LEAD THE WAY

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Summary

In the heat of one white-hot Southern summer, Melody James will learn to let go, fight back, and let love lead the way. Fresh off the high of college graduation, Melody James is back in her Podunk town. She needs a job, but first, she’ll spend a lazy summer with no agenda at all. But life’s got other plans, ones she’d sooner ignore. When the next-door neighbor passes away, his son returns home to take care of his affairs. Thane Cohen hasn’t been home in ten years. The last time he was, someone accused him of murdering Melody’s parents. Now, after efforts to recover his self-worth and start a construction company, Thane wonders if enough time has passed for him to clear his once good name. At the time of the murders, Melody was the only person who didn’t believe Thane was responsible. But how could she even suggest otherwise when just about everyone in town was convinced of Thane’s guilt? Her brothers would never allow it. With nothing to lose before, Thane packed up and left, leaving the town and Melody behind. Now that he’s back, rekindling an old flame in Melody and proving his innocence are critical. When windshields get broken and fires start unexpectedly, the world inside their town is tossed upside down. With Melody’s brother against her, and Thane fighting every attempt she makes at breaking down his walls, Melody’s push for answers leads to a deadly conclusion.

Status:
Complete
Chapters:
32
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
18+

Chapter 1

Chapter One

Melody

Melody must have been high when she decided to move from her dorm room back to her childhood home in the dead of summer. Louisiana gave no shits when it came to the weather. For her to give a smudge of clouds, a slight breeze, or a cool shady tree was like asking a fire hydrant to grow a patch of grass to accommodate the neighborhood dogs. It was sweaty armpits and tangled hair for everyone in Woodland County.

She hiked the last box that had packed down her little Mazda higher onto her hip and wiped her brow with the back of her free hand. “I can’t take this anymore. It’s hotter than Satan’s balls out here.”

Jackson, her oldest brother, cut his eyes at her. “Real classy, Mel. Why don’t you let the neighbors know about it while you’re at it?”

Her other brother, Hayden, slapped her back, and she fumbled to hold the box tighter. “What did you expect? You have to have class to be classy.”

He dodged her attempt at a kick in the butt. “I’m sure Mr. Cohen doesn’t care, anyway.” She tried to kick him again but noticed Jackson and Hayden give each other quick looks. It wasn’t like Mr. Cohen, being crippled, could get up to eavesdrop at the door.

She watched their exchange carefully. Despite the age difference, she’d been close to her brothers growing up, and reading their facial expressions had become a necessity.

Whether it be to dodge a tickle attack when she was little or a bucket of water in the morning before school.

As sad as it sounded, the bonding had started when she was ten after the murder of their parents. Since neither of their parents had siblings, Jackson had stepped up and become the parent. It hadn’t been too hard on them financially because their parents had a will in case anything ever happened to them. Their dad owned a small logging company that Jackson took over when he died, and it kept the family comfortable.

Emotionally, of course, it had been damaging. That had been twelve years before, but Melody was sure they’d never be one hundred percent healed. The police had never found their killer. Jackson had taken it hard, doing everything he could for years to find out, with no luck. He’d then poured himself into their father’s business to distract his mind from not having closure. There was no break for the newly orphaned James kids.

Hayden ran a heavy hand through his sweaty, chocolate hair that they’d gotten from their dad. Their mother’s hair had been almost as white as snow. Melody had loved it growing up; she reminded her of a princess. “Mr. Cohen passed two days ago.”

“Oh, God. How?” she asked.

Jackson looked over toward Mr. Cohen’s house and gestured them toward their own. “Come on, let’s go inside.”

Melody hurried up the stairs behind them. “So, what happened? And why are you whispering? It’s not like he can hear you from the grave.”

Jackson took the box from her and walked toward the kitchen where he set it on the island counter. “Y’all want a water?”

“Yeah,” Hayden said.

Narrowing her gaze, she zeroed in on Jackson. “Spit it out.”

“He had a heart attack, Mel.”

“Poor Mr. Cohen,” she whispered. “But that doesn’t explain all the dread on your face right now.”

“It’s not. Thane is back in town.” Jackson slid her water across the island counter, but she missed it, her mind wandering a million light years away.

Thane Cohen.

“In town as in next door?” she asked, bending down to pick up the bottle, her voice softer than she meant.

Jackson looked at her worriedly. “Yeah, but nothing’s gonna happen.”

Thane had been the black sheep of their town, the guy everyone loved to hate. When Jackson spent years trying to figure out who murdered their parents, Thane’s name came up a lot. They were shot at the movie theater in town on a quiet Wednesday night. No witnesses.

Several people had claimed Thane was in on it, but there was no evidence. He’d been questioned and released. It drove Jackson to the brink of becoming crazy. He’d wanted to sell the house and move, but the will stopped him. It had been in their family for decades, along with the twenty-five acres it sat on.

“Hey,” Hayden said, placing his palm on her shoulder.

“You okay?”

She nodded, opened her water bottle, and downed it. She needed a distraction from speaking. Words seemed far away at the moment.

“Don’t worry,” Jackson said. “He’ll only be here for the funeral, most likely. He won’t step foot over here. I’ll kill ’em if he does.”

She knew the hatred that grew in Jackson’s gut because it had once grown in her own, but hers had settled. Moving away for college gave her a peace of mind. Jackson and Hayden never had that.

Though Thane had moved when he turned eighteen due to the rumor mill churning against him, the reminder was always next door. Her brothers never took it out on Mr. Cohen, at least. He wasn’t responsible for what his son did—or supposedly did.

“I’ll switch rooms with you if you want,” Hayden said. Melody leaned against the counter behind her, ankles crossed. Hayden had pulled his shirt off, swiping it across his forehead. None of the local boys would ever dream of messing with the James brothers. They’d been in plenty of fights with out-of-towners after football games. Her brothers were corn- fed, but she knew one person who wasn’t scared of them.

Never had been.

Once when she was younger, she’d gotten stuck in a tree that teetered over into the Cohens’ backyard from theirs.

She’d yelled for help, but both parents had been gone, and her brothers had been watching TV in their room. Thane flew out their back door a few moments later.

She’d only been eight at the time, which made him almost eighteen. She had memories of him speeding out of his driveway on numerous occasions with his window rolled down and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

But it didn’t stop her heart from skipping a beat as he helped her down from the tree. “You don’t need to be over here, Hoss,” he drawled.

Melody had looked up into his dark blue eyes, trying to understand why everyone thought he was so bad. She hadn’t seen it. All she had seen was sadness.

Jackson sped out of the house moments later, hopped the fence, and got in Thane’s face. There had been words exchanged, but nothing happened. She could see how fearless he was standing toe-to-toe with her brother, a wild look in those beautiful, sad eyes, until Mr. Cohen came out to break up the fight.

“Hello?” Hayden said, breaking her daze. “Do you want to sleep in my room?”

She shook her head. “No, I’ll be fine. Y’all be in the house.”

Jackson wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Actually, I’ve been taking over some of the night shifts at the shop. One of our guys is out with pneumonia.” Melody tried to force a smile at Jackson. He worked most days at the shop, keeping up with payroll and schedules. If he didn’t start taking care of himself, he’d look like a fifty-year-old man before he hit thirty.

“I’ll be here, though,” Hayden said.

Jackson rolled his eyes and tossed his empty water bottle at him. “You sleep like a rock. Maybe we should get us a dog.”

She sighed. “I’ll be fine, guys. I’m gonna start some pork chops and then unpack my things.”

“I’ve got to head up to the garage and help Cody with his truck. I’ll be back by dinner,” Hayden said.

The door shut behind Hayden, leaving Jackson and her alone in the kitchen. She tried not to look too concerned about Thane being next door because Jackson would worry himself sick about it. She poured the soup into the crockpot, placed it on low, and began to season the meat. “It’s good to have you back.”

“It’s good to be back.”

Jackson pressed his palm against her shoulder, drawing her attention. She stared into his green eyes that mirrored her own. He had crow’s-feet around the corner of each eye, and when he smiled it added age to him. “I’m off tonight, but I have to do some work at the church in a bit. Will you be okay by yourself?”

“I’m twenty-two. I’m sure I can manage.”

He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “Not what I meant, Mel. Lock the doors, and do not open it for anybody. Hayden and I will call or text when we pull up, so you’ll know it’s us. Do not open the door.”

“Jackson,” she said, placing the lid on the pot. “I’m fine. Supper is cookin’, and I’ve got boxes and boxes to unpack.”

“Okay, but call me if you need me.”

She locked the door behind him and jogged upstairs. Her room hadn’t changed since she’d left for college when she was nineteen. An Eminem cutout still stood in the corner of her room beside her tiny closet. The teal comforter and sheets needed to be washed because she knew her brothers hadn’t touched them in years. She pulled both off, wrapped them into a bear hug, and looked around the small space. It was smaller than her unusually spacey dorm room.

The small, flimsy desk she had in the corner was bare of any books, but she had a box full to unload. She gave the space another once-over before she went downstairs to the laundry room.

***

Several hours later, Train blasted from her phone speakers as she walked around the kitchen, finishing up the mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables.

She was sure it had been a while since her brothers had a decent meal. Cooking was always her thing growing up. Jackson took care of everything else—laundry, bills, carpool, football games, cheer practice. He’d been their rock through it all. She could at least make sure he had a nice home cooked meal when he got back. And Hayden ... Hayden had been her laid-back brother since Melody could remember.

Turning the crockpot to warm, she walked back upstairs to put her comforter and sheets back on her bed. Her tiny bedroom faced the Cohens’ house and Thane’s room. He’d moved out before she was old enough to want to spy on him or realize he would have been one devilishly handsome distraction.

Slowly, she made her way toward her dust-ridden curtains and pulled them back. His bedroom light was off, but he’d left the curtains open. Part of her had always been curious about Thane growing up. Even after talk of him having something to do with her parents’ death. Granted, then it had been more to demand knowledge of what happened.

Her brothers were bound and determined the rumors were true. She wasn’t sure. Their little Louisiana town was known for gossip spreading like wildfire.

Her doubt in believing the rumors had come from looking into his eyes that one day. Sadness rested in those too-blue eyes. Not anger. Not rage.

A shadow crossed his window drawing her closer to her own. The light brightened the room, and she stood staring at him. The expression on his face was detached, his body tensed. She couldn’t see his eyes from across the space, but his heavy brow and parted mouth looked bedroom worthy. By his tousled hair and tank top, she figured he’d just woken up.

Thane stretched his arms above his head, his T-shirt pulling up to show the flat planes of his stomach. Good Lord have mercy those muscles were gorgeous. His gaze dropped as he lowered his arms from his stretch.

She jerked backward behind her wall and screwed her eyes shut. Damn it.

Crouching down, she crawled toward her doorway across the room. “Oh, my Lord, Melody,” she whispered.

She stumbled to her feet, running her fingers through her dark hair and pulling nervously at the hem of her cutoffs.

Cheese and crackers why did I have to be so awkward? The living room window revealed an old pickup truck in Mr. Cohen’s driveway, which explained his appearance and made her sad. She hadn’t seen anyone visit since she’d been home. The man had just passed a couple days before.

It would have been the neighborly thing to do to bring food. “I can go over there,” she mumbled. Her cell phone clock read 4:45, and Jackson wouldn’t make it home until five. “Bring him some food and give him my condolences.

"Tell him I’m sorry for staring?” she said to no one again.

Her momma would have taken food over there regardless of the situation. She had been a kind soul that Melody had always wanted to be like.

“If I hurry, Jackson will never know,” she whispered. Rushing before she lost her nerve, she grabbed a mason jar and filled it with sweet tea before piling a plate with porkchops, vegetables, cornbread, and mashed potatoes. Nerves rattled against her ribcage as she walked out of their house and toward his.

The sun was still up but had started its descent toward the hills in the distance. Their road was a pretty quiet one. Not too close to town, but not in the country per se. Both houses sat on quite a bit of land, and a nearby wooded area gave them privacy city life lacked. She’d missed that at college.

Her heartbeat was so loud in her head she had a hard time concentrating. Fear brushed against her skin, raising goosebumps despite the heat. Melody placed the mason jar on the porch and tapped his front door several times before picking the jar back up. Sweat trickled down her chest toward her flimsy tank top. I should have changed clothes; I’ve been moving all day.

The door swung open, sending a blast of cool air to rush her. Thane looked the same, but different, older. Was it possible for him to be even more handsome than before?

She felt a blush curl around her cheeks, sending fire down to her toes. Yep, those haunted eyes were even bluer and harder around the edges. It explained the fear most people had for him because it made him look dangerous. But all she could see was pain.

Large work boots filled his doorway, his frayed jeans tucked into the tops. Slender hips held them up, fitting him like a glove. A white t-shirt embraced his broad shoulders, tightening around the curve of his biceps. Her eyes found his—again—and her nerves skyrocketed. The same blue eyes stared down at her, unmoving, but so alive. He leaned forward, his right hand hugged the top of the door frame.

The woodsy smell of his skin invaded her world. The other hand roughly ran through his raven hair. Carefully, he eyed her from her unpolished toenails in her flip-flops, up her legs to her short cutoffs, and finally passed her dampened tank top to her eyes.

She should have changed clothes because he seemed to slowly drink her in. Maybe it was her imagination, but she thought he liked looking at her. Leisurely, he lifted a brow.

Right, she did knock on his door.

“I’m sorry about your dad,” she said. Thane stared at her intently but gave her no indication of what he thought.

“Thank you,” he finally said.

Another awkward silence poured over them, and before she could think twice, she blurted out, “I wasn’t watching you earlier!”

Thane licked his lower lip and tilted his head to the side.

“No one said you were.”

That was true. Clearing her throat, Melody shook her head. “Sorry. I—I didn’t want you to think I was a creepy neighbor or something.”

He rolled the toothpick that hung from his teeth to the other side of his full mouth. His eyes lowered to the food in her hands, and she willed her mouth to speak. Give it to him.

Say something, Melody.

“Is that for me?” he finally asked.

She nodded. “Yes. I hope you like it.”

Thane grabbed the food, his fingers skimming hers sending liquid fire to scorch her soul. A charge circled her from the inside out, threatening to suffocate her. He pulled his rough fingertips back quickly.

There was a second of something on his face, but it disappeared just as quickly. Melody assumed he didn’t think she’d come over at all, and definitely not to give her condolences for his father. Not after the rumors. “It smells good. Thank you.”

“You—”

“Melody, get home.”

Melody turned quickly to see Jackson standing at the fencepost that separated their houses. There was a look of outrage on his face, and she was afraid he only had a loose grip on it. One balled fist hung at his side, and the other squeezed the fencepost. She hadn’t heard his truck pull up, and she was sure her raging heartbeat had drowned out everything other than Thane’s husky voice. She glanced at Thane to say something—

“Now.”

She clamped her mouth shut, turned around, and started across their yard. Butterflies prickled down her neck, over the curve of her bottom, and down to her toes. She could feel his eyes on her as she walked away. Despite Jackson standing close, she felt her hips swinging harder knowing he watched her. It felt dangerous, and nothing had even happened.

Jackson said something underneath his breath as she walked passed him, but it was too low to decipher. He kept on her heels the entire way inside, but she still felt Thane’s blue eyes on her until the door locked her in.

Melody turned toward Jackson; the fury on his face hung like cement, his scowl unmoving.

“Are you asking for it, Melody? What in the—were you doing over there?”

Placing her hand on her hip, she shifted her weight. “I felt bad, Jackson. No one had brought him any food. His daddy just died.”

Jackson let out a hysterical laugh. “Do you hear yourself right now? His dad died, Melody? Both of our parents died!”

“You don’t know that he did that, Jackson! You have no proof!”

He ran his palm down his face and nodded quickly. “You’re right,” he whispered. “I don’t know anything for certain. But I do know that man is no good. Never has been, never will be. Don’t let me catch you over there again. Understand me?”

“I’m an adult, Jackson. I don’t need to understand anything. I love you, you’re my brother, I respect the hell out of you for raising us, but I have my own thoughts. I don’t plan on having a slumber party with the man; I just felt bad for him because his father just passed.”

Jackson stared long and hard at her. He easily towered over her by six inches or so. The bags underneath his eyes made him look older than his twenty-eight years. Despite the tired look on his face, he was handsome. In a southern, down-to-earth way, like their daddy.

“You’re just like, Momma. So, forgiving—understanding.”

“Sometimes,” she said. “And then sometimes I want to pimp slap my brothers.”

Jackson shook his head. “Promise me you won’t talk to him, Melody.”

Melody frowned. That was not a promise she had room to make, but the sadness in Jackson’s eyes weighed heavily on her chest. “Okay.”

“Thank you. Now get your little butt to bed. I don’t have time for you.”

She smiled and walked upstairs to her room, locking the door behind her. Her curtains were still open from her encounter earlier, but Thane’s blinds were closed.

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