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It had been more than ten years since tracker Ethan Bia had seen the woman who'd loved him and left him with no explanation. FBI agent Joanna Rhodes was as beautiful and secretive as ever, but insisted on keeping their past—and their passion—where it belonged. Ethan knew tracking an elusive killer through the mountains was their assignment, but his need for answers was as tempting as his urge to touch Joanna. Unfortunately, resisting both was crucial to surviving this mission. A mission that would determine how long Joanna stuck around once it was over....
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USA TODAY bestselling author Julie Miller writes breathtaking romantic suspense. She has sold millions of copies of her books worldwide, and has earned a National Readers Choice Award, two Daphne du Maurier prizes and an RT BookReviews Career Achievement Award. She is a multiple finalist for the prestigious RITA Award. For a complete list of her books and more, go to www.juliemiller.orgExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Special Agent Joanna Rhodes stepped off the puddle jumper flight from Durango into the rain at Kenner City, Colorado.
Though the other two passengers on the same plane made a dash for the shelter of the terminal, Joanna stood on the tarmac, surveying the stark, dramatic landscape of red rock mountains and barren desert spaces of the Four Corners region of the state. Awe-inspiring. Rich in history and mystique. Majestic. She'd read all the descriptors in tourism magazines and advertisements for the nearby casino.
But she couldn't see the beauty. She could barely feel the cool drizzle of rain spitting against her face. An oppressive sense of the world closing in around her, so at odds with the rugged, wide-open spaces, made it difficult to catch her breath.
"Suck it up, girl," Joanna whispered between clenched teeth, her nostrils flaring as she pulled her shoulders back and ordered her lungs to expand. It wasn't the altitude or the faint chill of early spring in the air that had grabbed hold of her. It wasn't the rain, kicking up a familiar, omnipresent dust and washing the scent of ozone down to her level, that made moving from this spot so difficult. It was the memories swirling inside her head, attacking her from every direction, that made this homecoming feel like a walk down a long corridor at a maximum-security prison, ending at a win-dowless cell with her name on it.
"That's the power of positive thinking," she chided herself with sarcasm, hating that her thoughts had gone off on the morbid metaphor. Fanciful images of any kind didn't fit with the practical, efficient persona she'd worked so hard to cultivate. This wasn't supposed to be a stroll down memory lane for her. "Focus on the work."
She was here to break open a case that the bureau, local law enforcement and the Kenner County Crime Lab had been investigating for five months now. Solve the murder of a federal agent in the area and uncover suspected links to the feuding Wayne and Del Gardo crime families out of Las Vegas. Find a lead on the missing fifty million dollars that the late crime boss, Vincent Del Gardo, had allegedly hid in the Four Corners area.
All she had to do was face down a nightmare from her past to get the answers they needed.
No small task on any front.
This was her assignment. She'd been personally requested by the Durango bureau office because of her ethnic background and ties to the area. Her boss in D.C. had assured her it was a career-making opportunity she'd be foolish to pass up. Besides, a job was a job. And she was damn good at hers.
Blinking the moisture from her long dark eyelashes, Joanna checked the Glock 9 mm in the holster on her belt, as well as the FBI shield clipped beside it. Then she rebuttoned her pin-striped blazer and shook her ponytail down the center of her back.
"Piece of cake." Armed inside and out, she pulled up the handle on her overnight suitcase and strode toward the terminal.
"Agent Rhodes?" The glass double doors swung open and a tall, lanky man wearing a tuxedo with a cowboy hat and boots jogged out to meet her.
Instinctively, she halted and retreated half a step, her hand hovering near her gun, waiting for the man to identify himself.
"Didn't see you inside and thought I'd missed you. Sorry I'm running late. I had to pick up my wife and son and give away a bride before I could get here." He stopped a few feet away and tipped the brim of his hat before extending his hand in greeting. "I'm Patrick Martinez."
"Joanna Rhodes." Recognizing the name and the general description of dark hair and Irish-blue eyes given her by the bureau chief in Durango, Jerry Ortiz, she reached out to shake hands with the Kenner County sheriff. "You're not late, Sheriff. But I'd like to remind you that I could just as easily have rented a car and driven myself to your office."
He grinned. "Well, that wouldn't say very much for western hospitality, now, would it."
Knowing she was meant to smile at the friendly remark, she curved her mouth into a practiced arc. But when he reached for the handle of her suitcase, Joanna tightened her grip. Long before she'd reached the age of thirty-three, she'd learned to take care of herself in every way that mattered. "I've got it."
With a nod, he turned to walk beside her. "Then let's get you out of the rain and get you briefed on the investigation." Despite her show of independence, his longer stride got him to the doors first, and he pulled one open for her. He glanced up at the late afternoon's overcast sky as she walked through. "We're expecting storms on and off all weekend long. This little sprinkle is just the prelude."
She remembered the all or nothing weather patterns from her childhood. Summers could be beastly hot and dry, yet still be chilly at night. Winters were frigid, especially up in the mountains. And the transitional seasons in between promised torrential rains and flash floods, or blizzards, depending on the temperature. The area was probably going through its spring thaw right now, when massive snowmelts at the higher elevations filled the rivers and streams in the area—the same streambeds that would be bone dry come autumn. But she wasn't here to reminisce or discuss the weather. "How far are we from your office? I understand it shares a building with the crime unit?"
Once they cleared the terminal, the sheriff pointed to the officially marked black Suburban parked at the curb. With a beep from his key chain, he opened the back door behind the passenger seat. "You can toss your bag in here."
His cowboy-style manners were charming but unnecessary. And once they were both inside the car, he seemed to accept that she was more interested in answers than in making new friends. "We've got a smoothly integrated system here in Kenner County. Budget constraints being what they are, the practicality of housing the area law enforcement units in one location made it a no-brainer. A briefing room, locker rooms, executive offices, plus the interview rooms, lineup room and temporary lockup are located on the first two floors, while most of the crime lab is housed upstairs on the third. We've got a fourth floor for storage." He shifted into Drive and pulled onto the highway leading into town. "We'll be there in ten minutes."
Through the rhythmic swish of the windshield wipers, Joanna watched the landscape change from scrub brush to the metal prefab buildings of a growing industrial park. They passed a neat and tidy residential area nestled in the foothills, filled with square, pueblo-style houses, bungalows and larger Victorian reproduction homes. Finally, Sheriff Martinez turned his car toward the brick and stone buildings that marked the downtown area. Kenner City was a quaint, bustling enterprise of a town, nestled in a bowl between mountain peaks. It boasted striped awnings and pinewood balconies, and flags flew above nearly every storefront and business.
Not one trailer park in sight. No run-down liquor store on the main drag. No tattered teenage girl running the streets, looking for her parents in seedy bars and back alleys, hoping they'd be happy drunk and cooperate with her efforts to get them safely home, instead of mean drunk and belligerent, or just flat passed out from whatever party or paycheck they'd drunk their way through on any given night.
Everything here was charming and well kept and scrupulously clean—a far cry from the Ute reservation where she'd grown up, just a few more miles down the road.
She knew she was expected to say something, to make conversation to pass the drive time. But Joanna had made a career out of watching and assessing before she spoke, learning to listen without saying more than was required. Even before her training, idle chitchat had never come easily for her.
The sheriff didn't seem to have that problem, however. "The hotel where you're booked is just a block from our location, and I figured you'd be doing your interview of the suspect there. If you do want to go somewhere, one of my deputies will be available to drive you. Or we can loan you a vehicle if it's not in use." He slowed as they drove through the heart of downtown, touching his hat to pedestrians hurrying along the wide sidewalks. As they passed the last few businesses, he pointed out a diner-style restaurant with bright lights and lots of windows called the Morning Ray Café. "That's my mom's place. You can get all three meals there. It's good, down-home cookin' that'll fill you up."
The gleam of pride was obvious in his tone and smile. Joanna's mother's idea of a home-cooked meal had involved ripping open packages and zapping them in the microwave—when she remembered to fix any meal at all for her daughter. Joanna had turned herself into a fairly accomplished cook by the time she'd finished the third grade, simply as a matter of survival. But the lack of three square meals a day growing up had been the least of her problems.
The sheriff reached across the seat and tapped her elbow to pull her attention from her thoughts. He pointed to an imposing building with a gray brick and white stone facade on the corner at the end of the street. "There's your hotel. Used to be a mining office, but now it's completely remodeled inside. Want to check in first?"
Alarmed to realize her thoughts kept drifting to the past instead of focusing squarely on her present assignment, Joanna resolutely straightened in her seat. "Let's go directly to your office. I want to familiarize myself with my surroundings before I meet the suspect I'm interrogating."
"You want the home field advantage?" he teased.
"Something like that." They had almost driven out of the far edge of town before Joanna spotted the rambling four-story building with signs that read Kenner City Sheriff and Kenner County Crime Unit. "I read the file from Supervisor Ortiz, but I'd like to get your take on things since you've worked more closely on Agent Grainger's murder. What can you tell me about your suspect, Sherman Watts?"
Good. She got the name out without so much as a stutter of hesitation.
Focus on the job, Joanna. Watts is just a job.
"He's a local troublemaker. Been convicted and jailed on any number of petty crimes—mostly drunk and disorderly, a couple of assaults."
"A-assault?" That was a definite hesitation.
But Martinez, fortunately, didn't pick up on the way she stiffened in her seat. He pulled into a slanted parking space in front of the building. "When Watts is drunk, he can get mean."
So some things never changed in Kenner County. "You don't have him in custody?"
"We suspect he's been doing odd jobs for the Nicky Wayne crime family out of Vegas, like helping Wayne's hit man, Boyd Perkins, hide out in the area. However, what we believe and what we can prove are two different things. That's why he's still a free man. But he's definitely a person of interest we've been watching. Could be he had nothing to do with the murder, and he's only funneling information to them—someone sure seems to be."
She'd heard about the information leaks that had dogged the investigation, seeming to give Boyd Perkins—the man reputed to have killed mob boss Vincent Del Gardo, as well as the bureau's chief suspect in Agent Grainger's murder—a heads-up when to go into hiding or carry out another attack. "How do you want me to direct my interrogation? Confirm the source of the security leak? Find out if Perkins is still in the area and pinpoint his location? Or should I concentrate on Watts himself, and tie him to Boyd Perkins and Agent Grainger's murder so you can make an arrest?"
"Anything you can get out of him. I don't make him for premeditated murder—I'd be surprised if he has the backbone for that. But I wouldn't put it past him to hurt someone if he felt threatened."
She didn't need to read the Kenner County Crime Unit—KCCU, according to her mission brief—report to know his assessement of Sherman Watts was on the money. Drunk or sober—if that ever happened—the fifty-eight-year-old Indian was as dangerous and unpredictable as a badger. If he got cornered, he was just as likely to turn and attack as he was to skulk away into some hole. If he felt he was entitled to something, he'd take it—as long as he thought he could get away with it. And damn to anyone who tried to stop him.
"You owe me, bitch."
With her face smashed down into the bed and his heavy weight on top of her, Joanna's screams were muffled. The wool lint from the blankets filtered into her nose and mouth with each gasp, and she could scarcely breathe.
He'd hit her hard enough, too, to make the room spin. But the pain was clear, the humiliation intense. Oh, God, it hurt. Right down to her soul, it hurt.
Son of a bitch. Joanna jerked her mind back to the rain and the sheriff and the present, and forced herself to breathe. So she had a little extra insight into Sherman Watts and how his mind worked. That's what criminal profiling was all about, right? Knowing the truth about the suspect—knowing his secrets—could only help her get this interview done more quickly and efficiently.
Joanna pried her fingers off the armrest to unbuckle her seat belt. She breathed deeply, clearly, in through her nose and out through her mouth, more determined than ever to leave the past in the past so she could help Martinez and his people deal with the present. "Is there any hard evidence to connect Watts to Julie Grainger's murder? Any motive?"
Either unaware of her momentary discomfort, or politely ignoring it, the sheriff continued. "We know that Agent Grainger was on the trail of fifty million dollars that crime boss Vincent Del Gardo hid in the area. If she found it, or had a clue on her that would lead to its location, then that's fifty million reasons why just about anybody would want to kill her. One of our lab teams found a leather necklace that we believe belonged to Watts at the site where her body was dumped. That puts him at the scene—before or after her death, though, we don't know."
"You think Watts has the fifty mil?"
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