Authors: Mari Manning
Tags: #Romantic Suspense, #Mari Marring, #Entangled, #Murder in Texas, #small town, #Mari Manning, #Texas, #Murder, #Cowboy, #Select Suspense, #hidden identity, #police officer, #Romance, #twins, #virgin, #Mystery
She’s playing a dangerous game…
When Kirby Swallow assumes her half sister’s identity to help figure out who’s threatening her, she finds herself in way over her head. On the remote Texas ranch her sister calls home, she confronts a growing list of suspects and a rising body count—all while wearing her sister’s 4-inch heels. The only problem is the sexy ranch manager, Seth Maguire, is starting to catch on to the charade. The attraction between them is undeniable—and soon, what starts out as just a one-night stand, turns into something much deeper. But someone on the ranch is out for blood…and Kirby’s next.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Mary Doherty. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
2614 South Timberline Road
Fort Collins, CO 80525
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Select Suspense is an imprint of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
Edited by Alycia Tornetta and Jenn Mishler
Cover design by Clarissa Yeo
Cover art from Shutterstock
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition June 2016
To my family in Texas and wide open spaces.
Kirby Swallow wanted to kick herself. No, 10-22 that—surveying her heavy makeup and green contacts in the rearview mirror, she admitted the truth to herself. She wanted to turn the car around and drive home as fast as the speed limit allowed.
Her mouth curled into a rueful smile. At least she felt alive again. Since her half sister, Frankie, came back into her life two days ago, the numbness smothering Kirby after her grandfather’s death had lifted. So had her loneliness. That Frankie had shown up distraught, bruised, and begging for help took some of the pleasure out of the reunion. But at least she’d turned to Kirby for help. It was a start.
As for Frankie’s mess of troubles, not to mention the wild scheme she’d concocted, that was another matter. Just driving down here with the intent to conceal her identity and conduct a warrantless search could cost Kirby her badge and end her career as a Tulsa cop. If anyone but Frankie had asked, Kirby would never have broken her oath of honor. But Frankie was family. The only family Kirby had left. So she’d agreed to masquerade as her nearly identical half sister.
Just to take a look around. If she found anything, she’d turn it over to the local cops. Then Frankie could go home again and not feel the shadow of a killer at her back. A killer who appeared to eliminating heirs to the fifty-thousand-acre Shaw Valley Ranch.
A half mile ahead, the gates to the ranch rose above the Texas brush. Kirby steered the car beneath a wrought-iron arch entwined with the initials
and bumped along a coarse gravel road that snaked between hillocks and small groves of honey locust and black cherry. The early-summer sun had begun to slip behind the rolling Texas hills, throwing long shadows across the narrow lane. At least she’d timed her arrival well. She might need the cloak of dusk to get past the front door.
The Mercedes—Frankie’s, of course—purred as it took a sharp bend, skirting a patch of trees and underbrush. As Kirby cleared the last grove, a monstrous Victorian mansion rose up before her. The heart-stopping moment of uncertainty that slammed into her caught her by surprise. Just a few minutes ago she’d been mostly okay. A little nervous about the charade, but ready to take a chance for her sister. But searching this behemoth without backup? Was she ready for that?
The main part of the house—three stories, square roofed and covered with fussy fretwork—thrust boldly forward. Two wings angled back, giving the impression of a bird in the midst of flight. From the roof at the center of the sprawl, a cupola rose as if in a grandiose, futile attempt to touch the flat Texas sky. It was both more and less than Frankie had described. More imposing and more intimidating, to be sure. But faded and in disrepair, too. As if its best days were long past.
Through the dead bugs littering her windshield, Kirby caught a movement on the far side of the yard. A man strode purposefully and angrily in her direction. He was tall, broad shouldered, and wore the rancher’s uniform—jeans, boots, long-sleeve shirt, and on his head a white Stetson.
Kirby stepped out of the car, shimmying Frankie’s tight dress down her thighs. Then she slipped her hand into the Hermès bag Frankie had lent her and released the safety on her Glock pistol.
Not because this was her first go at being Frankie, and if she was caught…well, folks could get ugly if they thought you were messing with them. But because someone on this ranch, or at least someone with access to the house, had abducted Frankie’s momma Charleen, a week back, then two nights ago come for Frankie, too. Frankie had fought off the attempt, but now she was running scared.
As the man came up on her, the pungent scent of horse and hay filled Kirby’s nostrils. His full lower lip curved sensually, and his long nose was slightly off-kilter. Probably broken. Beneath the brim of his sweat-stained hat, hair black as midnight curled at his neck. A spark of intelligence gleamed in his blue eyes.
She’d seen a fuzzy photo of him on Frankie’s cell. Seth Maguire. The local Casanova. The housemaid, a bevy of gals in town, and even Frankie herself were hot for him. Kirby could see why, although he was definitely not her type. His gaze met hers a bit too speculatively, and his body pushed into her personal space. A man too sure of his own attraction for her taste.
“What the hell, Frankie?”
His aggression took her by surprise. She reared back.
He moved closer. “I—we spent the past two days looking for you.”
“You shouldn’t have bothered, since, as you can see, I’m fine.” She released the pistol and took her hand out of her purse. He wasn’t carrying, and she could handle him if he got physical.
He gritted his teeth and growled. “Is this because of what happened?”
Because of what happened?
“You mean with my momma and me?”
“I mean with you and me.”
What was he talking about? Frankie hadn’t said anything about Maguire except to go on about how hot he was. Of course with Frankie, encouraging male attention was second nature. But not to Kirby. “I appreciate your concern. I was visiting friends.” Hopefully that hit a note somewhere between “come and get me, big guy” and “I’m a cop investigating a crime, so stay back.”
He relaxed. “I hope you’ve cooled down.”
His voice was soft and his tone intimate. He bent his neck and studied her face closely. A smudge of dirt outlined the ridge of his cheekbone. The shadow of beard revealed itself as dark stubble. Sweat-scented heat rose off his body and pressed against her. For a moment she thought he might try to kiss her, and she wondered what she’d do. Her heart began to pound. Then he pulled back.
“Answer me, Frankie,” he said.
What was his question? Suddenly she couldn’t remember. “Pardon me?”
“You heard me. Have you cooled down?”
“Sort of.” Beads of sweat gathered above her lips. She tried batting her eyelids Frankie-style but managed only a nervous flutter.
“Look…” He paused and glanced over his shoulder at the house. “I’m trying to get on here. I told you that. I can’t afford to get thrown off this ranch because…because of this damn nonsense. Please, Frankie. Just say yes, and mean it. That’s all I’m asking here.” The cords of his neck strained.
“Can I think about it?” Whatever
was. She’d call Frankie as soon as she got in the house. If she made it that far.
“Think about it? Think about what?”
Above her head, the first bat of the evening squeaked and circled. She backed farther away from him. “Sun’s setting. I best be getting inside before the mosquitoes ring the dinner bell.”
“No. Not until this is settled.” His hand shot out and gripped her upper arm. Not hard, but his fingers were solid against her muscle.
For a moment she couldn’t think. The gesture felt casual and ordinary, as if he’d touched Frankie a thousand times before. And maybe he had. But he wasn’t touching Frankie, and if this was where Kirby was supposed to issue a Frankie-like invitation for more, the charade was over. She jerked her arm from his grasp and backed away.
He frowned. “What the hell’s going on?”
“T-tonight’s not a good night. I’m a little out of sorts.”
“Out of sorts?”
Change the fricking subject.
“My momma is missing. Remember?”
Maguire had the temerity to guffaw. “Your momma goes off all the time, and it’s never bothered you before.”
Clearly he didn’t know about the note left in Frankie’s room. Still, it irritated her. His lack of compassion. “Does it bother you? When she goes off, I mean?”
He laughed again, then turned away and surveyed the splash of crimson above a distant ridge. When he looked at her again, his brows were knitted, his forehead creased by thought. He leaned into her and met her eyes. The intelligence was back, and Kirby felt her measure being taken.
She dropped her gaze to avoid his scrutiny. Frankie’s red stilettos glittered up at her, a reminder of where she was and what she was supposed to be doing.
You are confident with men. You are an heiress to a Texas ranch. You are Frankie Swallow.
“What’s going on?” he asked. “You seem different.”
It was impossible to argue his point, since he was right. She raised her head and tried a spoonful of truth on him. “Maybe I’m upset. Seems like someone might be trying to get rid of me, too.”
He nodded, not the least bit surprised. “I suppose it’s possible, although I don’t know why that’s suddenly news.”
“You don’t thinking that’s just a bit alarming?” She tried to rein in her outrage.
He met outrage for outrage. “Sure thing,
Frankie. I do find it just a little alarming. But you know what I find a lot alarming? That a bunch of people…” He broke off and waved an arm at the house. “That a bunch of people around here wouldn’t shed a tear if you disappeared for good.”
His words were sympathetic, but his tone was not. So did he like Frankie or didn’t he? Would he shed a tear if she was gone? Kirby narrowed her gaze, trying to read his expression, but the deepening gloom obscured it.
“You know what I mean, right?” He made it sound more like a plea for understanding than a question.
Was he talking about the ranch? Charleen, then Frankie would inherit it someday. But who would the childless and elderly Charles Ender Shaw III—Frankie’s cousin Eenie—leave his estate to if they were gone? Probably someone nearby. Maybe someone in that behemoth of a house. Maybe even Maguire himself.
“I know exactly what you mean,” she said, gritting her teeth and thrusting the words at him as if they were written on a criminal citation.
His jaw dropped.
Was it him? Had he taken Charleen, and when Frankie fought him off, did he slip the note into her room?
Got Charleen. You’re next.
But why? Had Maguire somehow insinuated himself with Shaw?
The heavy squeal of rusted hinges vibrated over the yard. Kirby twisted her head. The front door had opened, and a shaft of light cut through the yard, framing a plump young woman with pale braids hanging over her shoulders. The housemaid, Brittany.
“Who’s here, Seth?”
He grimaced. “It’s Miss Frankie. You go on and finish your chores. I’ll get her inside.”
Kirby felt her malevolent gaze. Then the door swung shut with a deep
, casting the yard back into semidarkness.
“I’ll see myself into the house. I wager you have lots of important stuff to do,” she said, turning away from Maguire and swinging open the Mercedes’s back door. She hoisted Frankie’s Louis Vuitton bag from the seat.
He held out his hand. “Give me that.”
She didn’t trust him. But Frankie did. And for now, she was Frankie. She handed him the bag.
He jiggled it speculatively, testing its weight. “What’re you toting in here? Rocks?”
Just a few to balance the weight of a big-ass flashlight, a Taser, handcuffs, ID, and badge all wrapped up in bedsheets to keep the rattling down. She thrust her arm out and tried to snatch the bag back. “I can manage.”
He did a neat sidestep. “Lead the way.”
The path, steep and uneven, was as welcoming as the house. The front porch as wide and empty as the Texas plain stretching to the horizon. The heavy door thick and weather-beaten. Maguire, still hauling her weapons, stayed right behind Kirby all the way to the front door. She’d hoped to go into the house alone. Get past any surprises flighty Frankie might have forgotten to mention.
“Thanks. I can take it from here.” She held out a hand for the bag.
“Wouldn’t hear of it. ’Course, if you could see your way to opening the door, I’d be much obliged.”
The tarnished brass handle resisted the twist of her wrist.
“Come on, Frankie. In you go.”
She gave it some muscle. The latch snapped back. The door creaked open.
Her heels clicked on pink marble, a pale sea between front parlor and dining room. Dust covered massive pieces of Victorian furniture, its upholstery faded to watery claret. Paneled walls and a carved oak ceiling enclosed the room in casket-like darkness. A forest of ferns sprouted from tarnished brass pots. A portrait hung over the deep fireplace—a pale man with even paler eyes watched her with a glint of menace.
Straddling the hall and living room, a carved oak stand held a golden birdcage. Behind gilded wires, a red and blue macaw with a curved beak tilted its head at her. “She’s here, she’s here,” it screeched. “Hurry, he’s this way.”
“Hell’s bells!” The words rolled off Kirby’s tongue before she could bite them back. Frankie hadn’t mentioned a bird. She hoped it was the only thing Frankie forgot.
“Something wrong?” Maguire stepped into the house.
A shadow with a bushy tail leaped over Kirby’s head. She ducked and dug her hand in her purse for her pistol before she remembered—Mr. Shaw had a penchant for critters. Still, it was one thing to hear about a pet squirrel wandering the house. It was another when it flew over you.
Maguire lifted his elbow. “Come here, Bobby. Don’t be pestering Frankie.” A black squirrel with a gold chain circling its neck jumped to Maguire’s raised arm.
Kirby straightened and pulled her hand out of her purse. The macaw cackled again. “She’s here.” The high, inhuman voice vibrated through Kirby like a warning. She shuddered.
“Are you okay?” Maguire asked.
He eyed her cautiously. “Guess he hears that a lot around here.”
Apparently “she’s here” referred to Frankie, and just as apparent was the fact that Frankie would know what it meant and why Maguire seemed almost embarrassed. “Guess so,” she said, but narrowed her eyes and gave him the once-over, because it’s what Frankie did when she was displeased.
Bobby studied her from Maguire’s well-defined bicep, white teeth worrying his paws, black eyes glittering, the tiny bell on a silver collar dinging.
Maguire dug into his pocket. “Here you go.” He handed the squirrel a peanut.
Bobby pushed the peanut into his cheeks and jumped from Maguire’s arm to Kirby’s shoulder. Tiny claws tickled her bare skin. You could say it nice as pie or you could sling it like mud, but the truth was the truth. Frankie wasn’t the wild kingdom type. If a squirrel jumped on her shoulder, even a tame one, she’d have a little meltdown.