Harlequin.com FREE Online Read: Criminal Behavior by Barb Han
The weekend is here, so why not start your day with a little excitement? This free online read from Barb Han features a heroine returning to his hometown, heart-pounding suspense and an unforgettable romance!
Jillian Major fled Jacobstown years ago in order to save her life. So when she returns and Sheriff Zach McWilliams shows up to scare away a reported prowler on her property, Jillian is on pins and needles…in more ways than one. All-grown-up Zach sparks something in her she’s never felt for anyone else. Zach still can’t understand why the girl who meant everything to him once disappeared without a trace. But he soon discovers that there’s real danger lurking around every corner in Jillian’s home. And it’s not just her childhood fears come to life. Can lawman Zach keep Jillian safe and rekindle a romance that’s never died…or is it too late for a second chance at love?
Jillian Major walked through the front door of the old farmhouse where she grew up, thinking how much she missed this place. Her emotions surprised her because she’d spent the better part of the last decade trying to erase the small Texas town from her thoughts. Her uncle’s threats had been all she’d allowed herself to recall. Being here reminded her of the good times.
A knock at the door nearly scared the heck out of her. Uncle Leon had threatened to hurt her and everyone she loved if she came back to Jacobstown. Taking a breath to fortify herself, she tried to calm her rattled nerves. A quick peek through the curtain to check for a vehicle outside told her Leon wasn’t there. She blew out another breath as relief ratcheted her nerves down a notch.
Opening the door to find Zach McWilliams standing on the other side was more than a shock to the system. She should’ve realized it might be him and, from the looks of it, he’d found his true calling.
“What can I do for you, Sheriff?” Her words came out stiffer than she’d planned. Her back was ramrod straight. Tension pinched her shoulder muscles tighter at seeing him again. She watched as his jaw clenched. He’d always had that chiseled jawline women talked about as being the be-all and end-all in hotness. She wouldn’t argue the point. Chiseled looked good on Zach. It was one of his many attractive features. She stomped her foot. It was a childish move, and she very much needed to remind herself she was no longer a kid who’d just kissed her middle-school crush on a dare.
“I got a call about this address—”
“Oh. Right. No one has been living here for the past six weeks while my mom’s been in rehab. I’m here to help her settle in.” She’d been by the other day to oversee the chairlift installation so that her mother could access her room on the second floor, and again this morning for the company’s inspector before bringing her mother home this afternoon.
Jillian had waited until the absolute last minute to take leave from her job in Tennessee. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see her mother. That wasn’t the problem. She’d taken her uncle’s threats seriously. And then there was Zach.
His cell buzzed. As he checked the screen, her gaze flew to his ring finger. There was no band or tan line, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t married or didn’t have a significant other.
“Does that mean you’re planning to stay awhile?” he asked.
“Not any longer than I absolutely have to.” Her jaw spasmed, reminding her she was grinding her back teeth again. All the deep breaths in the world couldn’t prepare her for being in this house or standing face-to-face with Zach McWilliams again.
He seemed taken aback by her honesty. As frustrating as it was, he looked even better than before. Tall and muscled with serious, penetrating eyes that seemed able to see right through people. She ignored the sensual shivers racing up her arms at being in close proximity to Zach again. He’d always had that effect on her. One that made her want to stand closer on a cold day to be near his warmth.
When she looked up again, she caught him studying her.
“Are you okay? Really?” There was a hint of compassion in his voice—a voice that still sent tingles skittering across her skin.
“No.” She blew out a breath and her shoulders deflated. “I guess. As good as I can be considering my mother’s health.”
“I’d heard you might be coming back to help her out.” He paused for a beat. “Wasn’t sure if you’d ever set foot in this town again.”
“We all have our crosses to bear, right?” Her attempt to come off as flippant failed miserably.
“I guess.” He shrugged, like he was trying to deflect pain. “You always did hang on to past hurt.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” She didn’t intend to come across as defensive as she had. Her voice reflected her emotions just like it always did.
“Remember in sixth grade when Little Bill swiped your favorite markers?” She must’ve shot him a look because he immediately defended his comment. “I’m not saying it was right. I’m just saying you didn’t speak to him for years after he apologized.”
His family was charmed. What could he possibly know about what really happened in Jacobstown? The badge only got him so far into people’s personal lives. Most secrets in a town like this stayed buried. One of the many reasons she didn’t belong here.
“You want me to defend my actions from middle school?” She’d blame them on overwrought preteen hormones, but Zach knew her well enough to call her on it. Did she hang on to past hurt? Yes. Holding tight to her pain reminded her of why it was a good idea to keep everyone and everything at arm’s length. It helped her put a protective barrier around her and the rest of the world, because if a family member like her uncle could hurt her to the degree he did she could only imagine what the rest of the world could do.
An involuntary shiver rocketed through her when Zach gave her a look that said he didn’t want her defending anything. Being back caused bad memories to resurface. She’d do anything to get out of Jacobstown a second time, except risk worsening her mother’s condition.
The uncle who’d terrorized Jillian as a young child might be long gone, but the memories were burned into her mind.
Seeing Zach McWilliams again, all grown-up and take-her-breath-away good-looking, stirred feelings Jillian didn’t want or need. Keeping people at a distance made her feel safe. And yet, everything about the town’s capable sheriff made her suddenly want more than safe.
Zach McWilliams rubbed his hand down his face. He couldn’t believe this conversation with Jillian was going downhill so fast. Normally, a call like the one that had come in from her neighbor would have ended with him trying to locate a wild animal like a coyote that had turned up somewhere it shouldn’t. It hadn’t been the same here since the Jacobstown Hacker had struck and everyone was on high alert.
A woman who shared the same first name as Jillian and a similar last name had been murdered in Fort Worth recently and the strange coincidence had left him thinking about her ever since. They’d grown up together, been neighbors, and he still remembered their first innocent kiss even though it was fifth grade and on a dare.
In high school, Jillian had drifted away from him. He couldn’t help but wonder if she’d battled an unknown enemy. Getting her to open up to him, even as kids, had been impossible. If he was a decent investigator today it was to her credit. Not being able to help someone he cared about back then had left a huge impact on him and had driven his desire to do better. To give resolution and healing to those without a voice.
Jillian had been his first crush, his first love. He’d fallen for her the minute he’d seen her sitting on her front porch alone, looking like she needed a best friend. From that moment on, the pull toward her had only grown.
“The Monroe widow called. She thought she saw a prowler snooping around your house,” he explained. He was chasing a lot of these types of calls. False alarms were spreading his manpower thin. He’d taken this call personally because he’d made a promise to look after Jillian’s mother.
Jillian threw her arms up in the air and blew out a sharp breath. “I guess that would be me. It was getting dark and I was looking for the hose. Mom insisted that I water the plants on the front porch even though they died long before I got here.”
“Does this mean you’re moving home?” Zach surprised himself by how much he wanted to know the answer to the question. He glanced down at her ring finger and was relieved there was no band. He really was tripping down memory lane.
“I’m here temporarily.” The careful emphasis she placed on the last word brought up a few more questions that he wasn’t sure he had any right to ask. He’d heard Mrs. Major was ill. He’d been so preoccupied with finding and locking up the Jacobstown Hacker in recent weeks that he’d neglected to check on his favorite older citizens. Zach prided himself on providing a safe community where elder residents could live out the rest of their days without worrying about home invasions or crime. Hell of a job he’d been doing keeping criminals out of town when he feared that a budding serial killer walked among them.
He reminded himself it was too soon for that accusation. His years of experience and training told him it was only a matter of time before the person mutilating cow hooves moved on to people. So, yeah, he was taking every suspicious-person call seriously.
“Where is your mother?”
“Upstairs. I helped her to her room right before she refused to go to bed until I watered the plants. I tried to tell her it was no use. They were dead. At least her stubborn streak is still intact. She wasn’t having it.”
Zach shouldn’t quirk a smile. Mrs. Major had always been a firecracker. Part of him was relieved the spunk hadn’t drained from her.
“Mind if I check the perimeter anyway?”
Jillian made a show of holding out her hand, palm up, like she was presenting a new car. “Be my guest.”
A noise sounded from inside the house. It came from downstairs.
“Is there anyone else here at home with the two of you?” Zach’s gaze flew to the hallway leading to the kitchen.
“No.” Jillian gasped and her skin paled. She looked like she might be sick.
Want to know what happens next? Click here to read chapter 2!