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   THE LEGEND OF SMUGGLER'S CAVE
    ....................................................Excerpt

The front door was unlocked. Jenny never left it unlocked.

Hair rising on her neck and arms, Briar Blackwood took a careful step backward on the porch and drew her Glock 27. Not her weapon of choice; her Mossberg 835 shotgun was locked in the cabinet inside the cabin. But the Glock would do.

She stayed still for a breathless moment, listening for movement within the cabin. Was she overreacting? Maybe her aunt had fallen asleep on the sofa without locking up.

No. The break-in a month earlier had rattled Aunt Jenny’s nerves. She hadn’t been comfortable staying at Briar's place with Logan alone at night since. She always locked all the doors and windows the second Briar left and wouldn’t even answer the door unless she knew the voice on the other side.

So why was the door unlocked now?

Everyone who mattered to Briar was behind that unlocked door. And she could stand here holding her breath, or she could go in there to see what was what.

But not through the front door.

Briar edged to the corner of the porch, making herself a harder target if someone inside started shooting. Tightening her grip on the Glock, she pulled her cell phone from her jacket pocket and dialed the cabin land line. She heard the phone ringing through the cabin walls.

No answer.

Now she knew for sure something was wrong. Aunt Jenny was a light sleeper. She never slept through a ringing phone.

Shoving her cell phone back in her pocket, Briar slid between the wood slabs of the porch railing and dropped three feet to the ground below. Stopping below the big kitchen window, she peered up at the jars of fruits and vegetables stacked in three tight rows in front of the window. The colorful jars took the place of curtains, both as a dash of brightness in the small kitchen and as a privacy screen, keeping out the unwanted gazes of strangers who might be lurking outside the mountain cabin.

They were still intact. Last time someone had broken in, they’d shattered the jars and left a huge mess in her kitchen.
What could they want? She was poor as a church mouse. Her new job as a Bitterwood police officer would do little more than pay the bills and allow her to put aside a little bit for her son Logan’s college fund.

Could it be her job that had drawn the intruders to her door?

She edged her way around to the root cellar door and eased it open, wincing at the low creaks of the hinges. Six concrete steps took her down into the tightly packed cellar, where shelves full of canned goods filled one side of the room, and bins of root vegetables filled the other. She used the flashlight app on her cell phone to illuminate the narrow path between shelves and bins, but she still managed to stumble into the shelves near the stairs. With a muttered curse, she barely caught a jar of tomatoes as it started to topple off the shelf above.

Setting it right, she shined the cell phone light up the stairs. The door to the cabin was closed. She crept up the stairs and tried the doorknob. Locked, as expected. She eased her keys from her pocket and inserted the right one. The doorknob turned smoothly, and she carefully slipped into the hallway, shutting off the phone light.

She went very still, just listening. There was no sound at all, she realized. Not even the hum of the refrigerator or the whir of heated air blowing from the wall heater nearby.

The power must be out. Had someone cut it?

Glad for the rubber soles of her work shoes, she went silently into the living room and took a quick scan of the situation. Her eyes had begun to adjust to the low light, allowing her to see that the living room was a mess. Sofa cushions had been pulled from the sofa and ripped open, the stuffing lying all over everything. The intruders may have spared her jars of fruits and vegetables this time, but most of the contents of her refrigerator lay scattered across the floor and counters of the tiny kitchen, going to ruin.

She stepped back into the hallway, her heart pounding with equal parts adrenaline and dread.

Please, God, let Logan and Jenny be okay. Please, please, please.…

The door to her own bedroom was closest. That was where Jenny slept when Briar was working night shift, as she’d done during her stint as a dispatcher, and as she’d be doing for the first few months on the job as a police officer. But when Briar tried to push the door open, something was blocking it. She peered through the narrow space between the door and the frame and saw a pale white hand outstretched.

Jenny!

A noise in the next room down made her freeze. That was Logan’s room.

Someone was moving within.

She reached through the narrow crack in the door and touched her fingertips to Jenny’s wrist. Relief rattled through her when she found a strong, steady pulse.

Pulling back, she pushed to her feet and fell back on her police-academy training, so recently finished. She led with her pistol, moving as quietly and quickly as she could. The thumping sound she’d heard earlier repeated. A drawer closing, she recognized.

She touched the door and found that it wasn’t latched. It swung open slowly and silently—thank God she’d oiled the hinges recently. It used to creak like crazy.

A tall dark-clad figure stood silhouetted by the faint moonlight coming through Logan’s window. He had his back to her, allowing her to spare a quick glance toward the bed to reassure herself that Logan was still there, his face turned toward his pillow and his little chest rising slowly and steadily.

“Freeze—police!”

The dark silhouette whirled not toward her but toward Logan’s bed.

She couldn’t fire at him, not with her son so close, so she shoved the gun in her jacket pocket and ran, hitting the intruder solidly. They both bounced off the bed and hit the floor.

“Mama!” Logan’s soft, frightened wail tore at Briar’s heart, but she couldn’t let go of the man punching and kicking at her in an attempt to escape.

He eluded her grasp and started toward the door. She scrambled up after him, tackling him as he darted into the hall.

Suddenly, strong, cruel fingers bit into her arm and yanked her back by her hair, allowing the man she’d brought down to scurry out of reach.

She grabbed the Glock from her jacket and twisted around, shoving the barrel at her captor. “Let me go!”

He dropped her with a hard shove, slamming her back into the floor. Her head hit the hardwood with a jarring thud, and for a second the whole world seemed to explode into colorful confetti.

Then her vision cleared, and she swung the Glock in a semicircle, looking for any sign of the intruders.

The front door was open, barely visible from her position on the hallway floor. She pushed to her feet, wincing at the pain in her shoulder, and edged her way into the living room.

She took a quick peek outside. There was no sound of a motor, but she thought she made out the rustle of leaves in the woods just beyond her property. Even with a three-quarter moon in the sky, she couldn’t detect any movementin the gloom of the woods, just the fading rustles of the two intruders running away.

She shoved the door closed and engaged the lock, her heart pounding and her head aching.

“Mama!” Logan’s wail drew her back to the hallway. Pocketing her weapon, she pulled out her cell phone and turned on the flashlight app, shining it into the darkness.

Logan stood in the middle of the hall, his blue T-shirt riding up his little round belly and his pajama pants sagging to reveal his big-boy underwear.

She ran and scooped him up, pressing her face against his little chest, breathing in the beautiful smell of sleepy little boy. “Mama’s right here,” she assured him, patting his back in soothing circles.

Mama’s got you.


HE SHOULD HAVE known Doyle Massey would be at the hospital. The Bitterwood chief of police seemed to show up everywhere Dalton Hale went these days, like a particularly hard-to-kill weed in a flower garden. And, as luck would have it, tonight the sister was there, as well, her auburn hair, green eyes and prominent cheekbones a persistent, visible reminder of what a mess his own life had become in the last month.

Dalton had finally reached the point, however, where the sight of Doyle and Dana Massey didn’t send him into a seething rage. At least, not on the outside. He was still boiling a little inside, but he set that emotion aside and entered the Maryville Mercy Hospital waiting room with his head high and his own green eyes clear and focused.

He bumped gazes with Laney Hanvey, who sat next to Massey. She was about to marry the chief, which had strained their formerly collegial relationship, but she was still the friendliest face in the room. She murmured something to her fiancé and crossed the room to meet him.

“Is something wrong?” she asked quietly.

He realized she didn’t know he was there for the same reason she was. “Not on my end of things. I’m here to talk to the victim.”

Her gaze narrowed. “Jenny Franklin is still undergoing tests.”

“I meant the widow. The Blackwood woman.” He realized, as Laney’s expression darkened, that he sounded cold and officious. Not the sort of man he’d ever been, not before now. He’d been the prosecutor who went the extra mile, tried to get to know the people for whom he sought justice. He still received Christmas cards from people he’d helped. He never used to call people things like victim or the widow.

He was doing a lot of things now that he’d never done before.

“Her name is Briar,” Laney said quietly. “Do you have to do this tonight?”

“Was she injured?”

“Just roughed up a little. Didn’t even let the paramedics check her.”

Dalton looked past Laney until his gaze snagged on the dark-haired woman sitting with a small boy sleeping in her arms. She sat apart from the others, though most of them threw concerned glances toward her now and then.

“That’s her, isn’t it?” He nodded toward the woman with the child.

Laney followed his gaze. “Yes. You know the police already have her statement, right? She’s a cop herself. She was thorough.”

That was news to him, actually. “I thought she was a dispatcher.”

“She graduated from the academy back in December, and a slot opened on the police force last week, so she finally got her badge.”

Laney was answering all his questions with details, he realized, because she wanted to keep him from bothering Briar Blackwood. And hell, maybe if he were in her position, he’d be doing the same. He hadn’t exactly covered himself with glory over the past few weeks as he’d dealt with finding out his whole bloody life had been a lie.

Matter of fact, he’d been a complete ass about it.

“I just want to ask her a few questions about the break-in.” He intentionally added a gentle tone to his voice, though he was feeling anything but gentle at the moment.

Laney’s eyes narrowed again, as if she saw through the pretense. But after a moment, her expression cleared. “I’ll introduce you.”

He’d have preferred to approach the woman alone, away from all her friends, but he couldn’t exactly make any demands, could he? It wasn’t as if she were the culprit here.

At least, not that he could prove.

He followed Laney across the waiting room floor, ignoring the watchful gazes of the others, though he did spare the slightest glance at Dana Massey, as if his eyes couldn’t resist one more quick look to make sure he hadn’t been mistaken about the resemblance.

No, still there, the faint but unmistakable traits that had convinced her, on the day of their first meeting, that he was the long-lost half brother she’d only recently learned about.

He dragged his gaze forward, grinding his teeth.

“Briar?”

The dark-haired woman looked up at Laney, then let her gaze slide slowly to Dalton’s face, her clear gray eyes darkening with recognition. So she already knew who he was. Probably not good news, given the tumble his reputation had taken around the Bitterwood Police Department in the past few weeks.

“Mrs. Blackwood, I’d like to ask you a few questions about the break-in this evening,” he said, not waiting for the unnecessary introduction.

Beside him, Laney released a soft sigh. “Briar, this is assistant county prosecutor Dalton Hale.”

“I know who he is,” she said quietly, still holding his gaze. “I’ve given a statement to the Bitterwood Police Department. Detective Nix is the lead detective.” She nodded toward the dark-haired man sitting next to Dana Massey. Walker Nix. Bitterwood detective and Dana’s significant other. Nix stared back at him, as if daring him to cause a ruckus.

In Briar’s lap the dark-haired little boy stirred and made a low mewling noise that sounded like a puppy whining. He tightened his little arms around his mother’s neck, clinging like a monkey as she rubbed his back and murmured soothing nonsense to him until he settled down.

A painful sensation wriggled in the pit of his stomach. He killed it with ruthless dispatch. “I understand that. But I have some questions about the incident that the detective may not have known to ask.”

Something shifted in those gunmetal eyes, a flicker of flame warming their wintry depths. “Such as?”

Ah, he thought, she’s curious. That was good. Curiosity was exactly the sort of trait he needed from this woman if he was going to get the answers he sought. “Such as, do you believe this most recent break-in could be related to the one that happened a few weeks ago?”

Her eyes went from molten steel to flinty ice in a split second. “What makes you think Nix wouldn’t have asked such an obvious question? Do you have such a low opinion of the police?”

Dalton gave himself a mental kick. Once more he was letting his anger at Massey taint everything and everyone connected to him. Of course Nix would have asked the obvious question. “Fair enough.”

Briar glanced up at Laney. Some communication moved silently between them, for Laney patted Briar’s arm and walked away, leaving him alone with her.

He sat in the empty chair beside her. “You like handling things on your own. Don’t you?”

She didn’t answer.

“You’re sitting off here by yourself, away from your friends. You sent Laney away so you could handle my questions alone.”

“You seem to know something, or think you know something, about the break-in. So spill it.” She kept her voice low, her hand still drawing soothing circles around her son’s back.

“I know your husband died seven months ago.”

“He was murdered seven months ago,” she corrected quietly. Her voice had an oddly detached tone, making him wonder about the state of the relationship at the time of Johnny Blackwood’s murder.

“You weren’t a suspect?”

Her gaze flicked toward him. “I had an alibi.”

“Work?” She’d still been the emergency services night-shift dispatcher at the time of Johnny’s death.

She nodded. “Plenty of security video to establish my whereabouts.”

“But you had a motive?”

She took a quick, sharp breath through her nose. “Is there a point to this line of questioning?”

He supposed there wasn’t, other than curiosity. He knew the basics about Johnny Blackwood’s goings and comings during the months leading up to his murder. It was how he’d latched on to Johnny in the first place—reading through the case notes and seeing signs of a potential connection to another case he was looking into. But the personal details in the case file were scarce, perhaps because Briar was part of the Bitterwood P.D. family. Personal matters not pertaining to the case would have been minimized and even left out to protect her privacy.

Like the state of the marriage at the time of his death. The cops would have wanted to know if there had been trouble in her relationship with her husband. And Dalton knew that on Johnny’s side, at least, there had been trouble to spare.
But did his wife know what Dalton knew?

As he puzzled through how best to ask her such a delicate question, a doctor in a white jacket over green scrubs entered the waiting room. “Mrs. Franklin’s family?”

Briar’s whole body seemed to snap to tautness at the sound of the doctor’s voice. She stood, clutching her small son more tightly to her, and crossed to meet the doctor halfway.

Dalton trailed behind her, catching up in time to hear the doctor say, “We’ll want to keep her until tomorrow because she lost consciousness, but she’s not showing any continuing mental confusion, which is a very good sign. She did sustain a fracture of both bones in her lower right arm, however. We’ve reset the bones and applied a fiberglass cast to just above the elbow. She’ll need to wear the cast for at least four weeks.”

“Can I see her?” Briar asked.

“Check with the nurse at the front desk in the E.R.—she’ll tell you what room she’ll be in.” The doctor smiled, gave Briar a comforting pat on her shoulder and left the waiting room, moving at a clip.

“Good news,” Dalton murmured.

Briar turned her gaze toward him, her eyes narrowing. “You’re still here.”

“Yes, I am,” he said, not taking offense. He knew he was making a nuisance of himself by coming here at this hour of night to bother her, but it couldn’t be helped. She might hold the key to his uncertain future without even realizing it.

“I have to go check on my aunt.” She turned away from him and crossed to where Laney sat, murmuring something before she handed off her son to the other woman.

Dalton watched her straighten her back and leave the waiting room with her shoulders squared and her chin up, like a soldier readied for battle. It struck him, in that brief glimpse of her steel core, that Briar Blackwood was a woman who thrived on challenges that made other people collapse.

Could that trait of hers be useful to him?

As Dalton started out the door after her, Doyle Massey rose from his chair and moved into his path. He was smiling as he did so, in that charming snake-oil salesman way of his, all teeth and beach tan and ulterior motives.

“Where are you going?” Doyle asked.

“That’s none of your business.” Dalton tried to take a step around him, but Doyle shifted, staying in his path.

“I don’t know what you’re up to or why you’ve suddenly taken an interest in my newest recruit, but don’t drag our bad blood into it.”

Dalton couldn’t help smiling at the chief’s choice of words. “Bad blood, huh?”

“Dana and I get that you don’t want to be part of our family, and you know, we can live with that. But don’t think that means we’ll let you screw with our lives and the lives of people around us.”

“Your faith in my integrity is touching.”

“I have no faith in you at all,” Doyle snapped back, dropping all pretense of friendly civility. “What brought you here tonight?”

“A case.” Dalton lifted his chin, daring the chief to start a fight.

“Which case is that?”

Dalton glanced to his right as Walker Nix rose from his seat and headed for the waiting room door. Off to see after the Blackwood widow and her aunt, he guessed. Maybe take the older woman’s statement.

He’d wanted to be there for that statement himself, but clearly the chief had other ideas.

“Why don’t you both try being straight with each other?” Laney rose from her chair and moved to turn their tense twosome into a threesome.

They both looked at her, and she lifted her eyebrows in response.

Doyle looked back at Dalton, his eyebrows mimicking his fiancée’s. “Well? What case are we talking about?”

Dalton was tempted to just leave without answering. But with so much on the line—not just his own ambitions but the safety of all the people he’d sworn justice for—he couldn’t afford to let his emotions muck up the works.

“I’ve been trying to piece together a conspiracy case against the people we suspect were involved in the Wayne Cortland crime network,” he said finally, lowering his voice by habit. “You know that Blake Culpepper has been fingered as one of the people involved.”

“And you come here in the middle of the night to a hospital waiting room to ask Blake’s distant cousin questions about his criminal activity?” Doyle sound unconvinced.

“Not about Culpepper.” Dalton tamped down a smile at the thought that he actually knew something his know-it-all half brother didn’t. “I came here to ask her questions about her late husband.”

“You have questions about Johnny? Why?”

“Because odds are good he was part of Cortland’s organization.”

Text Copyright © 2014 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.