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Authors: Cathy Perkins

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He crossed the parking lot toward the Blazer.

The driver’s door opened and a tall, dark-haired man emerged. The street clothes set him apart from the assorted cops, but the aura of authority surrounding him was already turning heads.

“Oh, crap,” Holly muttered.

And she’d thought this day couldn’t get any worse.

A detective’s shield winked in the sunlight as the newcomer reached into his truck and pulled out a heavy coat. Uniformed men converged on him. The deputies shuffled around, reorienting themselves in some obscure male pecking order, undoubtedly ready to update him on the investigation.

It was official. This was the worst day of her life.

Marcy was dead.

She and Alex were apparently suspects.

And her ex-fiancé was the lead investigator.

Chapter Two

No, no, no,
echoed through Holly’s head.

Her ex-fiancé, JC Dimitrak, hitched the coat over his shoulders and turned his attention to the surrounding officers.

Alex moved next to her. “Another one?”

She edged around Alex, positioning him between JC and her. At least the detective hadn’t seen her yet. She couldn’t deal with JC right now. She’d hoped to
never
deal with him again.

She’d managed to avoid him the entire five months she’d been back in Richland—something that had taken more effort than she’d expected in a town of fifty thousand. Why did he have to be in charge of this investigation?

Alex dropped an arm around her. “How’re you holding up?”

She had enough in her head with Marcy. Thank God Alex didn’t know about JC. The only thing worse than dealing with them separately was handling them together. “I’ve had better days.”

“You and me both. This isn’t exactly our normal routine.” Alex gestured at the crowded parking lot and then looked in the direction of the hidden bog.

“Are they sure it’s Marcy?” Her dead friend might not be her first choice for conversation topics, but talking about Marcy beat obsessing about JC and whatever he was planning, thinking, or saying. Holly scrubbed her hands over her face. That sounded horrible, but JC’s presence screwed up her ability to think straight about
anything
.

“They haven’t told me jack.” Discouragement flattened Alex’s voice. “They just keep asking questions.”

“I know the feeling. Think they’re nearly finished?”

“God, I hope so. I don’t know how many more times and ways I can say, ‘I don’t know who killed her.’ ”

“Can we leave?” The other police officers had her information. Maybe talking to JC wasn’t
really
necessary.

Alex shrugged. “They have their processes. Cops never struck me as particularly flexible people.”

A gust of wind eddied around them and she shivered.

“You cold?” He tightened his arm.

“I’m freezing.” She scooted closer to Alex. He had some redeeming qualities. Right now, they included shoulders wide enough to block both the wind and JC’s line of sight.

“I’ll be glad when they’re done.”

The strain of the past hours showed in the gray tinge under his olive complexion. Lines pinched the corners of his eyes and mouth, and the bleak expression wasn’t one she’d seen before. He’d known Marcy longer than she had, so her death would hit him hard. And clearly the officers had hammered him with tougher questions than the ones they’d asked her.

Men’s voices carried across the narrow parking lot. Mostly she caught words and phrases, but after all this time she could still pick out JC’s deep, rumbly voice.

Finally the men’s conversation seemed to wind down. “The couple who found the body is right over here,” the game warden said.

Here it comes
. She resisted the urge to peek around Alex’s shoulder.

“Alejandro Montoya and Holly Price,” the warden continued.

“Who?” JC asked.

She braced herself and stepped forward. Hands clenched, she met the detective’s hard-eyed scowl.

“So they found the body?” JC spoke to the game warden but his eyes never left hers. “Anyone check to see if it still had a heart?”

The insult registered in a nanosecond.

“Real mature.” Heat flooded her cheeks with an angry blush. “You had to say something. You couldn’t just let it go.”

Six years vanished and all the hurt and anger of their last confrontation lay between them. Everyone froze, as if wondering how to back away without losing a body part. Then a couple of officers stepped forward.

Looking to protect JC or her?

“I take it you two have met.”

Alex’s voice. She startled. Intent on JC, she’d forgotten Alex was there.

Crap
. Think he picked up on that little detail?

Eyes narrowed, Alex’s gaze swung from her to JC.

She struggled to keep the turmoil twisting her stomach out of her words. “That’s JC Dimitrak. I
thought
I knew him, once upon a time. I found out the hard way I didn’t.”

JC held his ground, studying her. After a beat, his attention transferred to Alex and she saw the same cool scrutiny in his expression. She’d have given a lot to know what he was thinking.

She examined the hard planes of his face. Then again, maybe she didn’t want to know.

“This is hardly the place to discuss ancient history.” JC’s voice was as frigid as his little black heart.

You started it
, she wanted to sputter. But she wasn’t going to act like a two-year-old. Or like she cared what JC thought. Or…or…

“You’re the last person I expected to see out here,” he said.

His comment covered multiple levels. He hadn’t expected to see her at a murder scene. At a game management area. In Richland, at all.

She lifted her chin and hoped her voice matched his icy tone. “How would
you
know where I’d be or what I like to do?”

His gaze drifted down her body, his expression considering, with a trace of smug.

Her face grew warmer. Okay. There were things he’d known she liked.

She crossed her arms. “My being here’s a temporary arrangement.”

Alex’s face grew stonier with each barbed exchange. “Are we under arrest?” he asked the detective.

“No.”

“Then we’re leaving. You know how to find us.”

“Not so fast there, young fella,” the game warden spoke up. “I need to finish interviewing Ms. Price.”

He crooked a finger, calling her to join JC and him.

Alex glared. She wasn’t far from the same degree of irritation. People did not summon her like she was their…their…bird dog.

The game warden signaled again, a bigger sweep of his hand. Reluctantly, she joined the two men.

“Let’s see.” The older man tapped his pen against his notebook, a gesture that was starting to irritate her. “Now, what is it that you do for a living?”

She looked from the warden to JC. Who was actually in charge?

JC smiled—a grim one—at her confusion. “This is federal land. The warden’s in charge until he releases the scene.”

Great.

She turned to the game warden. At least business was easier to talk about than emotions. “My regular job is with the Mergers and Acquisitions Group in Seattle, but right now I’m working for Desert Accounting.”

From the corner of her eye, she saw JC’s smile widen to a grin. Clearly, he was enjoying the squirm factor of her being back in Richland, working at a place she’d sworn she never would.

“That’s a big change for a single woman like you. We get a lot of young people moving to eastern Washington, wanting to raise a family in a more wholesome environment.”

She refrained from reminding the warden they were at a murder scene that was far from wholesome.

“What made you decide to move across the Cascades and work for a local accountant?” he asked.

“My parents own the accounting firm. My mother needed some help.”

“Your mother needed help, hmm? What about your father? He didn’t need help?”

She sneaked another glance at JC. Like she wanted to bring up infidelity in front of him. “They separated. I really don’t see how any of that’s relevant to who murdered my friend.”

The game warden’s face and voice hardened. “We decide what’s relevant. You just answer the questions.”

His words kicked over a dozen memories, none of them good. The Seattle cops had dismissed her concerns about Frank. Overlooked the stalking, the growing threats. Refused initially to enforce the restraining order against one of their own.

You can’t trust cops.

The game warden’s insistent voice intruded. “A lot of couples separate over infidelity. I heard the victim was a pretty little gal. Worked in the office right across the hall. From you. Your dad… So where is your dad these days?”

She slammed the door on the past. This guy was not going to build a conspiracy theory about Marcy having an affair with her father. The blasted yoga instructor, yes, but not Marcy. “He moved to Arizona. Last I heard he was living in a sweat lodge. And he certainly isn’t the only man I know who can’t keep his pants zipped.”

The smile left JC’s face.

Stop it. Ignore JC. Just give them the facts. They don’t need the details
.

“Hmm.” The warden scribbled something, then waited a beat—tapping his pen—as if he wanted to see if she’d say anything else. “The only shotgun and hunting license I’ve seen today belongs to Mr. Montoya. So why’s a young woman like you out here?”

After another twenty minutes of answering the same questions she’d answered when the first policemen arrived, she was ready to go home and crawl in bed. To wake up and find it was all a bad dream. That Marcy was just fine.

“That young man worked with the victim, didn’t he?” The warden nodded in Alex’s direction.

Alex glared at her—or rather the three of them. The way things were going, he ought to watch his own back. “If the body really is, was, Marcy, she didn’t work for Alex.”

The warden flipped a few pages in his notebook. “Says here Mr. Montoya and his family own a restaurant. Marcy Ramirez didn’t work for him?”

“Marcy worked for Tim Stevens.” The officer knew that—he’d accused her father of having an affair with the pretty “gal” across the hall. Alex was Tim’s business partner in the real estate development company, but she didn’t think he needed to have that pointed out, especially with the cops already all over Alex’s possible involvement. All the officers had asked too many questions about both Alex’s and her relationship with Marcy.

The warden gave her an assessing look. “You know Mr. Stevens?”

“He’s a client. I met Marcy through him.”

“Interesting the way you four are mixed up together,” JC said.

Asshole
. He was loving watching her squirm. “None of us had any reason to hurt Marcy. She’s our friend.” Holly left unspoken,
So why can’t we wrap this up and you guys go find the killer
?

The game warden made another note on his pad. “Now, we got over 800 acres out here. How is it you two managed to find the body when it was all tangled up in the bushes?”

“We just followed the dog.” She shuddered and shook off the memory of the body in the clearing.

“Okay, I got it straight now. Mr. Montoya led you to the body.”

Fresh adrenaline shot through her system. “No, of course not. Alex didn’t lead me—”

“Then how did you know the body was in the bog?” the officer interrupted.

“We didn’t know the body was there. We just found her. We didn’t kill her.”

He asked a few more questions, then slid his notebook into his jacket pocket. “I think that’s it for now. Detective Dimitrak, she’s all yours.”

Not just no, but
hell
no. Never in a million years.

JC’s lips twitched, as if he’d also caught the double entendre. “I have a few more questions.”

Of course he did.

She looked into JC’s cold eyes and remembered a time when his gaze was hot with desire and filled with love. The memory oozed through cracks in her emotional control. It seeped like hot acid, burning with fresh betrayal instead of lying dormant as ancient history. Her throat tightened and tears pricked her eyes.

She couldn’t handle this. Not now.

Hands fisted, she struggled to keep the tears from falling. “Can we do this later?”

JC’s face tightened, as if he planned to automatically turn her down.

She swallowed her pride. “Please?”

“Okay.” He gave a curt nod.

The tears, the tremble in her voice, or the memory of what they once meant to each other—she wasn’t sure what made him change his mind. Whatever it was, she could guarantee he’d make her pay for it later, but for now, gratitude sliced through the pain.

“Don’t get any thoughts about leaving town. Plug some time into your calendar for us to chat, because I have questions. Lots and lots of them.”

Oh, goody.

Wouldn’t that be fun.

Chapter Three

An hour later, Holly leaned her forehead against the tile wall of her shower. Warm water pounded on her shoulders. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Marcy had been one of the first people who reached out to her when she moved back to Richland. And now the woman was dead.

The hot water ran out.

Holly dodged the freezing water and reached for the taps. Add a water heater to the Things To Replace list.

She dried off and hung up the towels. A glance at the mirror drew a disgusted snort.
Oh, let’s just make this day a full and complete disaster
.

She looked like crap. Not that looks had ever been her strong point. At twenty-eight, she was still the tall, blond, scrawny kid she’d been during college.

Not that it mattered. A woman’s worth wasn’t defined by the outside package.

Her inner teenager whined,
The next time I saw JC, I wanted to look amazing
.

She told the slut to shut up.

She’d managed to not think about JC Dimitrak for nearly six years. There was no reason to change anything today.

Except now she looked like a murder suspect. She didn’t have a choice whether or not to talk to him.

But jeez—who’d have thought JC “Just Crazy” Dimitrak would end up in law enforcement?

Still, it was done. Seventh layer of hell, between the reunion with JC and Marcy’s horrible death, but she’d survived. Running away, selling Desert Accounting at a bargain-basement price, sounded amazingly attractive at the moment. She could move back to civilization on the west side of the Cascades and never have to deal with any of it again.

Too bad it was all a fantasy. She couldn’t run out on her mother.

She wandered into the living room, or as her friends had dubbed it, the construction disaster area. For a second, she imagined a soft leather sofa in front of the fireplace, books piled on shelves, a cashmere throw, and nothing to do on a Sunday afternoon except slip away into a good story.

No such luck.

Alex peeled himself off the floor.

She started and covered a flinch. “You’re still here.” She’d hoped Alex had acted on her subtle suggestion.
Go home.

“Thought you might need me.” He stretched, a long muscular display.

Tell me you did not just pose.

He wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Sorry you had to see Marcy like that.”

An image of the shattered corpse they’d found in the bog pounced and Holly’s stomach cramped.

“How’re you doing?” Alex asked.

“I’m a little weirded out. It still doesn’t seem real.” Too restless to be confined, she twitched a shoulder, dislodged his arm, and moved toward the windows. “Did I ever tell you about the first time I met Marcy?”

He shook his head.

“I’d gone over to Stevens Ventures to talk to Tim, probably something about payroll. Anyway, I heard this lilting voice from his office, crooning, ‘Where are you, you little bugger?’ ”

She smiled at the memory. “For a minute I did wonder what was going on, but curiosity got the better of me. I peeked in the door and saw Marcy’s butt wagging in the air. She was crawling out backward from under the desk, holding a metal knob like a trophy.”

Holly raised her hand in remembered imitation. “She sat back on her heels, going, ‘Now I have to figure out how it fits back together.’ And she laughed. It was pure happiness, the kind of laugh you can’t help joining, when you’re just glad to be alive.”

Her echoing laughter escaped as a muffled sob. “Except now she’s dead.”

Alex crossed the room and pulled her close. “Hey. It’s okay. Marcy was a sweet kid. I remember when she started working for Tim. She was like a puppy, wanting to please so bad she about quivered.”

Holly frowned and moved back, not sure she liked the analogy. “She always struck me as confident and outgoing.”

“She is now. Well, I mean, she was. I mean, she opened up after she’d been working there for a while.”

“I can’t get my head around the reality—she’s dead.”

Alex dropped his hands onto her waist. His tone moved into the husky range. “But we’re alive.”

Oh, no
. He couldn’t mean that affirmation-of-life-through-sex thing. It was
so
not the time for an intimate moment. And then there was the whole was-he-the-right-guy issue.

Alex? Their relationship hadn’t reached that level, and she wasn’t sure it ever would. Today’s events had convinced her Alex was someone to do stuff with, period. Definitely better than watching Friday night movies alone, but not anyone she wanted as a close, long-term addition in her life. “Look, all I can see right now is those birds and a mangled body. I haven’t even started to process the fact that Marcy won’t be in the office tomorrow.”

Sex was so not happening.

Still, she didn’t want to be a complete bitch. “I do appreciate your staying.”

He got the rest of the message and dropped his hands.

“I wanted to make sure you weren’t too freaked out.” His expression disgruntled, he stepped over to her painting supplies, picked up the masking tape and spun it around his fingers.

From a purely selfish perspective, having him—anyone—in the house would be good. Someone to talk to. Someone to keep the images of Marcy’s body away.

He tossed the tape back onto the pile. It rolled across the floor, gathering dust and cat hair. He shoved his hands into his jeans pockets. “I should head out. Check on the restaurant. I still have to open it tonight.”

Oh, since he wasn’t getting any, it was time to bail? Nice.

She retrieved the tape and brushed at the debris.
Thanks a bunch.
“Your family can handle the restaurant if you’re upset about Marcy.”

“My mother knows Mrs. Ramirez.” He gave a small shrug. “She’ll worry.”

About Marcy, Mrs. Ramirez, or Alex? Not that it mattered—Alex’s mother micromanaged both his life and his restaurant. “She’ll have heard about Marcy. She’ll want to know you’re okay,” she said, giving him an out.

“She gets bossy when she’s worried. If she runs off any more staff, I’ll have to start recruiting my cousins to work as busboys.”

The irritating
brittz
of the doorbell—another item on her long list of Things To Replace—interrupted.

“You expecting anybody?” Alex asked.

“I hope it isn’t a reporter.” Shaking her head, she crossed the room. “If my mom heard about this…”

She pushed the curtain aside, peeked through the long sidelight window and rocked back half a step.

No reporter.

No mother.

JC Dimitrak stood on her doorstep.

She didn’t know why she was surprised. She’d known he’d show up eventually, but
now
? This soon?

He dipped his head in greeting. Even tired and grim-faced, he still looked better than sex on a stick.

Where did
that
come from? She scrambled to pull her thoughts together and opened the door.

Wait a minute,
her inner teenager shrieked.
I’m not ready.

“May I come in?”

“What are you doing here? I mean, at my house?”

“Remember the ‘Can we do this later?’ part?”

Stepping back, she widened the opening. JC wore the same dark slacks and heavy coat he’d had on at the game management area. He unbuttoned his overcoat, revealing the huge pistol clamped to his belt beside his badge. This man—this
stranger
, she reminded herself, because she didn’t know him anymore—was definitely a leader. He had a commanding presence, backed by more than a hint of sex appeal.

He’d always had it.

Only now he was armed. And undoubtedly dangerous.

“I take it this is an official visit,” she said.

He ignored the observation, and instead gave her yoga pants, T-shirt, and wet hair a slow inspection. The twitch of his eyebrow and assessing glance told her he knew she wasn’t wearing a bra.

Alex moved into the foyer. “Why are you here?”

JC glanced at Alex. Sex assumptions hung like a cartoon balloon over his head. For a moment, something that might’ve been anger or jealousy tightened his face. Then it vanished. “Did I catch you at a bad time?”

She said, “No” at the same time Alex said, “Yes.”

“Glad we cleared that up.” JC’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I need to get your statement, Holly. Before you take off again.”

She propped her fist on her hip. “You know, the way I remember things,
you
walked out.”

“Don’t go there, Holly. You don’t know the first thing about me.”

“I know everything that matters.”

Alex stepped up. “We’ve both done everything we can to cooperate, but quit hiding behind your badge. If you have a problem with Holly, you should bow out of the investigation.”

JC gave him a cool examination. “I need to talk to each of you. Alone. We can do that at the station, if you’d prefer.”

“No way. I’m not going to the police station without a lawyer,” Alex said.

“You can leave.”

Wow. She
really
hadn’t thought the day could get any worse. “Guys. Break.” She jammed her fingers into a time-out “T.”

“Maybe I should call Phil Brewer.” Alex folded his arms across his chest in the universal male posturing position.

She rejected his choice with, “Phil does corporate work.”

Alex glared at the detective. “He’d still know how to make this guy quit harassing you.”

JC didn’t say a word, but behind his stiff face he seemed to be enjoying stirring the pot.

“Stop. He isn’t harassing me.” Weirding her out, yes. Harassing, no. She knew what that felt like. Right now, JC might be doing the über-cop routine, but if the tension got any hotter, they could roast marshmallows. And nobody was going to sing “Kumbaya.”

“Alex.” She touched his arm, finally moving his attention off the detective. “I’m tired. I’d rather get this over with. Go on to the restaurant. I’ll be okay.”

For one long moment, she was afraid he was going to push the issue.

With a sharp snort of irritation, he turned, strode across the room, and grabbed his jacket. Thrusting his arms into the sleeves, he headed for the door. He made a move like he intended to kiss her.

She froze. The oh-God-not-in-front-of-my-mother cringe warred with the in-your-face-JC snub.

And from the half-smile on JC’s face, he’d caught her hesitation, even if Alex didn’t seem to notice.

“I’ll call you in a little while.”
To make sure JC’s gone
, bristled from his scowl. Alex brushed his lips across hers and vanished through the front door.

Alrighty.

JC Dimitrak.

She drew in a deep breath. “What do you want to know?”

The detective crossed the foyer. His hard soles rapped against the bare subfloor. “Love what you’ve done with the place.”

Silently counting to ten, she decided to interpret the comment as a compliment, although he clearly hadn’t intended it that way. “I’m working on it. The guy who used to own the house opened up the interior. I don’t know what they were thinking back in the 70s, but the original house completely ignored the view, which is, of course, its best feature. It had those narrow, clerestory windows that kinda remind me of bunker openings.”

She stared at the living room’s new, oversized panes and forced her mouth to close. Babbling wasn’t going to keep them from talking about Marcy.

Talking about Marcy’s dead body would make her murder so much more real.

“What’d he do? Get in over his head?”

Holly turned around. “The guy who owned it? Yeah. The bank foreclosed.”

JC gestured at the buckets and supplies. “Painting?”

She wasn’t sure what to make of his tone or the question. Was he jumping to conclusions? Assuming she was a cold-hearted bitch for planning to paint
today
, the day she’d found a friend’s body?

Well, she already knew where he stood on the bitch-meter, but he could’ve at least asked
when
she set out the paint instead of figuring she was going to break out the roller
today
. “The carpet installer’s scheduled for next week. He recommended I paint before he replaces the rug.”

They both glanced at the hideous shag carpet.

“Good idea.” A grin tugged at JC’s mouth.

She bit her lip to keep from smiling—the shag was truly awful—but the tension in the room dropped by ten degrees anyway.

He looked at her, studying her expression. “Actually, I’m impressed you took on the project.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“I thought you said you’d never live in Richland again.”

“You heard what you wanted to hear.” One of the reasons they’d broken up was he’d wanted a stay-at-home wife, stuck behind a picket fence. She’d had no interest in playing the Stepford Wife role. Any chance they’d had of creating
any
kind of home crashed and burned when she came home from college after one of their arguments—about her being in Seattle and her plans to stay there after graduation—and found him with another woman.

But here she was, in Richland.

With a house.

An empty house.

Whatever.

“The house is an investment. Most of my friends think I’m nuts for renovating it myself.”

His lips tightened around a smile.

If she didn’t know him, she’d have missed it. One of the things he’d loved about her—
said
he’d loved—was her tendency to throw herself into projects other people thought were crazy. She always pulled them off, though.

“The place
is
butt-ugly on the outside, but you have to admit the view is stunning.” Keep him focused on the externals.

JC didn’t need to know she loved the ugly little house. Everything about the house and the renovation was tangible. Did she fix the water heater or not? Get the room painted or not? There were none of the murky gray areas like there were in the rest of her life, where maybe she succeeded—or maybe she didn’t.

He moved past her to the window, then turned and leaned against the wall. “I heard you were back.”

She gave him an
and-your-point-is?
look. What had he expected? That she’d call him? Show up on
his
cheating, black-hearted doorstep?

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