorites in the investigation.
Jim McKinney had been a bastard who couldn’t keep his pants zipped. And although he’d never been convicted of murder, if he had killed Lou Anne Wallace and her daughter, Cole would find out. Then he would snap the handcuffs around his wrists and haul him to jail where he belonged.
And he wouldn’t think twice about who suffered when he did.
TO SOME PEOPLE GOING HOME meant reuniting with loved ones. Reliving warm memories and seeing friends. Safety.
To Joey Hendricks it meant pain and anxiety. Opening wounds that had never healed. Dealing with her own guilt over her two-year-old brother’s disappearance sixteen years ago. And facing a mother and father she hadn’t spoken to in years. A mother and father who hated each other.
But she did work for the governor as a special investigator and when the infamous governor of the great state of Texas said jump, she jumped.
The sign for Justice, Texas, appeared, and she grimaced. At first sight, it looked like a cozy small town in which to raise a family. A place where everyone knew his neighbor, no one ever met a stranger and they would welcome her back with loving arms.
But secrets and hatred had festered in the town like sores that wouldn’t heal. And someone wanted to keep those secrets hidden. They’d murdered Sarah Wallace to do so and had tried to kill her sister Anna and the sheriff, Carley Matheson, when they’d searched for the truth.
Her heart turned over as she passed Main Street Diner. She’d been shocked when her mother, whose total culinary skills when Joey had been growing up constituted throwing together a plate of cheese and crackers to accompany her cocktail dinner, had bought the establishment. She’d been shocked even further to learn that Donna had given up the booze and pills.
Not shocked enough to want to see her just yet, though.
Oh, it was inevitable that she face both her dysfunctional parents, but first she wanted to learn more about the investigation. Just how much and what kind of evidence did the sheriff have against Leland and Donna Hendricks?
Late evening shadows cast gray lines across the street and storefront awnings as she spotted the Matheson Inn, where she’d reserved a room. She tightened her fingers around the steering wheel and veered into a parking spot, then stared at the burned-down ruins of the Justice jail. The sign for the police department had turned to black soot. Ashes, charred black wood, burned metal all lay in rubble. Only the metal bars of the jail cell remained standing, empty and exposed, as if still waiting for a prisoner. A stark reminder that the original killer had never been incarcerated. And now he’d murdered again.
Poor Sarah Wallace, Memories of her troubled teenage years haunted her. When Lou Anne and Leland had married, Lou Anne’s daughters, Sarah and Anna, had moved in with them for a short time. But they hadn’t been any happier about the union than Joey, so they’d moved out shortly after. She hadn’t been close to either of them, but she hated to think that Sarah had been murdered.
The stench of the fire and charred remains still filled the air, wafting in the suffocating heat as she climbed out. In front, a media crew and several locals had gathered, a camera rolling.
The very reason she was here. To control the media circus. More than one investigation had been blown because of some dim-witted or too-aggressive reporter. Innocent people had been tried and convicted in the process.
Other times the guilty had gone free.
The governor was adamant that the past not repeat itself. Lou Anne Wallace’s murderer had escaped sixteen years ago, as had the person who’d kidnapped Justin, Joey’s own baby brother. The town of Justice had never gotten over either event. Jim McKinney’s impeccable Texas Ranger reputation had been ruined because of his affair with Lou Anne and his subsequent arrest, his family shattered because of it.
And it had destroyed what was left of Joey’s already crumbling family, as well.
The governor had worked with the D.A.’s office at the time of Lou Anne’s murder. Ironically Joey had been afraid that her family name would hinder her career, but the governor had given her a chance to prove herself. And she had. In fact, Governor Grange had been more of a father figure to her the past four years than her own dad had.
And he’d trusted her enough to send her here now, trusted her to be objective about the McKinneys.After all, Jim McKinney’s sons were in charge of the case. Rangers investigating one of their own, especially a family member—definitely a conflict of interest.
Tucking a strand of her unruly blond hair behind one ear, she buttoned her suit jacket and headed to-ward the media. Harold Dennison, a reporter who had a reputation for causing trouble, stood in front of the dilapidated ruins recounting the events of the night of the fire.
“Local sheriff Carley Matheson and Texas Ranger, former sheriff of Justice and hometown boy Sergeant Sloan McKinney were inside the jail when an explosion rocked the walls and caused the building to catch fire. Both Sheriff Matheson and Sergeant McKinney barely escaped with their lives.” The camera panned across the site, capturing the destruction and violence.
“Sheriff Matheson has been taken to a safe house but continues to work in conjunction with the Texas Rangers to solve the current homicide, which appears to be connected to the murder of Lou Anne Wallace sixteen years ago.”
“Do they have any leads yet?” an elderly man asked from the crowd.
A woman in the front row hugged her children to her side protectively. “When will there be an arrest?”
“Did Jim McKinney kill Sarah Wallace and her mother?” someone else shouted.
Dennison caught sight of Joey, and a predatory gleam appeared in his eyes. “Good question. I see someone here who might have the answer.”
Joey braced herself for a confrontation. Dennison was like a snake coiled to attack anyone even remotely related to the crime.
And she was definitely related. “Miss Hendricks is from the governor’s office and, I believe, one of your own homegrown girls.” He offered a challenging look that sent alarm bells clanging in her head. His comment had been a direct hit to irk her.
She’d heard his ugly insinuations before. As if she was unworthy of working with the esteemed governor. The daughter of a small-town drunk and a rich oil baron father who might have sold his own baby’s life for a dollar.
Well, a hundred thousand to be exact, but same difference.
“Would you like to address the citizens?” Dennison extended the microphone to her as if they were working together.