A Secret in Conard County (Conard County: The Next Generation)

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9780373279746: A Secret in Conard County (Conard County: The Next Generation)

From New York Times bestselling author Rachel Lee—a riveting new Conard County romance! 

 

Healing from bullet wounds and fleeing the bomber who shot her, FBI agent Erin Sanders refuses to play it safe. Driving west, she'll stay off the grid—until deputy sheriff Lance Conroe spoils her secret getaway. 

 

Taking her to his remote Wyoming home, the hunky lawman only hopes to protect her. Just what headstrong, untrusting Erin doesn't want. But when another showdown with the bomber looms and a shocking betrayal surfaces, Erin wants Lance...badly. It's time to get over her control and intimacy issues to indulge their dangerous attraction. Because her plan to catch the killer could cost them both their lives.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Rachel Lee was hooked on writing by the age of twelve, and practiced her craft as she moved from place to place all over the United States. This New York Times bestselling author now resides in Florida and has the joy of writing full-time.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Erin Sanders opened her eyes. The flashing lights reflected from her rearview mirror straight into them. A cop was pulling up behind her in a tan SUV. She sighed, kissing off the hope of a brief nap, wondering why he was stopping. She'd pulled off the highway onto a dirt turnout just to take a little rest. Road hypnosis had begun to get to her, as well as fatigue, hardly surprising since she was still healing.

The day was bright and sunny, and being parked on the side of the road was hardly suspicious. As far as she could see, for miles around there wasn't another soul. Drying summer grasses, punctuated by brush, fences and mountains. Practically the middle of nowhere.

Then again, her job had taught her to be suspicious of even the apparently ordinary, like a cop pulling up behind her on a nearly deserted highway. In the fifteen minutes she'd been parked here, she'd watched several trucks tear by at top speed, and a few pickups and cars. Now there was nothing in sight except the vehicle pulling up behind her.

Instinctively she slipped her hand into her suit jacket and gripped the butt of her service pistol, thumb on the safety. A few minutes passed and she knew what he was doing: checking her out-of-state plates. At last she saw the door open and its occupant climb out. Watching in her side-view mirror she took in the khaki uniform, the tan cowboy hat, the gun belt. As he walked closer, she noted that he was tall and strongly built. He had an easy stride, a comfortable bearing. Okay, he wasn't looking for trouble.

She waited, not yet ready to remove her hand from her pistol. It was too soon to trust anyone, most especially someone in a uniform. The guy who had nearly killed her had been wearing a police uniform.

He reached the side of her car and bent down, giving her a full view of his rugged face. Late thirties, maybe? Sun and wind had taken a bit of toll. He looked at her from aquamarine eyes that reminded her of the waters around the Florida Keys. The punch of instant attraction she felt was unwelcome and unwanted.

"You okay, ma'am?" he asked through the three-inch opening she'd left in her window. His voice was pleasantly deep.

"Fine, just resting," she answered.

"Lonely place for a break," he remarked.

"Better than running off the road because I'm tired."

One corner of his mouth lifted. "True. You wanna tell me what you're holding under your jacket?"

Smart, too, she thought. And a stupid rookie mistake on her part to telegraph that she was holding something. Another sigh escaped her as she realized he wasn't just going to walk away. Now she'd have to explain and get out of the car despite the pain and deal with an alert county mountie. She could have stood on her rights, but he also had a court-granted right to protect himself. Time to cooperate.

"Deputy," she said, "I'm holding my sidearm. If you want to back up, I'll pull it out where you can see it and show you my ID."

He scanned her face quickly, nodded once and backed up to the rear of her vehicle. At the same time he released the snap on his own holster and drew his pistol.

He was good, Erin thought sourly. She hoped this didn't drag on for too long. On the other hand, at this point she was fairly certain he was exactly what he appeared to be. Now it was her turn to reassure him.

She pulled her pistol out of the holster, rolled down the window all the way and placed the pistol on the top of the car, grimacing as her ribs screamed. Dang, she felt naked now. And he was still watching from the back, his gun at the ready.

She pushed the door open, wincing with every movement. Getting away for a while had been a great idea. Sitting still for so long in a car hadn't been. Every single injury that had brought her to this point protested. Torn muscle and scarred skin cried out. She wondered if she'd be able to stand.

Moving cautiously, as much because of her body as anything, she climbed out, keeping her hands in plain view. Then, facing him, her hands up, she called, "FBI. I'm going to pull my ID out of my pocket, okay?"

"Go for it," he answered, keeping a bead on her.

She'd stuffed it in the pocket of her jacket. Now she jabbed her aching fingers in and fished it out. It took both her hands to flip it open and show it.

He scanned it, then holstered his pistol and walked up to her. She let him take the badge case and study it.

"Mind if I call this in?"

"Be my guest, as long as I can sit down again."

Those amazing eyes of his leaped from the case to her face. "What's wrong?"

"Two weeks out of the hospital. Not everything is up to par."

"Wanna sit in my car?"

"That's more moving than I want to do right now, Deputy." She scanned his name badge. Deputy Conroe. "I'll just perch here while you check me out."

She hated it when he took her pistol off the roof of her car and carried it with him. She understood, but hated it anyway. These days she couldn't stand having the thing out of her sight.

Five minutes passed while she sat with her feet on the dirt and her bottom on the edge of the driver's seat. Warm, dry prairie winds blew over her, and at last another burst of traffic arrived, sweeping past them and leaving even more heat in its wake. She watched them go by in both directions, hoping they were all feeling better than she was. On their way to exciting destinations. Not just on the run from themselves.

She heard crunching and looked over her left shoulder to see Deputy Conroe coming back. He carried her badge case and her gun, apparently satisfied.

She managed a faint smile as he passed them back to her. "Sorry for the hassle, Agent Sanders."

"No hassle," she admitted. "Once you knew I was armed we were going down this road, weren't we? Some things you have to do."

He surprised her then by squatting so their faces were nearly level. "You're not all right. Even I can see it. You want a ride into town? We can pick up your car later."

She looked into that rugged face and read more than a professional concern. "I honestly don't know what I'd do in town. I'm just rambling."

"I heard. So let's get you and your gear to someplace where you can rest. If you're worried about your car, I can get it towed before we leave here."

She wondered what else he'd heard in those five minutes. She had the worst urge to tell him she didn't need any help, but a glance to the west warned her there wasn't much time left before the sun sank behind those mountains. Weariness had caught up with her and seemed to be deepening by the minute. What was she going to do? Sleep out here in her car? Messed up though she was, she retained a vestige or two of common sense.

"Thanks," she said finally.

"Give me your keys. Suitcases in the trunk, right? I'll help you get into my car, we'll wait for the tow and then I'll take you into town. You can sleep if you want."

For the first time in months, Erin felt peace wash over her, as if the universe had just sent a blessing her way. Maybe there was still some good left after all.

Lance Conroe figured Agent Erin Sanders had no idea how bad she appeared right now. Framed by short dark hair, her face displayed smooth, classic lines, but just then she looked as pale as white muslin, and awfully fragile. Her sherry-brown eyes were a bit sunken. Given what she did for a living, he didn't figure this was the former version of herself. Sure must have been some kind of hell that put her in a hospital and left her dragged out like this.

He had to walk slowly to stay beside her, but he didn't offer to steady her, suspecting that might offend her.

When it came time for her to climb in the passenger seat of his SUV, however, she didn't even try to argue against his assistance. He slipped his arm around her shoulders, his other beneath her knees and put her in the seat. Too easily. Light as a feather. Too light.

"Nap," he suggested. "I'll get a tow here in about twenty minutes."

She closed her eyes and didn't stir at all as he radioed for the tow truck and told them to step on it. While they waited, he unloaded two suitcases from the trunk of her vehicle. It must be her personal vehicle because he didn't find additional weapons but he did find a Kevlar vest and dark blue FBI operations jacket. He brought those, too, placing everything in the back end of his car, squeezing it in among his own collection ofjob tools, from shotguns and ammunition, to protective clothing and rain gear. A cop's trunk was his home away from home.

Then he checked her glove box, but all it contained were the owner's manual and her registration. Sure that everything was safe, he stood by, waiting for the truck.

He wondered if she'd be gone by tomorrow or if he'd get a chance to learn her story. Whatever it was, it was bad.

Thirty minutes later he was following the tow truck toward town. In all that time, Erin Sanders hadn't stirred. His radio crackled, he'd reported what he was doing, and as he drove he passed another deputy headed out to take over his section of the state highway.

Then he heard a cell phone ring. He half expected Erin to sleep right through it, but maybe some things ran deeper than sleep for a law enforcement officer. She popped her eyes open and felt around in her pocket, pulling out her cell. She lifted it to the side of her face and said, "Sanders."

He kept his gaze fixed on the truck and her car just ahead. He'd told them to put her car at the garage. Larry would keep it in his lot until she wanted it back.

"Fran, I'm fine," he heard Erin say. "I was dozing beside the road and a deputy picked me up. Of course he checked me out when he found out I was armed."

A long silence.

"I don't know exactly where I am. Somewhere in Wyoming. We're headed to some town where I can find a bed."

"Conard City," Lance interjected helpfully.

"Conard City," Erin repeated with a slight nod to him. "And if you're worried about it, you can check him out. Deputy Conroe."

"Lance Conroe, Conard County Sheriff's Office."

"Did you catch that, Fran? Okay. I'm fine, just tired."

Another long silence, then Erin spoke impatiently. "Why would I want to do that? I've got the whole kit and caboodle, all the wounds and scars, an ex who pesters me, a killer who got away, a body taking forever to heal and nightmares that won't quit. What more do I need? Another man? No, I will not call Tom, and I won't be returning his calls. I need this break."

Whoa, thought Lance, that was an entire mess in one succinct passage. He felt a bit of sympathy for her as he heard her wind up the call and put her phone away.

"Sorry," she said. "You didn't need to hear that."

"Too much information?" he asked lightly. "It's okay."

"No, it's not okay. I sounded whiny."

"You sounded fed up. Big difference."

She stirred at last, turning slowly in her seat, her cautious movements betraying her. Something still hurt, something was still healing and moving wasn't her favorite activity. At once his mind slipped into another gear. He'd planned to leave her at the La-Z-Rest Motel, which for all it was decrepit was at least clean, but right across the state highway was a truck stop. No silence, even at night.

"You're a nice man, Deputy," she said.

"Lance. Not doing anything special."

"I beg to differ." She fell silent for a few seconds. "I saw signs for a big resort on my way here. Is it open?"

"Not yet." Biggest joke around. Finally they were pulling everything together for the long-promised resort and it all had come to a huge halt last spring because of a landslide. It was as if the Fates conspired against the town. Not that everyone wanted the place, but it would have offered some jobs and put a little extra cash in the local economy. "All we have to offer these days is a flea-bag motel across the highway from a truck stop."

"It'll do. I've slept all kinds of places."

He imagined she had. He wished he could put her someplace better, but the few rooming houses rented by the week or month, not by the day. And asking a family to take her in would probably be miserable for her and everyone else. He thought briefly of his aunt but knew he couldn't make the offer without checking with Maria first. So the motel it was. She'd probably be there only one night anyway.

"You need to eat?" he asked.

"Why do you ask?"

"Because I can take you to a diner in town before I leave you at the motel. Considering you don't seem to be moving too well, that might be better than trying to cross the highway to the truck stop."

Silence. For some reason he expected her to get vocally annoyed by his interference. It really was none of his business. Yet the thought of dropping her off like that seemed hardly better than having left her in her car by the roadside.

"Knighterrant?" she asked.

"Who, me?" That surprised a laugh out of him. "Just a cop trying to help a fellow cop. The way you're moving, I'm not sure they should have let you out of the hospital."

"Apparently you don't have much experience with insurance. Anyway, I wouldn't have let them keep me."

He could well believe that. "Listen," he said presently. "The speed limit by the motel is supposed to be thirty. Well, we get all types coming along the state highway, and some don't read too well. The thought of you trying to cross that piece of road when some knucklehead comes barreling along at sixty..."

"Got you," she answered. "Thanks. The diner sounds good."

He reached for his radio, and called Larry who was driving just ahead of him. "Larry, change of plans. Take the lady's car to the La-Z-Rest. Thanks."

The woman beside him spoke. "That's the name of the motel?"

"Yup."

"Oh, God," she said. It was all he could do not to laugh again. Instead he just said, "Yup," once more.

Then she utterly astonished him by laughing quietly herself. "The La-Z-Rest," she said. "I can hardly wait."

She really had arrived at the ends of the earth, Erin thought as she eased into a booth at the nearly empty diner. Lance Conroe took a minute to let the dispatcher know where he was, then followed her inside.

Just as he settled across from her, a Gorgon of a woman slapped menus down in front of them. "Coffee or the fancy stuff?" she asked.

"Coffee," Lance replied, then looked at Erin. "Latte if you want it."

"I'd love a latte." She tried smiling at the Gorgon, who apparently went by the name of Maude, but after a flickering look, the woman dismissed her and walked away.

"Nice," she murmured.

"Just Maude." Lance smiled. "The food makes up for it unless you're a vegetarian."

"Not a chance," she replied, picking up the plastic-covered menu with a hand that trembled ever so slightly.

"You're not okay," Lance said bluntly.

"Just tired. Too many hours driving, too much sitting still. I shouldn't have pushed it so far today."

"I thought medical leave meant resting and relaxing."

She bridled. "So they told you about that, huh? Blabbermouths."

For the first time, he sighed. "It's written all over you. What...

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