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Ever since that nightmarish dawn, Rachel Grant had not been able to abide the scent of summersweet. It was ironic that at this of all possible moments the smell seemed to be practically smothering her.
She stood on the sweltering asphalt in front of the Greyhound bus station, waiting to welcome Johnny Harris home. Johnny Harris, the bad boy to whom she had tried to teach high school English all those years ago. Johnny Harris, the swaggering son of the local no-good, whom the whole town had expected to turn out just like his dad but who had in fact turned out to be far worse.
Johnny Harris, convicted of murdering and accused of raping a seventeen-year-old high school cheerleader eleven years before.
Today, with her help, Johnny Harris was coming home.
The sound of the bus engine reached her before the vehicle itself came into view. Rachel tensed, glancing nervously around to see who might be watching. Bob Gibson, the ticket agent, was nothing more than a blur behind the plate-glass window that fronted the converted gas station that served Tylerville as a bus depot. Jeff Skaggs, who’d graduated from high school this past May and now worked at the 7-Eleven, was dropping coins into the Coke machine at the side of the building. Just beyond his parked pickup truck she discovered the summersweet bush with its shiny bright green leaves and spikes of white flowers.
Identifying a very real source for the smell made Rachel feel a little better. Still, the coincidence was eerie. Marybeth Edwards’s bloody corpse had been found beside a summersweet bush eleven years ago almost to the day in the midst of a heat wave much like the one Tylerville was presently experiencing. A shower of blossoms, apparently dislodged in her struggle with her assailant, had covered the girl’s body. The sweet scent of the flowers had almost masked the more pungent odor of blood. Then as now, it had been late August, and as hot as the inside of a pizza oven. Rachel, on her way to Tylerville High to get her classroom in order for the coming year, had been one of the first on the scene. The horror of the sight had never left her.
Neither had her certainty that Johnny Harris, who’d been notoriously sweet on the pretty blonde, had not killed her. He had been seeing Marybeth on the sly, against her parents’ orders, and when she was found dead with his semen inside her body, the case had seemed open and shut. He’d been arrested within a week of the murder, tried, and subsequently convicted of murder, on the theory that Marybeth had told him that night that she meant to stop seeing him. The rape charge was dismissed. There had been too many people, like Rachel, who knew exactly what kind of relationship Marybeth had had with Johnny. She’d been sure that the boy she knew could not have committed so heinous a crime. She’d always been convinced that the only crime of which he was guilty was simply being Johnny Harris.
Now she only prayed she was right.
With a swoosh of tires and a squeal of brakes, the bus pulled into the station and stopped. The door opened. Rachel watched the empty spot, her fingers tightening around the strap of her summer purse. The heels of her neat white pumps sank into the asphalt as her body tensed in anticipation.
Then there he was, in the doorway. Johnny Harris. He wore scuffed brown cowboy boots and beat-up jeans and a white cotton T-shirt. His shoulders were wide enough to stretch the knit shirt taut across them. His biceps bulged with muscle, and his skin was surprisingly tan. He was thin. No, that wasn’t the right word—lean was the one she wanted. Lean and hard and tough as leather. His hair was the same color, coal black, as it had always been, though it was longer than he used to wear it, almost touching his shoulders, and wavy. His face was the same—she would have recognized him anywhere once she looked into it, although several days’ worth of stubble blurred the lines of his jaw and chin. The sullenly handsome boy she remembered was still sullen, still handsome, but no longer a boy. He had matured into a dangerous-looking man.
It occurred to her with a sense of shock that Johnny Harris was now almost thirty years old. If she had ever known anything about him, she no longer did.
He had spent the last ten years of his life in federal prison.
He stepped down onto the asphalt, glanced around. Rachel, who had been standing off to one side, gave herself a mental shake and started forward. Her heels caught in the tiny craters they had created in the pavement, and she stumbled. When she recovered her balance, his eyes were on her.
“Miss Grant.” He didn’t smile as he gave her a thorough once-over. The look was almost offensive in its bold assessment of her femininity, and it threw her mentally off stride. It was not the kind of look that she as a teacher expected to receive from a male student, or former student, for that matter. Respect was not in it.
“J-Johnny. Welcome home.” It seemed absurd to address this hard-faced man as she would have addressed the high school boy, but his name came automatically to her lips, just as, apparently, he had also slipped by force of habit into the remembered form of addressing her.
“Home.” His lips thinned as he glanced around. “Yeah, right.”
Following his gaze, she saw that Jeff Skaggs, eyes wide and Coke can suspended halfway to his mouth, was gaping at the pair of them. The news of Johnny Harris’s return would be all over Tylerville by suppertime, Rachel knew. Idell Skaggs, Jeff’s mother, was the biggest gossip in town. Not that Rachel had ever thought to keep Johnny’s return a secret. There were no secrets in Tylerville, Kentucky, at least not for long. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. Still, she had hoped to give him a chance to arrive and get himself reoriented a little before the inevitable storm of protest broke out. If certain segments of the population had known in advance that Johnny Harris was coming back to Tylerville, they would have raised heaven and earth to keep him out.
Now they knew, or very soon would know, but it was too late for them to do anything about it. There was going to be a huge outcry, and much of it was going to be directed at her. But she had known that ever since she had read his letter asking for a job so that he could win parole and she had written back to say yes.
She hated controversy. She especially hated to be at the center of a controversy. But she had felt strongly that the boy she remembered deserved a better shake than he’d gotten. She still felt that way.
Only the tall, surly-looking stranger beside her was not the boy she remembered. That nearly insulting glance proved it, if anything more than his altered appearance were needed.
The driver stepped down, turned to open up the belly of the bus. Rachel took a firm grip on her composure.
“We’d better get your things.”
He laughed. It was a sound of derision rather than amusement. “Miss Grant, I’m holdin’ ’em.”
A stained canvas duffel bag that he’d been dangling over one shoulder was swung around for her inspection.
“Oh. Well then, shall we go?”
He said nothing. She turned to lead the way to her car, feeling oddly disconcerted. Of course she had not really expected the eighteen-year-old boy she had taught to step off the bus, but she had not been prepared for the man, either.
More fool, she.
Trying not to panic, Rachel reached her car, a blue Maxima, opened the door, and glanced over her shoulder just in time to catch Johnny Harris flipping Jeff Skaggs the bird. The sight of that long middle finger pointed obscenely skyward was all she needed to confirm her suspicion that where Johnny Harris was concerned, she just might have bitten off more than she could chew.
“Was that really necessary?” she asked in a low voice as he approached.
He walked around the car, opened the rear door, threw in his duffel bag, then slid into the front passenger seat. Rachel was left with nothing to do but get in herself.
She did. It was amazing how small her usually roomy Maxima seemed now that Johnny Harris was in the bucket seat beside her. His shoulders were broader than the gray plush seatback, so broad that they seemed to infringe on her space. His legs, too long to stretch out, sprawled apart. One jean-clad knee rested against the gear console between the seats. His proximity made her uncomfortable. He turned his head in her direction, and his eyes (they were a deep, smoky blue—funny she hadn’t remembered that) moved over her again. This time there was no mistaking the nature of his glance.
“Put your seat belt on, please. It’s the law.” Rachel had to fight an urge to hunch her shoulders forward to shield her breasts from his view. She was not usually ill at ease with men. In fact, for the last several years, she had tended to scarcely notice them. Once, long ago, her foolish heart had loved madly, as she had always expected to love a man. He had taken all the love she had had to give, and all the mindless young passion, too, and dismissed it as a gift of little value. She’d survived but in the process she had learned that it was safer to shut men out.
But there was no shutting out Johnny Harris. His eyes—no, she was not imagining it—lingered on her breasts. Instinctively, Rachel glanced down at herself. Her sleeveless dress of white cotton knit with bold purple hydrangeas splashed across it had a high, round neckline and a skirt that swept her ankles when she walked. It flattered her slender figure while being both ladylike and modest. There was nothing about the way she was dressed to provoke that disturbing glance. Still, with his eyes on her like that, she felt hideously exposed, almost naked, and she didn’t like the feeling one bit. Ignoring his behavior took an effort, but she could think of no other way to handle it, so ignore it she did.