Published by Harlequin on September 1st 2015
A renegade cop seeks justice in the hot new Cold Case Detectives series...
After his daughter's brutal murder, former NYPD detective Kadin Tandy opens Wyoming's Dark Alley Investigations to bring violent criminals to justice. Romance is the last thing on the sexy PI's troubled mind. That is, until feisty ad exec Penny Darden asks for his help. Now he's investigating her estranged boyfriend's frightening link to a murder. And despite her relationship status, Penny's fierce independence and frank flirtation revive Kadin's damaged heart. But as an untraceable killer closes in on them, the more harrowing the stakes--and the closer they become. At risk are their lives...and their best shot at love...
Praise for Jennifer Morey
“Morey’s nonstop action-packed plot and intriguing characters create a compelling story.” –RT Book Reviews
“There is gripping suspense in every Jennifer Morey story.” – Cataromance
“Thanks to strong storytelling and smooth pacing, readers will be hooked.” – RT Book Reviews
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Penny Darden saw the old, rickety barn through the arch of tree branches and cold nostalgia gripped her. She stopped walking. Tall wildflowers swayed down the center of the curving one-lane dirt road. Beautiful. Picturesque. But full of a secret past.
Growing up on a Midwestern farm, Penny hadn’t escaped fast enough to city life. Metropolitan bike paths and noisy, multilane highways were her thing now. The barn, with its lonely mystery of fading red paint and old, splintering fences, tapped into the girl who’d loved to explore wild, rolling hills and abandoned buildings. She’d long ago left that life—and the girl—behind.
Resuming her walk, she emerged from the trees and spotted a Colonial-style house that stood just as neglected as the barn, door and windows boarded up, just like the farmhouse of her childhood. After her mother sold the place, it had gone to disrepair. She hadn’t understood how lonely her childhood had been until her senior year in high school. That realization had driven her away from Midwestern life.
Jax hadn’t told her there were historic buildings on his property. Maybe half the source of her unwanted curiosity stemmed from that. Her boyfriend had said the only difference between his second home in this remote area of the Wasatch Mountains and his upscale apartment in Salt Lake City was the view. How wrong he’d been.
Reaching the double doors of the weathered barn, she lifted the heavy, awkward latch securing one of the doors and pushed.
Dust particles drifted through the newly disturbed air, sparkling in sunlight. The smell of old hay took her back in time. Old everything. Old wood. Old leather. Old hides. She used to love playing in hay, getting dirty all day and fighting her mother when told to take a shower.
A white pickup truck parked at the far end stopped her short. Partially hidden by stacked hay, it seemed so out of place. She walked to the clean, new vehicle and saw a dent in the driver’s-side door. Peering through the window, she noticed nothing odd except newness and cleanliness. Immaculate cleanliness. She tried the door handle. Locked.
What was a nice truck doing in an old barn like this? Had the previous owner left it? That didn’t seem likely. Why leave a vehicle that was worth something? Maybe the engine blew up. Walking to the front, she saw no plate. Nothing on the back, either. Someone had just dumped it here.
While that struck her as unusual, Penny supposed there must be an explanation. As she turned away, a tack room drew her back to her childhood again. She and her best friend had ridden horses almost every weekend. She fingered an old bridle and then brushed off the dirt that transferred to her skin. Some tools and a few other pieces of tack, all worn with age, kept her in the past until she caught sight of the truck again.
Who were the previous owners? Why had they sold? Had the homestead gone to shambles after the sale or had something happened to force them to leave? She didn’t know how long Jax had owned the place.
Penny walked outside, seeing just a portion of the truck before latching the door. She looked toward the boarded-up house and let another wave of lonely nostalgia sweep her before hiking back up the hill.
Her mother had sold their farm when Penny started college and she moved to an old house in town. Cheboy-gan. Thinking of her mom only intensified the loneliness that pressed into her.
When had she last seen her mother? Christmas? They hadn’t talked in a while. Penny had gotten so busy with her job, she’d even ignored her mother’s calls. She missed her, of course she missed her. She loved the difference between her life here and her mother’s back in that sleepy northern Michigan town.
At the top of the hill, she followed the dirt road along a white fence, feeling better now that she was out in the open with swaying wildflowers keeping her company. Still, the ties of her past tugged. Birds chirped and a mosquito buzzed in front of her face. She swatted that away, her trip to childhood vanishing. Time to go back to the city.
Reaching the end of the dirt road, she turned onto Jax’s paved driveway. His house came into view and she saw him standing on the porch, holding a cup of coffee. He looked much different in jeans and a flannel shirt than the pricey suits she usually saw him in at work. His close-cropped dark hair fit the businessman more than the mountain man. In fact, he didn’t strike her as a mountain man at all. His log home was modern, not rugged. His polish and sophistication and social appetite had attracted her when she’d first met him.
She smiled as she neared. “What a beautiful place.”
He didn’t return her smile. In fact, his reaction seemed off.
“Where have you been?” he asked with forced amenability.
She stepped up onto the porch, wary of his stiff demeanor, the affront in his keen brown eyes. Did he feel she’d taken liberties by exploring without him inviting her? How ridiculous. Why would he mind?
“I walk every morning,” she said.
“Why’d you go that way?” he asked, pointing in irritation. “There’s a path through the woods out back for hiking.”
“Oh.” She hadn’t noticed. “I saw the dirt road that skirts the edge of your property.” She turned to indicate the direction of the road. “You didn’t give me a tour, so… I hope you don’t mind.”
He smiled in a way that was more calculated than genuine. “My bad.”
Did that mean he did mind? Uncomfortable, she went inside. Walking through the mudroom, she went into the living room, catching sight of a digital photo frame cycling through thousands of pictures he had of him and his son. One passed of them in the mountains at a cabin, different than this one, which suggested they’d gone somewhere on a trip. It gave her something to look at other than him.
Jax followed her into the kitchen. “What did you find on your walk?”
Why was he so tense? And what did he think she’d find? That truck? She began to feel a need to get away from here, and then chided herself for overreacting.
Taking out a bottle of water, she let the refrigerator door close. “An old barn.”
He moved toward her, stopping a couple of feet from her. “Did you go inside? That building is pretty old. It isn’t safe.”
“No,” she lied, twisting the cap off the plastic bottle and taking a drink. “I saw the house boarded up and decided it’d be better to have company to go exploring.” She felt him assess her.
“I had it boarded up when I bought the property,” he said, seeming to relax a little. “The house needs too many repairs.”
“Is that why you built this one? How long ago was that?” she asked.
“A little over a year.”
The truck didn’t look as though it had been in the barn that long. Had Jax parked it there?
“I was going to make you breakfast in bed,” she said, trying to keep things light. “How about we have it out on your back patio instead?”
After several seconds, he murmured, “Sure. Next time you feel like exploring, take me with you, okay?” His dark eyes warned rather than showed concern. “It’s dangerous out there alone.”
Dangerous in what way? “I’m not a kid,” she said with a fake smile.
“I’m talking about the wildlife. And an abandoned house invites other predators.”
What did he mean by other predators? Him? Was he delivering a subtle threat? Maybe he didn’t trust that she hadn’t at least peeked into the barn. She began to feel as though she should make an excuse and leave. She’d never seen this side of him and, frankly, didn’t like it.
Not a woman to give in to fear, however, she met his calculating gaze without looking away. He was the first to break the tense moment. Grinning like the Jax she’d first met in a meeting at work, he pecked a kiss on her mouth.
“Breakfast in bed would have been nice,” he said softly. “I’m sorry I missed it.”
He seemed like himself again, but his reaction to her exploration lingered. She watched him go to the table and sit before his computer. When he lifted the top, she went about preparing a simple breakfast.
The television went to a news program just as the bacon was ready and the eggs were in a pan. Jax must have turned the TV on when he woke, something he did every morning to catch the weather segment. Right now he typed away on his laptop, working and oblivious to what was being said.
“Police are asking for anyone to come forward with any information in Sara Wolfe’s murder investigation. The eleven-year-old girl disappeared last month on her way home from school. Her body was found last week along the banks of a remote area of Cottonwood Creek,” the female anchorwoman said sadly.
While the woman went on to recap all that the police knew of the kidnapping, Penny went cold and still as she listened to the reporter say that a witness claimed to have seen a white pickup truck around the time school had been let out and the girl would have been walking home. The driver had stopped along the side of the road to talk to a young girl who fit Sara’s description. The witness hadn’t seen the girl’s abduction, but had noticed a dent on the driver’s-side door.
Dent on the side.
Was it possible?
She jumped as Jax appeared next to her. Just as she smelled something burning, he said, “The eggs.”
She faced the stove and pushed the smoking eggs off the burner. They were ruined.
“Something wrong?” Jax asked.
Maybe. Is that truck in the barn yours?
She glanced over at him. “That girl. The missing girl in the news?” She watched him perk up—in a suspicious way. “What happened to her is disturbing.”
“You’ve been following that story?”
She hoped he couldn’t see her pulse throbbing through the artery in her neck. Already she had to steady her breathing. He frightened her. No, her intuition frightened her. She could stand up to fear when it didn’t involve murder.
“Yes. Haven’t you?”
“No, not really.”
Penny furrowed her brow in confusion. Jax watched the news every morning. Hadn’t the story of a young girl’s disappearance and murder touched him? What kind of person wouldn’t be affected by such a tragedy?
“What do you say we go into town for breakfast?” he suggested.
“All right.” And then she’d head home. He really did scare her right now. His aloofness. His insensitivity to the Sara Wolfe murder. His odd demeanor.
He slipped his arms loosely around her waist. “Then we can come back and do some more exploring.”
Would he take her to the barn and the boarded up house? She highly doubted that, given his suspicious behavior.
Hoping to pull off an act, she patted his chest. “Actually this morning I remembered something I need to do for another project that’s due Monday. I need to get home and work on it.”
Back came his distrust. “You can do that tomorrow.”
She shook her head. “I need tonight and tomorrow.”
“Then you can work here. I’ll leave you alone.” He grinned. “Until tonight, that is. Quinten is going back home soon. You and I can have a romantic dinner together this evening.”
They hadn’t been dating all that long. Just a couple of weeks. She’d had reservations about going to his mountain house. Only his announcement that his son would join them had made her agree, that and his promise that she’d have her own room. Finding out Quinten would leave this morning sealed her decision to go home.
“Haven’t I been a perfect gentleman?” he asked, seeing her hesitation.
“Yes.” He had. But that no longer mattered.
“Then stay. I invited you here to meet my son and spend some time getting to know each other outside work.”
That might have appealed to her prior to making the connection between the truck in the barn and the missing girl. Now she just needed to get away.
“Last night was lovely. Your home is lovely. But my boss has been breathing down my neck lately. I have to get this job done on time.” She thought she sounded sincere.
“What’s he going to do? Fire you?” He smiled crookedly, falling for her pretense. “You’re his best ad executive. My brother will vouch for that.”
As CEO of Ballard’s Sporting Goods, Jax’s brother, Dane, did have significant influence. Jax, too, as president. Penny had met her boyfriend when she pitched her idea for their ad campaign. Handsome and driven, he’d attracted her from the start. She, apparently, had caught his eye for the same reason. They had a lot in common.
He’d been the one to tell her Ballard’s would hire Avenue One to do their advertising, a huge boost to her career.
Moving back, she eased out of his arms. “Ever since I delivered that Super Bowl ad, Dane’s expectations have been grandiose.”
“My brother counts on you, for good reason.” He brushed his finger down her nose.
Disliking the affectionate touch, she stepped back.
“Sorry, I just love your nose with those big, sexy green eyes of yours.” He chuckled. “I didn’t mean to treat you like a kid.”
A sick feeling plunged in her stomach. Why had he used the word kid?
Tucking her shoulder-length reddish-brown hair behind her ear, she said, “I’m going to go get ready.” Penny turned to head for the stairs.
“I’ll let you leave on one condition.”
Let her leave? Putting her hand on the railing, she looked back and couldn’t tell if he was joking.
“I get to come over Tuesday night and cook you dinner. Mondays are always a train wreck for me.”
She nodded even though she didn’t feel like it. “Deal.”
That seemed to placate him, to put to rest any concern that whatever Penny had discovered hadn’t spooked her away.
Going up the stairs, she ran into Quinten on the first landing, Jax’s six-foot tall, eighteen-year-old son. Quinten’s mother, only a teenager herself when he was born, had left him with Jax when she was fifteen. Jax had devoted his life to the boy and it showed. Quinten had grown into a well-mannered young man with aspirations to go far in college. She’d loved their conversation at dinner.
“Morning, Penny,” Quinten said with a sleepy smile livening his hazel eyes. He looked a lot like his father, except younger, of course, and with wilder hair.
She smiled back at him. “Morning.”
“My dad down here giving you a hard time?”
She laughed. “Not any more than I give him.”
He passed her on the way down. “He likes you.”
Not responding to that with anything more than an amicable look, she climbed the rest of the way up the stairs. She felt a bit of a kinship to the boy, growing up in a single-parent household like him. When she’d asked if he wanted to find his mother, he said no. She’d seen the love Jax had for him and it reminded her of how her mother loved her.
Would a man who’d raised a son like Quinten be capable of harming young girls? It didn’t seem likely. There had to be some explanation.
JENNIFER MOREY’S first stories were inspired by her childhood love of Man o’ War, Secretariat and The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. Bubbles of dialogue above cartoon drawings of horses led to hand-written tales of adolescent love. Years later, and two months after graduating from Colorado State University with a B.S. in geology, her mother died suddenly and the course of her life changed. The writer in her resurfaced, and she pursued a serious career. As Associate Project Manager for the Spacecraft Systems Segment of a satellite imagery and information company, Jennifer works with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. A finalist in more than 20 contests, Jennifer has received several awards for her writing, one of which led to the publication of her debut novel, The Secret Soldier.
Visit her at: http://www.jenniferamorey.com/
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