| DECEPTION LAKE
Text Copyright © 2014 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
The weather was warm for March in the Smokies, or so the woman at the diner counter informed Jack Drummond when he commented on the heat as he took a seat at the counter and scanned the large menu board behind her. She was a broad-shouldered woman in her late thirties, with work-worn hands and a plain but pleasant face devoid of makeup. The name tag over her left breast read Darlene.
“Won’t last,” Darlene warned in a hard-edged drawl as she pulled a pen and order pad from her apron pocket. “We’ll get another frost in time to kill off all the daffodils that’ll be blooming.” She shrugged. “Spring in Tennessee.”
Jack could tell Darlene a few stories about spring in Wyoming that would curl her lanky brown hair. Late-season snowstorms piling up in feet, not inches. Winds so strong and cold they seemed to blast the skin right off your face. But he refrained, ordering a steak sandwich and a sweet tea, his gaze sliding past the beer menu without snagging for even a second.
The bell on the door behind him tinkled as another customer came in from the March sunshine. A woman’s voice called out, husky and lightly tinted with a Texas twang. “Darlene, do you have the to-go orders for The Gates ready?”
The skin on Jack’s neck prickled, and he swung his head slowly toward the newcomer, certain he’d imagined the familiar tones he’d heard in the feminine voice. She’d be too old or too young, too tall, too short, hair too red or not red enough, wrong eyes, wrong face, wrong build.
But not this time. In the middle of Purgatory, Tennessee, on an impromptu fishing trip with his brother-in-law’s family, he’d finally tracked down Mara Jennings.
He’d been looking for her for four years to make amends.
It was one of the twelve steps, one he hadn’t taken where Mara Jennings was concerned. But now that she was standing right in front of him, so close that he could lean forward a few inches and touch her arm, his tongue felt like lead and his pulse began to roar in his ears.
She must have felt his scrutiny, for her cool blue eyes flicked his way, her own gaze resting a brief moment on his face before sliding back to the waitress at the counter.
She hadn’t recognized him.
Was that possible? He’d been a little lax about getting his hair cut since he left the rodeo circuit, and he’d put on ten pounds now that he wasn’t shooting through gates on the back of a thousand pounds of pissed-off beef and trying to hang on for eight seconds of sheer adrenaline. But it wasn’t his face that had gotten crushed under Coronado’s rolling body. His looks hadn’t changed that much.
Then her gaze snapped back, her brow creasing slightly as her eyebrows dipped to a V over her nose.
He managed to find his voice. “Hi, Mara.”
She froze in place for a moment, her expression going completely blank. Then she gave a short nod. “Hi.”
“So, this is where you disappeared to. I wondered.” He licked his dry lips. “I was so sorry to hear about your sister.”
A flicker of pain darted across her still face, so brief that he wondered if he’d imagined it. But when she spoke, her voice came out on a soft rasp. “Thank you.”
“I’m sorry about everything, really. Especially the way things ended.”
Her eyes narrowed slightly. “Forget about it, Jack. I have.”
The hardness in her tone shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given how badly he’d messed up the last time they saw each other. And the cool indifference should have been a relief, a reassurance that his selfish stupidity hadn’t crushed her spirit completely.
But he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very, very wrong with Mara Jennings.
“I know it’s been a long time, but I’d really like to talk to you a little more, try to explain a few things. Could you make some time for me?”
She shook her head. “Jack, I’ve moved on.”
“There’s still the matter of the money.”
Her brow furrowed again, her eyes darting toward him before sliding away. “This is about money? Really?” She sounded confused.
Now he knew something was wrong.
“Seven thousand dollars, Mara. Plus four years of interest?”
Her lips pressed to a thin line. “Was there anything in writing?”
He stared at her, unease twisting a knot in his gut. “No, of course not. You know there wasn’t.” He took a step closer to her, unable to stop himself. “Are you okay?”
Alarm flickered in her eyes before she turned toward the waitress, who’d just returned to the counter with a box filled with individual brown paper sacks. She didn’t answer his question as she pulled out a credit card and handed it to the waitress to process.
While Darlene was running the credit card through the system, Mara continued to ignore him, her small, round chin lifted with a hint of haughtiness he’d never seen in Mara Jennings during the year he’d known her.
He might not have changed much in four years, but clearly she had.
She took the credit card back from Darlene, signed the slip and picked up the box of lunch bags, then turned toward the door without even glancing his way. She was going to leave without saying anything else, he realized.
Part of him argued to just let her go. If she didn’t want to deal with the past, he shouldn’t make her.
But there was still the issue of the money.
Before he could keep his feet from moving, he’d stepped into her path, forcing her to stop so quickly she almost dropped the box of lunches she carried. He caught the sliding box and steadied it for her, his fingers brushing over hers.
Her gaze snapped up to meet his, and she took a quick step backward. “What do you want?”
“I get that you don’t want to deal with the past. I’m not asking you to forgive me or anything like that. But seven thousand dollars is a lot of money—”
“And you just said there was nothing in writing.” Her husky voice was edged with disdain. “So you can’t prove I owe you a damn thing. Now excuse me.”
She passed him quickly and left through the front door of the diner, passing Jack’s brother-in-law, Riley Patterson, and his wife and child as they entered. Riley’s craggy face split with a grin at the sight of Jack standing in the middle of the diner. “What did you do, strike out with the redhead?”
Riley’s wife, Hannah, lowered her son, Cody, to the floor so he could hurry over to Jack. Reaching down, he picked up the three-year-old, tucked him close and looked over his head at Riley. “Do you remember me telling you about needing to make amends to a woman I hurt in Amarillo?”
Riley’s smile faded. “Was that her?”
“I thought it was,” Jack answered, remembering the cold, haughty air of the woman he’d just watched leave the diner. “I guess it is.” He waved toward an empty booth, inviting them to take a seat. He settled onto the bench seat across from them, setting Cody down beside him. “But something very strange is going on.”
“Strange how?” Hannah asked before Riley could speak.
“Well, I brought up the seven thousand dollars, and she acted like she didn’t remember it at all. Which was weird enough. But when I pressed her on it—” He shook his head, the flutter of unease in his gut returning. “She asked me if we put anything in writing, and when I told her of course not, she said I couldn’t prove she owed me a thing.”
Hannah and Riley exchanged a quick look. “Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand?” Riley asked.
“Believe me, I didn’t.” He shook his head. “Four years after the fact, she doesn’t remember that I scammed seven thousand dollars from her. How is that even possible?”
She entered through the front door of the two-story Victorian mansion on Magnolia Street, breathing deeply through her nose and releasing both air and tension through her mouth with each determined step. The office conference room was about ten paces down the narrow central corridor, and she timed her respiration accordingly—one breath, three steps. By the time she knocked on the door and received the invitation to enter, she had managed to present an outward air of calm.
But inside, she was freaking out completely.
Of all people to run into here in Purgatory, Tennessee—Jack Drummond? The cowboy with a heart of stone.
God, she’d been loathing that name for four years, loathing even the mere thought of what he’d done, the wreckage he’d left behind. She’d even wished him a painful end underneath some bucking bronc or twisting bull more than once, but she’d never figured she’d actually find out what happened to him after he left the dust of Amarillo behind him.
Well, now she knew. He was alive, well and disgustingly handsome.
But what the hell was he doing in Tennessee?
She entered the conference room quietly and set the box on the long credenza that took up most of the length of the nearest wall. Someone had already started a pot of coffee brewing, and she slipped back out of the conference room to retrieve a cooler of ice cubes for the two dozen bottles of water, juice and soft drinks lined up like soldiers at attention on one end of the sideboard.
Halfway there, she heard footsteps behind her and shot a quick look down the hall. The Gates’ CEO, Alexander Quinn, was coming up the hall behind her, his expression impossible to read. As usual.
She turned to face him. “Did I forget something?”
“What happened while you were out?”
She thought about trying to lie, but Quinn had spent a couple of decades in the CIA. Seeing through lies was part of his business. “I ran into someone from the past. From Texas.”
Quinn’s eyes narrowed. “I see.”
“He wanted me to fork over seven thousand dollars. I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I sort of faked it, but—”
“But you’re not sure he believed you?”
Quinn was silent for a moment, his hazel eyes holding her gaze without making her feel uncomfortable. For a man who had lived on lies and adrenaline, he had a calming effect on most people, and she wasn’t immune herself. “What’s his name?”
“Can you give me a description?”
“Black hair, worn kind of longish. Brown eyes. Olive-toned skin. I believe he’s part Shoshone—he’s from up in Wyoming originally. He’s not super tall—maybe six feet, six one. Big shoulders, narrow waist and hips. Cowboy.”
Quinn arched one eyebrow.
“No, literally a cowboy. He was on the rodeo circuit back in Texas and the Southwest.”
“What’s he doing in Tennessee?”
“I didn’t ask, and he didn’t say.”
Quinn looked at her a moment longer with that calm, thoughtful expression that made her feel as if he were trying to hypnotize her. Then he gave a short nod. “Go ahead and get the ice. Don’t worry about Jack Drummond. He won’t be a problem.”
She knew Quinn had the means to protect her from her past. And because he needed the skills she offered when she wasn’t playing office gofer, she knew he’d be diligent about it.
But Quinn couldn’t erase the memory of Jack Drummond’s dark eyes or sexy voice from her brain as she grabbed the clean cooler from the storage closet and started scooping ice into it.
She might hate Jack Drummond’s guts and never want to see him again. But she doubted very seriously she could ever stop worrying about him, now that he’d invaded her world again. Had meeting him here in Purgatory been nothing but a strange coincidence?
Or was something a lot more sinister at work?
“THE GATES?” HANNAH looked up from wiping Cody’s lunch off his hands and face at Jack’s question. “I wonder if she was talking about Alexander Quinn’s private investigation agency. It’s right here in Purgatory.”
Jack’s brother-in-law, Riley, returned from grabbing more napkins from the counter and handed them to Hannah. “What about Alexander Quinn?”
“That private eye agency he runs now—isn’t it called The Gates?”
“Yeah, it is. Sutton Calhoun works there now.”
“Right.” Hannah made another swipe at the mess Cody had made with his peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “He used to work at Cooper Security, but I think he was from up this way to begin with.”
Jack tamped down his impatience and kept his tone even. “So The Gates is a detective agency?”
“Yeah. Well, investigations and security, I guess. Maybe your friend Mara works there. You could probably ask that waitress and she could tell you where to find the place.” Riley’s gaze sharpened. “If that’s really what you want to do.”
“I need to give her the money. It’s sitting in my bank, taunting me.”
Hannah’s lips twitched at his description, and he didn’t really blame her for finding his description a bit melodramatic. When his sister-in-law had met him, not long after he’d left Amarillo, he was sober only a couple of months, and the call of the rodeo still roiled in his blood. She’d been in Wyoming on vacation, ended up in the middle of a serial murder investigation and had come close to losing her life.
But Riley had been there, watching her back. Keeping her safe.
Falling in love, after grieving for three long, lonely years.
Jack’s sister Emily had been Riley’s first love. His first wife. Her murder had come damn close to destroying both Riley and Jack, though in different ways.
Riley’s response had been to close himself off to all but a few close friends. And to Jack. But Riley’s growing obsession with solving Emily’s murder had eaten away at Jack’s soul. Solving the murder wasn’t going to bring Emily back. And Emily had been all that was left of Jack’s dysfunctional family.
So he’d gone to Texas, moved his base of operations to a little town just west of Amarillo. He’d buried himself in boots and spurs and rodeo groupies who longed to ride a cowboy a whole lot longer than eight seconds.
Then he’d met Mara Jennings, who was anything but a groupie. Fool that he was, he’d considered her a challenge he couldn’t resist, when he should have run as far and as fast from a woman like her as he could.
The groupies knew the score. They weren’t interested in forever with a cowboy. They just wanted the excitement for a few days out of the year when the rodeo came to town.
Mara Jennings had “forever” written in her pretty blue eyes and winsome smile, and he should have known he’d break her heart.
Hell, maybe he known it.
He just hadn’t cared at that point in his life.
“I’ve had some dealings with Quinn,” Hannah said thoughtfully as she handed her slightly sticky son to Riley. “I could just casually drop by the agency to say hi, and if you just happened to be with me and your friend just happened to be there—”
“If you just happen to be matchmaking, Hannah, you can forget it. Mara Jennings is not the woman for me. She never was.”
That had been the problem.
“Well, maybe you could tell Quinn about the money you owe her, then,” Hannah said.
“I think I’ll just fly under the radar, if you don’t mind. But good idea about talking to the waitress.” He slid from the booth and headed to the counter, where the waitress was wiping down the surface with a clean rag.
She looked up with a weary smile as Jack stopped in front of her. “Can I get you something else?”
“Actually I could use some directions. I have an old friend who works here in Purgatory at a place called The Gates—ever heard of it?”
“Sure, everybody has. Your friend one of the investigators?”
“Right.” He searched his brain for the name Riley had mentioned. “Sutton Calhoun.”
“Oh, he’s such a nice guy. Real good-lookin’, too.” Darlene’s cheeks grew pink and she shot Jack a sheepish smile. “His wife’s a cop over in Bitterwood. They come in now and then.”
“I thought I’d surprise him at the office, since he doesn’t know I’m in town. Can you point me in the right direction?”
“Well, you’re on the right street, actually. Just take a right when you leave, go a couple of blocks in that direction and you’ll see a big white Victorian mansion right at the corner of Magnolia Street and Laurel Avenue. There’s a pair of large iron gates at the entrance. Can’t miss it.”
Riley and Hannah met him at the door. “What are you planning to do?” Riley asked.
“I don’t know,” Jack admitted. “Approaching her directly didn’t do me a lot of good.”
“I hate to mention this,” Hannah said quietly, “but you’re starting to sound a little stalkerish.”
Jack slanted a look at her. “I’m not obsessed with Mara.”
“But you’re about to track her down at her office after she told you to get lost,” Riley pointed out as he picked up Cody and settled his son on his hip. “She doesn’t even seem to remember that you nicked seven grand from her. Maybe you should just let it go, too.”
“And that doesn’t strike you as strange? That she’s forgotten losing seven grand? Mara wasn’t rich. Seven thousand dollars was a lot to her.”
“Maybe she considers it a small price to pay for getting you out of her life.” Riley’s tone of voice was gentle, but the truth behind his words was harsh. Jack couldn’t quite keep from flinching.
“Why don’t you come out fishing with us this afternoon instead?” Hannah suggested. Apparently she’d gotten over her matchmaking urge.
“You know, I think I’ll just wander around town this afternoon. See the sights.”
Riley glanced around the sleepy street in front of them, his eyebrows notching upward. “What sights?”
“Go fish,” Jack said firmly, heading for his truck. “I’ll catch up with you later at the motel.” He didn’t wait for them to answer, sliding into the cab of the truck and starting the engine.
The radio was tuned to a rock station out of Knoxville; Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” was about halfway through the guitar and drum riff. He turned it up and pulled out into the light traffic on Magnolia Street, heading right.
He spared a glance in the rearview mirror. Riley and Hannah stood by their own truck, Cody still on Riley’s hip. Jack felt like a jerk for bailing on them, but the truth was, he didn’t want to be talked out of approaching Mara Jennings one more time.
He owed her a hell of a lot more than the seven thousand dollars with interest he’d taken from her.
But money was all he had to offer.
SHE USUALLY WORKED until five, but around three Quinn told her to take the rest of the day off. He could probably tell she was too wired to be any good to anyone at the agency, and she could always use the extra time at her cabin to work on the side project Quinn had given her.
It was why she was working at The Gates in the first place.
The mild afternoon warmth had abated with the arrival of storm clouds brewing in the west, and a crisp chill edged the breeze blowing at her back as she crossed the road to where she’d parked her little blue Mazda. At least the car’s interior was still warm; she snuggled into the seat as she pulled away from the curb and headed east toward the mountains and the cabin she rented on Deception Lake.
She’d thought the seclusion would be just what she needed. No nosy neighbors, no loud music coming from apartments next door. Deception Lake’s power grid seemed stable, and her connection to the internet was solid. It was really the prime situation for her side project, and until she’d run into Jack Drummond at the diner, she had felt relatively safe.
Funny how one unexpected encounter from the past could knock your whole world off its axis.
The cabin was on the eastern edge of the lake, butted up to Fowler Mountain, where bigger houses dotted the mountain face, vacation homes and rentals that probably brought in a pretty penny for the land owner. She was renting from Alexander Quinn himself, however, so he’d given her a break on the rent in return for her putting in some hours as an assistant at The Gates.
That was her cover story, she knew. Quinn didn’t always like to share information even with people he had trusted enough to hire.
She parked the Mazda on the gravel drive outside the cabin and cut the engine, sitting in the ensuing silence and just listening. Later in the summer, there would be families out on the water or inhabiting the cabins farther along the lakeshore, their happy cries and laughter drifting over the water to encroach on the quiet. But not yet. March was too cool for swimming, and most of the best spring fishing could be found in other parts of the lake, so boats rarely made it this far down the water.
Nobody knew she was here. She was as safe as she’d ever been.
So why, when she stepped out of the Mazda and started toward the low front porch of the cabin, did she feel as if she were being watched?
she scolded herself with an upward tilt of her chin.
She reached the porch and put her hand out to open the door.
But it was already opening.
A man dressed in dark forest camouflage stepped out on the porch and pushed a large pillowcase down over her head, wrapping her up in a tight grasp that squeezed the air right out of her lungs.
As she gasped for breath, trying feebly to struggle against the iron grip, she realized with a rush of fear that she’d never get away from Mallory Jennings, no matter how far she ran.