Appalachian Prey
by Debbie Herbert

Chapter One

Moonshine again…seriously?

Hidden caches had turned up everywhere in her father’s cabin. No surprise there. Lilah snatched two plastic jugs from the back utility room and marched to the kitchen, intent on pouring the illegal hooch down the drain. Corn liquor had destroyed her parents’ marriage and her dad’s liver. Would have killed him, too, if he hadn’t been murdered a week ago.

Unexpected tears blurred her vision as she unscrewed the lid on one of the jugs and poured the liquid poison into the chipped enamel sink. Not that she and Dad had been all that close in recent years, but still, the man had been her father. Lilah tipped the jug. Glug, glug, glug…a hundred dollars’ worth gone. Could have bought a used college textbook with that money.

She blinked and gazed out the open window. The cabin was nestled in the foothills, with rolling mountains standing sentinel in all directions like a green fortress. A deceptive beauty, as though the price for living in such a visual feast meant being taxed with rampant poverty and violence. Dad’s death was the latest evidence of that.

Whoever said you can’t go home again was dead wrong. After a mere week, Lilah felt like she’d never left Lavender Mountain. Memories washed over her, most of them unpleasant—her parents’ screaming matches, brutally cold nights where they’d all huddled in front of the fireplace. But it hadn’t been all bad. Some days, wandering the woods with her older siblings, Jimmy and Darla, had been magical.

A faint scrape of boots on leaves and pine straw jarred her senses. Someone approached.

Lilah stilled, picturing in her mind’s eye the open front door and windows. Had the murderer returned? She fought the instinct to flee to the back bedroom and lock herself in. Probably just one of Dad’s old customers who hadn’t gotten the word yet.

Quickly, she raced across the rugged pine floorboards to the den. Through the battered screen door emerged the silhouette of a tall bearded man dressed in denim overalls. What mountain had he just climbed down from? Lilah sprinted to the door and latched the rusty lock into place. A joke of a defense. She reached for the weapon always propped by the door frame, and her right hand curled around the barrel of the twelve-gauge shotgun, its metal smooth, familiar and comfortable.

And loaded.

“What you want?” she called out in her fiercest voice.

The man didn’t appear the least bit intimidated as he shuffled forward, his foot on the first porch step. “I got bizness with Chauncey Tedder.”

“Guess you could say my dad’s out of business,” she said, sliding the shotgun next to her hip.

He climbed the second step. One more and he would be within six feet of where she stood. He swayed and squinted, peering into the room. Lilah was painfully aware he could see straight into the little kitchenette.

“Looks to me like you got some ’shine in there,” he boomed. “Go git me a jug afore I get really riled.”

She didn’t aim to find out what the stranger was like “really riled.” This place was well out of range for anyone to hear if she screamed, and Dad was shot not far from the cabin. Lilah unhitched the lock and kicked open the screen door. She drew the shotgun up to shoulder level, finger twitching at the trigger. “I repeat—this place is closed for business. I’d appreciate you spreading the word.”

“Whoa, little missy.” He threw up his hands and backed away. “Don’t mean ya no harm.”

He tripped on the step and took a tumble. Oomph.

Chagrined, Lilah bit her lip and lowered the shotgun. “You okay there?”

He rose, brushing dirt off his overalls. “I reckon. You sure are a touchy thing. Best be gettin’ on my way.” With one last sorrowful glance at the jugs on the kitchen counter, he ambled away, gingerly limping on his right foot.

What the hell.

She returned inside, retrieved the full jug she hadn’t yet dumped out, and stepped out onto the porch. “Hey,” she yelled. “Come on back, you can have a jug.”

He shot her a wary look, clearly suspicious of her change of heart. But in the end, the pull of the moonshine outweighed his reservation, and he returned.

Lilah set the jug down at the bottom of the stairs and scampered back to the door.

“Same price as always?” the man asked, carefully pulling out a wad of dollar bills from his side pocket.

“It’s on the house. Just don’t come back, ya hear? This is the last of it.” Unless she found more while cleaning out the cabin. No telling how many bottles were tucked away in nooks and crannies.

A grin split his weathered face as he tucked the money away. “Thank you kindly, ma’am.”

He picked up the jug and gave a quick nod before walking across the yard. A sheriff’s cruiser rounded the bend in the road and turned into her dirt driveway. The man momentarily froze at the sight, and then took off running to the nearby tree line—more like hobbling with his injured foot—but almost quick enough to get out of sight. Couldn’t have hurt too bad, she mused.

The cruiser came to an abrupt halt, and a man started to climb out.

Lilah’s heart skittered, even faster than when the stranger had suddenly appeared at her door minutes ago. Could it be…

Oh, yes, it most definitely was.

Harlan Sampson. The man who’d quickly won her heart three months ago and then had dumped her twice as fast after a week of fun and games. Her left hand involuntarily fluttered over her stomach, and Lilah hastily jerked it away.

“Well, looky here,” Harlan drawled, eyeing the man carting his haul off into the woods. He faced her and pushed the dark sunshades up on his head, revealing the startling beryl-blue eyes that had enthralled her on her last ill-fated visit, which—damn it—still sent her heart pounding into overdrive. He walked toward her. “Looks like I finally caught a Tedder point-blank in the act of distributing illegal whiskey.”

“Wrong. I wasn’t selling. I was giving. Ain’t no money exchanged hands here.” Inwardly, Lilah winced at the slip into the local vernacular. It had been twelve years since she’d called Lavender Mountain home, but in times of high emotion—and now definitely counted—she lapsed back into the lingo.

“So you say.”

She pinched her lips together. “What brings you here?”

“Came to pay my respects, see how you’re getting on.”

Weeks ago, she would have flung herself on Harlan at those words. But not now. “I’m jim-dandy,” she replied, lifting her chin a fraction. “I saw you at Dad’s funeral. No need to come over.”

“I believe I owe you an apology.”

“Forget it.” There was no way she’d admit how much his silence had hurt.

His eyes smoldered, and he slowly climbed the porch steps, close enough now to make her breath hitch. “I can’t forget it. And I can’t forget you.”

***

EVEN GLARING AT HIM, shotgun by her side, Lilah Faye Tedder was a hell of a sight. Harlan drank it in—the long blond hair that tumbled past her shoulders, the elfin delicate face with the determined chin, the slight womanly curves of her body. He had tried to wipe away the memory of her, but with one glance, the old familiar pull returned. He nodded at the firearm. “Mind putting that thing away? Hard to talk to an angry woman holding a shotgun.”

A smile ghosted across her face before the hardened set returned to her chin. “You said what you came to say. Apology accepted.”

“C’mon, Lilah. Let’s talk.”

She hesitated, then shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

With that, Lilah spun on her heel and entered the cabin. Not much of an invitation, but he’d hardly expected her to welcome him with open arms. The place smelled as clean and as fresh as the pine breeze that blew through the open windows, but with a touch of lemon cleaner. It already had the stale antiseptic look of a bare shell of a dwelling. No knickknacks or frivolities, just an old sofa and a couple of chairs.

“I see you’ve been hard at work.” He’d been here before. Chauncey’s old place had been filled with junk when he was alive.

“It’s all set for the realtor to list as soon the reading of the will is over. After that, I’ll head on home.”

Probably for the best, at least for his career. According to Sheriff J.D. Bentley, associating with any Tedder wouldn’t reflect well on him or the office. His boss planned on retiring soon and understood that he had ambitions to run and take over the top law enforcement job in the county. And as such, J.D. had driven home the point that he had no chance of winning the sheriff’s election if he was a known associate of the outlaw family.

Personally, Harlan couldn’t care less about the piddly amounts of money some moonshiners made. No, what disturbed him were the rumors that Lilah’s family had turned to the new Appalachian cash crop of growing marijuana.

Following her lead, he took a seat in one of the old chairs that remained. “No reason to hurry home, is there? Now that school’s out, I thought you would be free for the summer.”

She leveled him with a glacial stare. “That was the original plan. Things changed.”

Ouch. Yeah, he caught her barb. Last time she had been home, they’d planned on her returning to Lavender Mountain this summer so they could see each other regularly.

“Sorry about your dad. Must be hard—”

“Any news on who shot him?” Her voice was sharp and cold.

“Not yet,” he admitted. “But we’re working on it.”

“I bet.” This wasn’t the same Lilah from March, the woman with the ready smile, the soft eyes and the gentle voice. But she had every reason to be bitter, especially with him.

“We’re working ’round the clock. No leads have panned out yet, but we’re interviewing his friends and—” he hesitated a beat “—known associates.”

“Meaning y’all suspect this was related to his moonshining.”

If only it were that simple. He hedged. “The theory is it revolved around his illegal activities, yes. You and Darla already said he had no enemies or problems with others that you know of.”

Silver eyes clouded in pain. “It makes no sense. Why would anyone shoot Dad? It’s not like he made a fortune.” Her neck turned a fraction toward the back of the cabin.

“Maybe an irate customer?” he suggested.

“Doubt it. Most were regulars.” Again, her eyes darted to the rear of the cabin as she folded her arms at her waist.

“Okay, what’s going on?” he asked sharply. Her eyes widened.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Nothing’s going on.”

He strode past her, down the narrow hallway and peeked inside the two bedrooms at the end. One was completely empty, nothing suspicious there. The other housed only a double bed and a dresser. A lacy pale yellow nightgown was draped across a plaid bedcover. An image of Lilah in that nightgown flashed through his mind, and he gritted his teeth at the wave of loss that churned his gut.

“What do you think you’re doing?” She followed close behind him, her bare feet padding on the old wood flooring. “You have no right to search my place.”

“It’s not yours until you can show me the deed has been transferred to you in writing.” He crossed the room and glanced cursorily inside the small bathroom with the old-fashioned iron claw-foot bathtub. Nothing out of place there, either.

“Mind telling me what you’re looking for?” He felt a tad foolish for wondering if an unwelcome visitor might have forced his way in and held her hostage.

“Well?” she demanded.

“I’m not sure. But you kept looking back this way, as if something was worrying you.”

A flush stained her cheeks. “You’re imagining things.”

This was getting him nowhere. He changed tactics. “Lilah, I want to help. If there’s a problem, tell me. I can’t leave you alone out here if there’s the slightest possibility you’re in danger.”

“Why do you care?” she scoffed. “Go on and leave me—again. It’s what you do best.”

Her words slammed into him like bullets. He’d hurt her. Bad. “I’m sorry,” he said, shuffling his feet. “I should have at least tried to explain.”

“No explanation needed. I can guess what happened. As soon as your family and friends caught wind of you seeing a Tedder, they jumped all over you. Go on, admit it.”

Heat rushed up the back of his neck. She’d pretty much nailed their reaction. He could have borne their objections, but…

“And then your boss piled on, too. Right? Wouldn’t look good for the apparent heir in the upcoming sheriff’s election to be sleeping around with a lowlife like me.”

The accusation in her eyes stung, but not as much as the truth of her words. Yes, he was ambitious. But it wasn’t the money and the power he craved—it was the chance to make a difference. This little corner in the Appalachian foothills had always garnered more than its share of hardship and tumult. And somehow, the situation kept going downhill. Elmore County was rife with drug trafficking, ancient feuds and an isolation that led many to a life of crime, believing the laws didn’t apply in this neck of the woods.

“I won’t deny any of that,” he said slowly. “J.D. had a long talk with me. Basically said that if I continued seeing you, he wouldn’t endorse me as his replacement.”

“And your career means more to you than I do. Fine. But you could have talked to me instead of giving me the silent treatment.”

“You’re right. And I regret that.”

Harlan regretted a lot of things. He should never have listened to J.D. or anyone else. He should have defended Lilah. He should have never let her slip away.

He was an ass.

Harlan shook his head. No, he’d done the right thing. The people in this county needed him. No point in throwing his career away because of one magical week. But that one week together during her spring break from work and school had been an unbelievable whirlwind of passion and emotion. And then, he’d slipped out of her life without a single word, even after all the plans they’d made for the summer. He raised a hand to touch her, to cup her face in his palms, to tell her he was sorry.

Lilah stepped back, lips curled in a bitter smile. “Don’t even think about it, Harlan Sampson. We’re done.”

Abruptly, he dropped the hand by his side. He’d lost the right to touch Lilah ever again.

“Message received.” He took a deep breath and straightened his spine. “But I still don’t like leaving you alone out here. Can’t you get a room in town until you’ve finished your business?”

“No.”

She turned and headed down the hallway, leaving him no choice but to follow. Lilah opened the front door wide and waved a hand in dismissal. “Goodbye, Harlan.”

He nodded, but as he brushed past Lilah, he couldn’t resist placing a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry for everything. And for your loss. Your dad might have been on the other side of the law, but he was a decent man. I liked him, and he didn’t deserve what happened. I’ll do everything I can to find who shot him.”

The anger and hostility fled, and her lips trembled the slightest bit. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“Is there anything I can do for you?”

She shook her head.

“If you think of something, you have my number.”

Before she could object, he planted a light kiss on her cheek and stepped out onto the porch. The sun was sinking low in the green mountains, casting a coral and purple hue on the clouds. Damn, he hated leaving her with night approaching.

“Wait. There is one thing you can do.”

He swung around, eager to help. “Name it.”

Lilah lingered in the doorway, rubbing her arm. “I—I found some money today while I was cleaning up the place. In light of what happened to Dad, well, it makes me nervous. It’s too late for me to go to the bank, but maybe you could keep it safe for me tonight? I’ll come pick it up in the morning and deposit it.”

“No problem.”

He returned to the inside of her cabin. How crafty of Chauncey to keep a hidden stash of dough. He hoped for Lilah’s sake that it was at least a thousand dollars or so. She could use the cash. Working as a teacher’s aide and going to college didn’t leave her much in the way of money.

“I told Darla ’bout finding a wad of cash up under the mattress, and she wanted us to go on and split it, but I told her it didn’t sit right with me. That much money should be reported.”

He gave an indulgent smile. “No one would be the wiser if you didn’t turn it in. There’s no need to worry. I agree with Darla, just keep the money.”

“But it’s a lot of money. I’ll need to talk to the bank manager. Don’t they investigate if you deposit more than ten thousand dollars at a time?”

The hell. “Excuse me? How much money are we talking about?”

“About thirty thousand.”

Thirty. Thousand. Dollars. Ill-gotten dollars, no doubt. The rumors must be true. Chauncey, and probably his partner-in-crime brother as well, had graduated from moonshine to marijuana—or even harder drugs.

“Get it,” he said tightly. Small wonder the Tedder reputation stank.

And she’d planned on sleeping on that load of cash tonight? Some folks ’round these parts would kill for thirty grand. Even if Lilah knew how to use that shotgun, she’d have been putting herself in jeopardy staying here overnight with that much money. If anyone else knew about it, she could have ended up with bullets riddling her body—the same fate as her father.

She scampered away, seemingly eager to be rid of the cash. Hard to believe, but at some level, Lilah must still trust him. Damn, he would have to tell J.D. about this. No way he could just let her waltz into a bank and get flagged as a possible drug dealer.

He sat on the sofa and ran a hand through his hair. “What the hell did you get mixed up in, Chauncey?” he muttered under his breath. He kicked back on the cushions and sighed.

Sure was taking her a long time. Harlan drummed his fingers on the wooden arm of the old couch, waiting.

And waiting.

“Everything all right, Lilah?” he called out. She staggered back into the den, face pale and fiddling with the gold cross chain around her neck.

He stood, dread prickling his scalp. “What’s wrong?”

She drew an unsteady breath. “The money…it’s gone.”

Copyright © 2018 by Debbie Herbert
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.


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