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HARD CANDY by Jade Buchanan

Chapter One

She’d flown a thousand miles to confront the lies death had revealed. They left a bitter taste in Penny’s mouth even as she breathed deeply of the clean northern air coming in through her open car window.

She’d missed this. She hadn’t even realized that until she’d gotten off the plane in Missoula. Now she was almost home and she’d honestly never thought she’d be saying that again.

Bandit Creek hadn’t been her home in over a decade.

The cold finally got to her and she reluctantly raised the window before turning her attention back to the poorly illuminated mountain road. For a girl used to the bright lights of Houston, it was going to take her a while to get back into the feel of things.

It was a good thing Craig was willing to help her out.

As if on cue, the tinny sound of a man sing-songing “phone call, phone call.” erupted inside the small car.

Jumping, Penny laughed at herself. She fished her cell out of her purse. “Hey, Craig.”

“Are you here, yet?”

“I’m already in the rental car and about twenty minutes away.”

“Are you regretting not letting me pick you up?”

She could practically taste the mirth in his voice. “I’m fine, but it’s so dark I’m close to freaking out here.”

She breathed deeply, studying the road in front of her carefully. She probably shouldn’t be talking on the phone right now, but she wasn’t going all that fast. And besides, there was absolutely no one out here.

“You want me to talk to you for a bit?”

“My cell phone bill will probably hate me, but yeah, I need the company. There’s nothing out here but rocks and trees and water.”

“Seen any wildlife?”

Penny snorted. “Besides the man I saw at the airport?”

A sharp crack of laughter burst in her ear, exactly the reaction she’d been hoping for.

“He was a beast, was he? Did you rip his shirt off?”

“Craig Baxter!”

“That’s a no?” Craig’s voice was filled with mischief.

“Yes, I mean no, I didn’t rip his shirt off.”

“Why not?”

She shook her head. “I’m not answering that question.”

It was silent for a minute. She was content not to talk. It was comforting just having him on the line. Penny was grateful for the company, so to speak.

Craig cleared his throat. “So, just to let you know… Your Aunt Gertie phoned here yesterday. I swear I’m getting caller ID. The old biddy was in fine form.”

She wanted to slam her head down on the steering wheel. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, you’ll be paying me back for that one, Pens.”

“She’s still mad?” She sighed, fed up with her aunt’s interference.

“Mad doesn’t even begin to describe it. She’s threatening to erase your name from the family bible.”

“She can choke on that bible for all I care. Both her and my dad lied to me for years. I’m sorry she’s upset, but I had a right to know.”

“I’m not sorry. I told her right on the phone where she could put her precious bible. I don’t think she’s talking to either one of us now.”

She sighed gustily. “I’m sorry, Craig. I didn’t mean to drag you into this.”

“Stop that right now,” Craig said, firmly. “We stick together, you and me. To the end, you got that?”

“I got it.” It was surprising how much she wanted to rely on Craig. This wasn’t even his family causing him drama, but he never complained. Never backed down. She loved him for it.

Maybe, just maybe, she could finally figure out whether that love would be enough.

She’d once thought Craig was the one for her. Of course, that had been back in high school and a lot had changed since then. She’d moved away and they’d lost touch, but thanks to the modern miracle of social media they’d been talking for the past year almost non-stop. Every time she talked to him it was as if the years had faded and nothing else mattered. Then her dad had died. And then all of this had happened. The first person she’d turned to had been Craig. What did that mean?

She lived in Houston, so she wasn’t even sure anything could happen. He’d been hinting that she should come for a visit for a while now. She’d finally gotten up the nerve two months ago when she’d read the journal that had changed so much in her life. Craig had always been there for her. Maybe it was time to figure out what that meant for them.

Up ahead she saw the familiar turn-off for Bandit Creek. “I’ll let you go now. I’m almost there.”

“See you in a few.”

She wasn’t sure how she felt driving through Bandit Creek. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same apparently. All the old hangouts were still there. She took a drive down Main Street and there was Ma’s Kitchen, The Candy Store, and the Powderhorn Saloon. Was that a law office beside the saloon? Wow. She hadn’t seen that one coming.

Turning around, Penny drove back down Main and onto Walnut to Washington.

The school looked exactly the same as always and the nearby football field brought a lump to her throat.

So many memories. Tainted, now. Would she be able to look at anything here without wondering what really happened twelve years ago?

Driving over the bridge and approaching the edge of town, she squinted at the construction going on beside Craig’s place. What was that going to be?

She finally pulled into the drive and stopped before a long, stretched-out bungalow.

Craig had bought his parent’s home when they moved to Missoula a few years back and, judging from the outside, he hadn’t changed a thing. It was the same as it had always been, and the feeling of coming home nearly brought tears to her eyes. A rectangular log cabin that faced the road, it had been the site of many late-night movie marathons when she’d been a teenager.

She inhaled deeply as she stepped out of the low-slung rental car. The front door banged open, and a man was silhouetted in the opening.

“Well, as I live and breathe. Pissy pants Penny has finally come home.”

Penny sent a mock-glare toward Craig. She didn’t even have to see his face to know he wore a shit-eating grin. His achingly familiar lope had Craig standing in front of her within seconds. Damn, he looked good.

Finally letting loose a chuckle, Penny shook her head. “You’re cruising for a bruising.”

“Geez. What are we? Back in high school?” Craig engulfed her in his arms, holding her close.

Penny ducked her head and held him just as tight. “Kindergarten, apparently, if you’re going to call me pissy pants.”

“Hmm. You should probably pull my hair then and go crying to the teacher.”

“Don’t tempt me, Craigory.”

They finally pulled back and just looked at each other. He had the same short dark hair and meltingly sweet chocolate eyes. That little mole at the corner of his right eyebrow…she wanted to run her tongue over it, see if he shivered in the same lost way he used to when they were younger. He was stunning in just a simple jeans and tee with his feet bare.

Penny hesitated for a moment, before deciding to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. She lifted her chin, leaning toward Craig. He accepted her silent invitation, taking her lips in a bruising kiss that spoke of barely leashed restraint.

She moaned, tightening her arms and squeezing him closer. With a last, lingering kiss, she drew back and just stared at him.

Craig lifted a hand and brushed the backs of his fingers over her left cheek. “Missed you, Penny.”

“Missed you, too.”

“Are you here to stay?”

Penny shook her head. “Don’t ask me that. Not yet.”

He let out a rueful grin. With a shrug, Craig backed away and rounded the car to grab her suitcase.

“You know I’m going to just have to ask again.” He started for the house, waving her to follow him.

He was incorrigible. Always had been. “You haven’t changed.”

“Baby, I’ve changed in more ways that you can see.”

“No, you haven’t. I’ve seen your Facebook profile, remember? And we talk on the phone practically every day.”

“For all you know, I could be a deranged serial killer and just doing a really good job of hiding it.”

She froze as she entered the house. A shiver traced down her spine, causing her to hug her arms.

“Shit.” He was suddenly in front of her again. “I’m sorry, Penny Candy. I didn’t mean to say that.”

“It’s okay. Better that we have it out in the open, right? I mean, you wouldn’t be the first person in my life to hide their killer tendencies.”

“Pens, don’t do this.” He put her suitcase down.

She shook off his hold. “That’s why I’m here, isn’t it? To find out if my dad really did kill my mom?”