Luke’s heart rate spiked as he steered his Texas Ranger-issued Suburban near the broken guardrail. Its jagged edges yawned toward the steep drop-off, and a foreboding cloud of smoke rose from the ravine. Acrid scents of burning oil and melted plastic overtook those of the wildflowers and grass. He radioed into dispatch. Backup was less than five minutes out. Judging from the plumes of smoke, any survivors in the vehicle below didn’t have that much time left.
The woman who’d waved him down ran up when he opened his door. “Thank goodness you’re here. I have my daughter in the car—”
“Were you injured in the accident? Anyone in your vehicle hurt?”
“No.” She swallowed hard. “I wasn’t involved. I was driving past and saw the break in the guardrail.”
“Good, then get in your truck and move half a mile down the road.” On the off chance the car in the ravine exploded, he didn’t want her anywhere nearby. “A sheriff’s deputy will come find you.”
Leaving the turret lights flashing, he pulled open the tailgate and snatched the first aid kit tucked between the crime-scene kit and the rifle. He also grabbed the fire extinguisher. Lord, please don’t let me be too late. Give me the strength to help.
He raced to the road’s edge. Below in the ravine, a sedan—or what Luke thought had once been a sedan—was now a hunk of twisted metal. Glass littered the rocks. Crushed vegetation indicated the vehicle hadn’t just gone over the edge of the drop-off from the winding country road; it had rolled several times before landing upside down. Flames shot out of the front end.
Luke’s chest squeezed tight. He hated fires.
He tore down the slope, smoke blowing in his face and obscuring his vision. His cowboy boots skidded along the gravel, and Luke slipped landing on his rear. The first aid kit jabbed him in the back. His hand, slick with sweat, nearly lost its grip on the fire extinguisher.
He righted himself and kept going. Smoke burned his lungs. His eyes watered. Luke held his breath, his pulse pounding in his ears.
The wind shifted. He took several deep breaths of fresh air and tasted ash on his tongue. Wiping his eyes with his sleeve, he closed the last few feet with long strides. Heat from the fire seared him. He yanked the pin from the fire extinguisher and unloaded it.
Seconds. Precious seconds. But it might slow the fire down enough to get people out. In the distance, sirens blared. Tossing the empty fire extinguisher aside, he lunged for the opening created by the broken passenger-side window. A woman hung upside down in the driver’s seat. Blood ran from her head, coating the side of her face and her blonde hair streaked with gray. She was unconscious.
Luke sucked in a sharp breath. “Oh, no.”
It was his ex-fiancée’s aunt, June. Megan could not lose the woman who’d raised her. Not like this. A stronger sense of urgency welled in his chest. He scanned the interior of the car. June was the only occupant. Ignoring the glass scattered along the roof, he drew closer. She moaned and her eyes fluttered.
“June, can you hear me?” He felt along her neck. The bones seemed intact. Still, moving her could be dangerous—it could kill her—but he didn’t have a choice. The fire wasn’t completely out and he smelled gas fumes. The car could be engulfed in a flash.
“No brakes,” she muttered.
“Let’s get you out of here.” He braced June with his arm and pulled a knife from his boot. He sliced through the seat belt. She fell onto him and moaned again. Heat warmed his back. A glance proved the temporary reprieve was over. The flames were back. And growing.
“This will hurt,” Luke warned. He wriggled out, pulling June with him. Glass scratched his hands and tore at his pants. June’s gaze met his and she stiffened. She clutched his arm. Her mouth moved, her eyes pleading and desperate.
Sweat beaded on his forehead. “Almost there—”
Her grip tightened, nails cutting into his skin. “Megan,” she whispered.
It was almost a prayer, and Luke’s heart stuttered.
“Find Megan. D-D-Dan—” June’s eyes rolled back in her head as her body shook violently Luke looked up. Medics stood at the road’s edge.He gathered June in his arms and ran.
The hospital smelled like a mixture of bleach and disease. Almost midnight and the normal hustle and bustle was quiet, the lights dimmed to accommodate sleeping patients. Megan perched on the edge of the visitor’s chair and held her aunt’s hand like it was made of spun glass. June’s face was bruised, her petite body swallowed up by the stiff sheets. Wires, tubes, and machines crowded the space around the bed.
“June, you have to wake up and get better.” A tear slipped down Megan’s cheek.
Her parents were dead and her only brother was in prison. Her aunt was all she had left. She squeezed her eyes shut, the embedded urge to pray bubbling up, but she squelched it. Megan and God hadn’t been on speaking terms for a while.
“Miss, I’m sorry, but visiting hours are over.”
Megan opened her eyes to find a nurse standing at the bedside. The woman offered her a sympathetic smile. “You can come back tomorrow morning. ICU patients are allowed brief visits every hour.”
“And—” She swallowed past the lump. “If something happens during the night?”
“We’ll call you.” The nurse hung a new IV bag. “Your aunt is in critical condition, but she’s stable.”
Megan clung to the word stable. Any other alternative was too painful to consider. She bent and gently kissed her aunt’s cheek.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” she whispered. “I love you.”
She retrieved her purse and jacket from the chair and, on wooden legs, walked out of the room. Luke was leaning against the wall on the opposite side of the hall and straightened when he spotted her. It’d been three years since they’d last seen each other, and a world of hurt separated them, but her heart still skipped a beat when his gaze met hers. The crooked scar at the corner of his mouth and the slight bulge along the bridge of his nose—testaments to his troubled youth—were more evident by the short haircut and five o’clock shadow gracing his jaw. Mud spattered the legs of his khakis and cowboy boots.
“How is she?”
“She’s in a coma.” Her chin trembled, and she blinked rapidly to fight back a fresh wave of tears. “They don’t know if she’s going to make it.”
“She’ll make it, Megs.” Luke edged closer until he was standing in front of her. “Remember when June was breaking Remnant? Meanest horse in the county. No one else would touch him.”
“It took June weeks to even get close to him.” The corners of her mouth lifted slightly at the memory, even as she swiped at the dampness on her cheeks. “Everyone kept telling her it was useless, but she refused to give up.”
“Exactly. And she won’t give up this time either.” She sucked in a deep breath. The temptation to take one step, lay her head against his chest, and cry a mountain of tears in his strong arms was compelling. Luke wasn’t just her ex-fiancé. Until their breakup, he’d also been her best friend and confidant. She lifted her gaze. A fresh scratch ran along his neck and disappeared into the collar of his wrinkled shirt.
“Thank you, Luke. For saving June. The doctor said another few minutes and—”
She would’ve died. The words clogged her throat.
He raised his hand as if to touch her arm but stopped halfway and dropped it. The fluorescent light caught on the Texas Ranger badge pinned to his chest. She willed herself to step away. Their relationship was like a shattered mirror, damaged and altered beyond repair. June’s accident, and Luke’s heroic actions, didn’t change that.
He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Megs, we need to talk.”
Her gaze darted to the state trooper standing outside of June’s room and she nodded. Avoiding this conversation wasn’t an option. She couldn’t make decisions without understanding exactly what was happening.
He led her to an empty break room. An ancient fridge in the corner hummed. Plastic chairs were scattered around a scratched table, and a comedy show played silently on the television in the corner.
She set her jacket and purse on the table. “What do you know about my aunt’s accident?”
Luke stepped over to the coffee machine and poured the dark brew into two Styrofoam cups. He handed one to her and she took it, careful not to let their fingers brush.
“Why don’t you sit down?” He jerked his chin at a chair. “It’s been a long night.”
“I’m okay. Just tell me.”
“She was on old Kerrville Road and went off the embankment along a sharp curve.”
Megan flinched. The road was notoriously dangerous. What was her aunt doing there? And did it have anything to do with the voice mail she’d left this afternoon on Megan’s phone? She took a sip of coffee, and it swirled like battery acid in her stomach.“
June was conscious when I pulled her from the car,” Luke continued. “She muttered something about her brakes not working. I found evidence at the scene to support her claim. There were no skid marks and the rocks along the road’s edge were scraped away. Blue paint, a color consistent with June’s vehicle, was also found near the scrapes. I think she banged the car into the rocks lining the road in an effort to slow down. Had she been having trouble with her car?”
“No.” The room tilted slightly as her worst fears were realized. “Are you suggesting her brakes were tampered with? That someone attempted to kill her?”
“I don’t know for sure. I’ve had the car towed to the evidence shed and a forensic team will be out first thing in the morning.” His jaw tightened. “But if we were taking bets, my guess is yes.”
Megan’s legs jellied. She gripped the back of a chair for support, her knuckles turning white with the effort.“Can you think of any reason why someone would hurt June?” Luke asked.
She closed her eyes, struggling with how to answer that question. June was a private investigator, and she’d made quite a few people mad over the years, but it seemed ridiculous to consider this could all be a coincidence. Her aunt’s instructions in the voice mail had been clear. Come home. Tell no one. Trust no one. Goose bumps pebbled her arms.
What should she do? Lying went against her instincts and her morals, but she’d trusted Luke before and her brother had ended up in prison as a result. Even if she told him the truth now, would he believe her?
“Megs, there’s something else you should know.” Luke’s boots tapped against the floor and she felt, rather than saw, him come up next to her. “Your aunt begged me to find you. I think she was trying to tell me you were in danger.”
She sucked in a sharp breath and faced him. “She told you that?”
He nodded. “If someone tried to kill June, the perpetrator might make a second attempt once news she survived gets out. I can’t protect you or her from something I don’t understand. Whatever it is, you need to tell me.”
She wrapped her arms around herself. None of her choices were great, but she wouldn’t put her aunt’s life at risk.
“It’s about Wade, Luke.” She lifted her gaze to look him in the eyes. “June found proof of his innocence. That’s why someone tried to kill her.”
It took every ounce of Luke’s law enforcement training to keep his expression impassive, but his heart thundered like a stampede of horses. Overhead, the hospital speaker came on, announcing a Code Blue. Megan’s eyes widened and she froze.
He reacted instinctively, reaching out to grasp her arm. “It’s not June’s room. It’s the one next to hers.”
The naked terror and pain on her face made his heart ache. Megan had lost her parents in a car wreck. June’s accident—horrible in its own right—had to be a cruel reminder.
“I’m positive, Megs. It’s not for her.”
He squeezed her arm gently. The desire to embrace her clawed at him, and memories he’d shoved into the far recesses of his mind rose like a tidal wave. She’d been his first love, the woman he’d thought he would spend his life with. She’d also broken his heart.
He gave himself a mental shake. Their relationship, and its fallout, was in the past. It didn’t matter. Luke wouldn’t allow it to matter. He had a job to do.
He released her and took a step back. “Megs, what makes you think June’s accident has anything to do with Wade?”
She drew her spine up and adjusted her blouse. Tear tracks lined her cheeks and the faint smattering of freckles along her nose stood out against her pale skin, but her mouth hardened. “June claimed to have found evidence of Wade’s innocence. She told me about it right before her accident.”
He stared at her. How was that possible? Wade had confessed to murdering his friend, Franny Dickerson, in a jealous rage. The act had been fueled not just by unrequited feelings but also with alcohol.
Megan seemed to hear his question before he could ask it because she held up a finger. “Hold on.”
She reached for her purse. Her hair, the color of hay dried in the sun, fell over her forehead. She shoved it out of the way. The scent of her shampoo wafted his direction. Honeysuckle. The flower was popular in Texas, and every time he caught its fragrance, he thought of her.
Megan pulled out her cell phone. “June called me this afternoon, but I was in a trial and couldn’t answer. I’d forgotten all about it until I was driving here from Houston. When I checked, I saw she’d left me a voice mail.”
She pushed something on the phone’s screen and turned up the volume. June’s voice spilled from the speaker. Megs, our prayers have been answered. I’ve found evidence that proves Wade is innocent. You need to come home now, but quietly. No one can know. We can’t trust anyone. Call me when you get this.
The muscles in Luke’s shoulders stiffened. “What time was that call?”
“Your aunt’s accident happened around four thirty.” His mind raced as he tried to make sense of the information. “Did she call you again?”
Megan shook her head. “Was there anything in the car? A file folder, maybe?”
They’d conducted a search of the vehicle and the ravine to secure possible evidence and hadn’t found much.
“We recovered her cell phone, but it was smashed. Her credit cards and driver’s license were in the case.” He ran a hand through his hair. “How is it possible she found evidence of Wade’s innocence? He confessed to Franny’s murder.”
“Under duress,” she snapped.“Are you suggesting Sheriff Franklin coerced him?”
“No, but I think the sheriff was under a lot of pressure to solve the case. Some things may have been overlooked.”
She speared him with a look. “You know as well as I do that Wade wasn’t acting right in the days after the murder. I think he saw something the night Franny was killed and he’s too scared to say what it was.”
“If that’s true, then he would have told the sheriff. He wouldn’t have confessed to the murder.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “If my aunt didn’t know who to trust, how would Wade?”
The question socked him like a punch to the gut. In the years since her brother’s conviction, Luke had reasoned Wade’s nervous behavior was attributed to guilt. “You’re telling me Wade confessed to Franny’s murder because someone threatened him?”
“Not him. I think someone could’ve been threatening to harm June or me. There’s nothing Wade wouldn’t have done to protect us.” Megan scowled. “If you had just talked to him, convinced him to tell you the truth, we wouldn’t be in this mess now.”
“Megs, there are things about your brother—”
“What? That he was partying? Drinking? He’d gotten in trouble for some barroom brawls.” The color in her cheeks deepened. “I already know, Luke. June came clean after his confession. Too bad neither of you thought to tell me before it was too late.”
Her tone was caustic. He opened his mouth, but she cut him off with a slice of her hand through the air. “Don’t. There’s nothing you can say to fix it now.”
He gritted his teeth and wrestled with his temper. What was the point? She was right. They were too far gone for explanations. Not that she’d given him the chance—ever—to give one.
“Fighting grown men in a bar or drinking too much is a far cry from murdering a woman in cold blood.” She jutted up her chin. “I don’t believe Wade is capable of it, and the only reason he confessed is because he was forced to.”
“How do you know all of this? Has Wade told you?”
“My aunt spent some time looking into the case after his arrest. We managed to put a couple of things together.” Her shoulders slumped. “Wade refuses to talk about it. He insists June and I both leave it alone.”
Megan was a criminal defense attorney. If Wade refused her help, there were only two explanations. Either he was guilty or he was trying to protect her. June’s recent attack coupled with the voice mail gave serious weight to the latter. A cold, insidious finger of self-doubt crept across Luke’s heart like barbed wire. He closed his eyes. God, did I help put an innocent man in jail?
The concept made his stomach roll. When Megan had come to him and shared that Wade had been in the cabin with Franny on the night of her murder, Luke had taken the information straight to the sheriff. His decision led to chain of events affecting all of them. Wade was arrested and convicted. Megan broke off their engagement. Luke felt the responsibility of his choices resting on his shoulders, weighted down by the ranger badge and his own personal code of conduct.
“Do you have any idea what the evidence June found might be?”
“No. I didn’t even know June was investigating until I heard the voice mail.” Megan stared down at the table. “If the evidence wasn’t with her, then where is it?”
“The vehicle caught fire. It’s possible the evidence was destroyed.” He blew out a breath. “The forensic unit will go over the car with a fine-tooth comb, but I’ll tell them to keep an eye out anyway. I’ll also put out feelers to see if June was asking questions around town about Franny’s murder.”
Megan opened her mouth, and he held up a hand. “Hold on, I want to be clear. I’m not convinced Wade is innocent, but I’m also not going to ignore what’s right in front of me. If there is any way June’s accident is connected to Franny’s murder, then it’s a thread I have to pull.”
Her lips flattened into a thin line, but she nodded. “Visiting hours are over, so I won’t be able to see June until tomorrow morning. I’ll stay at the house tonight.”
Luke caught his objection moments before it left his mouth. As a law enforcement officer, he needed a warrant or permission from June to search her house. Megan didn’t. She only needed lawful entry, which she had, thanks to her spare key. No doubt the brilliant woman was five steps ahead of him and had already figured that out. He couldn’t help her search for the evidence, but he could provide protection. “I’ll follow you home and make sure you get there okay.”
Megan nodded, her hair caressing her cheeks, before turning to collect her jacket and purse. He watched her, a mix of emotions churning inside him. She’d shown up only two hours ago, and yet her reappearance in his life had imploded everything Luke thought he knew.