Chelsea Brennan resisted the urge to hug herself against the chill of the room as much as she resisted the urge to grimace at the sickeningly sweet odor of it. The lights were too bright. It ought to be dim in a room like this. Bright lights didn’t belong there. Neither did all the chrome or the shiny white floor tiles.
The cold did, though. The cold was at home there.
The drawer squealed when he pulled it open. Chelsea grated her teeth at the sound. Beneath a stark white sheet, the body jiggled like gelatin when its bed came to a halt. And then an ash gray hand fell to one side and dangled there. Still. Perfect nails, painted pink.
Chelsea didn’t move. Couldn’t move. Her eyes fixed on the small hand. On every sharply delineated bone and a wrist so narrow it made her wince. Not Michele. Not like this.
“Are you ready, Ms. Brennan?”
She nodded to the white-coated medical examiner, stiffened her spine and lifted her gaze from that limp hand. He pulled the sheet away from a lifeless face. A face as emaciated as the hand, with sharpened cheekbones and hollowed eyes.
A face she’d never seen before, and yet so dear…so familiar. Michele.
A great suction drew all the air from her lungs, and Chelsea couldn’t seem to inhale any to replace it. Her jaw worked like the gaping gills of a fish when it’s suffocating on dry land. For just an instant, Michele’s features swam and re-formed again. Only this time, it was their mother’s face Chelsea saw. The circles under Michele’s eyes became bruises. Her lips swelled and split.
Chelsea tried harder to draw a breath, but the constriction in her chest wouldn’t allow it. Her mouth gaped wider, and she blinked the image of her mother away. Michele. It was Michele lying on the table. Not Mom. Ironic that the resemblance Chelsea saw so clearly now hadn’t been apparent before. In death, they could have been twins. And that’s when the other similarity became blatantly clear.
The young Texas Ranger who’d been standing in the doorway, as if he couldn’t bring himself to move further into the stench of death and disinfectant, came forward. He stepped in front of her, blocking the body from her sight, and she breathed at last.
“I’m sorry you had to go through this, ma’am.”
Sweet, the way he called her “ma’am” all the time. She wondered briefly what vices he kept hidden beneath his compassionate facade.
“Is it her?” he asked, fingers twisting the brim of the hat he held in his hands. “Is it your sister?”
She couldn’t meet his eyes as she nodded. Instead, she focused on the way his hands worked the hat, and she managed to find her voice again. “She’s so thin,” Chelsea whispered. “Gaunt.”
“Drugs will do that to a person, ma’am.”
Chelsea’s head rose slowly, and she did meet those clear blue eyes this time. “Drugs didn’t do this to my sister. A man did.”
It was the ranger’s turn to avert his eyes. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but she did this to herself. Injected herself with enough heroin to kill a horse.”
Chelsea’s knees wobbled just a little, but she snapped them into place again by sheer will. “You’re saying…suicide?”
“You did say it had been nearly a year since you’d seen her,” he reminded her.
“But I talked with her…just last week. We were making plans. I told her I’d fly down here at the end of the month and…” And she asked if I could come sooner, right away. And there was something in her voice, even though she said she was all right. I should have known. “No,” Chelsea said at last. “No, my sister didn’t kill herself.”
“It could have been an accidental overdose, ma’am. Maybe she didn’t realize how much—”
“She wasn’t suicidal, Ranger. And she wasn’t stupid, either.”
He nodded to the medical examiner, who slid the noisy drawer closed again. Then he touched Chelsea’s elbow as if to ease her out of the room, but she jerked away from the contact. She didn’t want any man laying a finger on her. Not now. Not ever.
“You’ll want these.” When she looked his way again, he was holding out a plastic zipper bag with a few items inside. “Her personal effects, ma’am.”
She blinked, not reaching for the bag. “Don’t you need to hold on to them… until the case is closed or— “
“The case is closed.”
For some reason, her gaze shifted to that drawer again. The one that held her sister on a cold metal table. God, how the hell had the Brennan women come to this? One left. Just one left.
“I want to make it perfectly clear,” he said slowly, as if speaking to someone who barely understood the language. He pushed the plastic bag into her hand and turned to start up the stairway, leaving Chelsea no choice but to follow. “There is absolutely no evidence that anyone else stuck that hypodermic into your sister’s belly.”
Her steps faltered, but she forced herself to continue up the stairs and outside through heavy metal doors. The rain fell harder now, ricocheting off the blacktopped parking lot and the shiny cars. The ranger’s black umbrella popped open and tilted over her head. No colors here, she thought dully. She’d stepped into a world of black and white. Night, and rain, and heat, and mist hovering low as a result of the other three. She smelled rain and exhaust. Cars passed on the streets of El Paso, their white headlights illuminating the gray building, then leaving it in darkness once more.
She didn’t have the strength to argue with the ranger. Not now. Not tonight. Seemed he wasn’t open to her input anyway. For now she only wanted one thing.
She turned to him beneath the sheltering dome of the umbrella, saw the rainwater streaming from its edges and the brim of his hat. “Where is the baby?”
The ranger blinked, his eyes going wider.
“When my sister ran off with that oversize cowboy a year ago, she was pregnant. Last week, when we talked, she told me she had a son. A six-month-old son. Ethan.” Her throat tightened a little when she said the name. But there were still no tears. There hadn’t been tears for Chelsea Brennan in twenty years. “Where is he?”
The ranger shook his head. “Ma’am, she was found in an alley outside town. No purse, no ID, and no sign of any baby.”
Chelsea’s heart pumped a little faster, a swell of panic rising from the pit of her stomach to engulf it.
“We only knew to call you because we found your name and address on a note in her pocket. We haven’t even been able to find out where she was living before she…” He lowered his head, shook it slowly.
“I don’t know where she was living, either. She didn’t say, when she called.” Chelsea pushed her hair off her forehead, closed her eyes. “I didn’t even know she was in Texas before that.”
“Do you know the name of the man she left New York with?”
Chelsea frowned at the mention of the bastard. “I saw him once, from the window of my apartment. A big guy in a cowboy hat. Michele never talked about him. I imagine she thought I’d disapprove.”
“Why would she think that?”
“But you don’t know that for sure.”
“I’m as sure as I have to be.”
For just a moment, he searched her face, then he sighed as if at a loss and started walking again toward her rental car. She kept pace.
“I imagine the child is with his father,” he said after a moment.
“With his mother’s killer, you mean.”
“Ma’am, there’s no—”
“Evidence. I know.” Chelsea took the keys from her pocket, but then forgot what it was she was supposed to be doing with them and just stared at them in her open palm. “If he didn’t have anything to do with this,” she said softly, maybe more to herself than to the ranger beside her, “then where is he? Why hasn’t he reported her missing? Why isn’t he the one here ident
ifying her body?”
He took the keys from her hand, unlocked the car and opened the door, all the while keeping that damned funereal umbrella over her head. “Could be they parted on bad terms,” he said as he straightened away from the door to let her in. “Could be any number of things besides murder.”
“Could be,” she said. “But isn’t.”
“Why are you so sure?”
Chelsea slid behind the wheel and took the keys he held out to her. “Family tradition,” she said, and closed the door. When she pulled away, the ranger still stood there in the rain, staring after her.
She didn’t get far before the nausea hit her. Pulling into a dilapidated convenience store’s parking lot, she managed to make it to a rest room before she lost control. But her heaving stomach couldn’t produce anything anyway. She hadn’t eaten since she’d had the call from the Texas Rangers, asking her if she had a sister, describing her, telling her to come down and identify the body.
She collapsed on the dirty tiled floor, her guts tied up in knots. If she could break down in rivers of tears, it might take the edge off. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t cry. Sometimes she thought she and Michele had used up all their tears that night when their father had finally hit their mother one too many times.
Years of abuse. Years of the two of them watching it, too young and afraid to do anything to stop it. Though Chelsea had wished a million times she had done something. She wished she’d murdered that bastard in his sleep. She wished she hadn’t always cried when her father hit her because maybe then her mother wouldn’t have always stepped in. Always deflected the bastard’s anger—away from her daughters and onto herself. Chelsea should have killed him. Maybe Mom would still be alive. Maybe Michele wouldn’t have grown up to repeat the same damned cycle.
To Chelsea, it seemed as if the men of this world had it in for the Brennan women. Which was why she’d long ago decided never to have anything to do with any of them. She’d die a virgin and of old age, not at an angry man’s hand. And never again, no matter what else she might face, would she let another person take her place in battle. Any battle.
Like the battle she was facing right now.
Stiffening her resolve, Chelsea gripped the stall door and pulled herself to her feet. Her throat burned, and she reached into her coat pocket for a cough drop, only to encounter the plastic bag that was all she had left of her sister. Clenching her teeth, she pulled it out, opened it and emptied its meager contents into her palm. There was her sister’s high school ring. A pair of cheap metal earrings with gold-colored paint. And a locket on a thin silver chain.
Chelsea dropped the other items back into her pocket, letting the bag fall to the floor. She held the locket in trembling hands. It had belonged to her grandmother, Alice. Mamma had given it to Michele after one of their father’s violent episodes. She’d given the matching earrings to Chelsea. She’d done that a lot. Given them gifts. As if she could ease their pain with baubles.
Chelsea opened the locket.
“Ethan,” she whispered, and she ran the pad of her thumb over that innocent face. “I’ll find you, baby. I promise. I’ll find you.”
And then she turned the locket over. There was a tiny compartment in the back. You’d never know it was there unless someone showed it to you, the way their mother had shown it to Michele and Chelsea. And as she pried at it, Chelsea wondered if maybe she’d find a photo of the man who’d murdered her sister and taken her nephew. Maybe she’d have something to go on, some jumping-off point in her search for her sister’s child.
Blinking rapidly, Chelsea succeeded in opening the tiny compartment, then gasped as a small, folded slip of paper fell to the floor. She dropped to her knees to retrieve it.
Her hands shook so badly she could barely unfold the thing without tearing it, but when she did, she almost sagged in relief at what she saw there. A name, and an address.
There was no doubt in Chelsea’s mind that it was the name of the bastard who was responsible for her sister’s death. And no doubt that when she found the scum, she’d find her nephew, as well.
Men had all but wiped out the Brennan women. First Mom, and then Michele. Chelsea stood straighter and lifted her chin. Well, it was high time one of the Brennan women fought back. And she was the only one left to do it. She’d taken all she could take. All those years of impotence against her father…well, it was over. She wasn’t a helpless little girl anymore, and the rage she’d stored up back then would be all she’d need to keep her going now. Just long enough to unleash it on a worthless, abusive pig.
When she got through with the man whose name Michele had written here, he was going to wish he’d never been born. And if she had any doubts that this man had fathered her sister’s child, they were erased as she reread the name.
Garrett Ethan Brand.
Someone tapped on the rest room door. “You all right in there, ma’am?”
“Fine. Just a minute.” Chelsea took a moment to snap the locket closed again, then fastened the chain around her own neck. She dropped the note into her pocket and turned to open the door.
The young woman who’d pointed the rest room out to her lingered outside.
“Sorry I took so long,” Chelsea said, stepping out of the rest room into the main part of the little store again.
The clerk looked worried as she surveyed Chelsea. Only then did Chelsea wonder about her appearance. Glancing down at herself, she saw the dirt smudged on her skirt and the runs in her nylons. No doubt her hair was wild, too, with the humidity and the rain.
“I was just gettin’ worried, is all,” the woman said. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes. Fine. Listen, do you have road maps in here?”
“Sure,” the clerk said, looking relieved, maybe because the need for a map indicated the wild-looking woman in her store was headed out of town. “Where you going?” As she asked, she went to the counter to thumb through a rack of road maps, her back to Chelsea.
“To a ranch called the Texas Brand in the town of Quinn,” Chelsea replied. Silently, she added, to make one Garrett Ethan Brand sorry he ever heard the name Brennan.