| COOPER VENGEANCE
Natalie Becker crouched beside the new headstone, her eyes dry but burning. Seeing the name etched into the marble marker—Carrie Becker Gray—only amplified the anger burning a hole in Natalie's chest.
You shouldn't bear his name for eternity, she thought.
She stood up, finally, glad for the shade of the ancient oak, with its outstretched limbs creating a Spanish-moss-draped-canopy for her sister's grave. July and August would be hotter, but June was nothing to laugh at here in Terrebonne, Alabama. Unless you were right on the river or the bay, there weren't enough cool breezes blowing up from the Gulf to temper the sweltering heat and humidity. Even the shade offered only moderate relief from the heat and no relief at all from the mosquitoes and flies.
She batted at a large green bottle fly buzzing around her, ducking her head to one side to avoid the insect's dive at her face. As she did, she caught movement in her peripheral vision.
She whipped her gaze in that direction, the fly forgotten. In the pit of her gut, she was certain she'd see Hamilton Gray standing there, watching her.
She was wrong. It wasn't Hamilton. Not even close.
The dark-haired stranger standing a few yards away was a giant of a man, six foot four or taller, towering over even the larger of the granite markers surrounding him. He had broad shoulders, a massive chest, narrow hips and muscular legs. And his short, military-style haircut only amplified the aura of strength and authority.
Soldier? Maybe a cop, although being a sheriff's deputy herself, she knew most of the lawmen in this area and he definitely wasn't one of them.
Out on the access road, a horn honked, making her jump. She turned her head toward the sound, laughing a little at herself for being so tightly strung.
When she looked back at the stranger, he was gone.
She scanned the graveyard until she spotted him walking briskly toward the other side of the cemetery. His long legs had covered a surprising amount of ground in the few seconds her attention had drifted toward the sound of the horn.
Who was he?
Stop it, she admonished herself silently. Stop seeing suspects everywhere you look. You know who killed your sister.
The stranger was probably just an out-of-towner, here to visit the grave of a friend or relative. Out of curiosity, she crossed to the spot where he'd stood just a few moments earlier, growing more sure with each step that she'd find the explanation for his presence etched into the nearest marker.
But when she reached the marker, it was an unlikely source of enlightenment. The gravestone marked the final resting place of Mary Beth Geddie, who'd died a week after birth nearly a hundred years earlier. Not exactly what she'd expected to find.
She gazed toward the edge of the cemetery, where she spotted the large man walking through the front gates and straight toward a large black truck parked at the curb.
Illegally parked, she thought. She could ticket him and see who he was and what he was up to.
Her feet were moving before she finished the thought, pounding over the sun-baked ground of the graveyard. But by the time she neared the gates, the black truck was out of sight.
She skidded to a stop and bent at the waist, breathing harder than she liked. She'd let her workouts go over the past two weeks while dealing with Carrie's death and the aftermath. Between the piles of food the good folks of Terrebonne had brought by before the funeral and the stress-eating opportunities that were part and parcel of dealing with her parents, Natalie had probably gained five pounds in the two weeks.
She had to get control of her life. Now.
She trudged back to her sister's grave, trying to feel something besides bitter anger and guilt. "I told you not to marry him," she said softly to the stone.
"I'm grateful she didn't listen," Hamilton Gray murmured, his voice equally soft.
Natalie whirled around to face her brother-in-law, who had stepped from behind the sheltering tree. Had he lain in wait for her? "What are you doing here?"
Hamilton's voice hardened in an instant. "Visiting my wife's grave." His eyes narrowed, giving his lean face a feral aspect. "The one I paid for, if you insist on becoming territorial."
You haven't paid yet, Natalie thought, seething at his tone. As if Carrie had been an object to cherish or discard at his whim.
"I know you think I had something to do with her murder, but I can assure you I did not. As can the authorities, as you well know." Hamilton's voice grew more conciliatory. "Natalie, I loved your sister. She loved me. I may not like to share my feelings with the world, but they exist nonetheless."
There it was. That convincing air of sincerity he threw on and off like an overcoat. It seemed to fool everyone she knew, including her father, who prided himself on judgment and his knack for reading people. But Darden Becker had one enormous blind spot—money. And if there was any family in South Alabama richer than the Beckers, it was the Grays.
"I don't expect you'll ever think of me as a friend, Natalie. You're hard to impress and even harder to know."
Natalie tried not to bristle at his words, not because he was wrong but because he was right. She wasn't easy to impress, and now that Carrie was dead, there probably wasn't a soul in the world who really knew her at all.
"I've accepted that you'll never consider me part of your family. But I'd like to give you brotherly advice, nonetheless. You should start listening to your therapist."
"My therapist?" She knew what he was talking about; the Ridley County Sheriff's Department had decreed that she see a therapist after her sister's murder. A nice lady, Diana Sprayberry, who spoke in a soft, calm voice that reminded Natalie of her first grade teacher. Dr. Sprayberry was a big fan of the stages-of-grief theory.
Natalie was not.
She wasn't in denial. She sure as hell wasn't bargaining. And if she was stuck on anger, there was a damned good reason. A sick son of a bitch had murdered her sister and, so far, had gotten away with it.
But how in the world had Hamilton learned about her private sessions with her therapist?
"It's not something that can stay secret in a town this small," he said, answering the unspoken question. "I know about your sessions. I hope they're helping."
She met Hamilton Gray's gentle gaze and hated him for the contempt in his voice, masquerading as pity. But she wasn't going to stand here like some sort of movie heroine and swear to God and anyone in earshot that she was going to bring him down for killing her sister no matter what it took.
He was right when he said the authorities would affirm his innocence. He had an alibi, of sorts—he'd made a call from his cell phone the night of Carrie's murder, and the cell tower signal showed he'd been three counties away. On business, or so he claimed. And since the sheriff's department had no other evidence suggesting Hamilton had killed his wife, or even had a motive to do so, they'd moved on to other suspects. Thanks to her father's business dealings, her family had plenty of enemies.
Natalie hadn't moved on, however. Even if they could prove to her satisfaction that Hamilton had been in Monroe County as he'd claimed, over an hour's drive from Terrebonne and outside the timeframe of Carrie's murder, it didn't mean he hadn't hired someone to kill his wife.
"I don't understand why you think I had a motive to kill your sister." Hamilton's plaintive comment tracked so closely to Natalie's thoughts that a chill skittered up her spine. He had a way of looking at her, his dark eyes so focused and piercing, that she sometimes wondered if he could read her mind.
Carrie had found his intensity exciting. Natalie had always found it disturbing.
"You know why," she answered in a voice strangled with barely contained fury.
"I was not having an affair."
"You were always gone—"
"You didn't pay the same amount of attention to her as before," she added. "You were distant and brooding."
"And Carrie was spoiled and at times needy." His tone suggested he found those traits charming rather than annoying. "But honeymoons have to end sometime, Natalie. The family business requires much of my attention. I couldn't ignore it forever." His voice dropped a notch. "Maybe if you ever marry, you'll understand the situation better."
Her nostrils flared but she remained silent. After what he'd done to her sister, if he thought insulting her ability to maintain a relationship was going to make her lose her cool, he was right about one thing—he didn't know her at all.
Hamilton extended his hand toward her. "Can't we call a truce? At least for today, so we can both mourn your sister the way she deserves?"
She stared at his outstretched hand, loathing him so much she could barely contain the howl of rage burning like acid in her chest. "I'm done here," she said. "Carrie knows how I feel."
She walked away from him, forcing herself not to run, though every instinct she possessed was screaming at her to get away as fast as she could. She made it safely to her Lexus and slid behind the wheel, locking the doors. She leaned back against the sun-baked leather seat, shaking with a chaos of emotions.
"You're going to explode if you don't deal." Diana Spray-berry's gentle words drifted into her mental maelstrom. As if the therapist were physically there, methodically picking apart the tangle of Natalie's emotions and moving them to their proper places, Natalie felt the tension seep away, leaving her enervated. Only the blistering heat of the car's interior drove her to insert the key in the ignition and start it up so the air conditioner could dissipate the hellish swelter inside the Lexus.
She was off duty today, but the sheriff himself had called her at home early that morning and asked her to come in for a 2:00 p.m. meeting. Natalie knew Sheriff Tatum had asked Dr. Sprayberry to give him an evaluation of her mental state, but she'd been seeing the counselor for just under a week now. Surely that wasn't long enough to assess her state of mind.
As it turned out, apparently Dr. Sprayberry thought it was plenty long enough. The therapist herself was waiting in Sheriff Roy Tatum's office when Natalie arrived. Dressed in a steel blue variation of her usual prim business suit, Dr. Sprayberry was perched on one of the two armchairs in front of the sheriff's wide mahogany desk when Natalie entered.
She met Natalie's wary gaze with a mixture of regret and steely certainty.
"Administrative leave?" Natalie asked in disbelief when the sheriff got straight to the point. "You're taking me off the force completely? I don't even get desk duty?"
Tatum's expression revealed the same mixture of regret and certainty Natalie had seen in the counselor's eyes. "Dr. Sprayberry believes your inability to move past your anger at your sister's death poses a threat to the people of the county as well as your fellow deputies."
"And to yourself," Dr. Sprayberry added gently.
Natalie whipped her head around to look at the doctor. "So this is about taking away my weapon, not my badge. You think I'm either going to go on a shooting spree down at Gray Industries or I'm going to eat my gun?"
"Natalie," Tatum warned.
She looked at the sheriff. "I have another gun. I have a license to carry it. And as far as I know, we still have a Second Amendment in this country. You solve nothing by doing this."
The fire in Tatum's eyes told her she'd pushed the sheriff too far. "If you plan to ever step foot back in this department again, you will give me your weapon and your shield and keep the lip to yourself, Deputy."
She tamped down a retort and handed her duty weapon and her badge to the sheriff, slanting a look at Dr. Sprayberry. The therapist met her gaze, unflinching. Natalie headed for the door.
"And stay the hell away from Hamilton Gray," the sheriff added as a parting shot.
Natalie closed the door behind her and paused there for a moment, acutely aware of the curious gazes of her fellow deputies. She doubted any of them gave a damn whether or not she was suspended. Well, maybe Travis Rayburn, the rookie cop who seemed to have a little crush on her. And Lieutenant Barrow was always pretty nice to her.
But the attitudes of the rest of her fellow deputies matched those of her parents: what on God's green earth was Natalie Becker of the Bayside Oil Beckers doing working as a deputy sheriff?
She didn't care. She hadn't taken this job to make friends with her fellow deputies.
She kept her head high as she walked out, ignoring the stares following her out. She trudged to her Lexus and found, to her dismay, that she'd been in the sheriff's office just long enough for the brutal sun to heat the car's interior to a toasty 140 degrees. She lowered the windows to let out the hot, stale air and cranked the air conditioner up to high.
As she drove south, heading toward her house on the bay, the neon-studded facade of Millie's Pub visible in the distance drew her into a quick detour east. Millie's was a small place, little more than a hole in the wall, but the local law enforcement loved the place. For Natalie, the bar was more a curiosity than a home away from home, but she'd become accustomed to going there after work with the other deputies—her attempt, she supposed, to fit in with the others.
Why she was stopping here now, of all days—when she could call herself a deputy only on the technicality that Roy Tatum had suspended her, not fired her—she wasn't sure. God knew, it was too early in the day to drink.
But compelled by an emotion she couldn't define, she parked her car in a spot near the end of the building, stepped back into the fiery afternoon heat and went inside the bar.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.