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Stranger in Cold Creek: What Happens on the Ranch bonus story (The Gates: Most Wanted) Mass Market Paperback – February 23, 2016
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About the Author
As a child, Paula Graves's favorite books were Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries and Harlequin Romances. When she realized there were books that featured both romance and mystery, she knew she'd found her calling. Now Paula writes for Harlequin Intrigue, where she gets to play both matchmaker and murderer and has a blast doing it.
USA Today bestselling author, Delores Fossen, has sold over 70 novels with millions of copies of her books in print worldwide. She's received the Booksellers' Best Award, the Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award and was a finalist for the prestigious Rita ®. In addition, she's had nearly a hundred short stories and articles published in national magazines. You can contact the author through her webpage at www.deloresfossen.com
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The tinkle of the bell attached to the front door of Duncan's Hardware heralded the arrival of a new customer, though on this frigid March day in the Texas Panhandle, the gust of icy wind blowing through the entryway would have been plenty of warning by itself.
In the fasteners aisle, John Blake winced as the cold seeped under the collar of his jacket and seemed to attach itself to his mending collarbone. The gnawing pain stole his breath for a moment before settling into a bearable ache.
The new arrival was a woman. Tall and rangy, with hair the rusty color of Georgia clay and worn in a simple ponytail, she had alert eyes the color of the gunmetal sky outside. Her rawboned features, free of makeup, were more interesting than beautiful.
She nodded at Gil Duncan, the proprietor, and scanned the shop with those sharp gray eyes, her gaze settling on John and narrowing.
He looked away, feigning a lack of interest, though every nerve in his body tingled to attention.
He felt more than saw her approaching him, but he didn't look away from the boxes of screws he was studying.
"You're new in town."
John looked up at her, finding himself the object of those smoky eyes. Close up, her gaze was sharp, her expression intelligent and curious. She also gave off an air of authority, and he thought the word cop even before she flipped open her jacket to reveal the six-pointed star badge of the Barstow County Sheriff's Department.
"Yes, I am," he answered with a mild smile. He was barely an inch taller than she was, and in his current condition, he was fairly sure she could take him down without much trouble. Cooperation was by far the smarter option for him, especially since he wasn't looking to draw much attention to himself during his hopefully brief stay in Cold Creek, Texas.
"You're that fellow who's renting the Merriwether place on Route 7?"
Her lips twitched a bit at his polite response. "You're from North Carolina?"
Not a bad guess, he thought. "Tennessee."
She gave a nod. "How do you like Cold Creek so far?"
"It's quiet. Been chilly since I got here."
"That won't last," she warned with a friendly smile that displayed a set of straight, white teeth. She was prettier when she smiled, he decided. "If you're plannin' on stayin' long, that is."
Was that her way of asking whether he was going to stick around? "So I hear. Hopefully it's a little less humid than where I'm from."
The musical tone of her laugh caught him by surprise. "You can bank on that. But it's windy as all get out, so you need to take care with any open flames. Doesn't take long for a fire to get out of control in these parts."
"Hey, Miranda, I got those two-by-fours you ordered in the back," the florid-cheeked man at the front counter called out. "Wanna meet me back there with your truck?"
"Be right there, Dad," she called before turning back to John. "I'm Miranda Duncan." She grinned before adding, "Of the hardware Duncans."
He laughed. "John Blake. Of the accounting Blakes," he said in return, wondering if she could tell he was speaking the truth.
It had been a while since he'd used his real name. But Quinn had suggested it, since the people who might want to do him harm knew him by other names. Nobody he'd crossed recently would connect him to some guy named John Blake who lived in Cold Creek, Texas.
Miranda cocked her head for the briefest moment before she smiled at him again. "Welcome to Cold Creek, John Blake. Hope you'll like it here." She headed back out the door, letting in another blast of icy wind that made his bones hurt.
Damn shame, he thought, that he rather liked the red-haired deputy, because the last thing he needed to do while he was recuperating in Cold Creek was to make friends with a local cop.
He was here to stay out of sight and let his bones and muscles mend.
In that order.
Gathering up the screws and bits he'd need to repair the wind-battered storm windows of the rental house, he paid at the front counter and headed out to the old Ford pickup Alexander Quinn had purchased for his time here in Texas. The plates were from Garza County, a couple of hours south, registered in the name of a construction company called Blanchard Building. It belonged to an old friend of Quinn's, who apparently owed the man a favor.
If anyone asked, John Blake's name was on the payroll as a carpenter, and the repair work he was doing on the rental house was all part of the cover.
Quinn was nothing if not thorough.
The wind was strong and icy, hinting there was snow hiding behind the flat gray clouds that hung low over the ridgeline to the east. To the west, there was nothing but scrubland and sky as far as the eye could see.
John tugged the collar of his jacket closed and hurried to climb into the truck, grimacing at the steady drumbeat of pain in his bones. Maybe he should have checked the weather report this morning before he planned a day of manual labor.
The last thing his aching bones needed was snow.
Looked like the weatherman was right, Miranda thought as she gazed at the lowering gray sky overhead. They were getting snow this afternoon.
She pulled the truck into the parking lot outside the Cold Creek Municipal Complex, suppressing a smile as usual when she read the building's name on the large sign out front. The single-story rectangular brick building housed a small courtroom, the mayor's tiny office and the four-room Barstow County Sheriff's Department. There wasn't anything complex about this little dot on the sprawling Texas map, and with more and more young people leaving for the bigger towns and cities, Cold Creek might not be a dot on the map much longer.
Sheer stubbornness was all that had kept Miranda in the panhandle, herself. Stubbornness and a marrow-deep love of the land of her birth. She knew everyone in Cold Creek like old friends.
Well, almost everybody.
It was rare for Cold Creek to have new folks in town. Maybe in a bigger city, like Dallas or Houston, John Blake would blend into the crowd. He had that kind of facepleasant features but nothing that made him stand out. His hair was neither long nor short, neither dark nor fair, and his skin tone was medium. He wasn't short, but he wasn't tall, eitheronly an inch or two taller than she was. He wasn't heavy or thin, neither muscle-bound nor weak.
He was simply average.
But even average stood out in Cold Creek, Texas. Because he was a newcomer in a town that didn't attract newcomers.
Settling in at her desk in the sheriff's department, she checked her messages in hopes of a new case to distract her from her inconvenient curious streak. But there was nothing waiting for her. There rarely was.
She woke her computer and grabbed a notepad from the top desk drawer. John Blake, she wrote at the top of the pad. He was from Tennesseeeast Tennessee, she added to the notepad as she searched her memory for everything he'd told her and a few things he hadn't. His accent had definitely held a hint of the mountains.
He'd been buying nails and screws, but nothing that pegged him as any sort of builder. And he'd told her he came from a family of accountants, hadn't he?
John Blake. Accountant. Eastern Tennessee.
That should be a place to start.
Ten minutes later, she knew a good bit moreand still, a whole lot of nothing. Jonathan Eric Blake, age thirty-six, six feet tall. Until just over a year ago, he'd worked at Blake and Blake, an accounting firm in Johnson City, Tennessee, owned by his father. Before that, he'd worked for a global marketing firm in Europe for about a year, fresh out of grad school.
His current address was just off Route 7, the main north-south highway through Barstow County. He also showed up on the payroll of a construction company called Blanchard Building, Inc., in Garza County.
Working as an off-site carpenter.
What was an accountant doing working as a carpenter?
As she reached for the computer keyboard again, the desk sergeant, Coy Taylor, stuck his head through the doorway. "Duncan, we've had a call. Anonymous. Someone thought he saw Delta McGraw hitchhiking down near the Bar W."
She stood and grabbed her jacket from the back of her chair. "Was he sure it was Delta?"
"Claimed it was. You've got pictures of her plastered all over the county." Taylor gave her a sympathetic look. "You might be about the only person left in these parts who gives a damn. That girl's burned a lot of bridges in this town."
Miranda couldn't argue otherwise, but Delta had lived a hard life and maybe she had earned some of the prickliness that set most people on edge. And while this wasn't the first time Delta had gone missing for a few days, this time just felt different. She'd been gone too long, with no word to anyone, at a time when she'd seemed closer than ever to putting down permanent roots in Cold Creek.
Miranda zipped up her jacket and headed out to the fleet parking lot. The small sheriff's department had jurisdiction for the whole county, but most of the crime, such as it was, happened near the county seat of Cold Creek or along Route 7.
She turned on the cruiser's light bar but left the siren silent as she sped down Route 7 toward the sprawling Bar W Ranch, one of the largest cattle spreads in the panhandle. Despite the chilly temperatures, the Bar W Ranch kept their cattle grazing year-round through a strategic plan utilizing both warm- and cold-growth grasses. Some patches of grass were already green, despite the frigid temperatures, and several dozen head of cattle had gathered there to graze.
She peered down the highway, looking for a hitchhiker. But with the threat of snow, even traffic on the highway was nearly nonexistent. Nor could she find any sign that a vehicle had pulled over on the dusty shoulder on either side to pick up anyone thumbing for a ride.
Had it been a false report?
She called it in. "Taylor, I'm seeing no sign of a hitchhiker on Route 7. Could the call have come from a hoaxer?"
"Could have, I suppose." Taylor's gusty sigh roared through the radio. "Sorry about that, Duncan. I know you were hoping hard for some sign of the girl."
"I think while I'm down this way, I'm going to check in on Lizzie Dillard. She swears someone's been stealing eggs from her henhouse."
"A lawman's work is never done," Taylor drawled, amusement thick in his gravelly voice.
The narrow one-lane dirt road that led to Lizzie Dillard's farm, well-rutted and hell on the cruiser's shocks, had been given the dubious name Glory Road. At one point, in the area's distant past, a charismatic preacher had turned this part of the panhandle into a series of peripatetic tent revivals, and Glory Road had come into being to accommodate wagons, horses and pedestrians traveling from revival to revival.
The revivals had ended after a spectacularly messy sex scandal involving the preacher and a half dozen of his pretty young acolytes, but the name of the road had lived on to the present.
By the time she pulled into the bare yard in front of Lizzie Dillard's farmhouse, a light snow had begun to fall, whipped into icy needles by the hard north wind. Miranda tugged up the collar of her jacket and hurried up the porch steps. She knocked on the sagging screen door. "Lizzie?"
Lizzie didn't answer, even after another knock, so Miranda headed around to the chicken coop out back.
Lizzie Dillard came out of the chicken coop and looked up in surprise. "Hey there, Miranda. What're you doin' out here? You want a piece of pecan pie? It's still warm from the oven, and I could put on a pot of coffee."
Miranda ignored the answering rumble of her stomach. "No, thank you, Lizzie. I just came by to talk to you about those stolen eggs."
"Aw, honey, I didn't tell your daddy about that so you'd come out here. It's probably some wily ol' gray fox." Lizzie handed Miranda the basket full of brown eggs and turned to secure the door latch on the coop.
"A fox got in the henhouse and just stole the eggs?" Miranda tried to temper her skepticism, but Lizzie shot her a knowing look.
"I reckon I raise tough hens." Lizzie laughed at her own joke. "Sometimes, they just want the eggs. It happens. You sure you don't want to come in and warm up?"
The snowfall had started to pick up, the flakes fatter and denser than before. The ground temperature was still above freezing, but if the snow got much heavier, it wouldn't take long to start sticking, even on the roads. "I'd better get on the move," Miranda said, not letting herself think about Lizzie's warm kitchen and hot pot of coffee. "Call us if anything else happens out here, okay?"
"Sure thing." Lizzie walked with her to the cruiser. "You be safe out there. My old bones are tellin' me this might be a big snow."
"I hope your bones are wrong," Miranda said with a smile.
Back in the cruiser, she checked in with the station. Bill Chambers was manning the front desk instead of Taylor, who'd taken a lunch break. She filled in Chambers on the call that had brought her out here. "No new calls about a hitchhiker?"
"Not a thing."
"I'm coming back in, then." At the end of Glory Road, she took a left onto Route 7, heading south toward town. Snow had limited the visibility to about fifty yards in all directions, forcing her to drive slower than she normally would. Fortunately, the snow seemed to have convinced most other drivers to stay off the road.
She was halfway to town before she saw another set of headlights in the rearview mirror, cutting through the snow fog behind her. A second glance revealed the headlights moving closer at a reckless rate of speed.
Miranda turned on the light bar and the siren, figuring that would be enough to make the car flying up behind her slow down.
She was wrong. The second vehicle whipped around the cruiser and pulled even in the passing lane. It was a Ford Taurus, she saw. Dark blue. She tried to get a look at the driver, but the dark-tinted windows, liberally frosted with a layer of snow crystals, hid the car's occupants from view.
She grabbed her radio and hit the bullhorn button. "Pull over," she commanded, easing off the gas.
The other car slowed with her but didn't pull over.
She pushed the call button and gave Chambers a description of the vehicle. "Don't know what this fellow's up to, but if there's a unit in the area, I could use backup."
"On its way," Chambers promised.
Snow was starting to dance across the road surface, collecting on the edges. If the precipitation didn't slow soon, the road would become hazardous.
"Pull over," she ordered again, but the driver of the Taurus didn't change speed at all.
What the hell was going on? Was this an ambush?
Why would someone ambush a Barstow County deputy?
With shocking suddenness, the Taurus fell back, catching Miranda off guard. She glanced in her side mirror, trying to figure out what he was doing.
The right front of the Taurus was even with the left rear panel of the cruiser. In the split second Miranda had to think, she realized the Taurus was in the perfect position for the classic police chase tactic known as the PIT maneuver.
Just as the thought flashed through her mind, the Taurus bumped the left rear panel of her car, sending the cruiser into a textbook spin.
If the road had been dry, she might have been able to recover from the PIT maneuver. But as the cruiser turned in a wild circle, the wheels hit a patch of accumulating snow and spun off the road, hitting a shallow arroyo that sent her into a roll.
Amid the shriek of crumpling metal and the blaze of fear rising in her chest, her head slammed into the side window and the whirlwind of sound and color faded into dark silence.
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