Authors: Paula Graves
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Contemporary Romance, #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE
A COLD CASE BROUGHT HIM HOME…
When Sutton Calhoun shook the dust of Bitterwood, Tennessee, off his boots, he never thought he’d return. But now he’s back to investigate an unsolved murder and has teamed up with police detective Ivy Hawkins—the only part of the Smoky Mountain hamlet worth remembering.
A STEAMY REUNION WOULD KEEP HIM THERE
Ivy is a hometown girl and well aware of Sutton’s reputation. She can’t help but find his smoldering eyes resurrecting long-buried feelings. Plus, as the body count rises, Sutton is the only one who believes her that an eerily methodical serial killer is living among them in the shrouded peaks of Bitterwood. Ivy doesn’t know which is worse—the desire she feels for a man who’s nothing but trouble…or the danger posed by a killer who has them in his sights?
His unexpected lust could get them killed.
Sutton forced his straying mind back to their still-dangerous situation. The Jeep wouldn’t offer much cover if their mystery shooter sent more rounds their way.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Ivy said beside him. “Do you think this ambush has to do with the murders? Why lure you here and gun you down?”
“I don’t know.”
Ivy looked around. “You know, half the people here never lock their doors.”
“That’s crazy. Even in a nowhere place like Bitterwood.”
“Old habits. People want to believe they’re safe.” She reached forward to wipe the condensation starting to fog up the windshield.
“No.” Sutton grabbed her wrist, stilling the motion. She turned to look at him, her dark eyes wide with surprise. Beneath his fingers her pulse beat like the wings of a trapped bird, swift and violent.
And there it was again. Desire, licking at his belly like flames.
MURDER IN THE
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alabama native Paula Graves wrote her first book, a mystery
starring herself and her neighborhood friends, at the age of six. A voracious
reader, Paula loves books that pair tantalizing mystery with compelling romance.
When she’s not reading or writing, she works as a creative director for a
Birmingham advertising agency and spends time with her family and friends. She
is a member of Southern Magic Romance Writers, Heart of Dixie Romance Writers
and Romance Writers of America.
Paula invites readers to visit her website,
Books by Paula Graves
1183—CASE FILE: CANYON CREEK,
1189—CHICKASAW COUNTY CAPTIVE*
1278—THE MAN FROM GOSSAMER RIDGE**
1428—MURDER IN THE
Justice: Cold Case Investigation
CAST OF CHARACTERS
The Bitterwood P.D. detective has no idea who’s killing women in her small Smoky Mountain town. The last thing she needs is Sutton Calhoun breezing back into town after years away, threatening to complicate her case.
The son of a notorious backwoods con man left town when he realized he’d never live down his family reputation. But his security job has him back in Bitterwood, trying to solve a confounding murder.
Once Sutton’s best friend, before Sutton’s father took Seth under his wing and turned him into the criminal Sutton refused to be, Seth swears he’s reformed his ways. But for one of the good guys, he’s harboring a whole lot of secrets.
Her father’s trucking company keeps popping up in Ivy’s investigation. Can the reluctant heiress help crack open a murder case?
The farmer claims he has a good reason for washing blood out of his rental truck while the trucking company lot is closed for the night. But does his explanation hold water?
Though his plant nursery rents a truck from Davenport Trucking, the friendly businessman seems willing to help in any way possible. But could one of his employees have something to hide?
Captain Glen Rayburn—
Ivy’s superior at the Bitterwood P.D. thinks she’s in over her head. But would he go so far as to sabotage her investigation?
Sutton’s father may not be the wily old con man he used to be, but can father and son ever reconcile, or is the damage to their relationship too great?
For my childhood friend Julie Plant, who introduced me to the beautiful Smoky Mountains
a trip to Lake Junaluska in western North Carolina. We’ve lost touch, but I hope wherever Julie is, she gets to see this dedication and know I remember that trip fondly, all these years later.
People in small towns were trusting souls. Even in this wicked age, doors remained unlocked, windows unlatched behind flimsy screens designed to keep out mosquitoes and flies, not people.
Small towns made things too easy for him. They really did.
But he wasn’t going to quibble about getting what he wanted without a lot of effort. He liked a challenge as much as anyone, but in the end, it was all about results.
Bitterwood, Tennessee, had sounded like exactly the place for him. One of those little Southern towns left behind by the modern world to desiccate slowly in the blazing heat of a Southern summer. Most of the people who still lived here were too old to move away. Or too settled, too scared or too shiftless to bother.
They hid in their little burrows, behind the bravado of unlocked doors and friendly smiles, because the big, bad world beyond the mountain hollow was scarier than anything they could find here.
At least, that’s what they used to think.
Until he’d come.
The house on Vesper Road was small and neat, painted a pale grayish-blue with merry yellow trim. Behind the house, moonlight silhouetted Smoky Ridge, edges softened by the lush summer growth that gave the mountain the appearance of blue velvet in the daylight.
This house, he thought, would be locked. She’d know better than to pretend the world around her was a safe place.
But she was worth the challenge.
No one else was stirring at this time of night, no traffic moving along the two-lane road winding along the twists and turns of Bitterwood Creek. Ten miles west of Bitterwood, I-75 made it easy for travelers to bypass the town altogether on their way to the Smoky Mountain tourist traps.
Her door was locked, just as he’d expected. He tried the window by the front door and found it had been latched, as well.
Circling the house in silence, he came to a side window that looked in on her study. She was there, he saw with surprise. Her head on the desk, cheek plastered to the pages inside an open file folder. Working late, he thought with a secret smile.
Trying to catch him.
She wasn’t pretty, exactly, but that had never been one of his criteria. He’d taken old women and young girls, fat and skinny, fit and fragile. Not all here in Bitterwood, of course.
Here, he’d taken only three.
He tried the latch on the window and found it open. But he couldn’t get into the house this way, not with her napping so near. A loaded pistol lay on the desk beside her. One creak of the window and she’d awaken, pull the weapon and have him in her crosshairs.
He never used a gun himself if he could avoid it. It seemed too easy. Too impersonal. Snipers shot at targets from hundreds of yards away, their only connection with the soon-to-be-dead a brief, magnified view through a sniper’s scope. Where was the value in such a death?
He liked to feel the heat of his victims as they struggled to hang on to their fleeting lives. Smell the iron tang of blood and hear the sounds of life leaving a body. It was intimate. The most intimate, thrilling thing he’d ever done in his whole life. Nothing else came close.
He wondered if she’d left another window open....
Ivy Hawkins woke with a start, sitting up straight in her chair. A piece of paper clung to her cheek before dropping back to the desk atop the others lying inside the open manila folder. Her gaze went automatically to the window as if she expected to see someone there.
She rubbed her tired eyes, trying to hold on to the fleeting remnants of the nightmare that had awakened her. For a moment, she had a memory of looking through her own window at herself and feeling...what?
Anticipation, she realized, feeling queasy. But when she tried to remember more about the dream, it eluded her grasp, slippery and ephemeral, leaving behind only the sour taste of fear.
She pushed to her feet and crossed to the window, sliding her hand across the latch to make sure it was in place. Her heart skipped a beat as she realized it was unlocked.
How had she left a window unlocked?
He knows it’s unlocked.
Chill bumps rising on her arms and back, she quickly snapped the latch into place. And because if one window could be unlocked, so could others, she grabbed her Smith & Wesson M&P357 and went around the small farmhouse, room by room, to check the rest of the locks, as well.
Everything else was secure. She holstered the pistol and went back to the study, where she’d left her files.
Crime scene photos lay scattered across the open file, as if in death the three murder victims would share the secrets of their last moments in life. But they were mute, the bloodless marks on their carefully cleaned bodies serving as their final statements.
“You don’t even know if they’re connected.”
The impatient tone of her supervisor, Captain Rayburn, rang in her head.
He refused to admit there was a link between the deaths at all, despite the obvious evidence. Ivy suspected the captain resisted the idea because he didn’t want to invite outside agencies into Bitterwood to observe the department in any way.
She had a few theories why that might be so, none of them good.
On paper, the victims
different enough to confuse matters—a quiet, single woman in her early thirties, a young widow with a drinking problem and a college coed home alone while her parents were visiting friends in nearby Maryville. But it was what the victims shared in common that convinced Ivy of a link.
Home alone. Living on secluded roads that saw little traffic after seven in the evening. All three murders taking place at night, between ten and midnight. And all three victims stabbed to death by a killer who had left no actionable evidence behind—because he didn’t kill them in their homes. Apparently, he took them elsewhere for the kills, washed them clean of all blood and evidence and returned them to their beds to be found by concerned neighbors and loved ones.
Ivy slumped in her chair and closed the folder, a glance at her watch reminding her that she’d stayed up well past two in the morning yet again. If she went to bed right now, she’d get maybe two hours of sleep before her alarm clock rang and she’d have to start all over again. Ten days straight. That’s how long it had been since she’d had a full night’s sleep.
The phone on the desk rang, shattering the silence and rattling her nerves. The caller ID read “Bitterwood P.D.”
She grabbed the receiver. “Hawkins.”
The voice on the other line was Detective Antoine Parsons, the whipcord-lean veteran who’d been working the murders with her. What he said sent another chill skittering through her.
“We have another one.”
* * *
his way around the small cluster of neighbors gathered outside the farmhouse on Blalock Road, trying not to draw attention from the police officers busy at work taping off the scene and keeping people from going any farther onto the property. He kept his baseball cap low over his brow, shielding his face from any curious eyes. Fourteen years away wasn’t nearly long enough for anyone around these parts to forget a Calhoun. And for the moment, at least, he’d prefer to fly under the radar.
The front door of the farmhouse opened and a tall, lean black man emerged, looking grim and angry. Sutton recognized his old friend Antoine Parsons, who hadn’t changed much since their high school days. Like Sutton, Antoine had known the victim, Marjorie Kenner.
Mrs. Kenner had been the librarian at Bitterwood High School since Sutton’s early high school years, a widow who’d never married again after her soldier husband’s death in the Panama conflict. Sutton wondered who’d found her body at this time of night. The call he’d picked up on his police scanner hadn’t specified who’d phoned 911. As far as Sutton knew, Marjorie Kenner still lived alone in the same house where she’d lived as long as he’d known her. No children, no lovers, no renters to help pay the bills.
Of course, things might have changed in the past fourteen years. He hadn’t exactly kept up with the folks back home in Bitterwood once he’d got out for good. She might have met someone new, someone she shouldn’t have trusted. Hell, maybe the older she’d gotten, the more she’d felt the full weight of time passing and had taken to driving into Maryville or even Knoxville for a little male companionship.
It would certainly simplify Sutton’s life if Mrs. Kenner’s murder had an uncomplicated explanation.
“Sutton Calhoun?” At the sound of his name, Sutton looked up and saw Antoine Parsons’s dark eyes wide with surprise.
He tipped the brim of his cap up and nodded at his old friend. “How’s life treatin’ you, Antoine?”
Antoine’s lips curved in the faintest of smiles. “Better than I deserve. Never thought I’d see you around these parts again.”
“Neither did I,” Sutton admitted.
The front door opened again, and a dark-haired woman emerged from the house, her gaze sweeping the yard until it settled on Antoine Parsons. Suddenly her gaze snapped back again, locking with Sutton’s. Her forehead creased and she walked slowly down the front steps toward them.
Sutton’s gut tightened as if he’d just taken a blow to the solar plexus. Her hair was gathered back in a tight ponytail, revealing the familiar curves and planes of her small oval face. She hadn’t grown much taller than she’d been at fifteen, though even the loose-fitting blue Bitterwood P.D. golf shirt couldn’t hide the fact that she’d filled out in all the right places.
“Sutton Calhoun.” Her accent was as broad as the mountains surrounding them, but he couldn’t tell by her tone whether she was glad to see him or dismayed. Whatever she was thinking lay hidden in the depths of her dark brown eyes.
Her lips curved without much humor. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
Oh, I remember you,
he thought. “Ivy Hawkins. You used to live down the road.”
And you damned near saved my sanity.
She’d been a few years younger than he was, not even old enough to drive by the time he left home to join the army. But she’d been his sounding board. His secret confidante, wiser than her young years should have allowed. She’d been there when he’d broken away from his father’s influence, and he’d helped her cope with her mother’s revolving-door string of boyfriends.
She’d be in her late twenties now. She looked younger, maybe because she didn’t have on a stitch of makeup. He noted the detective’s shield on her belt. “And you’re a detective.”
Her dark eyes narrowed. “What are you doing here?” Her tone wasn’t exactly friendly. Of course, the last time he’d seen her, she’d been crying, begging him not to leave her there alone.
He’d hoped she’d get out. Clearly she hadn’t.
“Just in town for a visit,” he answered.
“No, I mean here. At my crime scene.”
“Oh.” He wondered how much he should tell her. “I have a police scanner and heard the crime called in.” That much was the truth.
“Just happened to have a police scanner?” She sounded skeptical.
“It’s a hobby.”
“You know those Calhouns,” Antoine said lightly. “They like to know where the cops are at all times.”
Sutton made a face at his old friend.
You’re not helping,
“You’re up awfully late.” She arched one dark eyebrow.
“Yeah.” He nodded toward the house. “How bad is it?”
“Bad enough.” She pulled Antoine aside, lowering her voice. But not so low that he couldn’t hear what she said. “Let’s call in the Violent Crime Response Team. You know our techs aren’t trained to handle evidence retrieval at this level.”
Antoine grimaced. “What evidence?”
“My point exactly,” Ivy said flatly.
“Rayburn won’t like it,” Parsons warned.
Rayburn. Sutton searched his memory until he came up with a face to go with the name. Glen Rayburn had nabbed Sutton’s father, Cleve, at least once. Been a real bastard about it, as Sutton recalled. Not that the old man hadn’t deserved to be busted, but Rayburn had more or less told Sutton he’d be coming for him, too.
All Calhouns ended up in the cages sooner or later, he’d said.
Sutton had been smart enough to get out before he fell into his con man father’s undertow. He hadn’t had money for college, so he’d signed up with the U.S. Army and spent the next few years climbing the ladder through hard work and sheer cussedness.
That’s how he’d ended up at Cooper Security, working for Jesse Cooper and his trouble-magnet family. The head of Cooper Security had been looking to add people with Special Forces training to his staff. Sutton had fit the bill.
Parsons moved away from Ivy, pulling out his cell phone. She turned back to Sutton, cocking her head as she saw him watching her. She closed the distance between them with deliberate steps. “I thought you swore you’d never let the dust of Bitterwood touch your feet again.”
“That’s a little melodramatic.”
She shrugged. “You said it, not me.”
said it. And meant it. And if Stephen Billings hadn’t walked into Cooper Security two weeks ago looking for help investigating his sister’s murder, he probably would’ve kept that vow without another thought.
He’d told himself there was nothing back in Bitterwood to tempt him to return. He’d let himself forget Ivy and her loyal, uncomplicated friendship.
Too late now. Whatever connection they’d shared fourteen years ago was clearly dead and gone, if her cool gaze meant anything.
“I’m here on a job.” He kept it vague.
“What kind of job?”
Should have known vague wouldn’t work with a little bulldog like Ivy Hawkins. She’d never been one to take no for an answer. “An investigation.”
Her look of disbelief stung a little. “Someone hired you to investigate something here in little bitty Bitterwood?”