Authors: Delores Fossen
Tags: #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Romance, #Romantic Suspense, #Thriller, #Crime, #Suspense, #Western, #Adult, #Series Conclusion, #FBI Special Agent, #Justice, #Lawman, #Journalist, #Survival, #Relentless Killer, #Revelation, #Shocking
Don’t miss the gripping conclusion of
bestselling author Delores Fossen’s Sweetwater Ranch miniseries
The tip that sends FBI Special Agent Seth Calder to an abandoned warehouse in search of exonerating evidence brings him face-to-face with a familiar adversary. Thorn-in-his-side journalist Shelby Braddock is on her own search for the truth about a decades-old crime. Until they stumble on a crime scene…and end up fighting for their lives. Now, their only hope of survival is to work together. But something even more dangerous is drawing Seth closer to the gorgeous brunette. As he gives in to a passion so strong it can erase the sins of the past, he must evade a relentless killer…and confront a shocking revelation no one could have predicted.
Seth had seen hard emotions in her eyes before, but this was a storm of a different kind.
A storm that he was going to have to stop before Shelby made up her mind to do something stupid.
So, he leaned in and kissed her.
A smart man would have come up with something a whole lot better, but Seth suddenly wasn’t feeling very smart in that department. Heck, maybe he just wanted to kiss her. And it seemed to work. Shelby stopped talking about a deadly showdown and slipped right into his arms.
It obviously wasn’t the first time Seth had kissed her, but like the other times, he felt that kick of surprise. Surprise that anyone could taste this good. Or feel this way in his arms.
Because kissing Shelby wasn’t doing a thing to help them out of their dangerous situation.
bestselling author, has sold over fifty novels with millions of copies of her books in print worldwide. She’s received the Booksellers’ Best Award and the RT Reviewers’ Choice Best Book Award, and was a finalist for a prestigious RITA® Award. You can contact the author through her webpage at
Books by Delores Fossen
Cowboy Behind the Badge
A Lawman’s Justice
The Lawmen of Silver Creek Ranch
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CAST OF CHARACTERS
FBI agent Seth Calder—
This cowboy-agent wants to clear his stepmother of murder charges, but his investigation leads him to old secrets, new lies and a dangerous attraction to the woman he considers his enemy.
An investigative reporter whose search for the truth puts her on a collision course with Seth and with a killer who wants to silence her.
Shelby’s father, who was murdered twenty-three years ago, but who really killed him?
Seth’s stepmother. She’s in jail awaiting trial for Whitt’s murder. All the evidence points to her, but Jewell’s not talking.
Jewell’s ex-husband who had his own motive for wanting Whitt dead.
A former FBI agent who hates Shelby because of some articles she’s written about him.
Whitt’s former lover. Once she saw Shelby as an ally in her quest for justice, but is Annette everything that she seems to be?
Special Agent Seth Calder slipped his gun from his shoulder holster and stepped from his truck. He eased the door shut so the sound wouldn’t alert anyone.
If there was anyone around to alert, that was.
The criminal informant who’d called him an hour earlier had said there was talk about some kind of evidence here. The CI didn’t know exactly what the evidence was, but it was in an abandoned warehouse on Miller Road just outside the ranching town of Sweetwater Springs. Seth was already familiar with the warehouse, since the FBI had had it under surveillance a few months back.
Because it’d been a holding facility for a black market baby ring.
Just the thought of it put a knot in Seth’s gut. The FBI and local cops had shut down the black market ring, had made plenty of arrests, too, but maybe something inside would lead to yet more arrests.
Or, God forbid, even more missing babies.
That was why Seth had gotten out here as fast as he could.
The gray metal building showed no signs of life, though. No trees within a hundred yards. And no other buildings were nearby. Just a huge concrete parking lot with weeds poking up through the cracks.
Using slow, cautious steps, Seth started toward the building but came to a quick stop when he heard an engine. The road wasn’t exactly on the beaten path, so he waited and watched as the dark blue car came around the curve.
The driver hit the brakes.
Seth took a closer look. Then he cursed. What the devil was
He intended to find out.
No one had ever accused him of having a friendly face when he was on the job, and Seth put on his best scowl when he walked toward Shelby Braddock’s car. She didn’t wait for him to reach her. She stepped out, her movements jerky and hurried, and she matched him scowl for scowl.
To say they were enemies would be like saying the ocean had a bit of water in it.
Shelby started toward him, the May breeze flying through her dark brown hair. “Why are you here?” she snapped.
here?” Seth snapped right back.
And they stood there, both glaring and waiting for the other to answer first. To remind her that he was the one in charge here, Seth tapped his badge clipped to his belt.
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re pulling the FBI card on me? Well, it won’t work. I’m not leaving here until I have some answers.”
Seth didn’t normally have it in for investigative reporters. On occasion a few actually had helped the FBI with active cases. But he had it in for this particular one. Shelby was a thorn in his thorn-riddled side.
“Exactly what kind of answers are you hoping to get here?” he asked. And yeah, it sounded like an interrogation question that he would aim at a hostile suspect.
“Obviously the same answers you’re hoping to get.”
Seth’s scowl got worse. They had another staring match before Shelby huffed.
“I got an anonymous call, all right?” she grumbled finally. “The person said there was evidence here connected to your stepmother’s trial, and I wanted to find out if that was true.”
Well, hell. Seth hadn’t expected
answer. But it was true that his stepmother, Jewell, was just three days away from standing trial. For murder.
That didn’t help his churning stomach, either.
Jewell had been charged with killing her alleged lover twenty-three years ago. It’d taken all these years for the arrest to happen, and one of the main reasons for Jewell’s arrest was standing right in front of him.
She’d written dozens of scathing articles about what she called a police cover-up, and the articles had caught the eye of the new prosecutor, who’d reopened the case. The evidence had been retested, new evidence found.
And the new evidence all had pointed to his mother being a killer.
Seth was 1000 percent sure Jewell was innocent, but so far he’d had zero luck proving it.
Until now, that was. Maybe this was the break he needed if there was indeed something in the building.
“What kind of evidence?” Seth demanded.
Shelby lifted her hands, palms up. “That’s what I’m here to find out. Now, why are you here?”
Seth debated whether he should tell her, but there was no logical reason why she shouldn’t know, though he could think of a few petty ones. He decided to put the pettiness aside. For now. “I got a call from a CI who said there was possibly some evidence inside. I thought it might be connected to the black market baby ring.”
Her eyes widened. And Seth knew why. Both of them had received calls. His CI was as trustworthy as a criminal informant could be. Which meant the guy could be swayed by a buck or two. And Shelby’s contact had been anonymous. Yet the calls had brought them here together with the lure of something they both wanted—evidence.
That couldn’t be good.
“You should leave now,” Seth told her, and he turned to head back to the warehouse.
Of course, she didn’t leave. Shelby trailed right along behind him. “But what if there really is something inside connected to the murder investigation?” she asked.
“Then, I’ll find it and turn it over to the authorities.”
She huffed. Again, he knew why. Shelby likely thought he wouldn’t want to add any more nails to his stepmother’s coffin. But if he did indeed find something, he wouldn’t suppress it. Because if Jewell was truly innocent—and Seth had to believe she was—then the total package of evidence would exonerate her.
Seth had to hope that.
“This could be dangerous,” he reminded her.
He hadn’t figured that would get her running, and he was right. It didn’t. He’d read some of the articles she’d done, and Shelby wasn’t a runner. She did all sorts of risky, stupid things to get a story.
Except this wasn’t just about a story.
Because Jewell had been accused of murdering Shelby’s father, Whitt.
That made this personal for both of them, and even though it wouldn’t stop him from looking inside the warehouse, Seth knew it was never a good idea to mix personal stuff with business.
“I’m not leaving,” Shelby insisted.
Seth wanted to roll his eyes. “Then, at least stay behind me in case something goes wrong.”
Of course, she didn’t do that, either. Shelby got in step along beside him. So close that he caught her scent.
was the right word.
It was some kind of shampoo mixed with something natural. Something that reminded him that Shelby was a woman and not merely a neck he’d sometimes like to wring.
Seth decided to ignore her and her scent so he could get on with his job. The sooner he did that, the sooner he could figure out if there was something to find and then get the heck out of there.
The front door to the warehouse was wide-open, but Seth didn’t go there. Instead, he went to one of the windows that dotted the exterior. The glass was filmy and cracked, but he looked inside. Then he cursed under his breath.
It was too dark to see anything.
That meant going inside without the benefit of knowing if someone was lurking there, ready to attack.
“If someone shoots at us,” Seth snarled, “at least show some common sense and get down so you don’t get your head blown off.”
He hadn’t meant that to scare her. Okay, he had. But as with his other attempts, she didn’t scare this time. Shelby was right on his heels when he stepped into the doorway. Seth braced himself for whatever might happen, but nothing did.
He stood there a moment so his eyes could adjust to the darkness, and then he had a look around. It was basically just one giant room with what appeared to be an office on his left and an exit straight ahead. There was another room with its door closed on the right side of the building.
Boxes and other debris were scattered around, and the place smelled like a giant dust ball. Roaches skittered across the floor. It’d been more than six months since it’d been used to house the black market babies, and it was obvious no one had cleaned it since then.
He stepped inside the building. Bracketing his shooting wrist with his other hand, he pivoted in all directions.
And no sounds to indicate anyone else was inside.
Seth didn’t let down his guard, though. He kept his gun ready and went to the office door. What was left of it anyway. It was hanging on just one hinge, and it squeaked and swayed a little when he moved past it.
Creepy, but no one was in the office.
Behind him he heard Shelby fumbling around, and she pulled a penlight from her back jeans’ pocket. Seth took out his as well, and they clicked them on at the same time.
“If you find anything, don’t touch it,” Seth warned her.
She made a “duh” sound and fanned the light over the ceiling, then the floor. Seth didn’t see anything suspicious, but the dozen or so boxes could have something in them. He went in the direction of the nearest one, aiming his flashlight on the floor in front of him.
And he came to a dead stop.
Oh, no. Not that.
He stooped down, garnering Shelby’s attention because she hurried over to him. Seth moved the light closer so he could get a better look.
There was a plate-size area of shiny liquid on the concrete floor.
“Is that blood?” Shelby asked.
Seth didn’t touch it, but it sure looked like blood to him. And it was fresh at that, with no dry spots even around the edges. He wasn’t sure exactly how long it took a pool of blood that big to start drying in a hot building, but he didn’t think it was hours.
More likely, minutes.
He stood, practically snapping to attention, and had another look around. Seth still didn’t see anyone. Especially not someone with an injury serious enough to cause that kind of blood loss. However, a few of those boxes were large enough for someone to hide behind.
Seth kept watch around them, and he took out his phone so he could hand it to Shelby. “Call 9-1-1 and request officers on the scene.”
Thankfully, she did it without hesitation or arguing. The dispatcher would direct the call to the Sweetwater Springs sheriff’s office. To Seth’s stepbrother, Sheriff Cooper McKinnon. And while Seth and he weren’t exactly on friendly terms, he knew Cooper would do his job and get out here fast. This was likely a crime scene, and it needed to be processed.
And maybe more.
Maybe someone here needed medical attention. First, though, Seth had to find out where that someone was.
He fanned the light over the floor again. More blood. Big drops that looked as if they’d splattered from at least a few feet of distance. The drops didn’t lead to the first box, but he checked it out anyway.
So he moved on, following the blood trail. Past all the boxes and the trash. The trail stopped right outside the room with the closed door.
Of course it did.
This couldn’t be easy. That closed door could conceal the very person responsible for that blood loss. Or someone who was dying. Either way, Seth had to check it out.
He looked back at Shelby. “This would be a good time for you to go back to your car and wait for Cooper.”
Her chin came up, and even with just the dim light, he saw the resolve in her eyes.
Seth could have arrested her and gotten her butt out of there. But that would take time and it’d mean a trip back to town. He really just wanted to see if anything was behind the door. Anything to do with the black market baby ring. Or his stepmother.
“Okay,” Seth told Shelby when she didn’t budge. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Seth put his flashlight away to free up his hand, and he opened the door. It was pitch-black because the light from the windows didn’t reach back there. Shelby did something about that. She turned her flashlight into the room.
And she gasped.
“Hell,” Seth cursed.
They’d found the source of the blood, all right.
There was a mattress, the sheets stark white except for the dark red stains. And there in the center was a body. A male wearing only a pair of boxer shorts. The guy wasn’t moving, and his skin was as white as the sheets.
Shelby was still holding up her flashlight, and Seth took her wrist to turn the light into the four corners of the room. No one was lurking there. So he aimed the light on the mattress. It was flat on the floor, so no one was beneath it, but he checked around all sides. As far as he could tell, no one was there.
“Don’t go in the room,” Seth ordered when Shelby started to move. “It’s a crime scene.”
And this time Shelby actually listened to him. A miracle. But she did keep her flashlight aimed at the body.
“What’s that on his face?” she asked.
Since there were no indications that anyone was about to jump out at him, Seth took out his own flashlight again and leaned in closer, putting himself between Shelby and the body. He soon saw the probable cause of death.
Multiple stab wounds to the chest.
It was hard to count how many because of the blood, but there were plenty of them. Seth aimed the light on the dead guy’s head, and his heart slammed against his chest.
“What’s that on his face?” Shelby repeated, moving to the side so she could no doubt see better.
“A paper mask,” Seth answered.
It looked as if someone had enlarged a photo and then cut it out to create an image to cover the dead man’s face.
“A mask?” Shelby leaned in. And she gasped again. “That’s a picture of my father.”
Yeah, it was. Whitt Braddock. The very man Seth’s mother was accused of murdering.
“Oh, God,” Shelby mumbled, and she just kept saying it. “Who’d do such a sick thing?”
Seth had to shake his head. He had no idea.
He wanted to take off the mask to see who was behind it, but he couldn’t compromise any evidence that might be there. Shelby and he had perhaps compromised enough just by going inside the building. However, when he’d gotten that call from the CI, the last thing he’d expected was to find a dead body.
Seth backed up, trying to follow the same path that he’d used to get into the room so he would disturb as little of the area as possible. He bumped into Shelby, who wasn’t moving. She seemed frozen. Her gaze was fixed on the body, and her mouth was trembling. She’d only been seven or eight years old when her dad had died, but this had to bring back what bad memories she had.