The trail shelter wasn’t built for cold weather, but the three girls occupying the small wooden shed were young, healthy and warmly tucked inside their cold-weather sleeping bags. Overnight, the mercury had dropped into the mid-thirties, which might have tempted less-determined hikers off the trail and into their warm homes in the valley below. But youth and risk were longtime bedfellows.

He depended on it ever to be so.

Overhead, the moon played hide-and-seek behind scudding clouds, casting deep blue shadows through the spindly bare limbs of the birch, maple and hickory trees that grew on Copperhead Ridge. The air was damp with the promise of snow.

But not yet.

His breath spreading a pale cloud of condensation in front of his eyes, he pulled the digital camera from his pack. A whimsical image filled his mind. Himself as a mighty, fierce dragon, huffing smoke as he stalked his winsome prey.
The camera made a soft whirring sound as it autofocused on the sleeping beauties. He held his breath, waiting to see if the sound was enough to awaken the girls. A part of him wished it would wake them, though he’d have to move now, rather than later, cutting short his plans. But the challenge these young, fit women posed excited him to the point that his carefully laid plans seemed more an impediment than a means to increase his anticipation.

Slow and steady wins the race, he thought. The experience would be better for having waited.

He snapped off a series of shots from different angles, relishing each composition, imagining them in their finished state. Despite the quick flashes of light from his camera, the princesses slept on, oblivious.

He stepped away from the shelter, punching buttons to print the shots he’d just snapped. They came out remarkably clear, he saw with surprise. He hadn’t been sure they would.

Or maybe he’d been hoping he’d have to sneak over to the shelter again.

A clear acrylic box, cloudy with scuff marks from exposure to the elements, stood on a rickety wooden pedestal outside the shelter. It housed a worn trail logbook similar to those found farther east on the Appalachian Trail. The latest entry was dated that day. The girls had recorded their arrival and their plans for the next day’s hike home.

He slipped the snapshots into the journal, marking the latest entry.

A snuffling sound from within the open-faced shelter froze him in place. He couldn’t see the girls from where he stood, so he waited, still and silent, for a repeat of the noise.

But the only sound he heard was the cold mountain breeze shaking the trees overhead, the leafless limbs rattling like bones.

After a few more minutes of quiet, he slipped away, a dark shape in the darker woods, where he would bide his time until daybreak.

And the girls slept on.

“I’M NOT THE ENEMY.” Though Laney Hanvey was using her best “soothe the witness” voice, she couldn’t tell her efforts at calm reassurance were having any effect on the dark-eyed detective across the tea-room table from her.

“Never said you were.” Ivy Hawkins arched one dark eyebrow, as if to say she saw right through Laney’s efforts at handling her. “I’m just saying I don’t know whether anyone besides Glen Rayburn was on Wayne Cortland’s payroll, and the D.A. sending a nanny down here to spank our bottoms and teach us how to behave ain’t gonna change that.”

Laney didn’t know whether to laugh at Ivy’s description of her job or be offended. “The captain of detectives killed himself rather than face indictment. The chief of police resigned, an admission that he wasn’t in control of his department. Surely you understand why the district attorney felt the need to send a public integrity officer down here to ask a few questions.”

“We have an internal affairs bureau of our own.”

“And I know how well police officers admire their internal affairs brethren.”

Ivy’s lips quirked, a tacit concession. “Why did you single me out?”

“Who says I did?”

Ivy looked around the airy tea room of Sequoyah House, then back at Laney. “You’re telling me you bring all the cops to the fanciest restaurant in town for pretty little cucumber sandwiches and weak, tepid dishwater?”

Laney looked down at the cups of Earl Grey in front of them and smiled. “You’re laying on the redneck a little thick, aren’t you?”

Ivy’s eyes met hers again. “I’m not the one putting on airs, Charlane.”

Touché, Laney thought.

Ivy’s expression softened. “You’ve gotten better at your poker face. I almost didn’t see you flinch. You’ve come a long way from Smoky Ridge.”

“I didn’t bring you here to talk about old times.”

Ivy leaned across the table toward her. “Are you sure? Maybe you thought invoking a little Smoky Ridge sisterhood might soften me up? Make me spill all my deep, dark secrets?”

“I don’t suspect you of anything, Ivy. I just want to pick your brain about whom you might suspect of being Glen Rayburn’s accomplice.”

“And I told you, I don’t suspect anyone in particular.” Ivy’s mouth clamped closed at the end of the sentence, but it was too late.

“So you do think there may be others who were on Cortland’s payroll.”

“I think the possibility exists,” Ivy said carefully. “But I don’t know if I’m right, and I sure don’t intend to toss you a sacrificial lamb to get you off my back.”

“Fair enough.” Laney sat back and sipped the warm tea, trying not to think of Ivy’s description of it. But the image was already in her mind. She set the teacup on the saucer and forced down the swallow.

“The cucumber sandwiches weren’t too bad,” Ivy said with a crooked smile. “But I’m going to have to grab something from Ledbetter’s on my way back to the cop shop, because I’m still hungry. Want to join me?”

An image of Maisey Ledbetter’s chicken-fried steak with milk gravy flooded Laney’s brain. “You’re an enabler,” she grumbled.

Ivy grinned. “I’m doing you a favor. You’re way too skinny for these parts, Charlane. People will start trying to feed you everywhere you go.”

“Laney, Ivy.  Not Charlane. Even my mama calls me Laney these days.” Laney motioned for the check and waved off Ivy’s offer to pay. “I can expense it.”

They reconvened outside, where Ivy’s department-issue Ford Focus looked a bit dusty and dinged next to Laney’s sleek black Mustang.

Ivy grinned when Laney started to open the Mustang’s driver’s door. “I knew you still had a little redneck in you, girl. Nice wheels.”

Laney arched her eyebrows. “Can’t say the same about yours.”

Ivy didn’t look offended. “Cop car. You should see my tricked-out Jeep.”

The drive from Sequoyah House to Ledbetter’s Diner wasn’t exactly a familiar route for Laney, who’d grown up poor as a church mouse and twice as shy. Nothing in her life on Smoky Ridge had ever required her to visit this part of town, where Copperhead Ridge overlooked the lush hollow where the wealthier citizens of the small mountain town had built their homes and their very separate lives.

The Edgewood part of Bitterwood was more suburban than rural, though the mountain itself was nothing but wilderness broken only by hiking trails and the occasional public shelter dotting the trails. People in this part of town usually worked elsewhere, either in nearby Maryville or forty-five minutes away in Knoxville.

Definitely not the kind of folks she’d grown up with on Smoky Ridge.

Ivy hadn’t been joking. She pulled her department car into the packed parking lot of Ledbetter’s Diner and got out without waiting to see if Laney followed. After a perfunctory internal debate, Laney found an empty parking slot nearby and hurried to catch up.

All eyes turned to her when she entered the diner, and for a second, she had a painful flashback to her first day of law school. A combination of academic and hardship scholarships had paid her way into the University of Tennessee, where she’d been just another girl from the mountains, one of many. But law school at Duke University had been so different. Even the buffer of her undergrad work at UT hadn’t prepared her for the culture shock.

Coming back home to Bitterwood had proven to be culture shock in reverse.

“You coming?” Ivy waited for her near the entrance.

Laney tamped down an unexpected return of shyness. “Yes.”

Ivy waved at Maisey Ledbetter on her way across the crowded diner. Maisey waved back, her freckled face creasing with a big smile. Her eyebrows lifted slightly as she recognized Laney, as well, but her smile remained as warm as the oven-fresh biscuits she baked every morning for the diner’s breakfast crowd.

“I don’t come back here to Bitterwood as often as I used to,” Laney admitted as she sat across from Ivy in one of the corner booths. “Mom and Janelle have started coming to Barrowville instead. Mom likes to shop at the outlet mall there.”

“Never underestimate the lure of a brand-name bargain.” Ivy shoved a menu toward Laney.

Laney shoved it back. “Maisey Ledbetter never changed her menu once in all the time I lived here growing up. I don’t reckon she’s changed it now.”

“Well, would you listen to that accent,” Ivy said softly, her tone teasing but friendly. “Welcome home, Charlane.”

The door to the diner opened, admitting a cold draft that wafted all the way to the back where they sat, along with a lanky man in his thirties wearing a leather jacket and jeans. He was about three shades more tanned than anyone else in Bitterwood, pegging him immediately as an outsider and one from warmer climes at that.

“Is that him?” Laney asked Ivy.

Ivy followed her gaze. “Well, look-a-there. Surfer boy found his way to Ledbetter’s.”

Laney stole another glance, trying not to be obvious. Sooner or later, she was going to have to approach Bitterwood’s brand-new chief of police in order to do her job, but it wouldn’t hurt to take his measure first.

Her second look added a few details to her first impression. Along with the tan, he had sandy-brown hair worn neatly cut but a little long, as if he were compromising between the expectations of his new job title and his inner beach bum. He was handsome, with laugh lines adding character to his tanned face and mossy-green eyes that turned sharply her way.

She dropped her gaze to the menu that still lay between her and Ivy. “I haven’t been able to set a meeting with Chief Massey yet.”

“He’s been keeping a low profile at the station,” Ivy murmured. “I get the feeling he wants to get his feet under him a little, scope out the situation before he has a big powwow with the whole department.”

“He’s pretty young for the job.” Doyle Massey couldn’t be that much older than her or Ivy. “He’s what, thirty?”

“Thirty-three,” Ivy answered, looking up when Maisey Ledbetter’s youngest daughter, Christie, approached their table with her order book. Ivy ordered barbecue ribs and a sweet tea, but Laney squelched her craving for chicken-fried steak and ordered a turkey sandwich on wheat.

When she glanced at the door, Chief Massey had moved out of sight. She scanned the room and found him sitting by himself at a booth on the opposite side of the café.

“Maybe you should go talk to him now,” Ivy suggested. “While he’s a captive audience.”

Laney’s instinct was to stay right where she was, but she’d learned long ago to overcome her scared-squirrel impulse to freeze in place if she ever wanted to get anywhere in life. “Good idea.”

She pushed to her feet before she could talk herself out of it.

He saw her coming halfway across the room, his deceptively somnolent gaze following her as she approached, like an alligator waiting for his dinner to come close enough to snap his powerful jaws. She ignored the fanciful thought and kept walking, right up to the booth where he sat.

She extended her hand and lifted her chin. “Chief Massey? My name is Laney Hanvey. I’m an investigator with the Ridge County District Attorney’s office. I’ve left you a couple of messages.”

He looked at her hand, then back up to her. “I got them.”

She was on the verge of pulling her hand back when he leaned forward and closed his big, tanned hand around hers. He had rough, dry palms, suggesting at least a passing acquaintance with manual labor.

He let go of her hand and waved toward the empty seat across from him in the booth. “Can I buy you lunch?”

Not an alligator, she thought as she carefully sat across from him. More like a chameleon, able to go seamlessly from predator to charmer in a second flat. “I’m actually having lunch with one of your detectives.” She glanced at the corner where Ivy sat, shamelessly watching them.

Chief Massey followed her gaze and gave a little wave at Ivy.

Ivy blushed a little at being caught staring, but she waved back and then pulled out her cell phone and made a show of checking her messages.

“Good detective, from what I’m told.” Massey’s full mouth curved. “She’s the one who broke the serial-murder case a couple of months ago.”

“She didn’t have much help from her chief of detectives.”

Massey’s green-eyed gaze snapped forward to lock with hers. “Let’s just get things out in the open, Ms. Hanvey. Can we do that?” His accent was southern, but sleeker than her own mountain twang she’d worked so hard to conquer. He’d come to Bitterwood from a place called Terrebonne on the Alabama Gulf Coast.

“Get things out in the open?” she repeated.

“You may think you’re here to ferret out the snakes in our midst. But you’re really here because your bosses in the county government have been wanting the Ridge County Sheriff’s Department to swallow up small police forces like Bitterwood P.D. for a while now. Ridge County could justify the tax increase they’re wanting to impose if they suddenly had a bigger jurisdiction to cover.”

Laney hid her surprise. For a guy who looked like all he wanted to do was catch the next big wave, Doyle Massey had clearly done his homework about Ridge County politics. “Technically, Ridge County Sheriff’s Department already covers Bitterwood.”

“If invited to participate in investigations,” Massey corrected gently.

“Or if the department in question is under investigation,” she shot back firmly. “Which you are.”

He gave a nod of acceptance. “Which we are. But I don’t see the point of fooling ourselves about this. You and I may both want to clean up the Bitterwood Police Department. But we’re not on the same team.”

“Maybe not. But if you think my goal here is to shut your department down, you’re wrong. And if you think I’ll go along with whatever my bosses tell me to do, you’re wrong about that, too. I’m looking for the truth, wherever that leads me.”

He lifted his hands and clapped slowly. “Brava. An honest woman.”

She felt her lips curling with anger at his sarcastic display. She pushed to her feet. “I expect full cooperation from the police department in my investigation.”

He rose with her. “You’ll have it.”

Frustration swelled in her chest, strangling her as she tried to think of something to say just so he wouldn’t have the last word. But the trilling of her cell phone broke the tense silence rising between them. She grabbed the phone from her purse and saw her mother’s phone number.

“I have to take this,” she said and moved away, lifting the phone to her ears. “Hi, Mama.”

“Oh, Charlane, thank God you answered. I’ve been tryin’ not to worry, but she was supposed to be home hours ago, and she’s always been so good about being on time—” Alice Hanvey sounded close to tears.

“Mama, slow down.” Laney dropped into the booth across from Ivy, giving the other woman an apologetic look. “Janelle’s late coming home from somewhere?”

“She and a couple of girls went hiking two days ago, but they were supposed to be home this morning in time for her to get to school. I knew I should have insisted they come home last night instead.”

“Hiking where?”

“Up on Copperhead Ridge. At least, that’s what she said. I’ve been trying to encourage her to get out and do things with her friends, like you said I should. I know I can be overprotective, but you can’t be too careful these days—”

“She’s old enough to go hiking with some friends. What do you know about these girls she went with?”

“They’re good girls. You know the Adderlys—they live over on Belmont Road near the church? Their daddy’s a county commissioner. I think you may have gone to school with his cousin Daniel—”

“I know them. They were supposed to be back home in time for school?” Laney interrupted before her mother went through the whole family tree. She knew the Adderlys well, even socializing with them sometimes as part of her job with the district attorney’s office.

“Joy and Missy are crazy about hiking club, and you know Janelle’s been walking up and down those mountains since before she could talk good, so I didn’t think it would be a problem. She’s so good about keeping her word—”
“You’ve tried calling her on her cell phone?”

“Of course, but you know how reception can be in the mountains.”

“Are you sure there weren’t any boys going with them? Or maybe they were meeting some boys up on the mountain?”

“She’s been sort of dating Britt Lomand, but I already called over there, and Britt’s home. He’s just getting over the flu—his mama said he’s been home all weekend.”

“Missy Adderly has a boyfriend.”

“They broke up a month ago,” Alice corrected. “Should I call the police and report her missing? It was awful cold last night on the mountain.”

Laney glanced at Ivy, who was watching her through narrowed eyes. “The police don’t normally drop everything to look for a teenager who’s a little late getting home, but I’ll see what I can do.”

“Please call me if you find out anything.”

“You call me if you hear from her. I’ll talk to you soon, Mama. Try not to worry too much. Jannie’s probably just lost track of the time, or maybe she was running late and went straight to school.”

“I never thought of that,” Alice admitted. “I’ll call the school, ask if she’s showed up.”

“Good idea. Call when you know something.” She shut off her phone and met Ivy’s curious gaze. “My sister went hiking up in the hills over the weekend with a couple of girlfriends, and she’s late getting back home. She was supposed to be home in time to shower and dress for school.”

“Cutting it close.”

Laney saw the conflicted thoughts playing out behind Ivy’s expressive eyes. “Yeah, I know. At that age, they think they get to make their own rules. But Janelle’s pretty levelheaded.”

“Guess that runs in the family.”

Laney wasn’t sure whether Ivy meant the comparison as a compliment. Being thought of as a Goody Two-shoes wasn’t exactly the goal of any high school student—she herself had chafed under the moniker through her high school years. Calling someone a good girl back then had been the same as calling her dull.

Maybe Janelle was rebelling against the perception herself by skipping school and making everybody worry?

She punched in her sister’s cell phone number and waited for an answer. It didn’t go immediately to voice mail as it usually did when Janelle’s phone was out of range of a cell signal. After four rings, there was a click.

But it wasn’t her sister’s voice she heard on the other line. Nor was it Janelle’s overly cute voice-mail message.
Instead she heard only the sound of breathing, and, faintly in the distance, the rustle of leaves.

“Hello?” she said into the receiver.

The breathing continued for a moment. Then the line went dead.

“Did she answer?” Ivy asked.

Laney shook her head. “But someone was on the other end of the line—”

Ivy’s phone rang, the trill jangling Laney’s taut nerves. Ivy shot her a look of apology and answered. “What’s up, Antoine?”

The detective’s brow creased deeply, and she darted a look at Laney so full of dread that Laney’s breath caught in her chest.

“On my way,” Ivy said and hung up the phone. “I’ve got to run.”

“What is it?” Laney asked, swallowing her dread as Ivy dug in her pocket for money, carefully not meeting Laney’s eyes.

“Someone called in a body. I’m heading to the crime scene to see what we can sort out.” Ivy put a ten on the table. “Ask Christie to box up my order and put it in the fridge. I’ll pick it up later.”

Laney caught Ivy’s arm. “Where’s the crime scene?”

Ivy’s gaze slid up to meet hers. “Up on Copperhead Ridge.”
Text Copyright © 2014 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.