Authors: Rita Herron
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Suspense, #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE
Two officers’ badges—and hearts—are on the line in Rita
Cold Case at Carlton’s Canyon
Sergeant Justin Thorpe has dedicated his life to justice and
won’t stop until he finds the vicious serial killer who has already claimed ten
innocent lives. He works solo—until he joins forces with Sheriff Amanda Blair.
The Texas Ranger can’t let his desire for his coworker keep him from his
mission, especially when Amanda’s life is threatened.
Ten girls have vanished—one for every year since Amanda
graduated from Canyon High. And as she tries to fight her attraction to a man as
independent as she is, a trap is being laid to make Amanda the final victim in a
killer’s terrifying endgame.…
“But just so you know, I don’t mix business with pleasure.”
He hadn’t asked her to.
She shot him a fiery look. “I may be a woman, but I can do my job.”
“I never said you couldn’t,” Justin said.
“Good, I’m glad we got that out of the way.”
He had to admit he was intrigued by her spunk. Obviously she’d battled her way up against men in her field who probably thought she was incompetent based on her sex.
Either that or they were sidetracked by her good looks.
He wouldn’t make that mistake.
And he certainly couldn’t or wouldn’t allow her pretty little face to distract him. He was here to solve the case of the missing girls.
Nothing else mattered.
Especially the little zing of lightning that had sizzled between them when he’d brushed her hand earlier.
COLD CASE AT
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Award-winning author Rita Herron wrote her first book when
she was twelve, but didn’t think real people grew up to be writers. Now she
writes so she doesn’t have to get a
former kindergarten teacher and workshop leader, she traded storytelling to kids
for writing romance, and now she writes romantic comedies and romantic suspense.
She lives in Georgia with her own romance hero and three kids. She loves to hear
from readers, so please write her at P.O. Box 921225, Norcross, GA 30092-1225,
or visit her website,
Books by Rita Herron
918—RETURN TO FALCON
957—FORCE OF THE
977—JUSTICE FOR A RANGER
1006—ANYTHING FOR HIS
1029—UP IN FLAMES‡
1043—UNDER HIS SKIN‡
1081—BENEATH THE BADGE
1174—HIS SECRET CHRISTMAS
1251—BRANDISHING A CROWN
1290—HER STOLEN SONΏ
1329—COWBOY IN THE EXTREME**
1336—COWBOY TO THE
1463—COLD CASE AT CAMDEN
1468—COLD CASE AT CARLTON’S CANYON
§§Guardian Angel Investigations
Investigations: Lost and Found
**Bucking Bronc Lodge
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Sheriff Amanda Blair—
She must accept help from Texas Ranger Justin Thorpe to solve a cold case involving a string of women’s disappearances; only, she can’t give her heart to the man.
Sergeant Justin Thorpe—
He’s in Sunset Mesa to solve a murder, not to get involved with the sexy sheriff. But when Amanda becomes a target, he will risk his life to protect her.
Is her disappearance connected to the string of other missing women?
Did he hurt Kelly because she’d decided to cancel the wedding?
Kelly’s former boyfriend wanted her back; did he kill her because she turned him down?
Did she kill Kelly to get her out of the way so she could have Raymond?
He was paralyzed in an accident ten years ago; does he have a grudge against the women who abandoned him after the accident?
Has Donald’s father been exacting revenge against the women himself the past ten years?
She had emotional problems in high school and was also a target of bullying. Has she returned to the town for the high school reunion to make her former classmates pay?
His brother Carlton committed suicide ten years ago because the popular teens bullied him. Has Ted been making women disappear out of revenge for his brother?
Carlton’s mother was devastated over her son’s death; does she have a vendetta against Amanda and the other women?
To my own hero, Lee
—love you always,
Kelly Lambert did not want to die.
But the kind person who’d offered to give her a ride when her car broke down outside Sunset Mesa, the person she’d thought had saved her from walking late at night on a deserted road, had turned into a maniac.
A rancid breath bathed Kelly’s cheek, and her stomach roiled.
“Please...” she begged.
Her words died as fingers tightened the belt around her throat. Rocks skittered beneath her feet as her attacker dragged her nearer the edge of the canyon and forced her to look at the rocky terrain below.
Hundreds of feet loomed between her and the ground. Even if she managed to land on the level part between the jagged rocks, the impact of the fall would kill her.
“That’s where you belong,” the crazed voice murmured. “Mean girls like you deserve to die.”
“No, please stop,” she gasped. “Why are you doing this to me?”
A pair of rage-filled eyes glittered back at her. “You know why.”
Kelly’s lungs strained for air as the leather dug into her throat.
But she didn’t know. Didn’t know why this person wanted her dead. Why anyone would want her dead.
Her attacker shoved her closer to the edge. Kelly’s legs dangled over the canyon like a rag doll’s.
She struggled again, desperate to escape, but whatever drug she’d been given had made her too weak. Fighting back was impossible. She couldn’t move her hands, couldn’t lift her arms, couldn’t kick at all.
Tears streamed down her cheeks as the fingers dug deeper into her throat.
Her attacker’s bitter laugh echoed through the canyon, and Kelly gagged.
Her life flashed in front of her like a series of movie clips. Her mother braiding her hair before she’d died. Easter egg hunts, Christmases, proms and dance lessons.
High school boyfriends and college parties and...her upcoming wedding...
She had her dress picked out. The flowers...roses...the bridal shower she was supposed to have today.
And the honeymoon...a honeymoon she would never get to have.
Panic seized her, and pain knifed through her chest as the belt crushed her windpipe. Nausea mingled with terror and her head spun.
Then the lush green of spring faded into black as death came for her.
Sergeant Justin Thorpe was a loner. Always had been. Always would be.
It was the very reason he was good at his job. No entanglements to tie him down or distract him.
He stared at the decomposed body of the girl floating in Camden Creek, trepidation knotting his gut.
He had a hunch this was one of the girls who’d disappeared from Sunset Mesa, although the medical examiner would have his work cut out to identify what was left of her. Other girls who’d gone missing from various counties across Texas were possibly connected, as well.
Too many girls.
At first no one had connected the disappearances, but Justin had noted that the women went missing in the spring, and that one fact had raised a red flag in his mind.
So far though he hadn’t found any other connection. But he would. He just needed time.
Dr. Sagebrush, the ME who’d also worked a case in Camden Creek involving a serious bus crash that had killed several teenagers a few years back, stooped down to study the body as two crime techs eased it onto the creek bank.
Thick trees shaded the area so the ME shone a flashlight over the corpse while crime techs searched the water and embankment with their own.
A tangled web of hair floated around the young woman’s mud-streaked face, bones poked through the already decaying skin and there were bruises, scratches and teeth marks from animals that had picked at her marred body.
She was still clothed, her thin T-shirt torn and tattered, her jeans full of holes and layered in dirt.
The CSU team snapped pictures while Dr. Sagebrush adjusted his glasses and examined her.
“How long do you think she’s been dead?” Justin asked.
“Hard to say yet,” Dr. Sagebrush replied. “The temperature of the water could have slowed down decomp, but I’d guess a while. Maybe a couple of months.”
Two young women had disappeared within that time frame.
Justin eyed the creek, scanning the terrain up and downstream with his flashlight. “You think she was dumped in the creek or floated in from the river?”
“Don’t know.” Dr. Sagebrush shrugged, his eyes narrowed as he pushed strands of wet hair away from the girl’s face. “Look at this.” The ME pointed to the bruises on her neck.
“She was strangled,” Justin said, frowning at the angry, inch-wide red lines cutting into the woman’s throat. “Looks like the killer used a belt.”
Dr. Sagebrush nodded. “Probably the cause of death, but I can’t say for sure till I get her on the table. If there’s water in her lungs, she might have been alive when she was dumped.”
Justin’s stomach knotted as an image of the girl fighting for her last breath flashed in his eyes. The current in this part of the creek was strong, the rocks jagged. Kayakers and raft guides trained on the wider, rougher sections as practice for the river. If she was alive, she’d probably been too weak to fight the current and save herself.
But the doctor lifted the girl’s eyelids, and Justin saw petechial hemorrhaging and guessed she’d died of strangulation.
One of the crime techs dragged a tennis shoe from the muddy bank, then compared it to the girl’s foot. “Could have belonged to her. We’ll bag it and see if we find anything on it.”
Justin nodded. “I’ll look around for forensics although, like you say, she probably wasn’t killed here.”
Justin knew the drill. He’d been working homicide cases, hunting serial killers and the most wanted, for ten years now. Nothing surprised him.
Yet a young woman’s senseless murder still made sorrow fill his chest.
He walked over to the edge of the river and studied the foliage, then dipped deeper into the woods to search for any sign that the girl had lost her life nearby.
If they found hair or clothing, even a footprint, it might help track down the killer.
Anxiety twitched at his insides. Only two of the girls who’d gone missing in the past few years had been found. One dead; the other had run away.
But there was no sign of the others. No notes goodbye. No phone calls or ransom requests.
No bodies, making the police wonder if the girls were alive or dead.
So why had this woman’s body been dumped where it could be found?
Were the cases connected? And if so, were any of the other young women still alive?
* * *
sipped her umpteenth cup of coffee for the day while she skimmed the mail on her desk. An envelope stamped with the high school’s emblem and a sketch of the canyon for which the school had been named, Canyon High, caught her eye, and she ripped it open.
The invitation to her high school class reunion filled her with a mixture of dread and wariness.
She’d moved away from Sunset Mesa after her senior year when her father had been transferred. Having grown up with a Texas Ranger for a father, she’d known she’d wanted to follow in his footsteps and work in law enforcement. And there had been nothing for her in Sunset Mesa. No best friend. No boyfriend.
No one who’d missed her or written her love letters or even asked what her plans were for the future.
Truthfully she’d been glad to move. She’d always been a loner, a tomboy, more interested in her father’s cases than joining the girly girls at school with their silly obsessions with makeup, fashion and boys.
She’d chosen softball and the swim team over cheerleading and dance competitions and had felt more comfortable hanging out with guys at sports events than having sleepovers or going shopping with her female peers.
The one event that had colored her entire high school experience was her classmate Carlton Butts’s death.
Juniors in high school were not supposed to die. They especially weren’t supposed to commit suicide.
Regret, that she hadn’t been a better friend to him and sensed how deep his depression ran, taunted her. She’d had nightmares about him plunging to the bottom of the canyon for years. In fact, most people in town now referred to the canyon as Carlton’s Canyon—some even called the high school Carlton Canyon High.
Occasionally she even thought she heard Carlton whispering her voice in the night. Calling to her for help.
Begging her to save him from himself.
Only she’d missed the signs.
Guilt had driven her to search for answers, only none had ever come. Then young women had started disappearing across Texas, two from Sunset Mesa, and she’d felt her heart tugging at her to return to the town. To find out what was happening to them because she’d failed to help her own friend.
When the deputy position had come available in Sunset Mesa, she’d requested it. Sheriff Lager had been a friend of her father’s and had handpicked her for the job.
Then she’d realized that he was suffering from dementia. He eventually admitted he knew he had issues and told her his plans to retire.
Sighing, she stuffed the invitation to the reunion back in the envelope, doubting that she would attend. There was no one from her class she particularly wanted to see.
But what if one of them knew something about one of the missing women? It was her job to find the answers.
What better way to get the scoop than at an informal gathering where everyone was supposed to be friends?
Intrigued by the idea, she tucked the invitation into the calendar on her desk, then added the date to her phone calendar. Plans that week included a family picnic on Friday, then a cocktail party and dance on Saturday night.
No family or husband for her.
Memories of watching Julie Kane and Thurston Howard sharing the prom king and queen dance drifted back, reminding her how much of a wallflower she’d been.
You’re not an eighteen-year-old geeky kid anymore, Amanda. You’re sheriff.
And a stupid high school reunion was not going to turn her back into the shy awkward girl she’d once been.
The door to the front of the sheriff’s office suddenly burst open, and Amanda looked up.
Larry Lambert, the manager at the local bank, rushed in, his normally friendly face strained with worry. A younger man, probably in his late twenties, stood beside him, his hair spiked as if he’d run his hands through it a dozen times. Tension vibrated between the men, a chill in the air.
Amanda stepped from behind her desk. “Mr. Lambert—”
“You have to help us, Sheriff Blair,” Mr. Lambert said. “My daughter Kelly...” The six-foot-tall man broke down, tears streaming from his eyes. “She didn’t come home last night.”
Amanda’s heart clenched. Spring was supposed to be a time of renewed life. Instead, a woman had gone missing just as one had every spring the past few years. A woman she’d gone to high school with. A woman close to her own age.
Which broke the pattern. Kelly was older than the teens who’d disappeared.
Still, could she have met foul play?
Was Kelly dead or could she still be alive?
* * *
for the results of the autopsy and crime scene findings, but his early-morning phone call had gone unanswered. Suspicious that the girl was one of the missing ones from Sunset Mesa, he decided to visit the sheriff and give her a heads-up.
He’d spoken to her after Sheriff Camden from Camden Crossing had conferred with her about the disappearance of his own sister and Peyton Boulder, two girls who’d disappeared after a fatal bus crash seven years ago. At first they’d thought the cold case might be related to the string of missing persons from Sunset Mesa, but they’d discovered it wasn’t.
Dry farmland and terrain passed by him as he veered onto the highway toward Sunset Mesa. He’d heard that the town had gotten its name because of the beautiful colors of the sunset.
Radiant oranges, reds and yellows streaked the sky, painting a rainbow effect over the canyon that was so beautiful it made him wish he was here on vacation, not hunting down a killer. But he never stayed in one place more than a few days and wouldn’t get attached to this town either.
He navigated the road leading into Sunset Mesa, wondering about the new sheriff in town.
He’d met her once and she seemed okay, but he hoped to hell she wasn’t some flake, that she had a head on her shoulders and would cooperate with him. Police work was his life, and he couldn’t tolerate a law officer who wasn’t committed to the job.
A small ranch pointed to the north; then the sign for Sunset Mesa popped into view. Like every other small town he’d been in, the town was built on a square. The buildings looked aged, a Western flair to the outsides, a park in the middle of town with small local businesses surrounding it.
The sheriff’s office/jail/courthouse was housed at the far right, an adobe structure painted the same orange that he’d noted in the sunset.
Early-evening shadows flickered along the pavement as he parked in front of the building, climbed out, adjusted his Stetson and strode to the front door. When he’d first spoken to Sheriff Blair, he’d formed an image of her in his mind.
Her voice had held a husky note, a sign she was probably mannish. Then he’d met her briefly once and realized she was nothing like he’d pictured.
Even the sheriff’s uniform hadn’t disguised her curves and beauty. Not that it mattered what she looked like. He was here to do a job and nothing else.
The dead girl’s face taunted him, and he straightened and opened the door. Getting justice for that victim was his priority.
Once he’d failed at his job and it had cost another young girl her life. He wouldn’t fail this time.
No one would stop him from finding answers.
Wood floors creaked with his boots as he entered, the pale yellow walls and artwork reminiscent of days gone by. A row of black and white photographs of the town and the canyon lined one wall, rugged landscapes on another.
A noise echoed from the back and he frowned. Heated voices. A man’s.
No, two men’s.
He rapped on the wall by the door leading to the back. A minute later, a woman appeared wearing the sheriff’s uniform.
A petite woman with lush curves and hair the reddish-brown color of autumn leaves. Amanda Blair. Rather—Sheriff Amanda Blair.
Her looks sucker punched him again.
Eyes the color of a copper penny stared up at him, a strained look on her pretty face.
“Hello, ma’am.” He tipped his Stetson. “I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Sergeant Justin Thorpe with the Texas Rangers.”
She looked him up and down, and for the first time in his life, he wondered if he came up lacking. Not that he usually cared about a coworker’s opinion of him, but something about her made him want her admiration.
But her look gave nothing away. “Yes, I remember.”
He couldn’t tell from her tone how she meant the comment. But it didn’t sound good.
“Did someone call you about coming here today?”
He frowned, confused. Maybe she’d already heard about the body they found. “No, I needed to talk to you about the missing-persons cases.”
“You heard about Kelly Lambert?”
“Kelly Lambert?” Justin tried to remember the names of all the women on the list so far, but hers didn’t ring a bell. Had she received word about the identification of the body before he did?
Her expression clouded. “The girl who just disappeared last night. Her father and fiancé are in my office now.”
Justin’s gut clenched. That explained the raised voices. But Kelly Lambert wasn’t the woman they’d found in the creek because that woman had been there for months.
Which meant Kelly Lambert might still be alive.
Dammit, he and Sheriff Blair needed to find her before she ended up dead like the poor woman they’d just dragged from the water.