Authors: PAULA GRAVES
Tags: #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE
A near-fatal accident unearths old family secrets in this Bitterwood P.D. book from award-winning author Paula Graves
Detective Walker Nix knew there was more to the Bitterwood police chief’s “accident” and that someone wanted his boss dead. But when the victim’s sister, U.S. marshal Dana Massey, insisted on becoming involved, Nix had a hunch his case—and his heart—was in for a heap of trouble.
With decades-old secrets—incuding a missing secret baby—being uncovered, it soon became apparent that Dana’s family was at the center of the mystery. As Nix helped Dana solve this cold case, he found himself opening up more than he’d ever dared. Yet when it was over, she’d be leaving. Unless Detective Tall, Dark and Handsome took the scariest step of all…
“I thought it was just a little bump.”
“It is. It’s just a bloody one.” He applied some antibiotic ointment to the small scrape, trying to ignore the way her soft, lightly floral perfume was making his blood run hot.
He’d never been a man prone to indulging his every sexual whim, but this particular dose of desire was taking a toll on his legendary self-control.
He backed away, giving himself room to breathe. “I think the bleeding’s stopped now.”
She turned to face him. “Thanks.”
Something intriguing glittered in her eyes. Nix knew it would be folly to speculate what that intriguing something might be. But he’d never been any good at turning his back on a puzzle. Especially one that smelled like wildflowers.
THE SECRET OF
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alabama native Paula Graves wrote her first book, a mystery
starring herself and her neighborhood friends, at the age of six. A voracious
reader, Paula loves books that pair tantalizing mystery with compelling romance.
When she’s not reading or writing, she works as a creative director for a
Birmingham advertising agency and spends time with her family and friends. She
is a member of Southern Magic Romance Writers, Heart of Dixie Romance Writers
and Romance Writers of America.
Paula invites readers to visit her website,
Books by Paula Graves
1183—CASE FILE: CANYON CREEK,
1189—CHICKASAW COUNTY CAPTIVE*
1272—HITCHED AND HUNTED**
MAN FROM GOSSAMER RIDGE**
1428—MURDER IN THE SMOKIES‡‡
1432—THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN
1438—SMOKY RIDGE CURSE‡‡
1473—BLOOD ON COPPERHEAD
1479—THE SECRET OF CHEROKEE COVE‡‡
**Cooper Justice: Cold Case
CAST OF CHARACTERS
In Bitterwood for her brother’s engagement party, it’s his suspicious car crash that keeps the deputy U.S. marshal in town, where she stumbles onto a cold case with very personal implications.
The Bitterwood P.D. detective knows it’s a bad idea for Dana to get involved in the investigation, but as the case takes a series of unexpected turns, she may be the perfect person to have on his side.
The Bitterwood chief of police has made enemies in his short time at the head of the police force. Has his investigation into police corruption made him a target? Or is the motive more personal?
Doyle’s fiancée will do what it takes to make sure her groom stays alive for the wedding. Could she know something about the attempt on Doyle’s life and not even realize it?
The town’s most popular citizen is both rich and well respected. So why does his name keep showing up in the middle of the investigation?
Bitterwood’s night shift dispatcher knows a few secrets about Dana’s mother. Could the crazy story she tells be the truth?
The former chief of police comes under attack for talking to Nix. But why? What does he know that he’s not telling?
The retired cop helped Doyle and Dana’s mother leave Bitterwood when she was a young, scared teenager. Does he know the decades-old secret she was keeping?
Paul and Nina Hale—
The wealthy pair crossed paths with Dana’s mother over thirty years ago. So why aren’t they willing to talk to Dana now?
For my #1k1hr pals
Twitter. Y’all make writing
deadline fun. Okay, maybe not fun, but definitely bearable. Keep #writing!
She entered the Bitterwood Community Center banquet hall with no fanfare, a tall, fit woman in her early thirties. Fanfare or not, Walker Nix found his gaze drawn her way, taking in her appearance with the practiced eye of an investigator. She had sleek auburn hair worn straight and intelligent green eyes that scanned the room with a specific goal in mind, narrowing as she failed to find her target.
I should paint her,
he thought. She wasn’t pretty, exactly, but he found her striking features interesting.
Conversation died to nothing as most of the partygoers turned to look at the newcomer. Laney Hanvey, standing near the front of the hall with her mother and sister, crossed quickly to the woman, a smile on her face. She passed Walker, leaving him with a whiff of her light jasmine scent, and extended her hand to the taller woman. “Dana. You look just like your photo. It’s so nice to finally meet you!”
Chief’s sister, Nix thought, his interest tempered by the impracticality of lusting after a woman whose brother was his boss. Her impending arrival had been the talk of the police station from the time the chief had mentioned to one of the file clerks that she was coming. She’d be in town only a few days, just long enough to get to know her brother’s fiancée and catch up on their lives, before heading back to her job in Atlanta.
Still, his gaze lingered on Dana Massey’s face as she smiled at Laney and took her hand with what appeared to be genuine pleasure. She really would be a fascinating subject to paint.
“I’m so happy to finally meet you, Laney!” Dana maintained eye contact as if oblivious to the interested stares of everyone else in the room. Nix dragged his gaze away from the meeting of the future sisters-in-law and let it skim across the other faces in the hall. To his surprise, he saw several looks of shock and one or two expressions of near hostility.
he thought. As far as he knew, this was Dana Massey’s first visit to Bitterwood. And what little he’d heard about her wouldn’t elicit hostility from anyone but the fugitives she chased in her job as a deputy U.S. marshal.
“Doyle is late,” Laney was saying as she and Dana passed Nix’s position near the doorway. “I tried calling his phone, but he’s not answering.”
“He’s probably lost it somewhere,” Dana murmured in the tone of a sister used to her younger brother’s foibles. “He loses a phone every year, I swear.”
They passed out of earshot, and Nix made himself look at his watch, not Dana Massey’s shapely backside. Almost eight. The party had officially started at seven-thirty. And while Bitterwood chief of police Doyle Massey had a reputation for being a bit more laid-back than his predecessor, he’d never shown a tendency toward tardiness.
Nix bumped gazes with one of his fellow detectives, small, dark-eyed Ivy Calhoun. She was newly married, tanned golden from her recent honeymoon in the Bahamas and looking happier than he’d ever seen her. She flashed a smile at him, and he wandered over to where she stood with her new husband, Sutton Calhoun.
“Nix.” Sutton greeted him with a nod. They were both Bitterwood natives, but Sutton was a few years younger than Nix. He was better acquainted with Nix’s younger brother, Lavelle, which might explain the wariness in Sutton’s gaze. Lavelle had never been anything but trouble.
“Calhoun,” Nix responded in kind, saving his smile for Sutton’s bride. “Have you heard from the chief?”
Ivy shook her head. “Laney said he told her he had to pick up something from the office before he came to the party. But that was nearly an hour ago.”
It didn’t take an hour to get anywhere in Bitterwood. “Have you tried calling the station to see if he showed up?”
Ivy cocked her head slightly to one side, her gaze narrowing. “You think something’s wrong?”
“One of your hunches?” Sutton added, not without a hint of sarcasm.
“No,” Nix lied, even though his hunch meter was going off like a klaxon. “Just doesn’t seem much like the chief to keep his girl waiting.”
“Is that his sister?” Ivy nodded toward Dana Massey, who stood at the front talking to Laney and her family.
“Yes,” Nix answered. “She didn’t seem worried about her brother’s lateness.”
Sutton took a sip from the cup of red punch he held in his right hand. With a grimace, he set the cup on a nearby table. “Maybe she knows stuff about him we don’t.”
“Maybe,” Nix conceded.
“But you don’t think so,” Ivy prodded.
He gave her a warning look, but her eyebrows merely rose a notch and her dark eyes flashed with amusement.
She thought it was all great fun, having a genuine Cherokee soothsayer on the police force, and most of the time Nix didn’t try to squelch her enjoyment. He wasn’t a soothsayer, of course—his hunches were usually based on deduction, not intuition. And he was only part Cherokee. The rest was pure Appalachian Scots-Irish, as his brother Lavelle’s headstrong ways would attest. But playing the inscrutable Indian could have its advantages, especially during interrogations.
“I’ll give the station a call, see what’s what.” He wandered away and pulled out his cell phone to call the main switchboard.
The night shift dispatcher, Briar Blackwood, answered, “Bitterwood P.D.”
“Hey, Briar, it’s Nix. Have you seen the chief?”
“He called about seven to say he was heading in to pick something up from his office, but he didn’t show. I figured he might have been running late and decided to come by after the party.”
Nix frowned. “Yeah, that’s probably it.”
“What’s wrong?” Briar asked.
“Later, Briar.” He hung up before she could ask any more questions he couldn’t answer and crossed back to where Ivy and Sutton stood, talking to a tall redhead and an even taller man with dark hair and a rangy but powerful build.
Ivy introduced the pair as Natalie and J. D. Cooper, friends of the chief’s. “Natalie used to work with the chief down South,” Ivy added as Nix shook hands.
Natalie smiled, but he saw concern hovering behind her green eyes. “Ivy says Doyle’s late. Doyle’s never late. He may come across as an overgrown frat boy sometimes, but he’s as dependable as they come.”
Her alarm exacerbated his own growing concern. Keeping his voice low, he told them about his call to the station. “That was an hour ago.”
Ivy looked from Natalie’s face back to Nix’s. “Should we go look for him?”
“I’ll do it,” Nix volunteered. “You stay here and make sure Laney doesn’t start worrying too much until we know what’s what.”
Unspoken between them was the fact that there might well be a damned good reason to worry. Only three months earlier, Doyle Massey had crossed swords with a man named Merritt Cortland, whose thirst for power had led him to kill his father and several others in a deadly explosion. He’d tried to make the chief another of his victims, but Massey had fought him off. After Cortland had fallen down a steep incline, landing on the rocks below, he’d been thought dead, but by the time paramedics arrived at the base of the bluff, his body was gone.
Was Merritt Cortland still alive? It was a question that nobody had been able to answer to anyone’s satisfaction. Nix figured it was possible the man’s injuries weren’t fatal as the chief had assumed. It was equally possible that one of Cortland’s ragtag cohort of meth cookers, anarchists and radical militia soldiers had recovered the body and was keeping it on ice in order to keep the legend alive.
Under Merritt Cortland’s father, Wayne, the criminal operation had flourished, and even Cortland the younger had somehow managed to keep the enterprise afloat, despite the disparate elements involved. But if Merritt Cortland was dead, how long would the conspiracy thrive?
Outside the community center, night had fallen deep and blue. After a mild day, the temperature had dropped into the forties, driving Nix deeper into his leather jacket. As he started down the concrete steps to the sidewalk, the door opened behind him and footsteps clicked across the hard surface.
“Are you going to look for Doyle?”
The low female voice rippled along his nerves as if she’d run a finger down his spine. He turned to find Dana Massey standing on the steps behind him, her intelligent eyes full of stubborn intent.
Lying would do no good. She seemed like the kind of woman who never asked a question if she didn’t already know the answer. “I thought I’d see what’s keeping him.”
“How late is he?”
“Party started at seven-thirty, so—”
“When was the last time anyone heard from him?” She walked down the steps until she stood level with Nix, her head only a couple of inches below his own. She was as tall as her brother and had the same sort of dynamic presence, though the chief’s aura of command was often tempered by his good-natured humor.
There was no humor in Dana Massey’s green eyes at the moment.
“He called the police station around seven and told the dispatcher he was going to drop by the office before the party to pick up something.”
“Pick up what?”
Her lips flattened with annoyance, though her irritation didn’t seem to be directed toward him. “Was he at home when he called?”
“Don’t know that, either,” he admitted. He should have asked the question of Briar, though the chief might not have said where he was. “I’m working on that assumption.”
To her credit, she didn’t make the usual joke about assumptions. “He’s not answering his phone.”
“So I hear.”
She extended her hand suddenly, as if she’d just remembered they hadn’t met. “Dana Massey. The chief’s sister.”
“Walker Nix. The chief’s detective.”
Her lips curved slightly at his dry rejoinder as she shook his hand. She had a firm, dry grip, with long fingers that felt like warm velvet against his own. “So I heard. Mind if I tag along?”
He could still feel the lingering sensation of her skin against his when he dropped her hand. “Wouldn’t you rather stick around the party?”
She shook her head. “I’m here for my brother. Wherever he is.”
He nodded toward the sidewalk. “Bundle up. My heater’s acting up.”
* * *
rusty-looking Ford pickup truck parked a block down Main Street from the community center, then shifted her gaze back to the tall, dark-eyed man who seemed to be watching her for her reaction. She got the feeling this moment was some sort of test, but damned if she knew what the right answer might be.
“Nice wheels,” she murmured.
The right corner of his mouth quirked upward. “Thanks.” He opened the passenger door without producing a key.
Her high heels weren’t the most practical footwear for climbing into an oversized truck, but she managed to haul herself into the cab without making too much of a spectacle. Her wool slacks and cable-knit sweater had seemed to be sufficient for the cool night, but the truck’s hard vinyl seat felt like a block of ice under her backside. She stifled a shiver and held her breath until she located the seat belt and reassured herself that it actually worked.
Walker Nix slid behind the steering wheel and engaged his own seat belt before turning to look at her. “Need a blanket?”
She bit back a shiver and shook her head no. “How far away is Doyle’s house?”
“You’re not staying there?”
She shook her head again, hoping he didn’t ask any uncomfortable questions. “I booked a room at a motel in a town north of here. Quaint name—Purgatory.”
“That’s a bit of a drive.”
A bit of a drive? Purgatory was maybe ten minutes away by car. A commute that short in Atlanta, where she lived and worked, was something to be deeply coveted.
Thinking of the short drive from Purgatory reminded her that her car was parked across the street. The Chevy featured soft seats and a working heater. But before she could suggest they take her car, Nix had already cranked the truck and swung it out of its parking place.
“You didn’t see anything on the drive here?” Nix asked her.
“No, but I was already in town by seven.” She’d waffled over the gift she’d picked out for her brother and his new bride on the drive from Atlanta and had decided to do some last-minute shopping in Bitterwood. But, of course, most of the town’s quaint little shops had closed down at five. “Thought I’d do some last-minute shopping, but nothing was open.”
“Everything closes at five around here.”
“Well, there are some joints here and there where you can paint the town red until you can’t see straight. But I don’t think they’re selling what you were wanting to buy.”
Like most of the other people she’d met since arriving in town, Walker Nix had a hard-edged mountain accent, though his was tempered a bit, as if he’d spent some time away from the hills. He wasn’t handsome, exactly, but she rather liked the flat planes and hard angles of his features. He had olive skin and dark hair worn very short on the sides and only a little longer on top. Military-style, she guessed. Probably had some armed-forces service in his background—marine corps, or maybe army. Infantry, not rear echelon. The man had jumped right to action at the first sign of trouble.
Once they left the small town center, artificial lighting nearly disappeared, save for the occasional residences spaced every few hundred yards along the winding two-lane road. So the sudden bright beams of light that split the darkness around a blind curve caught them both by surprise. Nix hit the brakes, the sudden deceleration slamming Dana hard against the restraint belt crossing her chest. The brakes squealed, but the truck shimmied to a stop a dozen yards short of the large black truck that lay on its side in the middle of the road, its headlights slicing through the darkness.
No, God, no. S
he stared at the wreck with a knot in her gut.
Not Doyle, too.
Before Dana could unlatch her seat belt, Nix had jerked the truck in Park and jumped out, running toward the wreck. She joined him, cursing the high heels that kept getting caught in the uneven, rutted pavement. Terror sucked the air right out of her lungs as she faltered to a stop in front of the vehicle.