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#1 New York Times bestselling author Linda Lael Miller brings you reader-favorite Mojo Sheepshanks, the irreverent P.I. who finds truth in the strangest places—and solves crimes in the strangest ways...
Mojo is trying to enjoy her lovely new home, courtesy of her wealthy sister, Greer, but she'd rather be back in her apartment over Bad-Ass Bert's Biker Saloon in Cave Creek, Arizona. Life was a lot simpler then. Now her sexy cop boyfriend can't seem to let go of his past, while her sister's being blackmailed for secrets in hers. And Mojo's stuck in the middle again.
Then there's the ghost who comes to her for help...and the threats being made against the still-living. As the murders pile up, Mojo's starting to discover secrets that even the dead don't want disturbed!
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The daughter of a town marshal, Linda Lael Miller is the author of more than 100 historical and contemporary novels. Now living in Spokane, Washington, the “First Lady of the West” hit a career high when all three of her 2011 Creed Cowboy books debuted at #1 on the New York Times list. In 2007, the Romance Writers of America presented her their Lifetime Achievement Award. She personally funds her Linda Lael Miller Scholarships for Women. Visit her at www.lindalaelmiller.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I was so innocent then.
Don't get me wrong—I'd been through a lot, starting with the savage murders of both my parents, when I was only five years old. I'd been kidnapped and raised mostly on the road, by the late, great Lillian Travers, living under an alias that has since become more representative of who I really am than my given name—Mary Josephine Mayhugh—could ever be.
I'm Mojo Sheepshanks now, and as far as I can tell, I always will be.
Then again, you never know.
That's what I've learned since the day I sat in the back of an overcrowded church in Cave Creek, Arizona, on a hot day in early May, too shaken to cry. You just never know—about anything, or anybody.
The casket in front of the altar was painfully small, made of gleaming black wood, and it was open. The body of seven-year-old Gillian Pellway lay inside, nestled on cushions of white silk, clad in a blue ruffled dress, her small hands folded across her chest. I know it's what people always say, but she really did look peaceful, lying there. She might have been asleep.
She wasn't at peace. If she had been, her ghost wouldn't have been sitting in the folding chair next to mine, still clad in the single ballet slipper, pink leotard, tights and tutu she'd been wearing when she was murdered a week before, sometime after a rehearsal for an upcoming dance recital ended.
It wasn't as if I'd had a lot of experience dealing with dead people. Early trauma and the years on the road with Lillian notwithstanding, I'd led a pretty ordinary life. I wasn't psychic. I didn't have visions.
Then, one night in April, I'd awakened to find my ex-husband, Nick DeLuca, in bed with me. Not too weird—divorced people sleep together all the time. Except that Nick had been killed in a car crash two years before. I saw him often, over a period of a few weeks, and I probably owe him my life.
But that's another story.
Nick opened some kind of door, and I've been seeing ghosts ever since.
They're easy enough to spot, once you know what to look for. Their clothes are usually outdated, and they often seem lost, as though they want to ask directions but can't get anybody's attention. I encounter them all the time now—in supermarkets, busy restaurants, even in dog parks.
I wish I didn't, but I do.
I try hard not to make eye contact, but it doesn't always work. Once they realize I can see them, they tend to get in my face.
That day, sitting through Gillian's funeral, I had mixed feelings. Of course it was a tragedy—the apparently random slaughter of a little girl. That goes without saying. But most of the people weeping in that church were crying more for themselves than for Gillian—because they'd miss her, because it might just as easily have been their own child lying in that coffin, because they thought death was an ending.
It might be simpler if it were.
As I said, I was innocent then. I'd figured out that death wasn't the final curtain, but the beginning of a whole new act in some complicated cosmic play. The proof was sitting right beside me, leaning against my arm. But the transition is rocky for some people, especially when it happens suddenly, or violently. Back then, I had no idea how many ghosts get caught in the thin, shifting, invisible web that separates this life from the next. A surprising number of them think they're dreaming, and wander around waiting to wake up.
Helen Erland, Gillian's mother, sat stiff-spined in a front pew, occasionally shuddering with the effort to hold in a sob. Her husband, Vince, wasn't there to share in her grief and lend support—he was in jail pending a murder charge. Though Mrs. Erland apparently had no family to lean on, the place was packed—many of the mourners, I suspected, were the parents of Gillian's classmates at school.
I wished I could tell Helen that Gillian wasn't really gone, but how exactly does one go about that? By tugging at the sleeve of the bereaved mother's cheap but tasteful black suit and saying, Excuse me, but your daughter is more alive than you are?
I don't think so.
So I sat there, and I watched and listened, and I wondered if the real murderer was present, gloating or guilt ridden. Although Gillian had yet to speak a word to me since she'd appeared in the backseat of my sister's Pathfinder soon after her death, she had indicated that Vince Erland hadn't killed her. It seemed more a matter of instinct than certainty.
Conundrum number two. How to explain to the police that they were probably holding the wrong man, and you knew this because the victim had shaken her head when you asked if he'd been the one, but either couldn't or wouldn't tell you who had ended her life. All without winding up in some psych ward yourself.
My gaze wandered to Tucker Darroch. He was sitting up near the front, with one strong arm around his ex-wife, Allison, her head resting on his shoulder. Their seven-year-old twins, Daniel and Daisy, friends of Gillian's, weren't present.
I knew what was going to happen, of course.
Allison would need Tucker.
And he would move back in with her, if he hadn't already.
Whatever had been starting between Tucker and me would be over.
I tried not to care. I wasn't in love with the man, after all. But we were definitely...involved.
The service was ending.
I squeezed Gillian's small hand, cold but substantial, and then Helen Erland rose shakily from her seat and walked to the coffin. With a soft wail of sorrow that pierced the lining of my soul, she laid a single white rose inside.
I felt Gillian pull away, and I tried to hold on, but it was no use. One moment the child was sitting beside me, the next she was standing at her shattered mother's side, her little face upturned, her whole being crying out in a silent plea. I'm here, see me!
What could I do?
Rush up there and gather a child no one else could see into my arms? Drag her back to the rows of folding chairs that had been set up in the rear of the church to accommodate the overflow?
There was nothing I could do. So I sat still, clenching my hands together, my face wet with tears.
Helen Erland, understandably focused on the body in the coffin, was oblivious to her real daughter, standing right beside her.
Gillian, I called, without speaking. Come back.
She turned a defiant glance on me, shook her head and grabbed ineffectually at her mother's hand. I was vaguely aware of a young woman at the periphery of my vision, a video camera raised to her face, and a slight shudder went through me.
Enduring the actual funeral was hard enough. Who would want to replay it?
Let this be over, I prayed distractedly. Please let this be over.
Gillian vanished, and did not return to her chair beside mine.
Tucker left Allison long enough to go to Helen, help her back to her place.
I couldn't stand any more.
I got up and slipped out through the open doors of the church, doing my best not to hyperventilate. I would have given just about anything to have one or both of my sisters there, but Jolie, recently hired as a crime-scene tech by Phoenix PD, was going through an orientation program, and Greer was caught in the throes of a rapidly disintegrating marriage.
So I was on my own. Nothing new there.
I took refuge under a leafy ficus tree, grateful for the shade, one hand pressed against the trunk so I wouldn't drop into a sobbing heap on the ground. I was dazed by the intensity of my mourning, and I didn't trust myself to drive. Not right away, anyhow.
The service ended.
People flowed past, murmuring, the men looking stalwart and grim, the women dabbing at puffy eyes with crumpled handkerchiefs.
The pallbearers, Tucker among them, carried Gillian's casket to the hearse, waiting in the dusty street with its rear doors open like the black wings of some bird of doom, ready to enfold the child and carry her away into the unknown. The minister helped Mrs. Erland into the back of a limousine; I looked for Gillian, but she was nowhere around.
When a hand gripped my upper arm, I was beyond startled. I could no longer assume I'd been approached by another human being—not the flesh-and-blood variety, that is.
I turned and saw Allison Darroch standing just behind me, her eyes red rimmed from crying, her flawless skin alabaster pale. She had lush brown hair, pulled into a severe French twist for the occasion, and she wore a black sheath that accented her slender curves.
"What," she demanded in a furious undertone, "are you doing here?"
I swallowed, stuck for an immediate answer. I couldn't say I'd come to Gillian Pellway's funeral because the dead child had practically herded me there. Especially not to Allison, who clearly saw me as the Other Woman, even though she and Tucker had been legally divorced for over a year before I even met him.
Allison leaned in. "It's sick—this is a little girl's funeral—but you'll do anything to get close to Tucker, won't you?"
I'd never labored under the delusion that Allison and I would ever be friends, but I did respect her. She was a good, if overprotective, mother to the twins, and in her capacity as a veterinarian she'd recently saved Russell, a canine friend of mine, from certain death.
"I know Helen Erland slightly," I said, with what dignity I could muster, considering I still felt as though I might faint, throw up, or both. It was true, too, which admittedly isn't the case with everything I say. Helen clerked in a convenience store in Cave Creek, and I occasionally stopped in to buy lottery tickets or gas up my Volvo. "My coming here has nothing to do with Tucker."
"I don't believe you," Allison said.
"Back off," I replied, after reassembling my backbone vertebra by vertebra. "I have as much right to be here as you do."
Tucker appeared in the corner of my eye, handsome and anxious in his dark suit. His hair was butternut-blond and a little too long, like before, but he didn't look like the undercover DEA agent I knew him to be. His normal uniform was jeans, a muscle shirt and biker boots.
"Get in the car, Allison," he said.
She stiffened, gave me one more poisonous glare and walked away. Got into the big SUV parked at the curb.
For a long moment Tucker and I just stared at each other.
I figured it was his place to speak first, because he'd been the one to stumble into the hornet's nest.
On the other hand, there was a lot I wanted to tell him, because he was, after all, the only person in the world who knew I could see Gillian Pellway.
I bit my lower lip and stood my ground.
Tucker shoved a hand through his hair. Sighed. His green eyes were haunted, and I wondered how long it had been since he'd slept through a night. Certainly not since Gillian's body had been found, if appearances were anything to go by.
"Allison's pretty torn up," he said. "So are the kids."
I merely nodded.
"She asked me to move back in. Just for a while."
Tucker had a condo in Scottsdale, but he wasn't there much; when he was working, he tended to disappear into some mysterious underworld, one I knew little about.
My stomach pitched, and bile scalded the back of my throat. I swallowed and nodded again.
He moved as though he might take a gentle hold on my shoulders, or even pull me into his arms. Then, after glancing toward the SUV with its tinted windows, he looked at me again, his eyes begging me to understand. I figured his Harley, his usual favorite mode of transportation, was probably gathering dust in some garage.
"You're going to do it," I said.
Tucker thrust out a breath. "Moje, this isn't a reconciliation. Nothing like that. It's temporary—just until Allison gets over this. Daisy's having bad dreams, and Danny freaks if every light in the house isn't on all night long."
I thought of Gillian's silent insistence that Vince Erland wasn't her killer, and gulped back another throatful of bile. I believed her, and that meant the real murderer was still out there, perhaps already stalking another child. I shivered.
"Do you think the twins are in danger?" I asked when I could summon up enough breath. I cared about Tucker Darroch big-time, and I wasn't planning on sharing a bed with him as long as he was bunking in with the wife and kids, but Daisy attended the same dance school Gillian had, wore the same tiny-ballerina getup. Just thinking of that made me cold to the core.
"I don't know," Tucker said.
I took a step toward him, touched his hand. "See you," I told him.
He caught hold of my arm when I would have gone past him, climbed into my car and motored for Greer's place, on the chic fringes of Scottsdale. Until a week before, I'd lived in an apartment over Bad-Ass Bert's Biker Saloon, but following an unfortunate incident with a psychotic killer, I'd moved into my sister's guesthouse.
"What do you mean, 'see you'?" Tucker demanded.
I pulled my arm free, though I didn't make a show of it. I knew Allison was watching from the SUV, and I didn't want to spike her drama meter, which was already bobbing in the red zone. "I mean," I said evenly, "that while I certainly understand that you have to be there for your family, I don't intend to sleep with you in the meantime."
A muscle bunched in Tucker's fine, square jaw, and he nodded once, sharply. I thought he'd turn and walk away, but he didn't. His eyes searched mine, probing and solemn. "Have you seen Gillian again—since the day we talked on the phone?"
She'd been haunting me pretty much nonstop, but that was neither the time nor place to go into details. The way things were going, there might never be a time or place. "Yes" was all I said.
He absorbed that. Nodded again. "We have to talk."
"Not today," I answered. "You're still living at your sister's place?"
The SUV's horn sounded an impatient, wifely little toot.
"Until further notice," I said, and this time when I started for my car, Tucker didn't try to stop me.
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