“Have you seen her yet?”
“No,” Adam Good answered, moving his morning paper out of the way before his mother could slam a plate of hash browns, bacon and eggs on top of it. “I'm not particularly looking for Brynn Wylie.”
“Don't speak that name in this house!” Doris Good's round humorless face was red and pinched, her lips pursed in that way that used to frighten the crap out of Adam and his older brother, Zeke, when they were kids. “And she's still a Harlot as far as I'm concerned, whether she married into a new name or not.”
“Harlow,” Adam corrected her as she sat at the table next to him, smacking his hand when he reached for a piece of bacon off his plate.
“Grace first, young man. You weren't raised in a house of sin.” Adam rolled his eyes but obediently lowered his head and took his mother's hand as she said grace. “And don't you go defending her, not after the disgrace she brought upon this family.”
He wanted to ask how his girlfriend shattering his heart to bits and leaving town could have disgraced the whole family but knew better than to open his mouth, lest he get smacked in it. Black Bear Gorge was a rural Tennessee community, a small town with a small town mentality, and everyone knew why Brynn had left. They'd never let the Goods forget why.
“Eat your food! The Lord doesn't like waste.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Adam forced a forkful of scrambled eggs down his throat while he scanned the front page of the paper. Dead center was a picture of the fire-damaged house he'd been in the day before. It was the second major blaze in two months and both looked like arson. It was his job to find the arsonist but he didn't have any leads. This sort of thing just didn't happen in Black Bear Gorge and as much as he hated to admit it, his people didn't have a clue how to handle an investigation like this.
“Anna May Franklin saw her yesterday at the gas station. She said she has put on some weight. Living a life of gluttony will do that to you.”
Adam eyed his mother's over-heaped plate of food and suppressed a snicker. “I imagine so. It's none of my concern though.”
“Well, good. Keep on thinking like that and it'll keep you from doing something stupid.”
“Like begging her to come back to me?”
“You were pretty smitten with the tramp before she left.”
“Those bridges have been burned, Mama.” Adam pushed his plate away and rose from the table.
“You haven't finished--”
“Then finish it for me. Lord forbid I waste a slice of bacon.” Judging by the width of her hips, Doris would have no trouble finishing off his plate and her own. “I have a big day ahead of me at work. I have to go.”
“Are you going to Ezekiel's grave? It's been a month today.”
Adam paused with his arm halfway into his jacket. “I loved Zeke, Mama, but I can't go to his grave every single day. I just can't wallow in pain the way you do.”
“He'd do it for you!” Doris snapped, standing to collect the dishes, angrily banging them together as she stacked the plates, disregarding the wasted food still filling them.
“I'm trying to find his murderer, Mama. That'll have to be good enough for now!”
Adam left the dining room and exited the house through the kitchen door before she had a chance to respond. He didn't need the added aggravation of a full out confrontation with her. It was bad enough his brother had been burned alive inside a vacant farmhouse a month ago but now there was another burned down house to investigate. And on top of all that stress, Brynn Harlow Wylie was back in town.
Adam climbed into his truck and slammed the door, resting his head on the steering wheel. Why in the hell did Brynn have to come back to Black Bear Gorge now? When she left just after high school he said good riddance, hurt and outraged by her betrayal. After a few months passed he'd started to miss her. At that point he would have probably begged for her to come back to him if she had returned, but she hadn't.
Brynn had married his best friend, Cal Wylie, not a surprise since she was pregnant with his child when they left town together, and they'd stayed away. During those thirteen years she'd been gone Adam's feelings toward her had turned icy cold. Years ago, he reached the point where he never wanted to see her again but now she was back and in such a small town it was inevitable they would cross paths. The whole town would be holding their breath until they did, and then the gossip mills would go into overdrive.
At one time he would have been happy to see her again, just to tell her to go to hell. Now that he was older and wiser he knew that would be a mistake. It would show her just how deeply she'd hurt him, a revelation he wasn't about to make. He didn't know what he was going to do when he saw her again, but he didn't have time to think about that in detail. He had an arsonist to catch, an arsonist who had killed his brother.
“Might I put in my two cents worth and state that this is a dumb idea?”
“Actually, I think that's about sixty cents you've put in already,” Brynn answered her mother as she helped fold towels which had been dumped on her mother's bed fresh from the dryer.
Linda Harlow shook her dyed auburn curls, adding another folded mauve towel to the growing stack and picked up another from the pile that were in disarray. “You need to stay as far away from Adam Good as you possibly can. He's the one who ran you off from here.”
“Actually, his whole family ran me off, along with the other bible belts,” Brynn stated, trying to keep the pain from coming through in her voice. It was a skill she'd learned to hone to perfection over the past ten years. “And the chief contacted me for help. They need my expertise. How could I say no?”
“You open your mouth and say 'No',” Linda responded, dragging out the word slowly for emphasis. “For chrissakes, Ezekiel Good was murdered in the first fire. The gossips will have a field day when they discover you're investigating the case.”
Brynn drew in a deep breath, trying to calm her nerves. She'd arrived back in Black Bear Gorge two weeks earlier and from the moment she stepped into town she realized it hadn't changed at all. The snickers and whispered conversations erupted around her immediately. Fortunately, she'd managed to keep her son, Nate, shielded from most of it.
“I have to find some type of work if I'm ever going to get the money together to get back out of here and this is something I'm more than qualified to do,” Brynn explained. She hadn't intended on working with the BBGF&R – Black Bear Gorge Fire and Rescue – when she returned to her childhood home but Zeke had been murdered, burned alive inside of an abandoned farmhouse a month ago and there was another fire the day before. Chief Parker wanted the arsonist stopped before the whole town went up in flames. He called her for help late the previous night.
“Qualified, yes, but can you handle it emotionally? You're going to be working with Adam.”
Brynn cringed at the idea of it. She dreaded seeing the scorn in his eyes upon their first meeting. She could still see the way he looked at her thirteen years ago when he destroyed her foolish heart. She never wanted to go through that again but she refused to hide from him. She hadn't done anything wrong. He'd just refused to listen to her side of the story.
“ I can handle it. It's not like we'll be working side by side. Besides, I'll be damned if I let any of the Goods make me feel like a lesser person ever again.”
“Well, you can't blame Adam for feeling resentment towards you but they didn't have to run you out of town like that.”
Brynn bit into her lower lip, refraining from finally telling the truth about what happened all those years ago. What good would it do now? Everyone saw her as the town tramp, even her own mother believed she had cheated on Adam of her own free will – and with his best friend, which was the worst part of it all. “What can I say, Mama? I'm sorry your daughter turned out to be the town tramp and left you and Daddy here to drown in the shame of it all.”
“Oh honey, I didn't - ”
“Save it.” Brynn threw a hand up as she dropped the towel she had been folding and turned for the door. “I know what you really think.”
She stomped down the hall to her own room and slammed the door behind her, the action reminiscent of the tantrums she would throw as a child, ironic considering she was standing in the pale yellow, daisy infested bedroom of her youth. She threw herself backward on the bed, clenching her fists, fighting off the need to scream while simultaneously holding back the tears threatening to fall. She hadn't cried since the birth of Nate, and she wasn't about to change that now. Especially not over anything having the least bit to do with Adam Good or her sullied reputation.
Turning on her stomach, Brynn reached down into the trunk at the foot of her bed and lifted a scrapbook from it. She had purposely left all of her belongings behind when she left town in disgrace and hadn't wanted to see any of her teenage memorabilia upon returning, but figured it couldn't hurt now, not when she knew she would be seeing Adam face to face in just a few hours.
She ran her fingers over the pink and yellow plaid cover, willing herself the courage to open it. “What the hell,” she muttered, flipping open the cover. She felt her heart skip a beat as she looked into Adam Good's dark blue eyes. The picture in her scrapbook was just like the one in her head. She had never truly let him go. In her memories the dirty-blond hair was as lustrous, the eyes were as hypnotizing as what stared back at her from the photo she had taped lovingly to the first page of her scrapbook, surrounded by glittery heart stickers and rose petals.
He'd given her dozens of roses during their seven-year relationship which started at the tender age of eleven. Together they shared their first kiss, their first everything. She didn't want to think about how many other women he had shared those things with after she'd left. For all she knew he was married with a houseful of kids. Her mother had never kept her updated on his status and she certainly hadn't asked.
Brynn closed the book and put it away, rolling off of the bed. She shed her nightshirt and pulled on a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt just before the door opened and her twelve-year old son barreled in, his face more sour than a bucket full of lemons.
“Honey, you have got to learn to knock. I almost wasn't decent.”
“Sorry, Mom.” Nate's tone reeked of preteen angst as he fell back onto her bed. “I want out of this hell hole.”
“Watch your language, young man, and you know we can't afford to leave here right now.”
“Yeah, thanks to my dear old dad. May he rot in -”
“What? It's not like he ever did anything for me, for either of us. He was barely even around. He could have at least taken out a life insurance policy before offing himself.”
Brynn sighed heavily as she sat on the bed next to her lanky son and reached back to tousle his sandy blond hair. There was no point telling him a life insurance policy wouldn't have mattered since Cal had decided to take his own life. It wouldn't take away Nate's anger. “I know we're in a rough spot right now and no, your father -” She nearly choked on the word - “wasn't the greatest father by far, but these are the circumstances we've been given and we just have to make do.”
“So why can't I go to school?” Bitter blue eyes looked at her and she felt like the worst mother in the world.
“The year is almost over with and I don't think you'd like the small town school system very much anyway. The home schooling will work out just fine.”
“It's because the people in this town don't like you, isn't it?”
Brynn turned her face away, feeling the shame of her past. It was a pity her son would have to suffer because of her stupid mistake but, without that one mistake he wouldn't have been born.
“Why do they hate you so? Is it because you got out of this hick town?”
“Something like that,” she murmured before standing and pulling him to his feet, embracing him in a much needed hug.
“Oh hush, sweetie. Nobody can see your mama stealing a little love from her favorite man.” She playfully pushed the back of his head. “Now run on down to your grandpa's study. Grandma is starting your lessons in a little bit.”
Brynn watched him leave, her heart aching with the love she felt for him and the knowledge that if they didn't get back out of Black Bear Gorge soon she would have to tell him the truth about why she had been run out of town.
Adam knew something was up the moment he stepped into the rescue station. There was never complete silence when you entered a room with fifteen men in it, especially rowdy country boys like his team members. He tried to shake off the feeling that something extremely bad was about to happen as he noticed the weird looks the guys were giving each other, like they knew something he didn't – something that was going to impact him directly, but by the time he reached the break room there was no shaking it off. Something was up. It was written all over Jamie Lee Preston's heart shaped face.
“Hey, Adam,” she greeted him cautiously before he had a chance to reach for the coffee pot by the microwave. Her blue eyes struggled to hold his; her face was pale all the way up to the roots of her blond hair and she was nibbling on her bottom lip like a little gerbil.
“What is it?” His gut instinct was telling him to get the hell out of dodge. Jamie Lee was probably the closest thing he had to a best friend since Cal Wylie had stolen his girl and left town. The two had grown close over the years and when she looked scared to tell him something, well, he didn't really want to hear it.
“I got some good news and some bad news, big guy.”
He leaned back against the wall, bracing himself with his muscular arms crossed over his chest. “Go on.”
“Well, the chief has pulled in an expert to help find the arsonist.”
That was good. He didn't mind another guy helping with the investigation. The sooner they found the arsonist, the sooner his brother's murderer could be punished. He'd been pushing for extra help all along but the chief hadn't wanted any of the big city boys coming in and taking over. “So what's the bad news?”
“The expert is Brynn.”
Want to know what happens next? Get your copy of The Fire Still Burns, released August 15, 2008 by Sapphire Blue Publishing!