Rita Herron.

Last Kiss Goodbye






Why did you come back?

He stepped closer, so close she could smell the scent of his soap, combined with something more woodsy, all primal male. Why do you think?

A muscle ticked in his jaw as he waited for her reply. But she couldnt find her voice.

I came to see you, he finally said.

Me? Her voice quivered. But why?

He lifted his hand and twirled a strand of her hair around his finger. Tension radiated from every pore in his body, the heat between them igniting a mixture of fear and excitement inside her. He looked so lost and angry. So alone.

The way shed felt so many times.

His pain drew her. Suddenly she wanted to assure him that life wasnt all evil.

A bold and sexy look flared in his eyes. Hunger. Lust. The urgent need of a man to take what he wanted.

She backed away, frightened by the potency of that desire. Half wanting it. Half terrified of the desperate need that accompanied it.

Ive been waiting a long time for us to meet so you could explain why you didnt tell everyone what happened that night. Why you let them put me in prison when you knew I was innocent.

Rita Herron
Last Kiss Goodbye


Dear Reader,

Having grown up in the rural South, where local legends, folklore and superstitions abound, add flavor to small-town life and make the town come alive, I developed an affinity for using those elements in my own storytelling.

There are also Southern scenes that paint such vivid parts of rural life in my mind that I had to use those, as well. For example, the trailer parks (mobile home parks) where some of my own family live. The junkyards sprinkled throughout the countryside where old cars, buses, trucks are left, their parts sold off. And of course, the kudzu vines that grow out of control and take over the dilapidated barns and rotting wooden houses.

In this latest romantic suspense, Last Kiss Goodbye, I tried to paint those pictures for you by way of the legends and myths in the fictitious small town of Kudzu Hollow, Georgia.

When I first began, one thought stuck out in my mindI knew I wanted the heroine to have witnessed her parents murder when she was a child, and that the only thing she remembered about that horrific night was kissing her mother goodbye. That gave me my title.

Of course, for a Rita Herron heart-pounding romantic suspense story, I had to add a strong sense of family, emotional turmoil, murder and small-town secrets, along with a sizzling romance between two wounded souls who desperately need each other!

With this book, Ive also included guidelines for you and your book club (if you belong to one) to aid you in discussing the story and the metaphors Ive used.

I hope you enjoy!

Sincerely,


To George Scott, my favorite, fantastic booksellerthanks for all your support, and for helping to make my single-title romantic suspense debut, A BREATH AWAY, a success!

LAST KISS GOODBYE

CONTENTS

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

EPILOGUE

PROLOGUE

MOMMY! EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Ivy Stanton stared at the blood on her hands in horror.

There was so much of it. All over her. Her mother. The floor.

Ivy, Jesus, look what youve done! Her daddys gray eyes seared her like fire pokers. Outside the wind howled, rattling the windowpanes and metal of their trailer. The Christmas tree lights blinked, flashing a rainbow of colors across the room.

Shes dead, her daddy said, and its all your fault.

Ivy shook her head in denial, but he shoved her blood-soaked hands toward her face, and she started to cry. Then she looked down at the knife on the floor. And her mothers lifeless body sprawled across the carpet. Her pretty brown eyes stared up at the ceiling, icy now.

No! Her mama couldnt be dead. If Ivy just kissed her, shed wake up. Then shed smile and hug Ivy and tell her everything was going to be all right. That tomorrow theyd finish decorating the Christmas tree and wrap the presents.

Ivy pressed her lips against her mamas cheek, but it was so cold and stiff, she shivered.

Then her father yanked her up by the arm. Youre poison, Ivy. Youve ruined this family.

No! She struggled against him, but he shoved her so close to her mother, Ivy saw the whites of her mamas bulging eyes. Ivys stomach cramped, and she coughed, choking. All that blood. So red.

No, not red. The color faded. Just yucky brown.

Even the colored Christmas lights disappeared, turned to black dots before her eyes.

He snagged her hair and flung her backward. Pain exploded in her head as she hit the wall. She scrambled to her knees, tried to run toward the door, but he lunged after her, grabbed her ankle and twisted it so hard she thought she heard it snap. She cried out and kicked at his hands until she was free. A bolt of thunder jolted the trailer, shaking it as if a tornado was coming. Two of her mamas ceramic Santa Clauses crashed to the floor.

Ivy crawled across the glass, felt shards stab her palms. She had to save the Santas. Save them for when her mama came back.

Her daddy reached for her again. No. No time to get the glass Santas. She had to escape.

She grabbed the cloth Santa instead, the new one her mama had just sewed from felt scraps. Clutching it, Ivy vaulted up and out the trailer door. Her ankle throbbed as she hobbled down the wooden steps and darted toward the junkyard. Her father chased her, his screech echoing over the wind. Tree limbs reached like claws above her in the shadows. Lightning flashed in jagged patterns.

It was dark, and she could barely see. She tripped over a tire rim. A stabbing pain shot through her ankle and leg, and she had to heave for air. But she forced herself up, fighting the wind. It was so strong it hurled her forward. Rain began to splatter down, mud squishing inside her sneakers. Behind her, her father shouted a curse. His bad knee slowed him down.

Her chest ached as she dashed through the rows of broken-down cars. Ones people didnt want anymore.

Just like her daddy didnt want her.

Hed told her so dozens of times.

Ivys legs gave way again, and she collapsed on the soggy ground. The Santa flew from her hands. Mud soaked her clothes, splashed her face.

Then someone grabbed her from behind.

Flailing, she yelled and kicked.

Stop fighting me, dammit.

He released her, and she scrambled away on her knees. It wasnt her father. Bad-boy Matt Mahoney was standing in the shadows. He stood motionless, his chin jutting up, a pair of ragged jeans hanging off his hips. He was soaked with rain and smelled like car grease. And he was so muscular and big he could stomp her into the ground. His black eyes tracked her as if she was an ant he wanted to kill.

Dammit to hell, Ivy. He launched forward with one giant step, picked her up, then the Santa, and carried her toward a rusty van. Kudzu vines covered the roof and dangled over the windows, blocking all light.

Ivy shuddered. It was pitch-black. She knew the nasty things men did to women in the dark. Had heard her daddy and mama. And those other men from Red Row.

Knew what bad boys like Matt wanted.

He opened the door, then shoved her on the bench seat in the back. With one hand, he untied the bandanna from around his head and wiped at the blood on her mouth. She couldnt breathe. He was going to choke her just like the kudzu choked the wildflowers in the yard.

Suddenly he yanked a knife from his pocket. The blade shimmered in the dark as he ripped away the front seat cover. His expression changed as he gently spread it over her. Then he pushed the cloth Santa back into her hands. Shh, no one can see you in here, he murmured softly. Its a good place to hide. Rest now, little Ivy.

She searched his big black eyes. She knew what he saw. She was covered in mud and leaves and blood. A bad girl just like her daddy said.

She willed away the memory. Told herself it wasnt true. Her mama hadnt died. She would come back tomorrow. Glue the Santas together. Pick Ivy up and kiss her again. And this time her mamas lips would be warm.

Ivys head spun, and the bloody red color faded to brown again. She didnt want to remember. To see the red. Not ever again.

No, she had to forget.

She closed her eyes, dragging the makeshift blanket over her head to shut out the night and the grisly images.

CHAPTER ONE

Fifteen years later

DONT GO BACK to Kudzu Hollow, Ivy. Please. Im begging you, its too dangerous. Theres nothing but evil and death in that town.

Ivy squeezed her adopted mothers hand, then bent to kiss her cheek, her cool leathery skin reminding her of the time shed kissed her birth mother goodbye.

The day shed died.

In fact that kiss was the last thing Ivy remembered about that horrible night. That and the terrified cries echoing in her head. Her mothers. Her own. She couldnt be sure which. Or maybe it was both, all mingled together, haunting her in the night.

Miss Nellie wheezed, cutting into Ivys morbid thoughts. Her adopted mother was close to death now, too. Shed suddenly taken ill a few days ago, and had gone downhill fast. She claimed shed made peace with her maker, but Ivy wasnt so sure. Sometimes she saw doubt, worry, secrets in Miss Nellies eyes. Secrets the woman refused to share.

Secrets that told her Miss Nellie had a dark side.

I have to go back, Miss Nellie, she said in a low whisper. IIve been having nightmares. Panic attacks. And sometimes I see images from the past in the night, monsters that cant be real. Cries and whispers of death. Screams of ghosts and spirits crying out for salvation. And Im lost in the middle.

Miss Nellies hand trembled as she lifted it to brush a strand of hair from Ivys cheek. Forget about the past, dear. You have to let it go.

How can I? Fading sunlight dappled the patchwork quilt in gold and created a halo around Miss Nellies face. Ivy stood and faced the bedroom window, the scents of illness and dust surrounding her. She hated to lose Miss Nellie, but the elderly woman had looked so pale and her cheeks were sallow. The doctors werent certain what had caused her illness, but theyd said she wouldnt make it another week, much less to Christmas.

Christmasthe Santas

Ivy shuddered and fought against the fear that gnawed at her at the thought of the upcoming holidays, with all the twinkling lights, festive ornaments and decorations. Snowmen and reindeer, and of course, the Santas. Those Santas were the only thing she had left of her mother. Dozens of them. Soft ones sculpted from fine red-and-white velvet, with tiny black boots and belts and long cottony beards. Crystal and homemade crafted Santas with glass eyes and painted smiles. Wooden ones carved from bark and painted in a folk art style. Ivy kept them boxed up, though, couldnt bear to look at them.

Just as she couldnt look at Miss Nellie now. Shed always felt Miss Nellie held something back, some part of herself she kept at a distance from Ivy. She knew it had to do with Nellie losing her own son when he was small, but her foster mother refused to talk about him or even show Ivy pictures.

A sob built in Ivys throat. Miss Nellie was all she had. Another reason she wanted answers. When Miss Nellie passed, shed take her secrets with her to the grave. Just as Ivys parents had.

And Miss Nellie had secrets.

Please tell me what you meant in the journal, Miss Nellie. How did you come to get me?

That journal was private, you shouldnt have been snooping. Miss Nellie clammed up abruptly, her thin lips pinched and almost blue as she turned her head away.

I didnt mean to snoop, Miss Nellie, but I need to know.

All that matters is that God wanted me to raise you. And I got you out of Kudzu Hollow. That town is tainted, I tell you, Miss Nellie warned. Theres evil there. I knew it when I lived there. And Ive seen the papers, heard stories on the news over the years. Ever since your folks was murdered, bad things have been happening. Livestock and animals attacking one another. Children dying before their time. Folks rising from the grave. Men becoming animals. Teenagers turning against their folks that raised them.

Miss Nellie was superstitious. It was the way of the people of Appalachia. But Ivy couldnt argue. Shed seen the stories, too, had read the papers. Every few years, always after a bout of bad thunderstorms and rain, the entire town seemed to go crazy. Crime spiked to a high. There had been several killings.

Even more odd was the fact that very few people ever left the townalive, anyway. And the ones whod lost loved ones seemed trapped by the old legends. Either that or they were held there by the spirits of the dead, who supposedly roamed the graveyard on the side of the mountain.

No town or person is all bad, Ivy said, clinging to her optimistic nature. There has to be some good there, too.

Miss Nellies expression softened slightly. Youre so naive, Ivy. You always try to find good in everything. But there aint no good there. Just ghosts and the devil. The old woman coughed and reached for her oxygen mask, inhaled a deep breath, then continued in a wheezing voice. I used to hear the children chant when they were skipping rope.

Evil in the kudzu

devil in the men

Death in the hollow

again and again.

And its true. People are afraid to stay. Afraid to leave.

Ivy shivered. Shed been so afraid to return.

But those old fears were keeping her from having a sane life. From being with a man. From loving.

Even the colors hadnt returned. The fall leaves outside had already started changing, but all she would see were brown and hints of yellow. There was no red. Even oranges appeared a muddy color.

She crossed the room to Miss Nellies bed and sat down beside her in the hard wooden chair. If you dont want me to go back, then tell me the truth about the night my parents died.

Miss Nellies face turned ashen. The only thing you need to know is that they locked up the killer. None of them Mahoney boys were ever any account.

Ivy bit her bottom lip, her stomach knotting. Matt Mahoney hadnt been all bad. She wasnt sure how she knew that, but she did.

So why had everyone been so quick to blame him? Shed written him letters to find out, but hed never responded. And six months ago, shed drummed up enough courage to drive to the prison to hear his side, but hed refused her visit.

The past few months, the local paper had featured articles on a lawyer named Willis who was writing a book on old cases and corruption in small-town politics. Hed managed to clear prisoners whod been falsely arrested, citing new evidence based on advances in DNA testing. He was working on Matts case now.

What if theyd convicted the wrong man for her parents murders? Matt had been sixteen at the time. Why would he have killed her folks? That question had haunted her for years now.

That and the fact that if he was innocent, Matt had spent fifteen years in jail for a crime he hadnt committed.

All because shed been too much of a coward to remember the events of that night.

Six weeks later

MATT MAHONEY HAD SPENT the last fifteen years in jail for a murder he hadnt committed. And someone was going to pay for the way hed been wronged.

Thank God Abram Willis had taken an interest in his case. Willis had chosen to devote half of his practice to cold case files, to the Innocents, as he referred to them. Men and women falsely imprisoned.

And hed been digging into Matts case for months now. Today would tell if hed been successful.

Matt glanced at the lawyer and hoped hed presented the case effectively, that hed crossed all his ts and dotted all the is. The judge had reviewed the evidence and called them to reconvene for his decision.

Willis fidgeted with his tie, then adjusted his wire-rims. The damn lawyer looked as nervous as Matt felt. Except Matts future was on the line here.

What was left of it.

The bailiff called the court to order, and the judge slammed down the gavel, then cleared his throat. Tufts of white hair stood up on the back of his balding head, making him look almost approachable. But his lack of expression during the hours Willis had presented the case made Matt wonder. And the steady gaze that he settled on Matt at that moment added to the mounting tension in the courtroom. Matt glanced at the sunlight streaming through the window, aching to step outside and bask in it. This judge was the only thing standing between him and freedom. He could almost taste the fresh air, smell the grass and leaves, feel the heat beating on his face and back.

But if he didnt win today, he would go back inside.

Back to the dismal existence and that damn cell block that had become his life.

The judge cleared his throat. After studying the evidence collected fifteen years ago, and after reviewing the current DNA evidence supplied, the court agrees that a mistake was made in this case. Im ruling to overturn your conviction. His expression turned grave. The court offers its deepest apologies to you, Mr. Mahoney, but also issues you a warning. Were trying to right a wrong here today. Remember that, and dont use your incarceration as an excuse to make trouble.

Matt exhaled slowly, the burning ache of disbelief rolling through him. Had he really heard the judge correctly? After all this time, was he ruling in Matts favor?

You are free to go, Mr. Mahoney. With the courts regrets, of course.

He pounded the gavel, ending the session, and Willis jumped up and slapped Matt on the back in congratulations. A deputy stepped forward and removed the ankle bracelet. Matt stood immobile, breathless, as the metal fell away. He couldnt believe it. He was free. Free to walk out the door for the first time in fifteen years. Free to go anywhere he wanted without a guard breathing down his shoulder, without handcuffs and chains around his ankles. Free to go to bed at night without another man watching him, or worrying that he might never live to see freedom.

But if the judge thought hed righted the wrong just by releasing him, he was a damn idiot.

Matt had lost fifteen years of his life.

And someone had to answer for that. The town of Kudzu Hollow. Ivy Stanton.

And the person responsible for the Stanton slayings. The real killer had to be punished this time. And Matt would make certain that happened.

Even if it killed him.

I KNOW YOURE STILL grieving over Miss Nellies death, Ivy, George Riddon said. And I want to help you if youd let me.

Ivy stared at her partner at Southern Scrapbooks, the magazine shed birthed with the help of her own savings and Georges funding, and bit her lip. Shed thought George had stopped by her house to talk business. But so far, his visit had seemed personal. Hed been pushing her to date him for months now, had hinted that he wanted more.

Much more than she could give.

Im sorry, George, but its just too soon.

He slid his hands around her arms and held her still when she would have walked away. Listen, I want you, Ivy. Ive been patient, but a man can only wait so long. We would be really good together. All you need to do is give us a chance.

She froze, the note of anger in his voice spiking her own. No one is asking you to wait.

A fierce look flashed in his hazel eyes. Eyes before that had always been kind and businesslike. What are you saying? That you wont everthat you cant see me that way? Is it my age?

No, of course not. Youre not that much older than me. Ivy simply couldnt see any man that way. She wished she could.

Sometimes she was so lonely.

He released her abruptly and snapped open the September layout shed completed on Southern romantic rendezvous. Look at all these places. Maybe if we took a trip together we could kindle the fire between us.

She glanced down at the rows of pictures shed scrapbooked for the magazine. Idyllic, charming bed-and-breakfasts in the mountains, the Grand Ole Opry Hotel in Nashville, a cozy inn on the river in New Orleans, the Chattanooga Choo-choo. A deep sadness washed over her. When shed photographed and finished the layout, she had imagined herself there, walking hand in hand with a lover, making love as the river rushed over rocks nearby. She longed for a companion in life. But as much as shed tried, she couldnt imagine that person as George.

Please just let it go. She sighed. I have too much on my mind right now.

His jaw tightened as he ran a hand over his sandy-blond beard. Im beginning to think youre a cold fish. That you use your past as an excuse so you wont have to get close to anyone.

Ivy glared at him. Granted, she hadnt made a lot of friends, but she wasnt a cold fish. She needed order to keep the demons at bay. The endless patterns of her day, the routines, the sameness kept her sane and safe.

Get up at seven. Shower. Go to the office. Hit the gym after work for a three-mile run around the track to help her sleep at night. Dinner. Reading. Tea. Bed. Then start it all over the next day, a vicious circle where she was never moving forward, just in a circle like the track.





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