Her Holiday Protector (Men of Millbrook Lake)

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9780373446964: Her Holiday Protector (Men of Millbrook Lake)
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THE WRONG TARGET 

While investigating a murder at Rikki Allen's house, detective Blain Kent realizes the victim looks a lot like Rikki. Could the secretive widow have been the target? He wants answers, but Rikki is unusually cagey. When the killer comes after Rikki at a safe location, Blain finally gets the truth out of her: she's the daughter of Franco Alvanetti—the notorious crime kingpin. A by-the-book former marine, Blain has made it his life mission to put the Alvanetti family out of business. Yet he has to trust Rikki to protect her from a killer who wants her dead by Christmas. 

Men of Millbrook Lake: Four men find love and family

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About the Author:

Lenora Worth writes for Harlequin's Love Inspired and Superromance. Her books have won national and regional awards. Her Love Inspired Suspense Body of Evidence made the New York Times Bestseller List.With over 55 books published, she writes Southern stories set in places she loves such as Atlanta, Georgia, the North Georgia and Arkansas mountains, Texas and Louisiana, including Dallas and New Orleans. Lenora is married and has two grown children.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The sickle moon dipped down in the dark sky, reaching toward the gray surface of Millbrook Lake like a slinky hand trying to touch the water. The nip of winter covered the dusk in a crisp, fresh-smelling blanket of evening dew.

Blain Kent inhaled a deep, cleansing breath and hit his stride on the path around the big oval lake, the cadence of his nightly run echoing behind him. All around him, the quaint turn-of-the-century houses shone with pretty white lights and fresh evergreen wreaths tied up with bright red bows.

Christmas had come to Northwest Florida. But tonight, Blain had to work off that big Thanksgiving meal he'd enjoyed at his parents' house two days ago. He also needed to work off his retired law enforcement father's always critical comments. Blain might have followed in his father's footsteps by returning from combat to take a job with the Millbrook Police Department, but that was where the similarities ended.

Serving for over twenty-five years in the sheriff's department and finally becoming the county sheriff, Sam Kent had tried to keep the peace by pandering to the local elite and turning a blind eye on the powerful Alvanetti crime family that tried to run the entire state of Florida. Alleged crime family since no one could ever pin anything illegal on Franco Alvanetti.

While Blain tried to do an honest day's work and solve crimes by the book, it irritated him to no end that he couldn't find a single piece of incriminating evidence on the Alvanetti clan. So Blain and his still-influential father had a difference of opinion on which way worked best. Blain didn't pander to anyone.

Blain rounded a corner, his thoughts centered on the harsh words he and his father had slung at each other while Mom was in the kitchen dishing up pumpkin pie.

"Don't be so hard on yourself or anyone else around here," Dad had said in his deep, disapproving voice. "You have to make it work, son. Don't make waves. Just keep the peace."

"I want it to work, Dad. For everyone, not just the rich people who live around the lake and out on the canal."

Blain approached that canal now, out of habit his cop's gaze taking in his surroundings. He wouldn't let that conversation with his father ruin his good mood. Not tonight, with that moon hanging over the lake and the whole world alive with the promise of something true and honest around the bend. Christmas was coming. All would be right with the world.

And then he heard a gunshot followed a few seconds later by a woman's scream.

Blain's radar went into overdrive. He glanced up and down the narrow part of the lake that met up with the Millbrook River. On both sides of the canal, town houses and apartment buildings lined the way. Blain stopped, listening, his gaze sweeping the left side of the river, where the footpath turned into a boardwalk along the row of houses. Footbridges connected both sides, most high enough for large boats to pass underneath.

Where had the gunshot and scream come from?

Maybe a car had backfired but he knew a gunshot when he heard one and the scream had definitely been real. He heard footfalls coming toward him. Blain wasn't carrying his weapon, but he waited, anyway. He knew how to defend himself.

A small figure came running up the boardwalk. As the silhouette came nearer, he grew even more concerned.

A woman. She sprinted toward him, her long dark hair flying out behind her like a lacy shawl. She kept glancing back as if she were running away from someone.

"Ma'am, are you hurt?"

She came to a surprised stop and drew to a halt a few feet away from him, fear radiating off her body.

"I...I need help," she said on a shaky voice, her breathing shallow. "Someone was inside my house when I got home and...I think they shot my friend."

"I'm a police officer," he said to calm her. "Stay there. I'll walk toward you."

She searched behind her and then turned back, her expression full of fear and doubt. "How do I know you're telling the truth?"

Blain tugged his badge out of the inside pocket of his hoodie and held it up so she could see it in the street light's glow. "See? Millbrook Police Department."

When the woman frowned and backed away, he said, "Just relax. I won't hurt you. Have you called 911?"

"No. I just got out of there," she said again, glancing back behind her. "I need...your help. Someone was in my house. I heard them, saw them in my backyard."

"Okay, I'm here." He walked closer, his badge in one hand and the other hand out so she could see it. "What happened to you?"

"It's not me," she said, her dark eyes flashing. "It's my friend Tessa." She pointed, flinging her arm back behind her. "I...I think she's dead. I mean, I know she's dead. I found her there after I heard a gunshot outside my back door. I...I ran out and saw a man running away."

Blain's instincts kicked in. A murder in Millbrook. That was something he rarely had to deal with. "Show me. Can you take me to your place? I can check on your friend and check your house. And we'll call for backup, too."

The woman nodded, pushed at her hair, her dark eyes going black. "Yes. She's...she's at my town house. Up there."

She motioned toward the end of the long canal to a prime spot of real estate on the corner. Nice for sunsets and enjoying the channel that opened up into the lake and river.

Blain clipped his badge on the outside pocket of his hoodie. "Okay, show me where you found the woman and let me check your house."

She waited, her hands fisted against a trim dark jacket. Blain came up beside her. "I'm Detective Blain Kent."

She didn't acknowledge that introduction but she did uncurl her fingers. Blain took the seconds ticking by to notice her hands and her face. No sign of a struggle and no visible wounds or any sign of blood. But she looked shocked and dazed. "What's your name?"

"Rikki."

Okay, Rikki who obviously didn't want to give out too much information right now.

He followed her between the narrow, two-storied houses, each one similar to the next except they were painted in various colors of pastel blues and yellows, mixed in with vivid whites. This new, swank development had the same Victorian flair as the turn-of-the-century homes along the lake. And came with a high price tag to match.

"I live here," she said, hurrying now as they approached a muted yellow townhome. "She's out on the patio."

She went through an open ornate gate decorated with a bright red-and-green wreath, but she stopped and took Blain's hand when he came up behind her.

A charge of awareness rushed up his arm, like a river wake rippling against the shore. Blain held to her, thinking how tiny her hand felt against his. He didn't argue or pull away.

She might bolt if he made a wrong move.

"There," she said with a gulp. "She comes to stay with me sometimes on weekends. I heard the shot when I came in the house and found her when I saw the back door open."

Blain took in the scene. A cedar wooden table overturned, a matching chair flipped over, its striped cushions lying against the brick surface of the spacious patio. He glanced from those items to the woman lying on her stomach against the redbrick, blood pooling all around her. Blain made his way to the woman, careful not to disturb anything. He knelt and checked her neck for a pulse.

None. Dead.

He stood and pulled out his phone. "Is she...is she dead?"

He nodded to the obvious. "Yes. I have to call it in and I need to check inside."

"I'm going with you," the woman said, averting her gaze from the dead woman. "I...I heard someone and then I heard the gun go off. He shot her."

"Did you see him shoot her?"

"No. I came home and walked through the house. Then I heard the gunshot. He ran away when I screamed."

She was in shock, no doubt about that. "I need you to wait out here, okay? You can sit on the porch."

She nodded and allowed him to guide her to the small covered area where a white wrought-iron bistro set was hidden by a thick jasmine vine.

"I'm calling for backup and then I'll check the scene. Don't move from this spot."

"Okay." She leaned her elbows on the table and hung her head in her hands. "Hurry, please."

Blain went inside, all the while on the phone with dispatch. Nothing downstairs. Just a couple of open drawers and cabinets. He silently made his way upstairs where he found two bedrooms. Pretty much the same. A closet open and ransacked and some jewelry scattered on a dresser in what looked like the master bedroom. A purse dumped in the guest room.

After clearing the place, he came back outside. "I didn't find anyone else inside," he said to the woman.

He studied the scene while he explained things to the dispatcher. The woman had been shot in the back. Running away? Then he noticed where her right hand lay out from her body. The blood spatter there looked smeared with a pattern that looked like some sort of letter—a K with a line next to it. Interesting. He took a picture with his cell phone.

When he heard a soft moan, he turned to find Rikki standing by the porch railing, her gaze caught on the dead woman.

She pivoted, a hand to her mouth. He could see her shoulders moving. He heard soft sobs. While he explained his location and the situation, he also noticed something else about the woman lying there on the cold brick.

She looked a lot like the woman standing there sobbing.

Rikki sat in a chair in the den while several police officers moved all around her. The Millbrook Police Department wasn't that big. Maybe three or four full-time officers and one very good-looking detective. She knew this because her family made it their business to keep up with the locals. But she'd been gone a few years and this new detective was different from the good ole boys she remembered.

He looked too intense and moody to bow down to anyone.

She took another gulp of air and closed her eyes to the scene she'd come home and found an hour ago. The house quiet, her cat gone, and the patio door open. Lights blinking away on the Christmas tree by the fireplace. Tessa? She'd called out, thinking her friend had gone out back, maybe had taken Pebble with her since the big, fluffy cat liked to lie across the patio floor bricks, warm from the setting sun. And then she'd looked up and heard a gun firing.

But when she'd hurried outside, the last rays of the sunset had shown with a bright clarity on Tessa lying there. Still. So still. Rikki had screamed and then she'd hurried to find her phone. But when she'd heard footsteps running away and saw a man in her yard, she'd bolted away. Ran like a coward, to what? Where had she been heading?

Away. She needed to get away. If anyone knew who she really was.

"Rikki?"

She whirled on her chair, her heartbeat drumming against her temples. "Yes?"

Blain Kent knelt in front of her, one hand on the arm of the high-backed floral chair, a notebook and ink pen in his other hand. "Is there anyone you can call? Can you stay someplace else tonight?"

Rikki wanted to laugh but she couldn't muster up the strength. She did straighten in the chair, her gaze grabbing onto his face. If she weren't so numb with fear and shock, she'd flirt with him. But she didn't want to flirt. She wanted to go back and walk in the door and see Tessa standing in the kitchen, waiting for their night out on the town in Pensacola. Dinner and conversation and maybe a little flirting. Just a little.

"Rikki? Miss Allen?"

"I'll be okay here."

"It might not be safe." He rocked back on his heels, his sweatpants stretching to accommodate his solid leg muscles. "Do you know of anyone who might want to harm Tessa Jones or you?"

"No." She closed her eyes and prayed for strength. "I...I left Tallahassee to get away for a while. I just broke up with my boyfriend."

The detective's eyes lit up at that statement. "How bad was the breakup?"

"Bad enough. But he doesn't know where I am."

"Right."

"Did you get a good look at the person?"

She tried to remember. "No. Just from behind. He had on dark clothes, like sweats and a cap. Tall. He was tall. With black running shoes."

"Okay, that's something to go on."

"I left her lying there. I was so scared."

He let that go but Rikki felt sure he'd ask her more on that subject later. Could Chad have done this? Was he that vicious, that cruel?

"Tell me more about Tessa Jones," the detective said.

Rikki swallowed the heaviness in her throat. "Tessa grew up in Georgia but she lives in Tallahassee. We went to college together."

"We'll be investigating her background but if you can think of anything that might help us, tell me now."

His words had gone into what sounded like a firm command. He'd probably investigate Rikki's background, too. "Do you suspect me, Detective?"

His expression was as fluid and unreadable as a midnight ocean. "I'm just trying to put the pieces together." He studied his notes. "It looks like she tried to write something. I can't be sure, but...some of the blood pattern looks like the letter K with a line slashed through it."

Rikki's stomach roiled and almost revolted at that image. "I don't know. She calls me KK sometimes. Her nickname for me."

She lowered her head, hoping to stop the nausea.

"You need anything?"

She glanced up at his face, the five o'clock shadow making him look mysterious. "I'm fine."

"So why was Tessa here alone?"

"We were meeting here for the weekend to catch up. I travel a lot so I don't get up here very often." She glanced around, wondering how she'd ever feel safe here again. "I have clients in the area. Orders coming in for art and furnishings. I was on my way home. She knew where to find the key."

He studied her with an intense inky gaze that left her rattled. "So you're here for work and to get away from Tallahassee and your ex-boyfriend."

"Yes."

"What's his name?"

"Chad Presley."

She looked out toward where the medical examiner was about to take away Tessa's cold body. Should she tell him the truth? Should she admit the things that would cause him to suspect her of all kinds of crimes? Or should she sit here like a lump and pretend her life wasn't falling apart?

"Miss Allen? You said you came here to get away from him?"

Rikki lifted her head, her gaze slamming into his. Did he already have her figured out? "Yes, and to take care of some clients in the area and mostly, for a visit with my mother."

No, she'd covered all of her bases on that a long time ago. No one could figure her out. She should be safe.

But here she was, back in the one town she'd sworn she'd never return to again. For oh, so many reasons.

"Why did you need to get away from your ex?"

She didn't want to talk about Chad. "We've been apart for a while but he's having a hard time letting go. I just wanted some time away, to think about things."

"So you came here. Not that far away."

She bobbed her head. "My mother is sick," she said, sincerity her only hope. "I came to visit her during the holidays. I don't get back here too often."

"And who's your mother? Maybe you could go and stay with her?"

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