| THE SECRET OF CHEROKEE COVE
Text Copyright © 2014 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
She entered the Bitterwood Community Center banquet hall with no fanfare, a tall, fit woman in her early thirties. Fanfare or not, Walker Nix found his gaze drawn her way, taking in her appearance with the practiced eye of an investigator. She had sleek auburn hair worn straight and intelligent green eyes that scanned the room with a specific goal in mind, narrowing as she failed to find her target.
I should paint her, he thought. She wasn’t pretty, exactly, but he found her striking features interesting.
Conversation died to nothing as most of the partygoers turned to look at the newcomer. Laney Hanvey, standing near the front of the hall with her mother and sister, crossed quickly to the woman, a smile on her face. She passed Walker, leaving him with a whiff of her light jasmine scent, and extended her hand to the taller woman. “Dana. You look just like your photo. It’s so nice to finally meet you!”
Chief’s sister, Nix thought, his interest tempered by the impracticality of lusting after a woman whose brother was his boss. Her impending arrival had been the talk of the police station from the time the chief had mentioned to one of the file clerks that she was coming. She’d be in town only a few days, just long enough to get to know her brother’s fiancée and catch up on their lives, before heading back to her job in Atlanta.
Still, his gaze lingered on Dana Massey’s face as she smiled at Laney and took her hand with what appeared to be genuine pleasure. She really would be a fascinating subject to paint.
“I’m so happy to finally meet you, Laney!” Dana maintained eye contact as if oblivious to the interested stares of everyone else in the room. Nix dragged his gaze away from the meeting of the future sisters-in-law and let it skim across the other faces in the hall. To his surprise, he saw several looks of shock and one or two expressions of near hostility.
Odd, he thought. As far as he knew, this was Dana Massey’s first visit to Bitterwood. And what little he’d heard about her wouldn’t elicit hostility from anyone but the fugitives she chased in her job as a deputy U.S. marshal.
“Doyle is late,” Laney was saying as she and Dana passed Nix’s position near the doorway. “I tried calling his phone, but he’s not answering.”
“He’s probably lost it somewhere,” Dana murmured in the tone of a sister used to her younger brother’s foibles. “He loses a phone every year, I swear.”
They passed out of earshot, and Nix made himself look at his watch, not Dana Massey’s shapely backside. Almost eight. The party had officially started at seven-thirty. And while Bitterwood Chief of Police Doyle Massey had a reputation for being a bit more laid-back than his predecessor, he’d never shown a tendency toward tardiness.
Nix bumped gazes with one of his fellow detectives, small, dark-eyed Ivy Calhoun. She was newly married, tanned golden from her recent honeymoon in the Bahamas and looking happier than he’d ever seen her. She flashed a smile at him, and he wandered over to where she stood with her new husband, Sutton Calhoun.
“Nix,” Sutton greeted him with a nod. They were both Bitterwood natives, but Sutton was a few years younger than Nix. He was better acquainted with Nix’s younger brother, Lavelle, which might explain the wariness in Sutton’s gaze. Lavelle had never been anything but trouble.
“Calhoun,” Nix responded in kind, saving his smile for Sutton’s bride. “Have you heard from the chief?”
Ivy shook her head. “Laney said he told her he had to pick up something from the office before he came to the party. But that was nearly an hour ago.”
It didn’t take an hour to get anywhere in Bitterwood.
“Have you tried calling the station to see if he showed up?”
Ivy cocked her head slightly to one side, her gaze narrowing. “You think something’s wrong?”
“One of your hunches?” Sutton added, not without a hint of sarcasm.
“No,” Nix lied, even though his hunch meter was going off like a klaxon. “Just doesn’t seem much like the chief to keep his girl waiting.”
"Is that his sister?" Ivy nodded toward Dana Massey, who stood at the front talking to Laney and her family.
“Yes,” Nix answered. “She didn’t seem worried about her brother’s lateness.”
Sutton took a sip from the cup of red punch he held in his right hand. With a grimace, he set the cup on a nearby table. “Maybe she knows stuff about him we don’t.”
“Maybe,” Nix conceded.
“But you don’t think so,” Ivy prodded.
He gave her a warning look, but her eyebrows merely rose a notch and her dark eyes flashed with amusement.
She thought it was all great fun, having a genuine Cherokee soothsayer on the police force, and most of the time Nix didn’t try to squelch her enjoyment. He wasn’t a soothsayer, of course—his hunches were usually based on deduction, not intuition. And he was only part Cherokee. The rest was pure Appalachian Scots-Irish, as his brother Lavelle’s headstrong ways would attest. But playing the inscrutable Indian could have its advantages, especially during interrogations.
“I’ll give the station a call, see what’s what.” He wandered away and pulled out his cell phone to call the main switchboard.
The night shift dispatcher, Briar Blackwood, answered, “Bitterwood P.D.”
“Hey, Briar, it’s Nix. Have you seen the chief?”
“He called about seven to say he was heading in to pick something up from his office, but he didn’t show. I figured he might have been running late and decided to come by after the party.”
Nix frowned. “Yeah, that’s probably it.”
“What’s wrong?” Briar asked.
“Later, Briar.” He hung up before she could ask any more questions he couldn’t answer and crossed back to where Ivy and Sutton stood, talking to a tall redhead and an even taller man with dark hair and a rangy but powerful build.
Ivy introduced the pair as Natalie and J. D. Cooper, friends of the chief’s. “Natalie used to work with the chief down South,” Ivy added as Nix shook hands.
Natalie smiled, but he saw concern hovering behind her green eyes. “Ivy says Doyle’s late. Doyle’s never late. He may come across as an overgrown frat boy sometimes, but he’s as dependable as they come.”
Her alarm exacerbated his own growing concern. Keeping his voice low, he told them about his call to the station. “That was an hour ago.”
Ivy looked from Natalie’s face back to Nix’s. “Should we go look for him?”
“I’ll do it,” Nix volunteered. “You stay here and make sure Laney doesn’t start worrying too much until we know what’s what.”
Unspoken between them was the fact that there might well be a damned good reason to worry. Only three months earlier, Doyle Massey had crossed swords with a man named Merritt Cortland, whose thirst for power had led him to kill his father and several others in a deadly explosion. He’d tried to make the chief another of his victims, but Massey had fought him off. After Cortland had fallen down a steep incline, landing on the rocks below, he’d been thought dead, but by the time paramedics arrived at the base of the bluff, his body was gone.
Was Merritt Cortland still alive? It was a question that nobody had been able to answer to anyone’s satisfaction. Nix figured it was possible the man’s injuries weren’t fatal as the chief had assumed. It was equally possible that one of Cortland’s ragtag cohort of meth cookers, anarchists and radical militia soldiers had recovered the body and was keeping it on ice in order to keep the legend alive.
Under Merritt Cortland’s father, Wayne, the criminal operation had flourished, and even Cortland the younger had somehow managed to keep the enterprise afloat, despite the disparate elements involved. But if Merritt Cortland was dead, how long would the conspiracy thrive?
Outside the community center, night had fallen deep and blue. After a mild day, the temperature had dropped into the forties, driving Nix deeper into his leather jacket. As he started down the concrete steps to the sidewalk, the door opened behind him and footsteps clicked across the hard surface.
“Are you going to look for Doyle?”
The low female voice rippled along his nerves as if she’d run a finger down his spine. He turned to find Dana Massey standing on the steps behind him, her intelligent eyes full of stubborn intent.
Lying would do no good. She seemed like the kind of woman who never asked a question if she didn’t already know the answer. “I thought I’d see what’s keeping him.”
“How late is he?”
“Party started at seven-thirty, so—”
“When was the last time anyone heard from him?” She walked down the steps until she stood level with Nix, her head only a couple of inches below his own. She was as tall as her brother and had the same sort of dynamic presence, though the chief’s aura of command was often tempered by his good-natured humor.
There was no humor in Dana Massey’s green eyes at the moment.
“He called the police station around seven and told the dispatcher he was going to drop by the office before the party to pick up something.”
“Pick up what?”
Her lips flattened with annoyance, though her irritation didn’t seem to be directed toward him. “Was he at home when he called?”
“Don’t know that, either,” he admitted. He should have asked the question of Briar, though the chief might not have said where he was. “I’m working on that assumption.”
To her credit, she didn’t make the usual joke about assumptions. “He’s not answering his phone.”
“So I hear.”
She extended her hand suddenly, as if she’d just remembered they hadn’t met. “Dana Massey. The chief’s sister.”
“Walker Nix. The chief’s detective.”
Her lips curved slightly at his dry rejoinder as she shook his hand. She had a firm, dry grip, with long fingers that felt like warm velvet against his own. “So I heard. Mind if I tag along?”
He could still feel the lingering sensation of her skin against his when he dropped her hand. “Wouldn’t you rather stick around the party?”
She shook her head. “I’m here for my brother. Wherever he is.”
He nodded toward the sidewalk. “Bundle up. My heater’s acting up.”
DANA EYED THE rusty-looking Ford pickup truck parked a block down Main Street from the community center, then shifted her gaze back to the talk, dark-eyed man who seemed to be watching her for her reaction. She got the feeling this moment was some sort of test, but damned if she knew what the right answer might be.
“Nice wheels,” she murmured.
The right corner of his mouth quirked upward. “Thanks.” He opened the passenger door without producing a key.
Her high heels weren’t the most practical footwear for climbing into an oversized truck, but she managed to haul herself into the cab without making too much of a spectacle. Her wool slacks and cable-knit sweater had seemed to be sufficient for the cool night, but the truck’s hard vinyl seat felt like a block of ice under her backside. She stifled a shiver and held her breath until she located the seat belt and reassured herself that it actually worked.
Walker Nix slid behind the steering wheel and engaged his own seat belt before turning to look at her. “Need a blanket?”
She bit back a shiver and shook her head no. “How far away is Doyle’s house?”
“You’re not staying there?”
She shook her head again, hoping he didn’t ask any uncomfortable questions. “I booked a room at a motel in a town north of here. Quaint name—Purgatory.”
“That’s a bit of a drive.”
A bit of a drive? Purgatory was maybe ten minutes away by car. A commute that short in Atlanta, where she lived and worked, was something to be deeply coveted.
Thinking of the short drive from Purgatory reminded her that her car was parked across the street. The Chevy featured soft seats and a working heater. But before she could suggest they take her car, Nix had already cranked the truck and swung it out of its parking place.
“You didn’t see anything on the drive here?” Nix asked her.
“No, but I was already in town by seven.” She’d waffled over the gift she’d picked out for her brother and his new bride on the drive from Atlanta and had decided to do some last-minute shopping in Bitterwood. But, of course, most of the town’s quaint little shops had closed down at five. “Thought I’d do some last-minute shopping, but nothing was open.”
“Everything closes at five around here.”
“Well, there are some joints here and there where you can paint the town red until you can’t see straight. But I don’t think they’re selling what you were wanting to buy.”
Like most of the other people she’d met since arriving in town, Walker Nix had a hard-edged mountain accent, though his was tempered a bit, as if he’d spent some time away from the hills. He wasn’t handsome, exactly, but she rather liked the flat planes and hard angles of his features. He had olive skin and dark hair worn very short on the sides and only a little longer on top. Military-style, she guessed. Probably had some armed forces service in his background—Marine Corps, or maybe Army. Infantry, not rear echelon. The man had jumped right to action at the first sign of trouble.
Once they left the small town center, artificial lighting nearly disappeared, save for the occasional residences spaced every few hundred yards along the winding two-lane road. So the sudden bright beams of light that split the darkness around a blind curve caught them both by surprise. Nix hit the brakes, the sudden deceleration slamming Dana hard against the restraint belt crossing her chest. The brakes squealed, but the truck shimmied to a stop a dozen yards short of the large black truck that lay on its side in the middle of the road, its headlights slicing through the darkness.
No, God, no. She stared at the wreck with a knot in her gut. Not Doyle, too.
Before Dana could unlatch her seat belt, Nix had jerked the truck in park and jumped out, running toward the wreck. She joined him, cursing the high heels that kept getting caught in the uneven, rutted pavement. Terror sucked the air right out of her lungs as she faltered to a stop in front of the vehicle.
The beam of Nix’s flashlight scanned across the bloodied features of her brother Doyle.
Oh, God, please no.
Her brother’s eyes opened, squinting against the flashlight beam. She felt her knees wobble and grabbed the first thing she could wrap her hand around—Nix’s arm. “Doyle?”
Her brother’s gaze met hers, and he forced a smile that looked more like a grimace. “About time you got here. I’m an hour late for my own engagement party, and nobody thinks to come looking for me?”
She nearly drooped with relief, dropping her hand from Nix’s arm. Doyle sounded as if he was in pain, but his sense of humor was still in play. That had to be a good sign, right?
“How bad are you hurt?” Nix asked, shining the light toward the floor of the cab. Dana could see that one of Doyle’s legs was broken. Grimacing, she looked back at his face, trying to figure out where the blood was coming from.
“Broken leg,” Doyle growled. “My head is bleeding, but I haven’t lost consciousness, so I don’t think it’s bad. My seat belt saved me from going through the window.”
“Where’s your cell phone?” Dana asked as Nix backed away to call in the accident.
“Somewhere on the floorboard. I tried to get it but…” He waved at his broken leg. “I decided I wasn’t about to bleed out and could wait for help to find me. Although I have to admit, I was about to get desperate enough to risk wiggling around again to find the phone.”
“Rescue’s on the way, Chief.” Nix walked back over to the wreck. “What did you hit?”
“The bridge abutment.” Doyle waved his right hand backward, groaning as the movement apparently shifted his broken leg.
“Be still, idiot.” Dana softened her words with a gentle squeeze of his shoulder.
He looked up at her. “Call Laney, will you?” he asked. “She’s probably worried.”
“Okay.” Dana stepped away and pulled out her cell phone, dialing Laney’s number.
Laney answered on the first ring. “Dana?”
“He’s been in an accident, but he’s alive and making jokes.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Nix bend in to hear whatever Doyle was saying. Gritting her teeth against the flare of curiosity, she gave Laney a quick rundown of Doyle’s injuries. “Rescue’s on the way.”
“Why couldn’t he call?” Laney asked, sounding suspicious, as if she thought Dana wasn’t telling her the whole truth.
“His cell phone fell in the floor and with his broken leg, he couldn’t stand the pain of trying to reach it.”
“I want to talk to him,” Laney said. “Please?”
Dana knew if she’d been in Laney’s shoes, she’d have demanded the same thing. She took the phone over to her brother.
Nix backed out, not meeting her gaze, giving her room to hand over the phone to Doyle. “Laney wants to talk to you,” she told him.
As Doyle reassured Laney that he’d live, Dana crossed to Nix, who was shining his flashlight on the road behind the wreck. “What are you looking for?”
He didn’t answer, turning the light back toward the truck lying on its side.
“I’m a federal agent,” she said quietly. “And I’m Doyle’s sister.”
“You’re on vacation, and he’s my boss.”
“What did he tell you while I was calling Laney?”
“He just went over what he remembers of the accident.”
Such a dodge, she thought. “Which was what?”
Nix’s dark eyes turned toward her, gleaming darkly in the reflection of the flashlight beam off the cracked windshield. “He hit the bridge abutment.”
“I heard that much.” She took the flashlight from his hand and aimed the beam toward the bridge visible about thirty yards behind the wreck. It was a truss bridge, not particularly long, but the land fell away precipitously beyond the nearest edge, and a quick hike down the road revealed why. The bridge stood over a deep gorge, at least a thirty-foot drop, with a narrow ribbon of water reflecting starlight below.
If Doyle had missed the abutment and gone over the edge into the gorge…
She shuddered and walked back toward the truck, stopping midway as a sudden thought occurred to her.
“Detective Nix, what’s the name of this bridge?” She turned the flashlight toward him, centering the beam on his face so she could read his expression.
He squinted, angling his face away from the light. “Purgatory Bridge.”
Dana’s heart dipped. She turned slowly and ran the flashlight beam over the delicate ironwork of the bridge, blinking back a sudden burn of tears. She’d crossed this bridge earlier on her way into town. Passed over it without a thought.
Never realizing she’d crossed over the place of her parents’ death.
She made her way slowly back to the wreck, schooling her features until she was certain her emotions didn’t show. She gave the flashlight back to Nix and bent to look in on her brother. He’d finished his conversation with Laney and sat with his hands folded over his chest, clutching her cell phone in his bloodstained fingers.
“You doing okay?” she asked softly.
He looked up, handing over the phone. “Laney wanted to come down here, but I told her to stay put until I find out where the EMTs want to ship me.”
Dana glanced at Nix and found him watching them, his expression unreadable. With a sigh, she bent closer to her brother. “What really happened, Doyle? You’re a good driver. You didn’t just run into a bridge.”
He met her gaze, a hint of apology in his green eyes. “And it’s your vacation, too,” he murmured.
Closing his eyes, he laid his head against the head rest. “The brakes failed.”
A ripple of dread snaked through her. “How long since you had them replaced?”
He rolled his head and opened his eyes to look at her. “Last week.”
Nix’s voice rumbled behind her, grim as the grave. “Someone tampered with his brakes.”