"Al, can you get that?"
Allison Lamar tore her eyes from the t.v. screen just long enough to glare at Jackson, her twin brother. They were seated an equal distance from the door, and they were equally invested in the televised college football game. There was no reason for her to get up and greet the idiot foolish enough to visit during an East Texas State game. Besides, it was Jackson's house. Not hers.
When the doorbell rang a second time, she tossed a handful of popcorn at him as she hauled herself off the couch. She wiped buttery hands on her worn jeans before twisting the doorknob and pulling the door open. "If someone's not bleeding now, they will be shortly. Five minutes until the start of the third quarter, and we're down by a touchdown. You have crap timing."
"Well, hello to you, sunshine." The masculine voice was rich with amusement that, on any other day, Allison would have appreciated.
Allison tightened her grip on the door, tensed as if ready to slam the door in Frank Vargas's face. Frank was one of Jack's oldest friends. He had always treated her like a sister, but she wasn't in the mood for visitors. She liked Frank, she liked all of Jack's friends. They'd been her friends, too, once upon a time. It was too early, though. Too soon. She just wanted to relax and watch football with her beloved twin.
Frank held up a six-pack of a locally brewed pilsner, shook it cajolingly. A wide, rakish grin split his handsome face. It was a smile few women could resist. Allison considered herself immune to his charms, but she could feel herself weakening. Resistance would only stall the inevitable. Frank was persistent. With a sigh, she stepped back so he could enter.
She snatched the beer out of his grasp and stalked to the living room. Frank shut the door and followed on her heels like a puppy. Allison slugged her brother's shoulder as she passed him on her way back to the couch. She set the six pack on the coffee table, grabbed a sweating bottle for herself, and plopped back against the cushions.
"Which part of me telling you that I wanted to lay low did you not understand, Jerkson?"
Jack glanced over at Frank, scowled. He reached for a beer. "I don't know what you're bitching about. It's just Frankie."
Frank snagged a beer from the cardboard case and twisted off the cap. "Man, you know you told everyone at the station that Ally was moving in with you. It's all you talked about for four days."
"Thanks a lot, Twin." Allison flung her beer cap at Jack's head. She had only herself to blame, really. Jack was terrible at keeping secrets. He had a big mouth and absolutely no filter. "Did you tell everyone about my little breakdown the other day, too?"
"Calm down, kiddo," Frank jumped in before Jack could retaliate. Disagreements between the Lamar twins could get violent in a hurry. "You can't blame the man for being happier than a dog with a bone. He's been a miserable shit since you ran off to Dallas after college. You coming home permanently is the best thing that's happened to him since he scored a date with Yvette Hernandez for prom."
The loud chime of the doorbell kept Allison from responding. She set her bottle on the table and rose to answer the door. She needed space from Jack. Time to pull herself together. Apparently she'd made zero progress since moving to her hometown.
"I'll get it."
She rolled her eyes, swatted at Jack's head. His automatic flinch made her grin. Her twin was such a wimp. The grin lasted until she opened the front door. After Frank's comments about Jack's crowing at the television station where he worked, she wasn't at all surprised to see Greg Paget and Trent Chapman standing on the front porch. Greg and Trent had also been a part of the Lamars' group of friends.
Two large buckets of mouthwatering hot wings were cradled in Greg's arms. A goofy smile lit up his face when he saw Allison. Trent shifted the cake pan in his grasp; the helium balloon tied to his wrist bumped against Allison's nose.
"More of the welcoming committee?'
"You always were the smart one, Ally baby." Greg hip-checked her as he entered the house. "I'll be back to collect my hug in just a minute."
"Hug? Isn't that just an excuse to grope her? If Al's anything like Bethany, that hug's gonna end with you getting bitch-slapped," Trent said, following Greg to the kitchen.
Resigned to miss the third quarter kickoff, Allison joined them in the kitchen. She helped Trent set the cake on a small stand. Once relieved of his burden, he wrapped long, tanned arms around her slim waist. With a minimal amount of effort, he lifted her feet clean off the ground.
"What the hell took you so long to get back here, Ally?"
Allison lifted a shoulder. She'd missed her hometown of Hargrove, Texas, but Dallas had offered a better job opportunity. Working as a lab tech and then a field investigator for the county crime lab had taught her more than any classroom ever could. As much as she'd enjoyed her job, though, she hadn't hesitated when Bob Kanalz, head of the Tri-County Forensic Lab, had called with an offer. The fact that she'd been on mandatory leave at the time hadn't even figured into the equation.
Before she could figure out something, anything, to keep them from discovering the truth about her return, a familiar pair of hands settled on her hips and pulled her out of Trent's embrace. Nutmeg brown hair, the same shade as her own, brushed across her cheek as Jack hugged her.
"It doesn't matter, Al. It doesn't matter why you left, why you stayed gone, or why you're here now. All that matters is that you are here."
Allison pressed her lips to his freckled cheek. "I'm here now, Twin." They'd always been exceptionally close. They'd even developed a sort of twintuition. Hundreds of miles from her brother, it had always felt like a part of herself had been missing. With Jack again, she felt more whole than she had in years. She felt like she could heal.
"Damn straight. All that matters is you're home now, Ally." Greg tugged Allison free and threw an arm across her shoulders to tuck her against his side. "We've missed you. Who else is going to keep Jack's practical jokes from going too far? Don't you know we need a little estrogen to balance out all this testosterone?"
"Oh come on," Frank groaned, scrubbing a hand across his face. "If I wanted touchy-feely, I'd have stayed home for Vero's book club. The third quarter has started and you ladies are still in here chattering away. Are we going to sit around and braid each other's hair or are we going to watch football?"
Trent shuddered. "Don't remind me about the book club. This month they're doing some Regency romance/mystery chick-lit thing. Beth tried to talk to me about it, but I went into survival mode and only heard every other word she was saying. I just kept nodding and agreeing until it was over."
"My sympathy, as always, is with your wives," Allison said.
As Trent had married his high school sweetheart and Frank his college girlfriend, she supposed their spouses were accustomed to their behavior. She liked Frank's Vero and Trent's Beth. She wasn't as close to the women as she was with the boys she'd grown up with, but it was nice to have friends who weren't complete Neanderthals.
Ally passed around paper plates for the wings while Jack divvied up the red velvet cake. The usual fight over the last wing occurred, but Allison was glad there were no fork-related incidents. She carried the scar from the Great Potato Salad Battle her sophomore year of high school.
In the living room, she settled onto the leather couch in a spot between Jack and Frank. Trent and Greg claimed the two matching recliners. Greg was the only one in the group who hadn't graduated from East Texas State. Trent and Jack had played football for the college while Frank had been on the baseball team. Most of Jack's house had been done up in ETS orange and blue.
During each commercial break, the guys filled her in on town gossip. Though many from their graduating class had moved away for college, the majority of them found their way back as time passed. There was something about the slower, friendlier way of life in Hargrove that called to people. Allison hoped that a more peaceful atmosphere meant less work for her. She needed a break from bullet fragments, blood spatter, and fingerprints.
"Margie Calhoun ran off with Harry Fowler," Trent blurted out during a commercial for a local Honda dealer. He licked sauce off his fingers and missed the frowns Jack and Greg shot his way. "Her husband wasn't too pleased, let me tell you. Old Man Calhoun had to keep him from hunting the two of them down with his shotgun."
Allison took a swig from her bottle of water to wash down the bitter bile that rose in her throat. Fowler. The mere mention of the name made her heart ache. Harry and Ian Fowler, one year older than the Lamars, had been the only other set of twins in town. The Fowlers had played the trifecta of varsity sports: football, basketball, and baseball. Ridiculously handsome behemoths, they'd been part of Hargrove High's 'in' crowd. The Fowler and Lamar families had always been close.
For as long as she could remember, Allison had been heart-over-head in love with Ian.
He'd mostly ignored her crush and treated her no differently than he treated Jack. As she'd embarrassed herself more than once by mooning after him, she'd been thankful that he hadn't shunned her or called her out on her behavior. Something had changed though, during his senior year of high school. He'd been flirty. Sweet. He'd held her hand as he walked her to and from classes. All of her teenage dreams had come true when he'd asked her to be his prom date. Late that night, on the phone with Beth, she'd sworn that she'd died and gone to Heaven.
Paradise hadn't lasted long. One day during lunch she'd been talking about post-prom plans with Ian when Elaine, Allison's cousin, had slapped a pregnancy test next to Ian's fries. She'd called him 'Daddy' before sauntering off. By the time a red-faced Allison had reached the cafeteria doors, there hadn't been a person in the room who was ignorant of what had occurred. That Elaine had spent the first half her senior year industriously trying to work her way through the football team hadn't been a secret, either.
Allison had ignored Ian's calls. She'd slammed the door in his face when he dared darken her doorstep. She'd taken great pains, and a few detentions for tardiness, to avoid him at school. On prom night, she'd devoured a pint of chocolate fudge ice cream with Jack while he nursed swollen knuckles.
"Aw, shit, I'm sorry Al," Trent muttered, finally catching one of the numerous scowls directed at him. He slapped his hand against his forehead. "Beth's going to kick my ass."
"Nah, it's okay. Can't ignore the Fowlers forever." Allison forced her lips up into a smile. It wasn't fair to expect everyone to walk on eggshells simply because she'd had her heart broken sixteen years earlier.
Ian had gone off to the University of Alabama on a football scholarship. For four years, he'd stayed away. His parents had moved, with the baby, to Tuscaloosa. During the summers, they'd returned to their house in Hargrove, but Ian hadn't joined them. As far as she knew, he hadn't given their hometown, or her, a second thought. So why was she still hung up on him?
A flurry of flag-throwing and ref-consulting on the television caught everyone's attention. While the officials reviewed a key ETS play, Jack used the rewind feature to play the catch several times. By the time they returned to live footage, it had been ruled a first down rather than a touchdown.
"It was a good call," Greg said, wincing at the loud, rude invectives hurled his way. He held his hands up in supplication. "Look, I'm rooting for the 'cats, too, but it wasn't a touchdown. He stepped out of bounds before he reached the pylon. He didn't score."
"Look at you, man," Jack muttered, rising to his feet and towering over Greg. "You come inn to my house, drink my beer, watch my t.v., and then you dare blaspheme in my presence?" He yanked Greg out of the chair.
"Banish him to the book club!" Frank shouted.
"No! Not the book club!" Greg slid to his knees. He clutched Jack's waist and managed to squeeze out two tears. "Please, anything but the book club."
Allison propped her head against Frank's shoulder. Her stomach ached from having laughed so hard. Her face was tight, but it felt good. She couldn't remember the last time she'd smiled so much. "I see one thing hasn't changed: you guys are still morons."
"You know you love us, Ally baby." Greg crawled across the floor, attempted to climb into her lap. He wound up with the dreg's of Frank's beer down the front of his shirt and wing sauce in his hair.
Two minutes from the end of the game, Allison's cell phone went off. One eye on the television, she retrieved the small device from her pocket and barked out a greeting. The sound of her new boss's voice distracted her from ETS's 34-yard field goal attempt. After promising to be on the other side of town in six minutes, she slid the phone back into her pocket and rose from the couch.
"What's up, Al?" Jack asked, watching as she finger-combed her shoulder-length loose curls and tied he laces of her sneakers.
"Body found behind the Exxon at Monroe and Connecticut." She glanced around the cluttered room until she spotted her brand new black windbreaker. Though it was only October, an early Canadian cold front had dropped the temperature to unseasonable levels. "Bob's making it my first case."
After assuring them she'd be fine and that she'd join them for dinner soon, she kissed Jack on the cheek and jogged out to her car. Everything she needed to process a crime scene was in the trunk of her sleek black sports coupe. The car was one of the few luxuries she'd allowed herself while living in Dallas. She wasn't looking forward to trading it in for the four-wheel drive SUV she'd need in Hargrove. The Tri-County area was primarily comprised of farmland and a few wooded areas plus two lakes.
It took no time at all to get across Hargrove. The town was the largest in the county, but it was a fraction of the size of Dallas. Traffic jams usually only occurred in school zones or around churches at noon on Sundays. Allison parked where directed, sat for a moment to collect herself.
Identification clipped to the front of her jacket and handgun in its holster, she waved at the uniformed officer on duty and ducked under the yellow tape cordoning off the scene. She carried her case to the hub of activity between a trash bin and a sawhorse. A shock of sun-streak blond hair next to the body stopped her in her tracks. Familiar, achingly so, chiseled cheekbones and a dimpled chin made her heart stutter. Her breath caught in the back of her throat.
Stomach twisting and palms damp, Allison fumbled in her pocket for her cell phone. She hit the button for her number one contact and held the phone to her ear with trembling hands.
"Al? What's wrong?" Jack demanded when he answered after the first ring.
"When you and the boys were gossiping like little old ladies, don't you think one of you should have mentioned that Ian Fowler was back in town?"