M I S S I N G
Harold J. Ford, Sheriff of Stark County, wished like hell that he were somewhere else. Almost anywhere other than here would feel pretty good to him right now. Despite the spring sunshine and budding wildflowers, the familiar road leading to the Flying W ranch struck him as slightly less appealing than the frozen tundra of Alaska in midwinter. Unfortunately, there had been no stray cows or broken tractors to slow him down and he'd made the journey out from town in record time. He was now less than half a mile from Ellie Raven's front porch and he still had no clue what he was going to say to her.
He braked to give a couple of white-tailed prairie dogs time to scurry across the rutted gravel driveway, then drew his official Jeep Cherokee to an unusually quiet and sober stop on the patch of blacktop in front of the Flying W's machine-storage shed.
A pair of quarter horses were munching grass in the side pasture and he gave them an envious stare. One of the horses stared back, new spring grass dangling from the side of its mouth, the picture of equine contentment. Lucky damn horse. Harry sighed. Some days it really sucked to be the sheriff of Stark County.
Ellie, thank God, must be working in the kitchen out back, as she didn't come to the door to greet him. Another brief reprieve. Harry threw a frustrated punch at the steering wheel. Unfortunately, bruising his knuckles did nothing to sharpen his brain function. He rubbed his sore hands, mentally rehearsing a couple of possible opening lines before giving up with a disgusted exclamation. Jesus, how was he going to find the words to tell Ellie about her husband? Everything he'd come up with since he got the call from the cops in Miami seemed insulting, patronizing or just plain heartless.
Megan, Ellie's daughter, came to the front door and whistled for the dogs, waving when she saw him. Harry waved back, finally forcing himself to step out of the car. He gave the dogs an absentminded pat as they bounded past him.
It was a big relief to discover that Megan was at the ranch. Harry had called her apartment in Jackson Hole before he left town, but he'd reached her answering machine. Then he'd called the fancy ski lodge where she worked. They'd told him she wasn't scheduled to come in again until Wednesday, which wasn't surprising since this was the off-season: too late for skiing and too early for the summer crowd. Harry had been afraid Megan might have left for a minivacation in Denver or Salt Lake City. Unless you were fascinated by watching cows swat flies, Stark County didn't provide much in the way of entertainment for a young, single woman. But Megan, thank God, was here and he'd count that as a blessing. At least Ellie would have her daughter right beside her when he delivered the news. "Hi, Harry. What's up?" Megan greeted him with a smile, not waiting for an answer to her own question as she butted the front door open with her hip and shooed the dogs inside. She was a dynamo of energy, packed into a curvaceous five-foot-two-inch package. Conversations with Megan tended to be conducted at warp speed. "How is it that every time Mom bakes one of her chocolate-fudge cakes, all the neighbors know to come calling?"
Harry didn't joke as he usually would. "I'm here on official business, Megan. May I come in?"
"Of course." Megan shot him a glance that was still more surprised than worried. She gestured him inside.
"Official business, huh? Has there been another report about wolves in the area?"
"Plenty up near Yellowstone, but nothing in this county, or I'd have heard about it. We're hoping the one Jerry Hotchkiss spotted last month was the proverbial lone wolf." Harry realized he was babbling and clamped his mouth shut. Tucking his uniform hat under his arm, he followed Megan into the living room. Ellie had told him about the new sofa and chairs she'd ordered onlineher first Internet purchaseand they had been delivered since the last time he stopped by the ranch. The sofa loomed big and golden in the middle of the room, and the copper-colored armchairs flanked the massive brick fireplace where before there had been empty space. Maybe that was why the familiar room suddenly looked so alien.
"If it's not wolves, what's going on?" This time Megan clearly expected an answer. "You look upset, Harry."
"Yeah, I'm upset. This is going to be very difficult. Fact is, I've been given some bad news to pass on." There was nothing for it but to say what had to be said. "Could you ask your mother to come in here, please?" "You're scaring me, Harry." Megan finally looked alarmed. She drew in a shallow, nervous breath. "Has something happened to my father? Or my brother?"
Her spectacular green eyes darkened with foreboding when he didn't interrupt to reassure her. "Oh my God. There's been an accident, hasn't there? Is it Liam? Or Dad?"
"Something like that." Before he had time to say more, Ellie pushed open the swinging door that led from the kitchen straight into the living room. Harry found himself thinking that nowadays builders would consider a door like that a lawsuit waiting to happen. Then he realized he couldn't avoid looking at Ellie for the rest of the afternoon, so he shifted his gaze to meet with hers.
Her green eyes, slightly more hazel than Megan's, were warm, friendly and unreservedly happy to see him. "Hi, Harry. What's up? I didn't expect to see you this week."
He cleared his throat. "Hi, Ellie." He didn't ask how she was doing or make a comment about the weather, and she immediately responded to his somber mood. Her smile switched off with the abruptness of a snuffed candle.
Her hand went to her throat. "Harry, what is it?" "I'm sorry, Ellie, but I'm not here on a social visit. Truth is, I just finished a long phone call with a detective sergeant in Miami."
"Miami?" She tilted her head in a frightened question.
"That's where Ron was going on Sunday morning."
"Yeah, I know." Now that the moment couldn't be delayed any longer, Harry spoke crisply, standing straight, draping himself in the mantle of his professional obligations. He needed to handle this like the sheriff of Stark County, not like a friend who'd known Ellie since the eighth grade. And he definitely shouldn't handle it like a man who had always thought Ellie deserved a better husband than Ron Raven. "I'm sorry, Ellie, but there's no easy way to say this, so I'll give it to you straight. The police in Miami called me because they think that Ron has met with an accident. There's signs of a struggle in his hotel room." The sheriff breathed deeply. "Fact is, the police believe there's a chance that he's dead."
"No! That's impossible! Not Dad!" Megan's protest was harsh with shock, but Ellie said nothing. She stood rock still, except for her forefinger, which tapped in a quick, erratic rhythm against her throat. Harry had expected her to sob uncontrollably and he'd been terrified he'd have to comfort her, which almost guaranteed he'd end up saying all the wrong things. Like, I hope he is dead. You're better off without the bastard. Or, you could have married me and saved both of us from choosing the wrong person. Her unnaturally restrained reaction struck him as even worse than his imaginings.
Megan wasn't anywhere near as controlled as her mother. Tears running down her cheeks, she put her arm protectively around Ellie's shoulders and hugged her close, ignoring her mother's unyielding stiffness. She rocked her gently back and forth and Ellie didn't resist, although she didn't respond, either. But the fact that Megan was comforting her mother at least made it easier for Harry to resist the urge to walk over and hug Ellie at the same time as he yelled insults at Ron. Goddammit, Ellie was a good woman, one of the best, and she didn't deserve what was coming down the pike.
Unlike her mother, Megan soon recovered her wits enough to ask the obvious question. "What do you mean, the police in Miami think my father is dead? Don't they know? How can you be confused about whether a person is alive or dead, for God's sake?" rected himself out of deference to the fragile hope that Ron might still be alive. "I mean, they haven't found Ron yet, so they can't be a hundred percent sure what's happened to him. He's definitely missing from his hotel. The cops are pretty sure he must be either seriously injured or dead, but they've checked all the hospitals in southeastern Florida and he's not a patient anywhere"
Ellie spoke for the first time. "Ron was staying at the Doral Beach Hotel. He called me from there on Sunday night."
Harry's heart skipped a beat. "What time was that, Ellie?" "I don't recall exactly. I was reading when the phone rang and I didn't pay much attention. Maybe nine o'clock my time? Ron mentioned he was about to go to bed."
"That would make sense. Nine here is already eleven o'clock in Miami." Harry reached automatically for his pen, then decided this wasn't the moment to be scratching down notes.
"Ron was fine when we spoke," Ellie said. "I'm sure he's still fine." Her tone of voice dared Harry to contradict her.
Harry cleared his throat, which seemed to have developed a permanent frog. "Apart from you, Ellie, the Miami police haven't been able to find anyone who spoke to Ron after eight-thirty eastern time on Sunday night."
"Why is that such a big deal?" Megan's petite frame vibrated with the force of her frustration. "If there wasn't Dad might be dead? I thought adults could go missing for weeks without law enforcement taking any interest. Dad's been out of touch for less than thirty-six hours. Why are the cops making a mystery out of something so trivial?"
There was no way to avoid describing the gruesome crime scene, so Harry did his best to lead them there gently. "Your father checked into the Doral Beach Hotel around seven on Sunday night. I guess he called down to room service and ordered breakfast for six-thirty the next morning...
is the first book of a spectacular, fast-paced trilogy that keeps the
pages flying faster than you can say bigamy. Excellent characters, suspense,
a tangled web of lies and deceit, plus a sexy romance meld together
to make a terrific story."
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