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Authors: Carol Ericson

Sudden Second Chance

BOOK: Sudden Second Chance
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A man with too many secrets. A woman with everything to lose.

As if the Timberline Trio cold case isn’t nightmarish enough for FBI agent Duke Harper, he runs into the TV reporter who loved and betrayed him—beautiful Beth St. Regis. Duke quickly concludes she’s not after a sensational story. She’s there to solve the haunting mystery of who she really is. But all her questions unleash a killer, and Duke steps up to protect her when she becomes a target. Despite their bitter past, Duke finds he’s still attracted to Beth, and maybe they deserve a second chance. First, though, he has to keep Beth alive—and from discovering the shocking truth about her past...

Her frame trembled beneath his hands. “It was...terrifying... I’m going to hear that sound in my nightmares.”

“What’s it gonna take for you, Beth?”

“To leave Timberline? The truth. I’m going to leave Timberline when I discover the truth about my identity. Otherwise, what do I have?”

“You have me.” He sealed his lips over hers and drew her close.

She melted against him for a moment, her mouth pliant against his. But then she broke away and stepped back.

“I just don’t think you understand what this means to me, Duke. It’s a lifetime of questions and doubts coming to a head right here. All my questions have led me here.”

“You don’t know, Beth. It’s based on feelings and suppositions and red doors and frogs.”

“And that’s a start.”

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He didn’t want to take that all away from her—the hope—but he’d snatch it all away in a heartbeat to keep her safe.

SUDDEN
SECOND
CHANCE

Carol Ericson

Carol Ericson
is a bestselling, award-winning author of more than forty books. She has an eerie fascination for true-crime stories, a love of film noir and a weakness for reality TV, all of which fuel her imagination to create her own tales of murder, mayhem and mystery. To find out more about Carol and her current projects, please visit her website at
www.carolericson.com
, “where romance flirts with danger.”

Books by Carol Ericson

Harlequin Intrigue

Target: Timberline

Single Father Sheriff

Sudden Second Chance

Brothers in Arms: Retribution

Under Fire

The Pregnancy Plot

Navy SEAL Spy

Secret Agent Santa

Brody Law

The Bridge

The District

The Wharf

The Hill

Harlequin Intrigue Noir

Toxic

Visit the Author Profile page at
Harlequin.com
for more titles.

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CAST OF CHARACTERS

Beth St. Regis—
The host of the
Cold Case Chronicles
TV show. She uses the show as a cover to find out if she’s one of the missing children of the Timberline Trio, but she runs into a former adversary...and lover, who will either stand in her way or make her forget all about why she’s in Timberline.

Duke Harper—
This FBI agent is sent to investigate the Timberline Trio cold case, but the dead-end assignment turns into a battle of wits and wills when he meets up with the TV reporter who used him for a story but has been on his mind and in his heart ever since.

Heather Brice—
Beth believes she might be this kidnapped child and will stop at nothing to prove it.

Bill Raney—
His realty business is suffering due to his chronic drinking and poor business practices, and he’s willing to do just about anything to get back on top.

Rebecca Geist—
A local Realtor who knows more of Timberline’s secrets than she realizes, which puts a target on her back.

Jordan Young—
This Timberline mover and shaker is anxious to put the town’s dark history in the past, but are his motives civic or personal?

Gary Binder—
A recovering drug addict and ex-con, he’s either trying to get his life back on track or he’s up to his old tricks.

Scarlett Easton—
A local artist and native Quileute, she offers to help Beth get in touch with her past, but she pays a price for her generosity.

Serena Hopewell—
A bartender at a local restaurant, she owns a prime piece of property in Timberline. Is she a savvy investor or a savvy blackmailer?

Sheriff Musgrove—
The new sheriff in town may be a little too cozy with those who would circumvent the law in order to hide the truth.

For Chuck, one of the most avid readers I know.

Chapter One

Beth’s heart skipped a beat as she ducked onto the path that led through a canopy of trees. The smell of damp earth and moldering mulch invaded her nostrils. She took a deep breath. The odor evoked the cycle of life—birth, death and rebirth. She’d smelled worse.

She gasped as a lacy, green leaf brushed her face. Then she knocked it away. If she freaked out and had a panic attack every time she delved into the forest, she’d have a hard time doing this story—and getting to the truth of her birth.

Straightening her shoulders, she tugged on her down vest and blew out a breath. She stepped over a fallen log, snapping a twig in two beneath her boot. The mist rising from the forest floor caressed her cheek and she raised her face to the moisture swirling around her.

The scent of pine cleared her sinuses and she dragged in a lungful of the fresh air. She’d definitely classify herself as a city girl, but this rustic, outdoor environment seemed to energize her.

Either that or the adrenaline was pumping so hard and fast through her veins, a massive anxiety attack waited right around the corner.

She continued on the path through the dense foliage, feeling stronger and stronger with each step. She could do this. The reward of possibly finding her true identity motivated her, blocking out the anxiety that the forest usually stirred up inside her.

She’d convinced Scott, the producer of
Cold Case Chronicles
, that she needed to come out ahead of her crew to do some initial interviews and footwork. She had her own video camera and could give Joel, her cameraman, a head start. Stoked by the show’s ratings from the previous season, Scott had been ready to grant her anything. Of course, she had a lot of work to do on her own before she got her guys up here. She’d have to stall Scott.

The trees rustled around her and she paused, tilting her head to one side. Maybe she should’ve researched the presence of wild animals out here. Did bears roam the Pacific Northwest? Wolves? She was pretty sure there were no tigers stalking through the forests of Washington. Were there?

As she took another step, leaves crackled behind her, too close for comfort, and she froze again. The hair on the back of her neck stood up and quivered, all her old fears flooding her senses.

She craned her head over her shoulder and released a gusty breath of air. A man walking a bicycle stuttered to a stop, his eyes widening in his gaunt face.

“Ma’am?”

The relief she’d felt a moment ago that it hadn’t been a tiger on her trail evaporated as she took in the man’s appearance. He had the hard look of a man who’d been in the joint. She recognized it from previous stories she’d done on her TV show,
Cold Case Chronicles
.

“Oh, hello. My husband and I were just taking a walk. He went ahead.”

He nodded once, a jerky, disjointed movement. “Come out to look at the kidnapping site, did ya?”

Heat washed into Beth’s cheeks. She wanted to make it clear to this man that she wasn’t just some morbid looky-loo, but what did it really matter?

“We were in the area anyway, and it’s so pretty out here.” She waved a hand toward the path she’d been following. “Is it much farther?”

“Not much.” He pushed his bike forward, wheeling around the same fallen log she’d stepped over earlier. “They were lookin’ at me for a bit.”

“Excuse me?” Beth tucked her hands into the pockets of her vest, her right hand tracing the outline of her pepper spray.

“For the kidnappings.” He hunched his scrawny shoulders. “Like I’d snatch a couple of kids.”

“Th...that must’ve been scary.” She slipped her index finger onto the spray button in her pocket. “How’d the police get that idea?”

“Because—” he looked to his left and right “—because I’d been in a little trouble before.”

Taking one step back, Beth coiled her muscles. She could take him—maybe—especially if she nailed him with the pepper spray first.

“And because I was there the first time.”

“What?” She snapped her jaw closed to keep it from hanging open. Did he mean he’d been in Timberline at the time the Timberline Trio was kidnapped? He definitely looked old enough.

“You know.” He wiped a hand across his mouth. “The first time when them three kids were snatched twenty years ago.”

Twenty-five years ago
, she corrected him in her head.

“You were living here during that time?”

“I wasn’t the only one. Lots of people still around from that time.” His tone got defensive. “It’s just ’cause I had that other trouble. That’s why they looked at me—and because of the dead dog, only he wasn’t dead.”

A chill snaked up Beth’s spine. She definitely wanted to talk to this man later if he was telling the truth, but not now and not here in the middle of a dense forest with only the tigers to hear her screams.

“Well, I’d better catch up to my husband. A...are you going to the site, too?”

“No, ma’am. I’m just taking the shortcut to my house.” He raised one hand.

Then he turned his bike to the right and her shoulders dropped as she released the trigger on her pepper spray.

“Ma’am?”

She stopped, and without turning around, she said, “Yes?”

“Be careful out there. The Quileute swear this forest is haunted.”

“I will and I’m...we’re not afraid of ghosts—my husband and I.”

He emitted a noise, which sounded a lot like a snort, and then he wheeled his bike down another path, leaving the echo of crackling leaves.

Beth brushed her hair from her face and strode forward. He wouldn’t be hard to locate later—an ex-con on a bicycle who’d been questioned about the kidnappings. Maybe he’d have some insight into the Timberline Trio.

She tromped farther into the woods but never lost sight of the trail as it had been well used recently. What was wrong with people who wanted to see where three kids and a woman had been held against their will?

If she didn’t have a damned good excuse for being out here, she’d be exploring the town or sitting in front of the fireplace at her hotel enjoying a caramel latte with extra foam, reading—okay, she’d probably be reading a murder mystery or a true-crime book about a serial killer. The Pacific Northwest seemed to have those in spades.

A piece of soggy, yellow tape stirring in the breeze indicated that she’d reached the spot. Law enforcement had drilled orange caution cones into the ground around the mine opening and had boarded over the top. Nobody would be able to use this abandoned mine for any kind of nefarious purpose again.

She nudged one of the cones with the toe of her boot—it didn’t budge. Wedging her hands on her hips, she surveyed the area. No recognition pinged in her chest. Her breathing remained calm, too, so nothing here was sending her into overdrive.

Not that she’d really expected it. Wyatt Carson had chosen this place to stash his victims because he’d discovered it or had searched for someplace to hide the children, not because he’d known it from twenty-five years before when he was just a child himself, when his own brother Stevie Carson had been snatched.

But one kidnap story might lead to another. Maybe the Timberline Trio had been held here before...before what? If she really were one of the Timberline Trio, those children obviously weren’t dead. So, why had they been kidnapped? Why had
she
been kidnapped?

There was something about this place—Timberline—that struck a chord within her. As soon as she’d seen that stuffed frog in the window of the tourist shop during a TV news story about the Wyatt Carson kidnappings, she’d known she had to come here. She could be Heather Brice, and she had to find out.

Crouching down, she scooted closer to the entrance of the mine. When Carson had found it, the mine had a cover that he’d then blocked with a boulder. All that had been removed and cleared out.

She flattened herself onto her belly and army-crawled between the cones. Someone had already pried back and snapped off a piece of wood covering the entrance.

With her arms at her sides, she placed her forehead against one slat of wood and peered into the darkness below. She’d like to get down there just to have a look around. Maybe the local sheriff’s department would allow it if she promised to get their mugs on TV.

A swishing noise coming up behind her had her digging the toes of her boots into the mushy earth. She’d just put herself into an extremely vulnerable position—an idiotic thing to do with that ex-con roaming the woods. A branch snapped. She slipped her hand inside her pocket and gripped the pepper spray, her finger in position.

A man’s voice yelled out. “Hey!”

Then a strong vise clamped around her ankle. This was it. In one fluid motion, she dragged the pepper spray from her pocket, rolled to her back, aimed and fired.

The man released her ankle immediately and staggered back, one arm flung over his face.

Beth jumped to her feet, holding the spray in front of her with a shaky hand, ready to shoot again.

Her attacker cursed and spit.

Beth’s eyebrows shot up. The ex-con had gotten bigger...and meaner.

Then he lowered his hands from his face and glared at her through dark eyes streaming with tears. Those eyes widened and he cursed again.

He cleared his throat and coughed. “Beth St. Regis. I should’ve known it was you.”

Beth dropped her pepper spray and clasped her hand over her heart. She’d rather be facing a tiger right now than Duke Harper—the man she’d loved and betrayed.

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