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Arbor House Books

Burned - Christian Romantic Suspense

Burned - Christian Romantic Suspense

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📚Read an Excerpt


Sydney studied the petite brunette and guessed the woman to be in her early forties. Good grief. What was the deal? Why was the woman being so hostile?

The sound of a vehicle door closing caught Sydney’s attention, and she looked out the window. Two men were getting out of a pickup truck. One of them was ordinary looking, but the other man looked like he just stepped out of GQ Magazine.

There weren’t many men who could compare with Adam Sinclair as far as looks were concerned, but even Adam paled in comparison to this man. He was about six foot, four inches tall and had an athletic but slender build. His dark hair and olive skin shimmered in the morning sun, reminding her of a Greek statue she’d seen in Rome, Italy. But there was nothing statuesque about this man; every inch of him screamed alive.

For an instant, Sydney forgot her appointment, and her heart skipped a beat. This guy was dangerous, the kind of man who could distract her from accomplishing her goal. If he worked in the mill, she would stay as far away from him as she could get.

She watched the man walk around the side of the building and out of sight.

The secretary cleared her throat, causing Sydney’s face to warm. She realized the secretary had been watching her and hoped her face hadn’t revealed her admiration. Sydney turned to face the woman.

“Mr. O’Conner is out of the office,” the secretary said. “You’ll have to wait.”

“When do you expect him back?”

Barb’s eyebrow arched. “When he comes through the door.”

Sydney nodded and leaned back in her chair. She tried to ignore the flash of irritation that sparked.

Twenty minutes later, Sydney was still waiting. She approached the secretary’s desk. “Is there any way you can call Mr. O’Conner and let him know that I’m here? He is expecting me.”

Instead of answering, the secretary pushed a button on her phone. “Sean, Sydney Lassiter’s here to see you.”

A voice came through the speaker. “Yeah, she’s late. Our appointment was at ten o’clock. Obviously, punctuality is not very high up on Ms. Lassiter’s priority list.” There was a slight pause. “Tell her to wait another five minutes, will you Barb?”

“Will do.” The woman turned to Sydney and shot her a look of triumph. “It will be another few minutes.”

“I heard.” Sydney’s blood began to boil. “You knew who I was all along, and you knew that Mr. O’Conner was expecting me.”

A red light flashed on the secretary’s phone. Barb and Sydney stared down at it.


“Tell Ms. Lassiter that I will see her now.”

“Well that was a mighty quick five minutes. Don’t you agree?” Sydney asked.

Barb stood, but before she could move, Sydney walked around her desk and opened the door to the inner offices.

“Don’t bother. I can find my own way.”

It wasn’t very hard to find Sean O’Conner’s office. The house, turned office, was little bigger than a bathtub. Sydney walked through the room, crowded with a copy machine, fax machine, and a few desks, then back to the closed door that read Sawmill Manager. She knocked once and then opened the door.

There was Mr. GQ himself, sitting in his chair with one foot propped up on his desk. He seemed annoyed that he had to remove it and sit upright in his chair.


Written by Jennifer Youngblood and Sandra Poole

Armed with a new face and new identity, Sydney Lassiter goes home to uncover the truth about her father’s untimely death. Someone will do anything to keep the secret hidden ...

Sydney Lassiter has the perfect life—glamour, wealth, and all the high-society status to go with it. But something is telling her that she needs to return to the sleepy little town of Stoney Creek, Alabama where she grew up. She hasn’t been there since her father was killed in a boating accident—or was he murdered? She takes a job as a safety consultant at the local sawmill—the same place where her father worked—and sets out to discover the truth about his death.

In Stoney Creek, you don’t ask the kinds of questions Sydney is asking. There are too many secrets—secrets that someone will do anything to keep hidden. To complicate matters, Sydney becomes enmeshed in a confusing love quadrangle involving two men, and the other woman, who seems to want both of them. And both men seem to have some connection to the death of her father.

The closer Sydney gets to the truth, the more it seems that her quest could destroy not only her but the people and town she has come to love.

Here's what people are saying about Burned:

“Poignant, suspenseful, and romantic. Beautifully written and filled with unexpected twists and turns. A sleek romantic thriller.” --Deborah Smith, New York Times Bestselling Author of A PLACE TO CALL HOME

"A young woman returns home to solve the mystery of her father's death. Along the way she meets several people, all of whom are involved in some way. Who can, or should she trust? I couldn't put this book down. By far the best I've read in the past year!"

"Hang on tight because this story will take you on a ride you won't forget! If you can clear your schedule because once you start you won't want to stop until the end!"

"So many twists and turns and ins and out! Wow! What a great story! I tried guessing "who done it" the whole time! Really great book!!"

Read the First Chapter

Chapter 1:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” —Ecclesiastes 3:1


He was waiting for her to die. It was a simple fact that had been staring him in the face longer than he cared to admit. He sat rigid on the side of the hospital bed, his hand gripping the white sheets as he watched the only woman he’d ever loved slip beyond his reach.

Her face was resting in the hollow of the pillow, barely resembling the beautiful, vibrant face he knew so well. Ever so softly, he touched her colorless cheek. It seemed such a short time ago that it had been rosy and so full of life. Now it was as stark and dry as parchment. Her eyes fluttered like the beating of a broken butterfly against the hard pavement, and he knew she was struggling to open them.

The hint of a smile stole across her cracked lips. “Avery,” she whispered. He ignored everything else around him and concentrated on her emerald green eyes, which were still as clear as always. He winced at the pain he saw in them.

“I’m here,” he said, unable to stop the thin line of tears coursing its way down his cheeks.

Her throat started working, and her chest expanded and contracted like a billow. Avery knew it was a struggle for her to speak.

“We had some good times, didn’t we?”

“We did,” he said, barely aware that the words had left his mouth.

She raised her hand and touched his cheek, her frail fingers lingering there. “Remember our promise?”

He nodded.

She rehearsed the promise they’d gone over time and time again. “Only cry a day for me when I’m gone. That’ll be enough.”

Avery smiled. It was so like Susan to make him promise the impossible. She was dying as effortlessly as she’d lived. Neither life nor death had been that easy for him.

“Don’t cry, honey. Death isn’t all that bad—just another part of life. It’s as much a part of life as the air we breathe.” She gave him another weak smile. “It’s not the end. It’s really just the beginning.”

His shoulders shook, and he tried to hold back the sob building in his chest. He longed to take her in his arms, but that was impossible. The doctors assured him that the medicine would help ease her pain, but Avery looked at the fluid flowing in the IV and could almost see what little life Susan had left draining out. He wanted her all to himself, away from the hospital, away from the smell of sickness and death.

She gripped his hand again, and he was startled by the strength of it. “Avery!”

“I’m here.” He clenched her arms so hard that he left marks on them. “Look at me. Don’t go.” His voice broke. “Please, don’t leave me alone.”

For the first time in weeks, a peaceful expression came over her face. She smiled. “I’m going now. Take care of Cindy.”

Her eyes closed for the last time.

* * *

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. … Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil …

Avery stood dazed, listening to the bald preacher in his tight, black suit. The words swirled above him in a tumultuous jumble, and he tried—tried to reach through the haze and comprehend their meaning. He fixed his gaze on a nearby dogwood tree. Despite the fact that its dying branches had turned to claw-like fingers, a handful of leaves were clinging to the emaciated twigs. A gust of wind snatched the leaves off the tree. In a flurry of motion, the wind carried them high in the air, forcing them to dance madly to an unknown beat before dropping them still and lifeless on the ground.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil …

The circle of people around him, teary-eyed and stooped, were like vultures closing in. So much black. His eyes fell on the cold, marble casket, and he watched, mesmerized, as it was lowered inch by inch into the ground. This was real. This was now, and yet—how could it be?

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies …

An image of Susan, so full of life with her sparkling green eyes and blonde hair floated before him. They said it would be easier to let her go. They said he would finally have peace after the long, harrowing months he’d cared for her during the illness. But nothing could have prepared him for this.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life …

A song he’d learned as a boy in church rippled through his mind. I’ll fly away oh glory, I’ll fly away. When I die hallelujah by and by. I’ll fly away. Was that what Susan was doing? Flying away? Soaring high above him, weightless and free. Free as a bird. No more sorrow. No more pain.

Pain. So much pain. He wished it would cut him clean to the bone, open him wide and scoop out this terrible hurt.

His head swam and his lips quivered. Please. The silent plea lifted to heaven. Please, help me. How am I going to go on without her? Life was Susan. Without her—nothing.

* * *

“Avery.” A distant voice swirled around him like an echo trying to penetrate, but he couldn’t will himself to respond.

He was as still as death, staring into the open grave. It was mesmerizing. A part of the earth, hollowed out and raked naked to swallow the memory of his love. Skin and bones, dust to dust. Where was the heart? Where was his Susan?

The voice came again, this time sharper. “Avery.”

He felt a hand on his shoulder. “It’s time to go.”

Avery turned to face Judith. The raw hurt blurred his vision.
Judith cleared her throat. “Everyone has left. It’s time for us to go too.”

He glanced around the cemetery. “Oh. I’ll be along directly.” He studied the flowers on the fresh grave. “It’s a shame how many flowers are wasted at funerals.”

Judith’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“That’s what Susan always said. She said that people ought to send flowers to the living, not wait ’til they’re dead.”

“Yep, that sounds just like something my sister would say.”

Avery didn’t reply. He was in another world. A world in which Susan still lived. How could they have possibly known that the seemingly innocuous lump in Susan’s breast would turn out to be cancer?

They certainly hadn’t fathomed that three short years later she would be lying here.

The flowers, so vivid and bright. How they mocked him, a smug reminder that not even Susan had the power to escape death.

He groaned inwardly. Oh Susan, look at all these flowers. He looked up at the clear blue sky. It smiled when it should have cried. A leaden sky would have been more appropriate, or a gut-wrenching storm with enough thunder and lightening to shake down the mountains.

His eyes lifted to the nearby mountain. “Susan loved the mountains.”

Judith’s face tightened. “You need to ride in the car with Cindy over to the house. People are waiting for—”

“Let them wait!” A muffled sound rose in his throat, and he gulped it back down. All he wanted to do was run … run until he stopped hurting … run to Susan.

Judith’s gasp brought Avery back to reality. He was seeing it all in slow motion, like a man awakening from a deep sleep. He looked past Judith and realized for the first time that his daughter was standing there. The fire flaming in Judith’s eyes let him know that she would have given Avery a good tongue-lashing if Cindy hadn’t been present. “You go on to the car. I’ll be there in a few minutes,” Judith told Cindy.

Cindy’s eyes darted back and forth between Avery and Judith. “We just buried my mother. Can’t you two just get along today?” A sob escaped and she turned and ran to the car.

Judith turned on Avery. “Look at your daughter. Do you think you’re the only one who’s hurting?”

He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. “I didn’t mean—”

“You’ve got to pull yourself together.”

Before he could reply, she turned on her heel and walked across the cemetery. As usual, her posture was perfectly straight and her chin was in the air. Judith’s back was so stiff that Avery used to joke to Susan that he was tempted to pull up Judith’s shirt just to see if she had a board attached.

There had been a strong resemblance between Susan and her sister Judith. Judith was older than Susan and half a head taller. They both had the same blonde hair and green eyes, but Judith’s features were more striking than her younger sister’s. At first, Judith had caught Avery’s eye, but it was Susan who had stolen his heart. There was something hard and impenetrable about Judith. Susan had compassion—something that Judith would never have.

Avery looked at his wife’s grave. Enough flowers had been sent from family and friends to fill a funeral parlor. The bouquets were now sitting beside the fresh dirt. If he stood there long enough maybe he could somehow use sheer will to bring Susan back to life. He knew it was useless—ridiculous, but he didn’t know what else to do.

The image of Cindy that flashed through Avery’s mind was the only thing that gave him enough willpower to tear himself away from the grave of his beloved. He turned and headed for the car.

* * *

Even though Avery assured Judith that he and Cindy would be perfectly fine, she insisted on staying an additional two weeks after Susan’s funeral. He watched her place the last few items in a suitcase. She fastened it shut with a sharp click. Three nights ago, the tension between them had reached a boiling point. After a heated argument, Judith became sullen and withdrawn, speaking to him only when necessary.

“You sure you don’t want me to drive you to the airport?”

“No, I can manage.”

Judith picked up her suitcase, and Avery grabbed it from her. “Let me help.”

She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

He knew that Judith could leave without resolving their argument, but he couldn’t. He put her suitcase down. “Look Judith, it’s not that I don’t appreciate what you’re trying to do. I just want you to understand where I’m coming from, that’s all.”

“I understand perfectly well.”

His eyes narrowed. “What’s that supposed to mean? Cindy’s my daughter. Can’t you understand that I want her here with me? She’s all I’ve got left.”

“Must we go into this again?”

“I hate for you to leave like this. For Susan’s sake, please try to understand.”

Judith gritted her teeth. “I am thinking about Susan … and Cindy. Look at you. You can barely take care of yourself, much less a sixteen-year-old. I can give her the finest education money can buy and opportunities she’ll never have in this place.”

“What about love? Can you give her that?”

“You know how I feel about Cindy.”

The nerve. Why should she remain untouched when he hurt so much? “The high and mighty Ms. Lassiter. Always the smug ice queen. Well, I’m not gonna let you prance away this time without knocking a few chunks out of your castle.”

Her face paled.

“You know what I think? You’re just itching to get hold of something you don’t understand. You’ve always been jealous of me and Susan.”


“Our relationship. You don’t even know what it’s like to really love someone. I won’t let you take away the only thing I have left.”

“How dare you! I loved my sister too, and I’m truly sorry for your loss.” She looked him straight in the eye, her voice quivering. “You don’t know me at all.”

“That’s just it. I know you too well.” He smirked. “You’re so caught up in yourself that you wouldn’t know what to do with Cindy if you had her.”

Judith’s hands went to her hips. “Why you sorry—”

Cindy ran into the room. “Stop it! Stop it right now! You’re supposed to be adults, and look at you.” Her voice crunched against itself like coarse gravel.

Avery cradled his forehead with his hand. When he spoke his voice was strained, the calm in the midst of the storm. “Cindy, Judith and I are having a private conversation right now.”

Judith touched Cindy on the arm. “How long have you been standing outside the door?”

Cindy jerked away. “Long enough!” She glared back and forth between the two of them. “You act like I don’t exist! Why don’t you ask me what I want to do? I’m a part of this too. She was my mother!” She looked at Avery. “Why didn’t you come and get me when she was dying?”

His eyes widened. “What?”

“In the hospital. I was asleep in the lobby. You could’ve gotten me.” Her hand went to her mouth, and she choked down a sob. “I never even got to say goodbye.”

He moved to hug her. “Oh honey, I didn’t think. I’m so—”

She flung him away. “I hate you!” Her eyes darted to Judith. “And I hate you too!” Avery winced at the avalanche of sobs that tumbled from Cindy as she fled the room.

Judith shook her head. “Look at the two of you. You’re falling apart.”

His voice rose like thunder. “That’s enough!”

“I pity you, Avery. You’re a blind fool.” She reached for her suitcase.

They were at an impasse. They had said too much—cut each other too deeply. Avery stepped back and let Judith pass. The clicking of her stiletto heels on the floor was the only sound he heard until she walked out the front door and slammed it behind her.

* * *

Cindy went to Susan’s closet and pulled down one of her sweatshirts. She put it on, then went to her room and lay huddled on the floor beside her bed. She buried her nose in the sleeve and let her mother’s familiar scent envelop her. She’d shed so many tears over the past few weeks that she was surprised she had any left, but they still kept coming and coming until her eyes were big and sore. She let her mind drift into nothingness until she heard the knock at the door.


No answer.

“Cindy, we need to talk.”

“Go away!”

“Open the door.”

Why could he not see that she needed her privacy?

“Honey, I need to talk to you.”

Why was it always about what he needed?

His knocking grew louder. “Cindy!”

She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and jerked her hair out of her face. “Oh all right. I’m coming!” She opened the door then turned her back on him and sat on the bed. She could feel his eyes on her, but he didn’t say anything. After a moment, he sat beside her.
She sniffed and looked down at her hands clasped in her lap. He touched her arm but she kept her eyes on her hands.

“Honey, I’m so sorry. That night your mother died, I was so upset—out of my mind. I didn’t think.”

A sob started building in Cindy’s chest and she hiccuped it down. “I miss her.” Her voice sounded small in her ears, too small to make any real difference.

He put his arm around her. “I miss her too.”

Cindy shook her head. “She won’t be here for my next birthday. Who’ll bake my cake?”

Avery hugged her tight. “Oh sweetheart. We’ll get through this. I promise you that we’ll get through it together.”

“So you’re not going to make me live with Aunt Judith?”

“What? Of course not. We’re going to stay here in this house.” His voice broke. “And we’re gonna keep your mother right here with us,” he said, putting his balled fist over his chest. They let the silence settle between them before he spoke. “I reckon I’m gonna have to learn how to bake.”

“The last time you baked Mom a cake it was only an inch tall.”

“Yeah, I guess that baking power I couldn’t find in the cabinet was a little more important than I realized.” He paused. “But your mother was a good sport about it. She ate as much of it as she could stomach.”

“Yeah, beating her chest in between bites just to get it down her throat.” Cindy laughed then realized what she had done. She shifted on the bed.

“It’s okay to laugh. Your mother would want us to be happy.” Avery looked at her. “You know that, right?”

She shrugged. “I guess.”

“We’re gonna be all right.”

She buried her head in the curve of his shoulder. “I hope so.”
* * *
Avery got out of his truck and turned side to side, stretching his back. In his younger days, he never thought he would look forward to going to work on Monday, but the weekends loomed long and lonely since Susan passed.

Lately, Cindy was spending more time with her friends, which was a good thing because it indicated that she was getting back to her normal self, but he missed their time together. He shook his head. The thoughts that rushed him were tangled ropes with no ends. Too much introspection could drive a man crazy. At least he could count on work to provide a much-needed distraction. He drank in a breath of musky air and exhaled slowly, letting the moisture linger on his tongue.

He turned and faced the mill. The sawmill resting in the shoulder of the mountain made a postcard picture. On the right he could see the log yard. Each stack of logs was marked with a different color, indicating when the logs had arrived at the mill. Over to the left were neat stacks of lumber waiting to be trucked to their final destinations. The mill itself was a two-story structure. The band saw and filing room were located on the top floor. The ground floor was a conglomeration of chains that moved the logs and lumber to the appropriate locations. Protruding from the left side of the building was a long chain where the finished lumber came out. It was known as the green chain because the lumber coming out was fresh and would need to be dried before it could be sold.

Even in its stillness the sawmill breathed of life. Its rawness was intoxicating. He didn’t realize until Susan’s death how much he depended on the sheer routine of the mill to restore a measure of sanity to his life. He could go to work and get lost in the monotony of it all, much as he’d done for the bulk of his life. It was here that he could pretend Susan would still be waiting for him at the end of the day. It was here—where the forces of man and nature blended to transform ordinary logs into the building blocks of life—that the sawdust soaked into his bones as sure as life-sustaining marrow. Here, he might have a chance.

The spell was broken by wheels crunching gravel. Avery turned to see his secretary, Barb, drive into the parking lot. He watched her get out of her car. “You’re here early.”

“So are you.” Barb smiled and mounted the stairs in front of him.

* * *

A couple of hours later, Barb came in holding the pink squares that had Avery’s phone messages scribbled on them. He thumbed through the stack.

“Isn’t it beautiful outside today?” Barb buzzed around the office, straightening the papers in his in-box and stacking files. Avery couldn’t help but notice her snug jeans, tucked neatly in her high-top red leather boots. Finally, she sat in a chair across from his desk and ran her slender fingers through her thick sable hair. The faded jeans and denim shirt clung to her lean body in all the right places.

She was a looker, and she knew it. The kind of woman who had trouble written all over her. Her hazel eyes sparkled with mischief. Only a blind man would fail to realize that she had her eye on him. He’d never taken her flirting seriously, but lately he was starting to feel like a coon on hunting day.

“How many trucks do we have coming in?” he asked.

“We have two scheduled for this morning and four this afternoon.”

Avery leaned back in his chair. “Are the Whites on the list? They’re supposed to bring in a load of cherry. We need to get it sawed and dried in time to ship to Thomasville. They’re expecting their order in about eight weeks.”

“I don’t remember seeing them, but I’ll check.”

A couple of minutes later, Barb walked back into his office. “Sorry, they’re not on the list.”

Avery swore under his breath. “Would you please call them and tell them we need that load ASAP?”

She nodded.

“You’re a gem.”

She stopped midstream and turned to look at him. “Can I ask you something?”


“Do you have plans for this weekend?” Barb paused in the door and fidgeted with her long, perfectly manicured nails as she waited for him to answer.

Oops. He’d stepped right into that one. “Why do you ask?”

Her next words came out in a jumble. “Um, well, do you think there’s—”

Sam Barnes, a shift supervisor, burst through the door, and Barb’s words were lost in the commotion that followed.

“Avery, there’s been another accident! Buford’s hurt—it’s real bad!”

Before Sam could elaborate, Avery was out of his chair and halfway out the door. He turned to Barb. “Call an ambulance!”

“We’ve already done that,” Sam said, running behind Avery.
Avery pushed his way through the crowd of workers and over to Buford. The paramedics were already there.

“Get back,” they shouted, then lifted Buford onto the stretcher and put him into the ambulance.

“Hang in there ol’ timer,” was all Avery had time to say before the doors closed.
* * *
Avery lightly trailed his finger across the gold letters that spelled Walter Pike, General Manager, Sawmill Division. He knocked once and then pushed open the door a hair and looked inside.

Walter was leaning back in his chair. One hand was holding the phone, the other was propped behind his neck. He motioned for Avery to enter. Avery pulled up a chair. He could tell from the forced sweetness in Walter’s tone that he was talking to Maurene, his wife. “Honey, how could you let this happen? You were going to balance your checkbook every month. Remember?”

Walter groaned and Avery smiled inwardly. Everyone knew Maurene was a spend-a-holic.

“How much are all of the bank charges?” His voice crescendoed. “What? That’s ridiculous!”

Walter glanced at Avery and then back at the wall. His face was beet red. “I’ll call Henry. See if he can erase those charges. That’s highway robbery.”

Avery knew that Walter was channeling his anger away from Maurene and straight to the bank. And if he knew Walter, Avery guessed that Henry Tate would most definitely forgive all of the charges.

Walter hung up the phone and shook his head. “I reckon Maurene thinks money grows on trees. That woman spends it faster than I can make it.”

Avery remained silent. Even though Walter blustered and complained about Maurene, he would do whatever it took to keep her happy.

“Anyway, enough about that. What’s on your mind?”

“I’ve been going over the report on Buford Phillips.”


“Something just doesn’t fit.”

Walter sat up in his chair. “Shoot.”

Avery chose his words. “The report says that Phillips got too close to the band saw.”

Walter nodded, a trace of impatience on his face.

“That’s probably true, but why hasn’t anything been said about the crack in the blade?”

Walter stroked his chin. “Did you talk to Buck? What about David and Ralph?”

“They all say ol’ man Phillips was drunk. They said that if he hadn’t been standing so close, the log wouldn’t have hit him when it split off.”

“I’m inclined to agree. It sounds like carelessness on Buford’s part.”

“Yeah, maybe … but if the blade hadn’t been dull to begin with, the log wouldn’t have split off. I checked that blade. There were cracks in it almost as wide as my hand.” Avery shook his head. “Those guys know OSHA’s requirements. I’ve cautioned them a hundred times. If this were the first time, it would be one thing. But, this was the third accident in a month. The first was the chipper incident, then the edger, and now the band saw. The only common denominator I can come up with is dull saw blades.”

Walter walked around his desk and leaned against the edge. “There could have been a knot in that log.” He folded his arms over his chest. “Look, I know how hard the last couple of months have been on you, losing Susan and all, then having to look after a teenager, but you’ve got to get a grip on yourself. I know the Bartons and so do you. They’ve always done a good job filing those saws. Let’s not overreact.”

Avery nodded. “Maybe you’re right.” He closed his eyes, and an image of Buford flashed before him. He saw again the shock and fear reflected in the man’s eyes as the paramedics closed the ambulance doors. It was the last time Avery saw him alive.

“Look, if it makes you feel better, I’ll talk to the Bartons myself. How about that?”

“I’d appreciate it.”

Walter clapped his hands. “Good, then it’s all settled. Unless I find out anything different from the Bartons, old man Phillips was drunk and got too close to the saw. That’s our report.”

“Yeah, at least for now anyway. I just hope OSHA will be satisfied with that.”

In a couple of days, OSHA would be swarming like flies, checking everything from guards on the saws, voltage on the equipment, to making sure that “Joe Blow” was wearing a hard hat and steel-toed shoes.

Avery voiced their greatest fear. “If things are not just right, they’ll close the mill.” He shook his head. “Maybe I’m not cut out for this job.”

He looked up and saw Walter studying him with concern. He had to fight the urge to run his fingers across the shadow stubble on his jaw. He knew he looked as tired and worn as he felt. He was giving everything he could to his work, trying to kill the pain, but nothing seemed to work. It was like the chipper was taking him out one piece at a time until he was as flimsy as a piece of balsa wood.

“Do you remember?” Walter motioned to the framed picture, displayed prominently behind his desk.

“How could I forget?” The print titled The Goal Line Stand depicted a legendary football play made by Alabama Crimson Tide. The print was by Daniel A. Moore, and it was the first of his many popular football paintings. Avery knew it was Walter’s pride and joy.

Walter studied the picture, a tone of reverence in his voice. “Sugar Bowl, Superdome, New Orleans, 1978. National Championship riding on the line. Penn State was ranked number one. Lots of people didn’t think Bama stood a chance. But there we were, fourth quarter, minutes to go … inside the Alabama one yard line, and it all came down to the goal line stand.”

The painting captured the fierce battle taking place on the goal line. Alabama linebacker Barry Krauss held back Mike Guman, Penn State’s tailback. Krauss’ body stance was a combination of anger and determination. He was a rock, holding back the wave, pitting his strength against his opponent like it was the last battle on earth.

“Alabama was ahead, and Penn State got the ball and was going for a touchdown. It was fourth down with seconds left in the game. Penn State made it to the goal line, but that’s as far as they got. Alabama held them back to win the 1978 National Championship.” Walter’s voice grew more intense. “Two football teams and a stadium packed with over seventy thousand fans, and it all came down to a battle between two men. Do you think victory that day went to the strongest or the best? No!” He paused. “It went to the man who wanted it the most.”

Walter turned to face Avery, his piercing blue eyes had the power to bore holes. “That’s what we have to do. It’s fourth down, seconds left. We’ve got to hold that line.”

* * *

Avery’s conversation with Walter did little to diminish his concerns. He had to get to the bottom of what really happened to Buford Phillips. He unfolded the directions Barb had given him.

Turn right when you get to the top of the mountain, go about three miles past the church, and the Phillips are in a white house off the road on the left.

Avery wasn’t sure what he hoped to gain by visiting Buford Phillips’ widow. No, that wasn’t true. He knew what he was after—reassurance. Maybe this visit would give him the reassurance he needed to put those pleading eyes, Buford’s eyes, out of his mind.

He rechecked the address when he saw the freshly painted white house with a swing on the front porch nestled at the foot of a hill. Huge shade trees surrounded the house. Over to the left fruit trees were planted in neat rows. Grape vines crawled up the fence, separating the house from the vineyard. Not your typical drunk’s house.

A huge dog chained to a tree barked at him as he got out of the car. Was he at the wrong house? Avery cautiously knocked on the door.

“Can I help you?” An elderly woman stood at the door. Her short, steel-colored hair stuck straight out like she’d stuck her finger in a light socket. Clear, mournful eyes stared back at Avery from her puffy face, and he realized with a jolt that she wasn’t as old as he first thought, no more than ten years older than he.

“Ma’am, I’m Avery, the operations manager of the—”

“I know who you are. What do you want? My Buford’s gone.”

Avery cleared his throat and looked away from the woman’s accusing eyes. She wasn’t making this easy. “Um, I’m investigating his … death … accident, and I just wanna ask you a couple of questions.”

Mrs. Phillips stepped back and let Avery through the door. “Let’s go to the kitchen.”

The cozy kitchen was neatly kept with a built-in stove on one side of the room and a refrigerator on the opposite wall. The door of the refrigerator was covered with tiny magnets holding up pictures of several children. A round table covered with a checked tablecloth was in the middle of the room with a bowl of plastic fruit in the center. Avery noticed a Reader’s Digest, a cup of milk, and a plate heaped with chocolate chip cookies sitting on the table.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to catch you at a bad time.”

Mrs. Phillips waved off the apology. “Have a seat. Buford talked about you sometimes. He told me about your wife. I’m sorry.”

Avery nodded and swallowed hard. She of all people could relate to his loss. He’d come here to comfort her, not the other way around.

“Would you like some milk and cookies?”

“No, thank you. I would like to ask you a couple of questions about your husband if you don’t mind.” He cleared his throat. This wasn’t going to be easy. “Mrs. Phillips, do you know if Buford was drinking the day of the accident?”

“Drinking! What are you talking about?” Red patches the color of blood were making their way up Mrs. Phillips’ neck.

“Look, I didn’t mean to offend. I just have to know.”

Now the patches were closing in like thunderclouds, making her neck a solid red. A tear formed in the corner of Mrs. Phillips’ eye and dribbled down her round cheek.

“Didn’t you know Buford at all?” She dabbed at her eyes with her apron.

Avery shook his head. “What do you mean?”

“Buford ain’t had a drop for over three years, not since he started going to church.”

His eyes widened. “Are you sure?”

“I’m not sure of a lot of things, but I’m sure of that!” Mrs. Phillips closed her eyes as if she were in deep thought.

“Did he say very much about the sawmill and the people he worked with?”

“No, I just know that he thought a lot of some of the men there, and he worried about them. He said they were headed for trouble.”

Avery jumped on her comment like a coon dog sniffing a scent. “What kind of trouble?”

The woman’s thick lips clamped shut, causing her chin to wiggle. Avery was afraid he’d pushed her too hard. He sat back in his chair and tried to give her some space. Her jaw worked back and forth. A moment later she spoke. “He didn’t say what kind of trouble. I reckon he just worried about them, that’s all.”

An alarm went off in the back of Avery’s mind. She knew something. What was she not telling?

The silence stretched on until Avery spoke. “Thank you, Mrs. Phillips. You’ve been a big help. I’d better get going.” He started down the steps.


He turned.

“I don’t know what happened that day at the mill, but I know it weren’t my Buford’s fault. He was a good man.”

She closed the door, but not before he caught a glimpse of tears streaming down her face.

* * *

A nagging feeling gnawed at the pit of Avery’s stomach. It was the same feeling he’d had just before Susan’s death: the feeling of impending doom. He thought about his visit with Buford Phillips’ widow. What was bothering him about that? Her denial that Buford had been drinking? No, that wasn’t it. Of course she would deny that Buford had been drinking. Who wouldn’t want to keep the memories of a departed loved one untainted? He didn’t blame the poor woman for that.

Still, he admitted, Buford’s drinking was mighty convenient for the mill and a lot easier to explain than a dull, cracked blade. He kept going over his conversation with Mrs. Phillips, dissecting every portion of it. She’d mentioned some trouble at the mill. Yes, that’s what had been bothering him. What kind of trouble was Buford mixed up in?

Even if Buford had been drinking and had gotten too close to the saw that still didn’t excuse the poorly maintained equipment. There was only one way to be certain that the third-shift filers were doing their job. He would go and see for himself.

* * *

He parked several blocks from the mill and walked in the cover of the trees as much as possible. He had his flashlight but kept it turned off. He didn’t want to give any advanced warning that he was coming.

A thick blanket of fast-moving clouds battled with the light of the moon. Shadows rose and became slithery living shapes when a shaft of pale moonlight broke through the clouds. It was an evil moon. That’s how his grandmother would describe it.

The old woman was superstitious. He brushed off the thought and reminded himself not to become prey to such rubbish. Nevertheless, he stole a glance over his shoulder. Maybe coming down here at 2:00 AM wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Avery made his way up the creaking stairs. He swore when he discovered the filing room was empty. There were saws scattered over the floor, all untouched by the filers. Where were they? Avery had hoped that his worries would be wrong and he would find the filers sharpening the blades.
If his suspicions were correct, those guys were responsible for several accidents and a death. They’d better have a good explanation.

After leaving the filing room, he walked outside and back toward his truck. A flicker of light bouncing off a stack of wood caught his attention. It was coming from the wood yard. Another beam of light flashed and then disappeared. Why would anyone be in the wood yard this time of night?

He moved in the direction of the lights, hiding behind one stack of logs and then another, to get a closer look at what was happening. As he stealthily made his way, he could hear voices floating in the night air. He treaded as lightly as he could and then cursed as his feet snapped a stray limb that had fallen from the log trucks. He halted in his tracks.

No one heard him. So far so good.

Fifty yards up ahead, he could see a hauling truck surrounded by three or four men. His pulse quickened. They were loading logs onto the truck. He ducked lower to the ground and made his way to the large stack of logs nearest to the group. If he got close enough, he just might be able to hear what they were saying. He inched to the side of the stack so he could get a good look at the men. His eyes strained through the darkness. He could make out the filers. His pulse raced when he recognized another face in the group: Lewis Jackson, the first shift foreman.
Something had to be done. Theft was one thing, but what about Buford Phillips? Had the filers’ negligence caused his death?

"Sherman, hand me that binding so we can get this load bound and out of here,” Lewis said.

There had been several complaints over the past few months from the loggers about being short on their pay. Lewis had dismissed their complaints, saying they were just disgruntled, overworked old men. Now Avery understood why. They were stealing logs that hadn’t been receipted or scaled.

One of the men shined his flashlight in Avery’s direction. Avery jerked back behind the stack of logs, causing his foot to slip. He threw out his hand to catch himself before hitting the ground. Pain wrenched through his hand when he sliced it on a piece of metal that had been left lying on the ground. His low moan pierced the night air.

“Did you hear that? Listen!” Lewis left the group and started walking in Avery’s direction.

Avery was afraid he would hear his heart hammering out of his chest. He held his breath and tried to flatten himself into the logs. Lewis was only a couple of feet away. Run! his mind screamed, but his body was paralyzed. All he could do was pray.

“Come on back, Lew. There ain’t nobody out here this time o’ the night. We gotta get this load out before somebody does come.”

Avery didn’t exhale until Lewis walked away. His hand was throbbing, and he could feel blood oozing out with every beat. The front of his shirt and pants were covered with the sticky liquid. He closed his eyes and tried to stop his head from swimming.

He sat behind the stack of oak for almost an hour until he heard the log truck pull away and was sure that everyone had left.

* * *

Judge Crawford leaned back in his chair and drank the last sip of his coffee. He winced when it slid like mud down his throat. Nothing worse than cold coffee. He pulled out his planner and skimmed down the page for his next day’s appointments, not really seeing the words. He shut the planner. His mind wasn’t on anything except the phone call he received a couple of hours ago. After all these years on the bench, the surprises that cropped up still had the power to knock him off his feet. He straightened the papers on his desk and stared at the phone, attempting to bolster his nerve to call Harriett.

His fingers knew the number better than his mind. He swallowed as he waited for his wife to answer. “Hon, I’ve gotten held up tonight and won’t be able to make it in time for dinner.”

The silence on the other end stretched on. “Harriett, I know I promised we would go out to dinner tonight, but I just received a call about an important matter, and I have to go meet someone.”

This time Harriet responded with a long tirade of complaints followed by insults.

“I’m real sorry, but you know how it is around here. It comes with the territory,” he said, trying to keep the irritation out of his voice. He let her go on a little longer and squeezed in a goodbye when she paused to catch a breath.

He hung up the phone and looked at his watch.He didn’t blame Harriett for being angry. Their marriage had been rocky the past few years since their children had married and moved away. Harriett already hated his long hours, and then she found out about Kim.

That little fling had only lasted a few weeks, but Harriett had never forgiven him. He’d broken enough promises to her to last a lifetime, and a lifetime was probably how long it would take to make it up to her.

He picked up the note from the call he’d received earlier in the afternoon and stuffed it in his brief case. Yes, this could be the break he’d been waiting for. Everyone else had left the office hours ago. It was past 7:00 PM. He would have to hurry to get to his destination in forty-five minutes.

He locked his door and ran down the stairs. The extra twenty-five pounds he was carrying left him out of breath. He cursed when he remembered he was parked in the parking deck a couple of blocks away. He usually parked in his designated spot in front of his office, but a van had been parked there. Someone had moved it before he could have it ticketed or towed away.

Judge Crawford entered the parking garage. Footsteps on pavement—voices bouncing off walls. Was that what he was hearing? He scanned the parking deck. It was empty.

That’s another thing his job had instilled in him, paranoia.

He opened the door of his new Mustang convertible, fastened his seat belt, and started the engine. He frowned. It was acting funny. He’d have it checked tomorrow. He turned the key again.

This time the car exploded, and the upper floor of the parking deck collapsed with a deafening crash.

* * *

Avery ran his hand down the side of the Suzie Q, caressing her graceful, ageless lines. Susan had loved this boat. He remembered the first time he’d gone to Maryland with Judith to meet her family. There he saw Susan for the first time. It wasn’t long until it was apparent to everyone that he and Susan were meant to be together.

On the third day of the visit, Judith insisted that he and Susan go sailing. It was then that he discovered Susan’s love for the Suzie Q. She was in her element as she told him what to do and explained the rules of safety. Then she named off every part of the boat from the bow to the tiller. Her love for sailing was contagious, and it wasn’t long before he felt the same way. No one was surprised when Susan inherited the boat after her parents passed away. Avery closed his eyes. He could see Susan on the boat with him, her green eyes sparkling in that mischievous way he loved so much—her deep tanned face with her sun-streaked hair blowing in the wind.

“Dad, you ready?”

Avery looked up to see Cindy standing on the pier. He watched her balance precariously, one foot on the pier and the other on the boat, before nimbly jumping into the boat. “Untie the rope and give ‘er a push.”

She tossed her honey-colored hair and saluted him in the mock solemnity only a teenager can perfect. “Aye, aye, skipper.’”

“Okay, let’s get this show on the road. But first, I need you to check the bilge.”

“You got it.” She climbed down in the cabin while Avery took care of lowering the centerboard and rigging the rudder and tiller. A few minutes later, Cindy reappeared. “Bilge is clear, skipper.”

He expertly guided the boat into the open expanse of the river and turned toward the warm breeze that kissed his cheek. He breathed a sigh of appreciation at the shimmering reflection of the afternoon sun on the mirror of glass around him. Sailing on the Tennessee River was a far cry from the Chesapeake Bay, but he loved it. March was one of the rare months that he could sail away from the shore without using his motor.

“Hold on.” He and the boat were one, skipping over the waves like they could almost fly.

Cindy braced herself against the steady onslaught of bumping waves, her lean face eager with anticipation. The tenderness that welled in Avery when he looked at her hit him so strong it almost hurt.

Out here, the problems seemed to melt away. It was just he and Cindy. Nothing else mattered. Cindy’s athletic frame was softening into womanhood, and Avery knew it was only a matter of time before she became the spitting image of Susan.

Cindy’s uncanny resemblance to her mother had tormented him in the bitter months after her death. Cindy had needed him then, but he’d been too engulfed in his cruel hurt to open himself up to her. They were like the same poles of two magnets, feeling the same pain, the same emptiness, yet repelling each other away.

Gradually, as the healing balm of time eased his grief, he’d gone the opposite direction, feeling the need to cling to Cindy. She’d been wary of his sudden interest at first but seemed to be warming up to him. Still, their relationship was fragile, a tender seedling taking root in soil of doubt. It was going to take time for it to grow into the sturdy oak it once was.

She was his reason for living, and he knew he would do everything in his power to keep her safe. He just hoped someday she would understand.

When they reached the middle of the river, Avery dropped the sails and heaved the heavy anchor over the side. Cindy noticed the grimace on his face and the way he was protecting his hand.He reached for his rod and reel. “Let’s try it here. We’ll see how they’re biting.”

“How’s your hand?”

He flexed and winced. “Still sore, but okay.” Cindy had asked him about his injury, and all he said was that he cut it at the mill. She accepted his sketchy explanation without question. “Hand me some bait, honey.”

The scowl on Cindy’s face broke his thoughts and made him chuckle as she reached in the cup and pulled out a slimy worm. This was Cindy’s least favorite part of fishing, but she never complained. It took him a fraction longer than normal to thread the hook. “Do you wanna take this one?”

“No, I can do it.”

He stifled a grin. “Okay.”

She reached for another worm and cringed as it slithered around her fingers when she tried to hook it. “Yuck!” She dropped the worm, handed the rod to Avery, and smiled sheepishly. “Thanks, Dad.”

It was one of those rare moments when they could shut out the world and just be father and daughter. What he would give to make times like this last longer. But he knew it couldn’t last. The problems at the sawmill were closing in.
His stomach churned when he thought about his reason for bringing Cindy on the boat. It was time to do some serious talking. His grandmother always said if you looked deep enough into a pool of water, you’d find your future reflected. He looked over the edge of the boat and down into the water. There was no reflection, only muddy water staring back at him.

He cleared his throat. “Cindy, there’s something I wanna talk to you about.”

She eyed him suspiciously. “What is it?”

“I’ve been thinking about what your aunt Judith said before she left. I think it might be a good idea for you to go and live with her for a while.”

Cindy’s face crumbled like a piece of wadded up paper. “What? Why?”

Oh, how he wanted to take her in his arms and hug her until that wounded look in her eyes disappeared. She’d been through so much. It seemed unfair that he had to hurt her more. If only he could unload his fears, make his daughter understand. He wanted to tell her that nothing short of fear for her life or his could ever separate them. But, he couldn’t. Worry over him was the last thing Cindy needed. “Judith can give you so many more opportunities than I can,” he finally said.

“This is my home. What about my friends? I want to stay here with you.” Her chin quivered. “You promised. Don’t you want me anymore?”

Avery clenched his fist. Everything he loved was being pried away from him, and he was powerless to stop it. He moved closer to Cindy. “I love you, honey. You know that. We’ll be back together again before you know it.”

“No, I don’t know that you love me. I don’t know anything anymore. I won’t go. I won’t go live with that stuffy old battleaxe. I hate her!”

“Cindy, be reasonable.”

“You can’t make me! I hate you!” She took her rod and reel and tossed it as far as she could and then watched in dismay as it sank to the bottom of the river.

Avery moved to the stern of the boat. He shook his head. “We’ll discuss this later.”

Cindy crossed her arms and moved to the bow, as far away from him as she could get. She turned her back on him, and for an instant, he wondered if she was going to dive off.

Dusk settled in, and the air became cooler as lights began popping out of neighboring piers and then stretching down into the water like long icicles.

Avery looked at his watch. Time to go. He didn’t want to be late for his appointment. It was time to face the music. He pulled up the anchor.

The wind had died down, so he would have to use the motor. He turned on the switch and it stalled. He tried again several times to no avail. “Come on,” he said, turning the switch with a vengeance. “We’ve gotta get home,” and then, “there she goes,” when the engine caught.

The people sitting on the pier were the first to hear the deafening blast invade the still evening. The boat changed to a ball of fire, sending splinters of debris shooting into the air like fireworks.

Then there was silence.

* * *

Cindy’s head was whirling. Treading her legs through the water was like pulling a lead ball with a chain. She was cold, and everything was moving in slow motion. If she could just make it to her dad.

Was that him holding out his hands calling her name? Or was it her mom?

Just when she thought she’d reached the spot, there was no one there.

Seconds … minutes went by—or were they years? Time ceased to exist.

Her eyes closed against the hurling blackness.

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