Wealthy architect Reece Daughtry spent fifteen years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. He's carved out a new life for himself as an artisan in the North Carolina mountains, building rock fireplaces for a waiting list of clients. Solitude suits him, until Dana Minette walks into his life to contract him to build a fireplace for her new home. Dana becomes more than a client, and for the first time in over twenty years, Reece has a desire to be with someone other than himself.
Then a local woman is murdered in the same savage manner as the murder that sent Reece to prison. More than one person wants him to take the fall, including Dana's ex-husband, the local prosecutor, who resolves to convict Reece in the high-profile case. But Reece won't be railroaded again. He goes underground to find the killer. Or die trying.
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A Meeting of the Minds
What did a man born rich and privileged look like after spending fifteen years in prison and another six hiding in these mountains? Dana parked her Jeep in the gravel driveway next to a rough-looking pickup and skirted around the house to the back. Reece Daughtry sat in an Adirondack chair on the dock, reading. A johnboat bobbled in the lake, complete with fishing rod and tackle box. After swiveling around to see his intruder, he turned back to his book.
A booming voice echoed over the water. "What do you want?"
"I'm not working now."
Undeterred, she kept going, waiting for him to tell her she was trespassing. He didn't. A few well-fed cats poked their heads out of the greenery lining the rock stairs down to the lake. Another snuggled under his chair, an a three-legged mutt hobbled to greet her.
"He, pooch, how'ya doing?" She bent down to rub him, and the dog wiggled his excitement. "Nice dog."
"Maybe you didn't hear me. I'm not building fireplaces right now."
He finally turned, and she had her answer. Unshaven, leather-tanned, and lean, with dark blond hair heavily threaded with gray brushing his shoulders. Reading glasses perched low on the bridge of his nose. He struck Dana as more interesting looking than handsome, but he could be called that too.
"I heard you. Doesn't make me want one less."
"Come back in a year. Better yet, don't." He kept his nose in the book.
She couldn't help noticing his long, knotty fingers. Laborer's hands, with rough skin and short clipped nails. Sinewy forearms like twisted rope. "What are you reading?"
He glanced up. "You still here?"
"Only a few people know where I live. Know why? So trespassers can't come here and bother me. Lemme guess who snitched. Old Harris big mouth."
"Don't blame Harris. I saw the article he wrote on the house that featured your fireplaces. He warned me not to come, but I blackmailed him into telling me where you lived."
"You should've listened."
She moved closer and offered her hand. "Dana Minette."
He ignored her outstretched hand and nailed her with a squinty glare. "Any relation to the prosecutor Minette?"
She pulled back. "Not anymore."
"We had an ugly run-in years ago. He tried to stop the sale of this property to keep a convicted murderer out of his county. My attorney humiliated him; the judge ruled in my favor."
"Yes, I know. Robert is always looking for ways to get his name in the papers. He picked on the wrong person that time."
"He came here about a year ago. Said he had no hard feelings, and would I build him a fireplace. Can you beat that?"
"I take it you jumped at the chance."
Daughtry pushed his reading glasses onto his forehead and focused on her for more than a split second. "You're a smart-ass, you know that?"
"So I've been told." Was that the beginning of a smile?
"If he's your ex-husband, you're well rid of him. He's an asshole."
"He's my ex, and you're not the first person to describe Robert in those exact words." She plunked down on the dock, crossed her legs, Indian style. "You're all excellent judges of character."
"He didn't have nice things to say about you, which I thought rather ungentlemanly, since I didn't ask. Said he was redoing his house after he dumped his ungrateful wife."
"He said that? Ha!"
"Yup. His county, his house. Probably pissed you weren't his wife anymore, even though it was his idea. Or so he said."
"It's a long story. Twenty years long."
"Me either. Will you build me the goddamn fireplace? The two pictures I saw in the Regal Falls magazine were the most unique works of art I've ever seen."
Daughtry stared at her a long time with the clearest, most intense blue eyes. "Your ex wanted a fireplace in the worst way. Said he'd double whatever I charged."
"I bet when you held out, he doubled the amount again." Daughtry's smile was unmistakable now.
"How would he feel if I built one for you?"
"Talk about being pissed off."
* * * * *
Reece went into the house as soon as Dana Minette left. She was a piece of work. A very nice-looking piece of work. He could go for a woman like her, but a woman's what got him twenty to life, and he sure as hell didn't need any more trouble. Whenever he felt the urge, he drove to one of the larger cities within a hundred mile radius--Asheville or Charlotte--put up in a motel, and found someone to satisfy his sexual needs. No entanglements. No emotional attachments. He could do it by himself--he had years of practice--but he never found that a satisfying substitute for the warmth of a woman's body or the touch of soft skin. That was the way it had been for the six years since he got out of prison and how it would be from now on. He'd even adapted to the loneliness. Had plenty of practice with that too.
The three-legged dog nuzzled his leg. Reece never named any of the dogs or cats roaming his property. They were there, and he fed them. "Hey, Pooch. She gave you a good name, didn't she?" He leaned down and rubbed the dog's neck, some kind of beagle cross. He'd found it lying on the side of the road, near death, took it to his vet, and had it treated and fixed. He did that with every abused or emaciated animal he came across. Electronic fencing and collars kept them inside his property so they couldn't wander off and wind up like Pooch, or worse. Reece debated whether he was imprisoning them, but dead was more of a prison than contained, though he disliked the thought of either.
The phone rang. He let it go to the answering machine. When he heard the voice, he picked up. "Hey, Carl."
"Deciding whether you feel like answering, big brother?"
"I couldn't check the number in time." Sometimes Reece answered; sometimes he didn't, depending on his mood. Carl knew that.
His brother laughed.
"What's up?" Reece noted the hesitation. "Carl?"
"Dad's in the hospital. He had another heart attack."
Reece stiffened at the mention of his father, a reaction over which he had no control. "What do the doctors say?"
"It doesn't look good. He's conscious but weak. It's only a matter of time."
"Well, keep me informed."
"Jesus, Reece. That's cold. Your father is dying and all you can say is 'keep me informed'?"
"We've gone over this a hundred times. Sorry, but I can't fake like I care. Wish I could, but that's not my style." He pulled a beer from the fridge.
"You're still his son."
Reece wanted to laugh, but the humor eluded him. "He should have thought about that twenty-one years ago." He took a long draught from the bottle. It did nothing to cool his heat.
"He could have handled it differently, I agree, but--"
"Look, I've gotta go. Let me know when it's over."
Reece clicked the OFF button before Carl could argue. He finished the beer, then took another. He'd worked hard over the years to control his anger and sense of betrayal, but times like these brought them back like a knife twisting in his belly. How could he forget? One day he and Carl were drawing up plans to expand the family's home-building business: Reece, the architect, designing a new type of energy efficient structure--Carl, the business head, making them affordable. The next day he was locked in a cement cell with the echoing sound of steel doors clanging shut to keep him rotting inside. One day he had dozens of friends; the next only Carl and his mother stood in his corner. When he saw the toll it took on his mother to sneak away and visit, he asked her not to come anymore. That, more than anything, had torn him up.
Now she was gone, and he hoped the bastard would soon follow, freeing him of at least part of the rage that consumed him, and, yes, the hatred for the old man he carried in his chest like one of his stones. How could he feel anything for a man who believed his son capable of slicing a woman's throat, almost severing her head from her body? Who probably still believed it with his dying breath?
Reece looked around the house he built with his own two hands. Stone and wood and glass. It fit the new life he'd made for himself. A life he liked. He wasn't designing the buildings he'd envisioned all those years ago, except for his own, but he was creating something he considered beautiful. Others thought so too, which gave him pleasure. He worked when the spirit move him, nourished his passion for reading, fished, and ran the mountain roads--all the things he couldn't do inside, except for the reading, which had saved his sanity.
His thoughts roamed back to Dana Minette without conscious effort. He couldn't decide whether she was cute, pretty, or beautiful, though his skill judging women was twenty-one years rusty. He didn't score the trifecta in honky-tonk bars, but he wasn't after looks in those places.
Dana Minette possessed something quite different. Determination, humor, and warmth, all wrapped up in an attractive package about sixty-three inches in height. Better still, she didn't appear to genuflect for money or position. So how did a creep like Robert Minette get a woman like her to stay with him for twenty years?
He remembered the first time he saw Minette, with his white-collared, pin-striped shirt, suspenders, and shiny suit. He'd done everything to rally the townspeople against the murderer who wanted to live among them. Reece had run too far and too long to run again. He fought Minette and won. So where did he find the nerve to drive into his yard, say he had no hard feelings, and act like Reece should fall at his feet and say Yassuh, Masser?
"No one refuses Robert Minette," he said, slicked-back hair glistening in the morning sun. "Robert Minette gets what he wants."
Reece laughed and ordered him off his property. The attorney stormed away in his Escalade, a spray of gravel spitting from its tires.
Not this time, bub, and good riddance to you.