After his brother is convicted of murder, Shane Mason will do anything to clear his name. But when his investigations lead him to enter South Dakota's Desert Quest extreme race, Shane is floored by the surprise waiting for him. Kelly Cloudman?the woman he can't let himself love?is the race's medic?and the killer's next target. A painful memory from his past divided Shane from Kelly, but he's not going to let her out of his sight again. Even if it means revealing his secrets, Shane won't stop until he's found the truth?and kept the murderer from striking again.
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Dana is a 2009 American Christian Fiction Writers Book of the Year finalist and an award winner in the Pacific Northwest Writers Literary Contest. Her novel, Betrayal in the Badlands, won a 2010 Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award. She has enjoyed writing a mystery series for Barbour Books and more than ten novels to date for Harlequin’s Love Inspired Suspense line. Dana loves feedback from her readers. Contact her at www.danamentink.comExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The site might as well have been on Mars, rather than tucked in the South Dakota Badlands. Shane was still sweating from the fifteen-mile bike ride, which was nearly vertical in some places along the lonely trail and eventually led to an abandoned mine. They'd finally reached the spot known by the other endurance racers as Sheer Drop. It was a cliff of gray rock, striated with layers of black and white, studded with one lone tree standing sentinel against the sky. The view was spectacular. Even in his preoccupied state, Shane recognized the magnificence of the canyon below, twisting and brushy, and the hills with their covering of wind-tossed grass. The air was scented with the tang of newly fallen rain on long-parched ground.
Shane knew the Desert Quest race producers were keeping tabs on the participants. Back at the campground, which served as base of operations, they tracked everyone carefully via the GPS units all the racers carried, particularly Shane, as he was a late addition. He knew that race producer, Martin Chenko, and the man Shane was really interested in talking to, Devin Ackerman, were watching them.
Go ahead and watch, Ackerman. Enjoy things while you can.
A cold drizzle of rain snaked down his back as he laced on his climbing shoes and secured the bike before beginning preparations for the descent, slipping on a harness and checking the static rope already affixed to the top of the cliff.
The bank of clouds blotted out the afternoon sky, and the wind blew in sporadic gusts. If the October drizzle morphed into a serious storm, the corrugated rocks would turn slick and rappelling down would be dangerous. Storms in the South Dakota Badlands were more than noisy. They were deadly. The man next to Shane regarded him without a hint of a smile, prematurely silver hair glinting in the sparse sunlight.
"Think you can make it? You've got to prove competency before they'll let us race as a team," Andy Gleeson said. "If you can't, say so now and I'll find another teammate. I'm in this thing to win the fifty thousand. My partner bugged out two weeks ago. That's the only reason I'm giving you a look."
"I got that. I can do it, if they don't call it on account of the weather. It's just a trial run."
"Seems to me you got a good incentive to win," Gleeson said, giving him an appraising look. "Ranching can't pay too good."
Shane started. "How did you know I'm a rancher?"
Gleeson looked at the sky. "Ah, you just hear things."
What things? Did Gleeson know about Shane's brother, even though he'd used a fake last name? If he did, then Ackerman might know the truth as well, the real reason Shane had entered the race. He itched to grill Gleeson, but further questions would only make things worse.
Shane jerked the strap on his helmet tight. "I know I'm your second choice." He also knew he could handle the physical requirements of the race. Climbing, swimming, canoeing and the like were no problem, after having spent plenty of time training for triathlons and Iron Man races.
The question was, could he accomplish his real goal? He knew deep down in his bones that race publicity man Devin Ackerman killed his sister-in-law, and all he had to do was find Ellen Brown, the woman who'd lied to give Ackerman an alibi. Many of the racers were repeaters so the chances were good some of Ellen's old teammates were competing again. All he needed was a way to contact her, convince her to come clean, at least enough to cast doubt on the police's ironclad case against his brother. Or maybe Ackerman would incriminate himself. Shane had done additional research, combing through blogs from previous Desert Quest races for any mention of Ackerman, and knew that the man liked to party. And when he did, he liked to talk.
All I need to do is stay around long enough to find the tiniest particle of truth, just enough to help Todd.
Gleeson checked the anchors. "Secure," he said.
Shane checked them again anyway, earning a nod of approval from his partner. A noise from down below drew his attention. A road followed the base of the cliff through pockets of smaller rock formations. A dark vehicle drove slowly along, heading in the direction of the campground. Shane watched the slow progress, wondering who would be driving up just then. Most of the racers were in camp, waiting out the storm, and the vehicle didn't have the Desert Quest markings on the side to identify it as a race official's.
He felt a spatter of rain on his face as the storm picked up, the wind tearing at his T-shirt. The car continued on, toward a small canyon, pinched in on both sides by rippled rock.
Gleeson rubbed his chin. "What do you think? Storm going to get worse?"
Shane didn't have to answer. A crackle of lightning sizzled overhead, followed a few moments later by the rumble of thunder that shook the sky and the ground under their feet. This high up, it seemed as though they were right in the center of the storm as the rain unleashed all its fury, howling around them.
They moved away from the tree toward a narrow outcropping of rock that would serve as scant shelter while Gleeson checked his satellite phone. "Message from HQ says we're officially postponing. We'll have to wait for a break and then take the bikes back." He looked up at the sky, face puckered in anger. "Why couldn't it have waited an hour? I wanted to get us qualified tonight."
Shane wasn't listening. From his position he could barely make out the car below as it entered the canyon. A memory of the past intruded, a time when his father had entered just such a canyon in just such a storm. One second it was clear, and the next they were nearly swallowed up by the crush of rising water.
Shane should have learned from that experience how deadly and unforgiving water could be. If only he'd learned.
Somehow—with God's help, his brother had said—they'd escaped the flash flood then. He wondered if God was keeping tabs on that little car now.
Kelly Cloudman gripped the wheel as the wind shook the car. She glanced in the rearview at Charlie. Fortunately, the three-year-old was asleep, oblivious to her tension as they crept along. The walls of the canyon blotted out the meager light, leaving her straining to see. She sighed, wondering again why she was driving through the middle of nowhere, South Dakota, with Charlie.
Because he's yours now and he needs you.
She shot him another quick glance, noting the slight curl in his hair and the round cheeks that matched those of her twin sister, Rose. They were fraternal twins, but Kelly and her sister had always been more alike than different—until her sister succumbed to alcoholism.
Where are you, Rose? What have you done?
She didn't know, in spite of her efforts and the halfhearted attempts by the police to locate Rose. Even their uncle Bill, who had returned to his job as Tribal Ranger after nearly losing his life and Heather's, the woman he would later marry, to a madman, had had no luck discovering the whereabouts of her vanished sister.
Sometimes she thought the whole thing was a dream. But the little child left in her car a year and a half ago was certainly not. Charlie was a flesh-and-blood child who desperately needed her. A vicious splatter of rain on the windshield made her jump.
"We'll be okay, Charlie," she whispered. "This job pays enough for us to find a place to stay until your mommy comes home." If she ever does. She swallowed the doubt.
Having a family hadn't been part of her vision. Not through college or the nursing school from which she'd just graduated a few months before. She'd been interested only in her academic pursuits—until a certain blue-eyed rancher had reminded her how incredibly joyful life could be.
He's gone now, Kelly. He's got no place in your heart or your life anymore.
She'd gained a child and lost her soul mate, and now she was driving through a nasty storm to some desolate part of South Dakota she'd never laid eyes on before, even though she'd grown up in the state.
The rain fell harder now, slamming into the front windshield. She should have arrived for her job as race medic the day before, but Charlie had been sick and she was reluctant to make the drive when he was running a fever. Was this the way parenting was? The constant worry and rerouting of plans? She flashed on her own mother, who had struggled with drug addiction for years before she beat it. Sadly, her death had all the symptoms of an overdose, so Kelly and her sister had believed her to be a junkie right up to the very end. Guilt rose thick and cold inside her. She hadn't even been able to find Rose to tell her the truth—that their mother had been murdered. And she'd been so caught up in her own pursuits, she hadn't had much time for their mother until it was too late.
She pushed the hair out of her face. Motherhood was a complicated thing, an intricate connection between woman and child that persisted even when trauma and addiction got in the way. So far, hard as it had been to juggle her career and her role as a mom, she would not trade a minute of it. As if he heard her thoughts, Charlie started, suddenly awake.
"Mama Kelly," he said, brown eyes wide.
"It's okay, honey. I'm here." She had been floored when he decided to call her Mama, and somewhat awed by the responsibility of holding the title.
"Yes, Charlie. It's raining. We'll be at the campground soon, okay?"
He pulled his flannel blanket with the trains printed on it to the side of his face and reached out to pet the elderly cat snuggled at his feet.
She looked again at the GPS fixed to the dashboard, which suddenly blinked to a blank screen.
"Don't quit on me now," she muttered, pushing down panic at the thought of being lost...
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