Authors: Kathy Clark
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Loveswept Ebook Original
Copyright Â© 2016 by Kathy Clark
by Kathy Clark copyright Â© 2016 by Kathy Clark
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
is a registered trademark and the
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
by Kathy Clark. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.
Cover design: Diane Luger
Cover photograph: Ollyy/Shutterstock
“Break's over. Back to work. We need to get this section done before dark.” The job foreman tossed his empty Coke can in the back of the pickup truck and put his hard hat on. The half dozen other men on the crew reluctantly stood and stepped out of the shade of a front-end loader. Even though it was only June, the temperature was already in the upper nineties, promising a brutal summer ahead.
Two men wearing orange vests moved their surveying equipment into position. One of them peered into the laser level, then straightened. “This would be a lot easier if you guys could move that pile of brush out of the way,” he called.
The foreman waved at the loader operator and pointed to a twenty-foot-tall stack of dried mesquite, scrub oak, and cactus. “Load that into the dump truck. We might as well get it out of here.”
The dump-truck driver backed up next to the pile, and the front-end loader moved into position. The rest of the crew stood back and watched as, chunk by chunk, the debris was lifted and dropped into the back of the dump truck.
One of the surveyors looked around at the one-hundred-acre tract that they were subdividing. “I can't believe they're putting in another neighborhoodâ¦especially way out here in Dripping Springs.”
“Yeah, the Austin area's booming,” the foreman confirmed. “I heard the guy who owns that vineyard over there offered big bucks for a piece of this property, but the owner knows he can make more by building luxury homes on small acreage.”
The two men studied the vineyards that stretched along the boundaries of the land they were clearing. Row after row of well-groomed vines, loaded with clusters of green grapes, were planted north to south to soak up as much sun as possible. A split-rail fence divided the two vineyards, which otherwise looked identical. In the distance, several large stone buildings were visible on the property directly in front of them.
“Me, I'd rather live on a place like that. Can you imagine looking out at that every day?” the surveyor asked.
“Not to mention all the wine you can drink,” the foreman added with an envious chuckle.
The operator scooped up another bucketful and had started to lift it when the supervisor glanced over his shoulder. He turned and ran to the front of the machine.
“Stop, stop! What the fuck is that?”
That got everyone's attention, and they gathered around the bucket, peering inside. There, nestled among the broken branches and twisted tree trunks, was what appeared to be a human skull. It was dark brown, stained from being buried under a layer of dirt and rotting plants for years. The jawbone had separated and slid off to the side in a macabre grimace.
“Fuck!” The foreman shook his head. “If this is some sort of ancient burial ground, we're screwed. The boss is going to shit bricks.”
“I heard of a project down at Marble Falls that got completely shut down,” the surveyor commented. “What was supposed to be a new Walmart is now a historical dig site swarming with archaeologists and historians.”
“Damn shame. I like Walmart,” one of the laborers commented.
“Yeah, well, I like my job, and finding a body is a fucking ballbuster,” the foreman grumbled.
“I could dump this and cover it back up,” the loader operator suggested. “Someone will find it later, but by then we'd be through here. Besides, it's probably an illegal that didn't make it to the promised land, which will make him just another Juan Doe in the morgue.”
The foreman seriously considered the option. It would definitely buy them time. Dozens of Mexicans who managed to make their way across the border died before reaching family or friends. Their bones littered the Texas countryside all the way to El Paso, so this could easily be an unfortunate traveler. Besides, this looked old. He hadn't seen any other skulls in his life to compare it to, but he knew this one wasn't fresh. What harm would it do to delay discovery for a few more months?
But in the end he was an honorable man. This was a human, and whoever the poor sap was, he or she didn't deserve to spend another day out in this field.
“Hey, look at this,” the surveyor said as he bent over and picked up a small object. He held it out on his open palm. “I think this rules out an ancient burial ground
Even after countless years in the ground, the huge diamond in an elaborate platinum setting captured and refracted the sun's rays into a thousand rainbows.
The foreman stared at the ring and felt a little less sympathetic. Whoever could afford an expensive rock like that wasn't some transient who wandered out in the brush and died. With an unenthusiastic sigh, he pulled out his cellphone. “I'm going to call the local authorities, but I know this is too big for them. I'm sure they'll turn it over to the Texas Rangers. Shut it down, boys.”
The loader operator shut off the engine and climbed out of the cab, and the dump-truck driver did the same. All the men migrated back to the shade of the huge machinery and dropped to the ground. They waited until the foreman ended the call.
“I'll stay here, but you guys might as well leave,” he told them. “Check with the office tomorrow for your job assignments. This site is closed indefinitely.”
The dump-truck driver tossed his hard hat into the cab and slammed the door. “I'm heading to the Broken Spoke for a beer.” Several men murmured their agreement, and he led the mass exodus toward the crew pickup truck. The foreman pulled a bottle of water out of an ice chest and settled down for a long wait.
Inside the bucket, the skull stared with empty sockets at the blue sky above. He couldn't speak, but he had a story to tell.
“Listen, I'm pulling into the parking lot now, J.T. I'll have to get back to you later.” Justin turned off the main road and drove down a long asphalt-paved driveway. He'd been on this call with the ridiculously rich oil tycoon for the past hour. J.T. was trying to push Justin into running for lieutenant governor and was more persistent than poison ivy.
It wasn't that Justin objected to the idea. Politics might be the ultimate end game, but first he wanted to get a solid career in law enforcement under his belt. Besides, he loved being a Texas Ranger and wasn't quite ready to be taken out of the action just yet.
“You know you're the ideal candidate,” J.T.'s voice continued through the phone persuasively. “Harvard summa cum laudeâ¦top of your class at UT Law Schoolâ¦a very successful Texas Rangerâ¦”
Justin was doubtful. “Maybeâ¦but what about Grammy?” His very unconventional grandmother, who had toured with most of the famous rock bands in the sixties and seventies, could be found almost every evening sitting on her front porch with a cloud of pot smoke hanging in the air.
Grammy?” J.T. repeated. “Everyone knows she's a harmless old hippie who likes her weed.”
“Which, may I remind you, is still illegal in Texas.”
J.T. chuckled. “Shit, no one cares about a little pot anymore. Look at Willie Nelson. He's practically our state mascot.”
Justin slowed as he looked for a parking space. Cars were parked on both sides of the driveway, leaving barely enough room for his big SUV to get through. What the hell was going on? As he got closer, he saw hanging from the front of a large native-stone building a wide canvas banner that proclaimed,
CRYSTAL SPRINGS CELLARS HARVEST FESTIVAL
. Well, shit, could he have picked a worse day for this? Justin finally saw an empty space and pulled into it. “What if you're wrong?” he asked, continuing the conversation on speakerphone as he parked. “I just don't think it would play well in the pressâ¦âPolitician's Pothead Granny.'â”
“We can handle the press,” J.T. promised.
Justin snorted. “With drones, Twitter, and Facebook, no one can
the press. Besides, what about Nick and Luke? I'm not going to jeopardize their jobs.”
“Well, think it over. We'll talk more later.”
“Not a priority right now.” Justin shifted the SUV into park but didn't turn off the engine, which would have shut down the air conditioner. The last thing he wanted to do was boil in a vehicle while trying to end the conversation without seeming rude. “Look, I've really got to go. It's hotter than hell out here, and my carbon footprint is growing.”
“Where are you?”
“I'm on a case, and you know I can't discuss it. Take care, J.T., and give Dolores my best.” He ended the phone call on what he hoped was an up note, turned off the engine, and opened the door of the white state-provided Ford Explorer he called “Silver” in homage to the most famous Ranger of all time. Personally, he thought riding a horse would be cooler, but with the miles he had to cover servicing the Austin/San Antonio/Waco area, the Explorer was much more practical.
It was a typical hell-hot August afternoon, with the temperature hovering around the hundred-degree mark. As soon as he opened the car door, the heat swept over him like a flash furnace. He picked up his white Stetson off the seat and stepped outside. Justin settled the hat on his head and adjusted his holster. He was wearing the usual but unofficial uniform of long-sleeved white shirt, khaki pants, dark tie, and cowboy boots.
Almost immediately, sweat trickled down the middle of his back as he followed the road to the vineyard. Even the slight breeze didn't help, but it brought with it the lively sound of music and the buzz of the crowd. He glanced down as his foot caught a stubborn rock in the parking lot. The dry Texas dirt dulled the shiny black boot he had polished the night before. “Shit.” He was proud of what his uniform stood for and hated for it to be anything but perfect.
With about fifty yards to go, he tried to focus on his duties this afternoon. Today was officially a courtesy visit to inform the widow of the death of her husband. But since this was a murder investigation, this was also a chance to get a feel for the case. There were a lot of unanswered questionsâ¦and he suspected Mrs. Roberts had some interesting answers. Maybe not today, but he had to start somewhere.
He would have to go easy. Everyone dealt with grief differently. Even though her husband had been missing for eight years, confirming his death could be unsettlingâ¦if she hadn't been an accomplice.
He'd researched the vineyard and its history, so he knew that Mark Roberts's grandparents, Giovanni and Anna Moreno, had brought the original grape stock over from Italy. The vineyard had passed to their daughter, Anna, who had married a Scotsman named John Roberts. Mark, their only child, had inherited it about ten years ago, and from all reports, had been on the verge of losing it when he disappeared.
Somehow the vineyard had survived and was doing very wellâ¦which didn't add up. And then there were the stories about the trophy wife he had met in a bar in Austin and married after knowing her for only forty-eight hours. Justin had seen her photos, and she was definitely a knockout. It was easy to see why some horny millionaire would fall for her.
But was she also a black widow?
Justin finally reached the building and passed through the arched stone opening into the cool interior. The front room was a gift shop with all sorts of wine-related items, as well as a wall of racks holding bottles of the Crystal Springs Cellars' wine. He glanced around but didn't see Mrs. Roberts, so he continued through to the large wine-tasting room. There was a carved-oak circular bar in the middle of the room with barstools surrounding it. Off to the right side was a comfortable-looking lounge with plump leather furniture and a gigantic stone fireplace. And to the left he could see a dining area.
Dozens of people wandered around, tasting, shopping, lounging, eatingâ¦and everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. The whole place had that warm, comfortable feeling of a country home.
There was still no sign of the widow Roberts, so Justin walked out the open double doors leading to the backyard. The crowds were even larger outside. Many people were sitting on lawn chairs or blankets on the ground, listening to live music from a popular local band. Kids were running and playing on the lush green lawn under sprawling oak trees. A row of vendors were on the outer edge, selling everything from homemade soap to jewelry to paintings of the Hill Country next to booths with all types of food and baked goods. There was even a large vat where the more adventurous visitors were taking turns stomping grapes.
“They'll have purple legs for a couple of days,” a feminine voice said next to him. He turned to see who was talking, and all coherent thoughts fled his mind.
There was no doubt this was the widow Roberts. She was even more stunning than in her photos. Long golden-blond hair floated around her shoulders in loose curls. Her eyes were large, wide set, and the color of the Texas sky on a clear summer day. Luscious lips outlined a dazzling smile of perfect white teeth. She was tall for a woman, only a few inches shorter than his six-foot-two frame, so they were almost eye to eye. Although he didn't let his gaze wander lower, he could see the promise of killer curves under the low-cut peasant blouse and long, flowery skirt.
“Uhâ¦,” he said, then gave himself a mental shake. He was a seasoned veteran who never lost his cool, no matter what was happening. This was ridiculous. She was just a prettyâmake that gorgeousâwomanâ¦who may or may not have murdered her husband. “Good turnout.”
“It's our third festival, and it's grown every year.” She turned the full wattage of her attention on him and asked casually, “Are we making too much noise? Or are you checking our age compliance? I can assure you, we're checking IDs.”
“No, ma'am. I have another matter to discuss when youâ¦when you're available.”
She glanced around. “This will wrap up around five. Can it wait until then?”
“Sure, no problem.” It had waited for eight years. A few more hours wouldn't hurt.
“Make yourself at home. Check out the wine tastingsâ¦but then, I guess you can't since you're on duty.”
“I'll stick to the lemonade,” he said, nodding toward the booth that advertised fresh-squeezed juice.
A flustered young Hispanic woman rushed toward them. “Miss Lori, we have a problem in the kitchen. Chef Gino slipped on a spill and thinks he broke his leg.”
Without another word, the blond beauty hurried away with the young woman toward the kitchen.
It was cooler under the shade of the trees, and Justin wandered around, sampling the food and enjoying a truly delicious glass of lemonade. He joined a tour through the winery building where the harvested grapes were being processed and through the keg room where the barrels were stored.
Justin wasn't much of a wine drinker himself. Give him a cold beer any day over a glass of wine. But as he walked through the various areas and listened to the tour guide's spiel, he began to appreciate the complexity and art of crafting wine.
No one stopped him, so he drifted away from the crowd at the end of the tour and strolled around the buildings. A couple small houses, probably occupied by employees, were behind the winery building. From the grassy area where the festival was being held all the way to the back of the property were dozens of rows of grapevines following the gentle hills that were common in this part of Texas. In fact, the area west of Austin was known by the name
because of its undulating landscape.
Off to the left of the main building was a two-story stone house with a metal roof and a wide porch. He assumed this was the Roberts residence, although he wasn't sure if she lived out here or had a place in town. Beyond the house was an orchard of round, dusty gray trees loaded with oval green fruit he recognized as olives.
By the time he returned to the festival area, the crowd had begun to dissipate. The vendors were packing the remaining merchandise and dismantling the booths. Most were local artists or bakers who traveled around the state, displaying their wares at fairs or festivals, so the setup and teardown were smooth operations. The band was also packing up and loading their instruments into the back of a van they had backed up to the wooden stage.
Justin sat on a glider that was deep in the shade and watched the orderly winding down of the festival. Several of the vineyard workers were emptying and hosing out the grape tub. Obviously, it had been for show and to give the visitors a memorable experience rather than to actually harvest the juice. But given the volume of products that were being sold in the gift shop, the financial loss of a few dirty grapes wouldn't be missed.
Surrounded by all the lush greenery, there was peacefulness in spite of the activity going on around him. A tiered stone fountain splashed nearby, its trickling water blocking most of the peripheral sounds. Justin found himself relaxing more than he had in months. His job kept him hopping, so he rarely sat around and did nothing. His only respite was the family dinners at his grandmother's place almost every Sunday. But since both of his brothers were also in law enforcement, the conversation was usually centered around active or solved cases, so none of them were ever really off the clock, even though Grammy strongly discouraged shoptalk.
He felt someone plop down on the glider next to him, and he realized he had closed his eyes and maybe even dozed off for a minute. He didn't even have to look to know Mrs. Roberts had joined him. She smelled like lemons and flowers, a scent he had noticed earlier.
“I see you've gotten caught up in the magic of this place,” she said, her voice tired. “No matter how hard I've worked during the day, I can come out here and sit for a while, and everything seems better.”
He turned to her with a smile. He hadn't expected her to be soâ¦human. If she was a femme fatale or a killer, she was hiding it well. “Hello, ma'am, I'm Justin Archer.” He tipped the brim of his hat. “I apologize for not introducing myself earlier.”
“Things were pretty hectic, Ranger Archer. I'm Lori Roberts.” She smiled broadly as her eyes fixed on his. She reached around to shake his hand. “But then, I guess you already knew that.”
“Pleasure.” Justin shook her hand. What a dumb-ass thing to sayâ¦“pleasure”? “Did you take care of your emergency in the kitchen?”
She leaned back and exhaled. “I lost my chef for at least a couple weeks. It wasn't a break, just a nasty sprain. But I know those can sometimes be worse. We were able to finish off the day with the assistant chef, but I'll have to hire someone temporarily. We have the annual Wine Guild dinner in two weeks, and then the olive harvest events the week after that.” She shook her head and sighed.
“I'm sorry to interrupt your festival, but I have some bad news.” Justin didn't want to break the mood, but he needed to get to the point of his visit. “Is there somewhere more private?”
She lifted her head and looked at him. For the first time, worry flickered across her eyes. “Of course.” She stood and had started to lead the way to the winery building when a young girl ran up and threw her arms around Lori's waist.
“Mommy, I had so much fun today.”
Lori automatically adjusted the barrette that was holding the girl's long blond hair in a messy ponytail. “I'm so glad.” She glanced back at Justin. “Sweetie, could you go help Raquel in the dining room? I need to talk to this nice man for a minute.”
The girl focused her attention on Justin, checking him out with perceptive eyes. Apparently impressed by his shiny badge, she smiled. “Are you a policeman?”
“I used to be, but now I'm a Texas Ranger,” he explained, smiling down at the curious child, who looked like a mini-me version of her mother.