Desperate Acts

Book 4 in Pike, Wisconsin

In Pike, Wisconsin, a small town full of deadly secrets, a woman searches for the truth about a long-ago night, while a killer prepares to silence her forever, in New York Times bestselling author Alexandra Ivy’s chilling tale of romantic suspense. 

WILL SHE FIND THE ANSWER

Teenager Lia Porter shouldn’t have been anywhere near the railroad bridge that night. Sneaking home after a party in the fields outside Pike, Wisconsin, she glimpsed a woman in a leather jacket, running in terror. Lia puts the incident from her mind—until a body is found near the same spot fifteen years later, wearing the same jacket. The police rule it a suicide. Lia knows different. The woman she saw was trying to save her own life, not end it. But whatever she was fleeing from found her first…

BEFORE THE KILLER

The stranger who arrives at Lia’s store shares her suspicions. Hollywood stunt driver Kaden Vaughn has come home to Wisconsin to learn the truth about what happened to his brother’s fiancée years ago. The leather jacket, the timing—he believes the dead woman is Vanna, and that Lia may be the only person who can help. Together they retrace Vanna’s steps, but the more they dig, the darker the secrets become.

FINDS HER?

The killer is still out there, stalking the streets of Pike again, willing to do whatever is necessary to keep the truth locked in mystery. One by one, all those who know something about that night must be silenced, until there is no one left to tell…


Praise for Don’t Look

“Exciting. . . . Once the pieces fall into place, the novel settles into an engaging rhythm.” —Publishers Weekly

“Readers will still eagerly turn the pages to see if their suspicions about the killer’s identity are correct.” —Library Journal

Genre: Romantic Suspense

Series: Pike, Wisconsin, Book 4

Characters: Kaden Vaughn Lia Porter

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue

Pike, WI

December 14th, 2007

Tugging her coat tight around her shivering body, Lia Porter scurried down the dark pathway. It was past midnight, and the late December air was cold enough to burn her lungs as she sucked in deep breaths. This was so stupid. She should never have crept out of her house to attend the party. Even at fifteen years old she knew that a gathering of kids in an old barn in the middle of winter was a lame idea. Some of her friends might enjoy shivering around a small fire, listening to country music and drinking cheap beer, but she’d been bored out of her mind.

So why had she allowed herself to be cajoled into going?

Lia wrinkled her nose. She’d told herself that she was tired of being called Lia-Killjoy by her classmates. Okay. She liked to follow the rules. She wasn’t a maverick. Or a risk taker. She didn’t cheat on tests or skip classes. She didn’t even go skinny dipping at the local lake. In fact, if she wasn’t at school, she was helping her mother at the family-owned grocery store in the center of town. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t have a good time, right?

But deep in her heart she knew that wasn’t why she spent an hour straightening her strawberry blond hair until it fell in a smooth curtain down her back. Or added a layer of mascara to her long lashes that framed her green eyes. Or why she’d climbed out of her window and trudged two miles to the middle of the frozen field.

She’d been hoping to attract the attention of Chuck Moore, the guy she’d nursed a secret crush on for an entire year. He wasn’t the most popular boy in class. Or the cutest. He had frizzy black hair and an overbite that was prominent despite his braces. But he was one of the few guys who at least pretended to listen when she spoke. That was far more attractive to a girl who’d spent her school life in the shadows than perfect features or bulging muscles.

Unfortunately, she’d had to wait until her mother was asleep before sneaking out. They lived above the store and she couldn’t just climb out a bedroom window. She had to creep down the squeaky stairs at the back of the two-story brick building. By the time she arrived at the barn, the party was in full swing, and Chuck was already in the hayloft with her best friend, Karen Cranford.

Calling herself an idiot, she’d forced herself to stay long enough to drink a beer and pretend to laugh at the antics of the guys who thought it was a great idea to try and push each other into the fire. As if nursing second-degree burns was a hilarious way to spend the evening. Then, assuring herself that she’d proved whatever stupid point she’d come there to make, she’d slipped out the door and headed across the dark field.

Lia muttered a bad word as she slipped on a patch of ice. Pike, Wisconsin wasn’t the best location to take a midnight stroll. Especially in the middle of winter. If she fell and broke a leg, she was going to be in so much trouble.

The thought of her mother made Lia grimace. Trina Porter had only been sixteen when she’d given birth to Lia. That had been tough enough, but Lia’s father had disappeared just months after she’d been born, and her grandparents had died in a tragic car accident eight years later. Trina was forced to work endless hours to keep a roof over their heads and food on their table. She’d sacrificed everything to give her child a warm and loving home.

Lia felt the constant weight of those sacrifices pressing down on her like an anchor. If she knowingly added to her mom’s daily struggle, she would never forgive herself.

Rounding a bend in the pathway, Lia breathed a sigh of relief. Ahead she could see the soft glow of streetlights. Soon she would be back in her room, tucked in her warm bed with one of the books she’d borrowed from the library. Exactly where she wanted to be.

Lost in the fantasy of being curled beneath her thick comforter with a cup of hot cocoa, Lia came to an abrupt halt. She heard a sound in the distance. Not a car. Or an animal. It sounded like…like running footsteps.

More curious than alarmed, Lia watched as a shadowed form appeared from the shadows. It didn’t occur to her that she might be in danger. This was Pike. Nothing bad ever happened. The figure neared, moving down the path toward her. As she grew closer, Lia could make out the delicate features of a woman with long black hair that flowed behind her. She was wearing a heavy leather jacket and pants that looked like some kind of uniform. Lia could also see the glitter of gold in the moonlight. The woman had a large gold badge pinned to the upper shoulder of her jacket. Like a cop.

Oh no.

Lia sucked in a sharp breath. Had her mother awakened and found her missing? Had she called the sheriff’s office? No. She sternly squashed the urge to panic. She would recognize anyone local. Pike was too small to have strangers. This woman was from somewhere else.

So why was she running from town in the middle of the night?

It was a question that was to haunt Lia for the next fifteen years as the woman suddenly spotted her standing in the middle of the pathway. She’d just reached the bridge that spanned the railroad tracks.

A scream was ripped from her throat, as if Lia was a monster not a fifteen-year-old girl sneaking home from a party. Then, with a shocking speed, the woman turned toward the edge of the bridge, climbing onto the stone guardrail.

What the heck was she doing? Lia took a startled step forward, lifting her hand as the woman wobbled. It was at least twelve feet to the tracks below. Not even the local boys were stupid enough to jump from there.

“Wait!” she called out, but she was too late.

With a last terrified glance toward Lia, the woman leaned forward and disappeared into the darkness.

 

Chapter 1

Pike, MO

Now

It was mid-December and the town of Pike, Wisconsin looked like an image off a postcard. The ground was coated in pristine layer of snow and the trees sparkled with Christmas lights. The town square was draped in garland that filled the crisp air with a scent of pine. There was even a miniature North Pole set up in the park where Santa perched on a chair from six to seven in the evenings for the kids to take pictures.

The downside to the winter wonderland, however, was the brutal windchill that whipped through the narrow streets despite the clear blue skies and bright morning sunlight. The cold kept most sensible people snuggled in the warmth of their homes. A shame for the local businesses who depended on the holiday season to pad their yearly income, but for Lia Porter the quiet was welcomed. The grocery store was never a hotspot in town, not even during Christmas, but she was there alone and she didn’t want to be disturbed.

Seated at her desk in the private office she’d had claimed at the back of the building, Lia kept one eye on her computer and the other on the surveillance monitor that kept guard on the front store. She wasn’t afraid of shoplifters. The four short aisles with wooden shelves were stocked with basic supplies. Flour, sugar, bread, and canned goods. There was also a cooler with dairy products and a section for frozen foods. If someone was desperate enough to steal food, then she would be happy to hand it over to them. She just wanted to keep watch in case a customer entered and needed her help.

Something that wouldn’t be necessary if Wayne had arrived on time. With a sigh, Lia returned her attention to the computer screen where she’d downloaded the portfolio of an online retailer who was trying to attract new investors. Lia was interested. She preferred putting her capital in businesses just starting out. Getting in on the ground floor meant she would make the most profit. But she was still reviewing the business model and debt-to-equity ratio before she agreed to meet with the founder.

High risk/high return didn’t mean recklessly tossing her money around. She devoted weeks and sometimes months of research before she agreed to invest. That had been her motto since she’d taken the trust fund, she’d inherited from her grandparents at the age of twenty-one and invested it in a local carpenter who wanted to flip houses. Her mother had been horrified, but soon she was making a profit, and she’d taken that money to invest in another company. And then another.

Within five years, she had tripled her trust fund and proved that she could not only support herself, but she could build a large enough nest egg that she didn’t have to worry about her future. It’d also given her mother the opportunity to concentrate on her own life. Within a few months the older woman had married a man who’d loved her for years and whisked her away to a secluded cabin in Colorado.

Lia had been delighted that her mom could find happiness, and she hadn’t minded taking over the store that had been in their family for over a hundred years. It was as much a part of Pike as the surrounding dairy farms and the stone courthouse down the street. It rarely made a profit, but the store wasn’t about creating money. It was keeping the tradition that her great-great-great grandfather had started as well as providing much-needed provisions for the older citizens who didn’t feel comfortable driving to the larger town of Grange. Not to mention offering the necessities during the winter months when the roads could be closed for days at a time.

Scribbling a few notes that she wanted to double-check before continuing her interest in the potential investment, Lia heard the familiar tinkle of a bell. Someone had pushed open the front door. She glanced toward the monitor, watching the tall, lanky boy with short rust-brown hair and a narrow face enter the store.

Wayne Neilson was a seventeen-year-old boy who’d asked for a job the previous summer. Lia already had a part-time helper who’d been there for forty years, but Della was getting older and her health wasn’t always the best so Lia had agreed to give Wayne an opportunity. He was being raised by a single mother just like she had been. She understood the need to earn extra money.

He’d proven to be remarkably dependable, arriving right after school to put in a couple of hours and on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Until this Saturday morning.

Rising from the desk, Lia headed out of the office and firmly shut the door. Only her mother knew about her investment skills. And that’s how she wanted to keep it. Pike was a small town where everyone was always snooping into everyone’s business. It was even worse for someone like her. She’d always been different. She didn’t have a father. She didn’t mix easily with the other kids. And now she vaulted past her scary thirtieth birthday with no marriage proposal in sight. It made people study her as if she was a puzzle that needed to be solved. Or maybe fixed.

She wanted something that was just for herself.

She entered the main part of the store and walked toward the front counter where Wayne was hanging his heavy parka on a hook drilled into the paneled wall.

“Hey, Ms. Porter. Sorry about being late,” he said, his narrow face flushed and his blue eyes sparkling with an intense emotion.

“Is everything okay?”

“Fine.” He shifted from foot to foot, as if he was having trouble standing still. “At least for me.”

Lia studied him with a mounting concern. Usually he was shy and subdued to the point she could barely get more than two words out of him. This excitement was completely out of character.

“What’s going on?”

He glanced around the store, as if making sure that it was empty. Then, he sucked in a deep breath.

“Drew and Cord found a body.”

“A body of what?”

Wayne leaned toward her; his voice lowered to a harsh whisper. “A human body.” He grimaced. “Or at least a skeleton.”

Lia snorted. She knew both Drew Hurst and Cord Walsh. They were known around Pike as the local bullies. Cliched, but true. And their favorite target was usually Wayne.

“Are you sure they weren’t messing with you?”

Wayne grimaced, no doubt recalling a thousand different insults, humiliations, and even physical blows he’d endured over the years.

“Yeah. They’re usually being jerks. Especially to me,” he conceded. “But they aren’t smart enough to set up an actual prank. They just shove people into lockers and steal stuff out of backpacks.” He shrugged, the bones of his thin shoulders visible beneath T-shirt. “Besides, they couldn’t fake looking pale as ghosts when they climbed over the bridge railing. Or Drew puking up his guts when he told me what they’d seen. For real I thought he was going to pass out.”

Lia jerked, as if she’d just touched a live wire. And that was what it felt like as the shock zigzagged through her.

“What bridge railing?” She had to force the words past her stiff lips.

Wayne was thankfully oblivious to her tension. Like any teenage boy he rarely noticed anything that didn’t affect him directly.

“The one over the railroad tracks.”

“The railroad bridge,” she breathed, battling back the image that had haunted her for the past fifteen years. “I thought the whole area was closed off while they put in new railway tracks?”

“It is. That’s why they were there. It’s a perfect time to sled down that steep hill without worrying about a train coming by and squashing them.”

Lia shook her head. Both Drew and Cord had to be eighteen, or close to it. They were seniors, after all. But neither bothered to use their brains. Assuming they had one.

“So what happened?”

“Drew said that he hit an icy patch the threw him off his sled and he rolled into a ditch next to the tracks. That’s when he saw something under a bunch of old branches.”

Lia shoved away her opinion of Drew and Cord. Right now, nothing mattered but the wild claim they’d made.

“And you’re absolutely certain they found a body?”

“I can show you.”

Lia took an instinctive step backwards, as if he was about to pull a rotting corpse out of his pocket.

“What?”

Wayne held up the phone that was a constant fixture in his hand. “I had to see for myself.”

“You went down to look at the body?”

“Of course.” He swiped his finger over the screen, seemingly searching for something. “Nothing ever happens in this town. I wasn’t going to miss the one nano-second of excitement.” He turned the phone around, a hint of pride on his narrow face. “Even if it was a little gruesome.”

Lia glanced at the screen, realizing that he’d pulled up a photo. She sent him a sharp glance.

“You took pictures?”

“Yep. And I posted them on my Instagram. I’m hoping they’ll go viral.”

“Wayne.”

He hunched his shoulders in a defensive motion. “Like I said. It’s my one nano-second of excitement. And it’s not hurting anyone. Whoever the skeleton belongs to is dead and gone.” He continued to hold out the phone. “Look.”

Lia didn’t want to look. She wanted to scurry back to her office and shut the door. Maybe then she could pretend that it was just another day. A regular, boring day like every other regular, boring day.

A strange compulsion, however, had her leaning forward, studying the image that Wayne had enlarged. Her gaze went immediately to the skull that peeked out of a layer of ice. It didn’t look real. Instead it appeared to have been carved from aged ivory with empty eyes sockets that were shadowed, as if hiding unbearable secrets, and perfectly intact teeth that appeared too large and weirdly threatening. With a shudder, Lia forced her gaze to take in the rest of the skeleton. Or at least what was visible.

The upper torso was covered by what appeared to be a weathered leather jacket. She hissed, enlarging the picture until she could see the gold badge that had dulled over the years, but remained unmistakable.

“Oh my God.” Lia pressed a hand to her heaving stomach. Any hope of returning to her office and acting as if everything was normal was replaced with a burning urgency to take some sort of action. She just didn’t know exactly what that action was going to be, but she couldn’t sit around and do nothing. “I need you to cover the store for an hour or so,” she muttered.

“Okay.” Wayne climbed onto the stool behind the cash register. “But if you want to take a look at the skeleton it’s too late. The mayor is there and he won’t let anyone near the place. He’s such a jerk.”

Lia bit her lip. The mention of the mayor jolted her sluggish brain. That’s what she needed to do. Speak with a law official. Unfortunately, Zac Evans, who’d proven to be an outstanding sheriff, had left Pike a week ago to take his wife for an overdue honeymoon. He refused to tell them where he was going, only that it involved a cruise ship and that he was shutting off his phone and refusing to think about work until after the holidays.

Good news for him. Awful news for her.

For now Pike was without a full-time sheriff and until Zac returned, the local mayor was filling the position. Tate Erickson was barely capable of performing his duties as mayor, let alone taking on the sheriff’s job.

Still, what choice did she have?

“I’ll be back later.” She scurried to the back of the narrow building, using the private staircase to head up to the apartment above the store.

It was a wide-open space arranged with a living room and kitchen and bedroom with an attached bathroom. The furniture hadn’t changed since her mother had moved out. The leather couch and chairs were worn and sagging in places, but they were comfortable and that was all that mattered.  Grabbing her purse, Lia slid a heavy parka over her casual jeans and bright red sweater before pulling on a thick stocking hat. She’d cut her strawberry blond hair into a short, pixie style that was easy to take care of, but did nothing to keep her warm. Then, heading back down the narrow staircase, she left the building to climb into the SUV with PORTER GROCERIES painted on the side. Once a month she delivered groceries to the customers who were housebound.

Driving out of the alley, she turned away from the center square and headed toward the outer road. The streets were slick from the most recent snowfall, but she was too impatient to creep along at a cautious pace. She slid past the old drive-in where the framework of bare wood from the old screen had managed to survive. Next to it was an indoor skating rink that hadn’t been so lucky. It’d collapsed years ago. Further on was the bowling alley that had been converted into a charity stop.

At last, she turned onto a narrow path that led toward the rolling fields that surrounded Pike and drove until she’d reached a curve in the road. She parked the SUV and switched off the engine. Ahead she could see the barricades that had been put up along with glowing yellow police tape. A shiver raced through her as she watched the thin plastic flap in the stiff breeze.

Climbing out of the vehicle, Lia headed toward the short, heavyset man in a brown uniform standing guard against the gathering crowd.

Anthony was the same age as Lia and had been a sheriff’s deputy for several years. He’d never been overly ambitious in school. He was the kid who sat in the back so he could sleep. At least when he bothered to show up for school. Most days he skipped to go hunting or fishing. But she assumed that he was decent at his job.

She halted directly in front of the man. “Hey, Anthony. Is the mayor here?”

“Unfortunately.” He nodded toward the steep bank behind him that led down to the railroad tracks. “He’s down there.”

“I need to talk to him.”

“Can’t. He’s busy right now.”

“This is important.”

“Sorry, but it’s going to have to wait.”

“Anthony—”

The deputy held up a pudgy hand, interrupting her protest. “Trust me, Lia, this isn’t the time.” He glanced over his shoulder, making sure that the mayor wasn’t lurking behind him. “Erickson’s been pissy since he became a fill-in for the sheriff, but today he’s off the charts. He’s been storming and stomping around ever since he caught sight of the skeleton. I assume he finally realized that being sheriff is more than getting free coffee at the diner.”

Lia ground her teeth, not bothering to argue. Anthony might not have displayed ambition when he was young, but he’d always been stubborn as a mule.  There was no point in beating her head against a brick wall.

“Thanks.”

Turning away from the barrier, Lia stepped off the pathway and headed toward the snow-packed ridgeline. There was more than one way to get down to the tracks.

“Lia!”

Lia halted at the sound of her name being called out, glancing to the side to see a woman hurrying toward her.

Bailey Evans was Lia’s best friend, and the sheriff’s cousin. She was thin with brown hair pulled into a messy bun on top of her head. She was currently wearing a thick coat, but as usual she’d forgotten a hat and her gloves. Bailey was a fantastic caregiver at the local nursing home, but she could be remarkably absentminded. As if she was so occupied with tending to others that she didn’t have time to worry about herself.

“Did you hear the news?” Bailey asked, halting next to Lia.

“Just that they found a skeleton.”

“It’s thrilling, isn’t it? Horrible, of course.” The flecks of gold in Bailey’s dark eyes sparkled with eager curiosity, her cheeks flushed. “But absolutely thrilling.”

Lia hid her grimace. She couldn’t blame Bailey for being excited. Although Pike had endured more than its fair share of murders over the past five years, there was something morbidly intriguing about a mysterious death.

“Do they know who it is?”

“I don’t think so.” Bailey wrinkled her nose. “Tate is being more of an ass than usual. I miss Zac.”

Lia sighed. “Who doesn’t? He was the only decent sheriff we’ve had since Rupert retired.” Lia had still been in school when Rupert Jansen had been forced to leave his position after being shot on the job, but everyone knew that he’d been legendary. “Did Tate say anything?”

“He told me to keep my nose out of his business.” Bailey made a sound of disgust. “Idiot. I’m the town gossip. My nose belongs in everyone’s business.” She glanced toward the nearby field that was crammed with emergency vehicles. “I did hear one of the EMT people call it a ‘her’ when they loaded the body bag into the ambulance. Other than that, it’s a complete mystery.”

“A woman,” Lia breathed.

“I’ve been trying to imagine who it could be.” Bailey reached up to push back her thick hair that was being tossed by the breeze. “I don’t know any missing women. Not unless you count my Aunt Misty who traveled to Paris thirty years ago and never came home. Really, who could blame her? Sipping Café au Lait in a cute little bistro certainly beats sucking down a cup of joe in a local dive, am I right?”

Usually Lia would have smiled at Bailey’s chatter. The fact that they were complete opposites was what made their relationship so much fun. This morning, however, she was too tense to appreciate her friend’s humor.

“It could be one of Jude’s victims,” she pointed out.

Bailey’s amusement died at the mention of the monster who’d lived in Pike nearly thirty years ago.

“That was my first thought as well. There’s always a chance that one slipped through the cracks,” she agreed, her tone doubtful. “But Zac was pretty certain they’d located all of them. Otherwise, he would never have left town.”

It did seem doubtful. Zac had spent endless months searching through the stacks of evidence left behind by the serial killer. If there’d been any hint of a missing victim, he would never have closed the case.

Which meant, the woman she’d seen that night hadn’t been fleeing a madman. At least not a madman who’d already faced justice. Honestly, that only made things worse.

“I need to talk to Tate,” she muttered.

Without warning, Bailey reached out to grasp her arm. “I wouldn’t if I were you.”

“Why not?”

“He not only snapped at me. The jerk.” Her jaw tightened at the memory. “He’s been on a rampage with everyone including the deputies. Last I heard he was screaming about crime scenes and preservation of clues. I’m guessing he’s been watching re-runs of Law and Order. Or more likely, Andy Griffith. He certainly has a Barney Fife-vibe.”

Lia bit her lower lip. She hated confrontations. It didn’t mean she didn’t have a spine. She could be ruthless when necessary. But she preferred to avoid messy arguments. Maybe she should wait until…

No. Lia squared her shoulders. The last time she’d decided to avoid revealing what she’d seen, a woman had obviously ended up dead. She wasn’t going to risk letting anything bad happen again. Not if revealing the truth could prevent it.

“He’ll just have to scream,” she said in grim tones. “I need to talk to him.”

“Fine.” Bailey nodded, easily sensing Lia’s determination. Still, she kept a tight grip on her arm. “Don’t forget we’re having a Friends of Pike meeting Tuesday night. We need to discuss the Fourth of July festival. Jolene already sent me an email.” Bailey rolled her eyes. Jolene was married to Tate Erickson. Her position as the mayor’s wife meant that she considered herself an authority on everything “Pike”.  Or what she envisioned Pike should be. And while Tate possessed a brash sort of charm that had allowed him to get re-elected for the past twenty years, Jolene was just the opposite. She was a soft-spoken woman with deep dimples and cloud of blond hair. But in her own way she was just as ruthless. She used her supposedly fragile health to avoid unpleasant confrontations or to manipulate others into giving into her every demand.

“Now what does she want?” Lia asked.

“She suggested that we replace the greased pig run with an afternoon tea and cake walk. She’s afraid that we might get in trouble with the PETA people.” Bailey did more eye rolling. “As if anyone would know what’s happening in Pike. We can barely interest the locals to notice the events, let alone attract the attention of anyone else.”

“I doubt PETA would be showing up to complain,” Lia agreed. “But then again, I’m not opposed to getting rid of the greased pig. It’s kind of disgusting.”

“Agreed, but it’s been a part of the Fourth of July celebrations for a hundred years. The rest of the committee is going to have a cow.” Bailey heaved a sigh. “Greased pigs and cows. That’s my life.”

Lia managed a small smile of encouragement. “I’ll be there.”

“Thanks, Lia.” Bailey gave Lia’s arm a squeeze before dropping her hand and stepping back. “I can always depend on you.”

Lia swallowed a sigh as she turned away. That was her. Dependable Lia.

***

Tate was frantically pulling aside the dead branches and chunks of frozen snow that were piled near the skeleton. He ignored the destruction of his expensive leather gloves. Jolene was going to bitch when he went home and saw them, but what the hell? If it wasn’t his gloves, then she’d find something else to bitch about. She was nothing if not consistent.  And right now, he didn’t have time to worry about anything except making sure there was nothing around that he didn’t want found.

When he’d first gotten the call that a bunch of boys had found a skeleton by the railroad tracks, he’d been more annoyed than concerned. This sheriff thing was a short-term gig. Just until Zac Evans returned to Pike. He assumed it would be an easy way to add an accomplishment to his resume as mayor. It was never too early to start thinking about his re-election. And claiming he’d stepped in as sheriff to keep his citizens safe was going to be a great headline. He hadn’t anticipated having to climb through the ice and snow to look at a bunch of stupid bones. And certainly not on his day off.

Reluctantly, he’d wrangled into layers of thick clothing and pulled on a pair of heavy boots. Then, driving to the location, he’d slipped and cursed his way down the steep incline to where a group of gawkers were gathered around the bones.

He’d been on the point of ordering one of his deputies to take charge of removing the skeleton when he’d caught a glimpse of gold on the faded leather jacket.

It was a badge. One that he recognized.

His chest had tightened, and his mouth went dry, and just for a horrifying second, he’d feared that he was having a heart attack. This couldn’t be happening. Not after all these years.

Forcing himself to step forward, Tate had ordered everyone to leave, including his own deputies. Unfortunately, the police photographer had continued taking pictures of the scene while the EMTs fussed and argued over the best means of removing the bones without disturbing evidence. Tate had been ready to scream in frustration before he was finally alone.

Now he searched for a purse or briefcase or a computer memory stick that might have survived. Anything that might reveal why the woman had been in Pike.

Rolling aside a large rock, Tate was abruptly interrupted by the sound of boots crunching through the thin layer of ice. Muttering a curse, he spun around to confront the young woman who was closer than he’d expected. Dammit. Had she seen him scrambling through the brush?

“No one is allowed down here,” he barked out. “How many damned times do I have to say it?”

Lia Porter acted as if she hadn’t heard him, continuing forward until she was standing just a few inches from where the body had been found.

“I have some information.”

Tate frowned. Lia had to be in her late twenties or early thirties. Too young to have any actual information, right?

“I don’t care if you have the Holy Grail,” he retorted, his tone harsh. “Not now.”

“It’s about the skeleton you found.”

A small niggle of concern wormed its way through Tate’s heart. Maybe he should find out what she knew.

“Make it quick.”

Lia licked her lips. “I think I saw her the night she died.”

Tate hissed in shock. “What?”

Lia glanced up the steep hill, her gaze locked on the nearby bridge.

“Fifteen years ago I was walking home from a party in the middle of the night and I saw a woman up there.”

Tate forced himself to take a deep breath. No need to panic. “You risked contaminating my crime scene to tell me that you stumbled home drunk in the middle of the night fifteen years ago and thought that you’d seen something in the pitch dark?”

Her green eyes flashed with outrage. “I wasn’t drunk, and there was enough moonlight to know that it was a woman.”

“Did you talk to her?”

“No. When she caught sight of me, she turned and jumped off the railing.”

Tate’s momentary urge to throw up vanished at her clipped words. She knew nothing.

 “Sounds like a figment of your imagination.”

“I know what I saw.”

Tate clicked his tongue, not having to fake his surge of impatience. “Even if it wasn’t a drunken illusion, we don’t know if this woman jumped off the bridge or off a passing train or was wandering along the tracks and tripped over and broke her neck. We don’t even know how long she’s been here. She could have died a hundred years ago. So, if you don’t mind…”

“I recognize the badge.”

The nausea returned. “What?”

“The woman I saw jump from the bridge was wearing a leather jacket with a gold badge pinned on the front.” She pointed to a place over her left breast. “Right here.”

Tate’s brows snapped together. “How do you know about the jacket?”

“Wayne Neilson showed me a photo of the skeleton.”

“Shit.” Tate had known those stupid kids were going to be trouble as soon as he’d caught sight of the skeleton. “I told those boys to erase any pictures they took.”

Lia shrugged. “By now they’re being shared around social media.”

She was right, of course. And worse, was the knowledge that once the pictures started circulating the local interest story would quickly become a shitshow.

“Damned internet,” he muttered.

“Do you want to hear what I saw that night,” the woman stubbornly demanded.

“Not now Lia,” he snapped. “If you want to make some sort of formal report you can come to the office on Monday. Right now, I’m too busy.”

“This is ridiculous.”

She threw her hands up in the air but thank God she turned to climb up the steep incline. He couldn’t deal with Lia Porter. Not now.

Waiting until she was out of sight, Tate pulled his cellphone out of the pocket of his coat. He’d sent a quick text the moment he’d recognized who had been found. Now he needed to share that this was going to be more than a passing inconvenience.

He pressed a familiar number and grimaced when his call was answered with a sharp demand to know where he was.

“I’m still at the scene,” he said. “The EMTs just took away the body.” He listened a second. “Of course, I’m sure. There wasn’t any identification, but she had the badge on her jacket. It has to be her.” Another pause. “No. I couldn’t destroy it. Those dumbass kids had already taken pictures. You don’t think people would ask questions if it magically disappeared?” He blew out a heavy breath, the puff of icy vapor reminding him that he was freezing off his ass. “And it gets worse. Lia Porter came charging down here claiming she’d seen the woman on the night she died.” He flinched as a sharp reprimand drilled into his ear, as if he was somehow responsible for Lia being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “I don’t know. She was babbling about a woman jumping off the bridge and recognizing the jacket. She’d seen a picture one of those inbred brats took. I told her I’d talk to her later.” He made a sound of impatience as the reprimand continued. “How was I supposed to distract her? I’m cold, I’m tired, and I’m done playing sheriff for the day. I’ll deal with Lia after I’ve made sure there’s nothing out here that can point back to us.” He held the phone in front of his face, his tone sarcastic. “Oh, and you’re welcome. Once again I’m stuck trying to clean up your mess.”

 

Chapter 2

The sprawling collection of buildings outside the city limits of Vegas looked more like a compound for a large cult than a business. Set in the middle of an acre of barren desert ground, the long sprawling buildings were constructed out of thick adobe with solar panels on the roof and basins in the back to recycle the rare rainfall. The large windows were tinted and double-paned to keep out the scorching heat and the floors were recycled bamboo.

The obvious attempt to be environmentally sensitive wasn’t usually associated with a pawn shop. Or even a motor garage. But there wasn’t anything usual about Money Makers. Or the owner.

Kaden Vaughn had left Madison, Wisconsin when he was eighteen. He’d traveled to Hollywood with no plans in mind beyond enjoying the warm weather and beautiful women. Within a few weeks he’d managed to land a gig as a stunt driver for an ongoing series. It wasn’t supposed to be a career, but somehow he’d found himself taking offers from big budget movies. Eventually he’d been asked to do his own reality show, Do or Die, performing daring stunts that not only provided him the adrenalin rush that he constantly craved, but an obscene bank account.

Five years ago, however, he’d left Hollywood to build his own business. A combination of a pawnshop in one of the long buildings that was managed by his best friend, Dom Lucier. And a separate structure for his shop where he created custom-built motorcycles for those who could afford his services, as well as a space that housed his collection of rare and antique motorcycles. To save time and the bother of driving back and forth to work, Kaden had an open loft built above the shop where he lived.

He didn’t have any interest in fancy houses or a splashy display of his wealth. A comfortable bed, a large kitchen where he could cook his meals, and a gorgeous view of the nearby Vegas skyline was all he needed.

Currently he was rummaging through his built-in closet, grabbing jeans and the few heavy sweaters that he had folded on the top shelf. He turned to toss them into the open suitcase he’d placed on his king-size bed. For the first time in nearly five years, he wasn’t packing for a quick trip to Hollywood. He was headed to Wisconsin.

The place he’d fled only minutes after receiving his high school diploma.

“Yo, Kaden!”

The sound of a male voice echoing from the shop below had Kaden spinning away from the closet and heading toward the distant railing. His heavy boots squeaked against the polished wood floor. Most of the customers assumed he wore them along with his faded jeans and khaki Henley to look the part of a motor-head. As if his long dark hair, piercing silver eyes, and multiple tattoos scattered over his lean, tightly muscled body wasn’t enough. The truth was, he wore the clothes because they protected him when he was welding or working with searing hot motors.

Reaching the edge of the loft, he gripped the steel railing and glanced over the edge to discover his partner, Dom, standing in the center of the shop.

“I’m up here.”

Dom nodded, moving toward the steel staircase at the end of the building. He was an inch taller than Kaden and several inches broader, with short blond hair and black eyes. The two had met in Hollywood shortly after Kaden had arrived in town. He’d discovered it was going to cost him triple what he’d expected to rent an apartment and he’d gone to the nearest pawnshop to trade in his motorcycle for the cash he needed.

Thank God, Dom had been working there. He’d convinced Kaden to keep his bike and given him the telephone number of an acquaintance who was looking for a driver willing to do the sort of stunts most people would consider insane. The two had been best friends since that day.

Dom reached the upper loft and crossed to stand in front of Kaden. “I got your message saying you were headed to Wisconsin. I had to make sure it wasn’t a mistake.”

“Is there a problem with me taking off a few days?”

“Christ, no. But you haven’t wanted a break in the five years since we opened MONEY MAKERS.” Dom folded his arms over his chest. Like Kaden he was wearing casual jeans although Dom had chosen a flannel shirt. Neither felt the need to pretend to be something they weren’t. The business was flourishing. In fact, most of the time they were busier than they ever wanted to be. “So what is it?” Dom asked. “A disaster? A woman? A mid-life crisis?”

Kaden arched a brow. He’d just turned thirty-five. “Mid-life?”

“Hey, you ain’t getting any younger.”

Kaden casually flipped him off, not bothering to point out they were both the same age. Instead, he turned to head back to his waiting suitcase.

“None of the above.”

“There’s no way in hell that you’re taking time off for a vacation.” Dom followed behind him. “Not to Wisconsin.”

“No.”

“Talk to me, Kayden.”

Kaden grimaced. Dom could be as stubborn as a mule. No, more stubborn, he silently acknowledged. Once the man had stood in front of a bulldozer for over forty-eight hours to keep a local basketball court from being ripped out and replaced with a high-rent apartment building.

He wasn’t going to get off Kaden’s back until he revealed why he was headed to Wisconsin. A place no one in their right mind would choose in the middle of winter.

Leaning forward, Kaden grabbed his phone off the mattress, pulling up the online image that had been sent to him by his cousin who still lived in Wisconsin.

“Here.”

Taking the phone, Dom read the lurid headline beneath the picture. “Skeleton found near the railroad tracks. Is the tiny town of Pike, Wisconsin cursed?” He handed the phone back to Kaden. “Creepy,” he said, studying Kaden with a narrowed gaze. “And confusing. Are you thinking about starting a new reality show?”

“Absolutely not.”

Kaden had walked away from his show five years ago, and while he occasionally agreed to film a special when he had a famous client wanting a specialized motorcycle, he had no interest in being back in the limelight.

“Then what’s your interest?” Dom asked.

“You remember I told you about my older brother?”

Dom took a second to search his memories. “Darren, right?”

“Yep. He was seven years older than me.”

“You always said he was the smart one in the family.”

“Without question,” Kaden agreed. “He was a lawyer with the EPA.”

Dom slowly nodded. “You were driving back from Darren’s funeral when you called and asked if I wanted to go into business with you.”

“I needed a new challenge.” Kaden struggled to keep his tone light. He’d told his friend about his brother’s death and the desire to move to Vegas and start a new business, but he’d never talked about the soul-deep pain that was driving him.

“Was the challenge building our empire or working with me?” Dom teased.

“Both.”

“Fair enough.” Dom pointed toward the phone. “You think the picture in the article has something to do with your brother?”

Kaden used his fingers to enlarge the image before turning it toward his friend. “Look.”

Dom leaned forward, studying the fuzzy image. “It’s some sort of badge.” He read the words engraved on the badge. “Office of Inspector General Special Agent.”

Kaden pointed to the top of the badge “Environmental Protection Agency,” he added.

Dom straightened, his dark eyes widening. “Wait. I remember. You told me that there was a woman who went missing.”

“Vanna Zimmerman.” He had to push the name past his stiff lips. He’d spent endless years blaming her for everything bad that had happened to Darren. “My brother’s fiancé.”

“You think the skeleton might be her?”

“I do.” Kaden tossed the phone back on the bed and moved to the low, sleek dresser to pull open the top drawer.

“Why? There’s no name mentioned,” Dom pointed out, as if logic had any place in the conversation. “They don’t even say if it’s a male or female.”

Kaden grabbed a handful of underwear. His days of going commando had ended when he moved to a place that could get up to one hundred and ten degrees. Nothing sexy about chafing.

“The badge.”

Dom snorted. “How many people work for the EPA? There must be thousands of badges handed out every year.” He nodded toward the phone. “Not to mention the fact you have no way of knowing if the skeleton is even real. People pull pranks on social media all the time. Especially kids.”

Kaden moved to toss the underwear into the suitcase. “There aren’t that many EPA special agents,” he argued. “And the town is just two hours north of Madison. I have to check it out.”

“Check out what?”

“My brother spent years and a small fortune trying to discover what happened to Vanna after she disappeared.”

“That’s rough.”

“I had no idea how rough.” Kaden shuddered. He’d been in Hollywood when his brother called to say his fiancé had vanished. Kaden had met Vanna a handful of times, but he hadn’t been overly impressed. She was pretty enough, but she had a hard-edged ambition that reminded him of the desperate actors that littered the streets of Hollywood. Willing to sell their souls to get what they wanted. That might help explain why he hadn’t been more concerned when the woman had gone missing. Or considered how it was affecting Darren. “Not until I went through his stuff after he died. He must have hired a dozen private detectives to search for her.”

Dom looked confused. “Did he believe she was still alive?”

“Not after the first few years.” The stacks and stacks of paperwork that Kaden had found in Darren’s study had concentrated on searching for a body, not a living person. “When there was no sign of her I think he accepted she was dead.”

“Then why hire private detectives to search for her?”

“Because he had to know what happened.” Kaden’s voice was harsh. “Not only for his own sanity, but to silence the whispers behind his back.”

“Whispers?”

Kaden leaned down, slamming the suitcase shut with a loud bang. “Most people—including the cops—assumed that Darren killed her and dumped the body.”

“Oh…” Dom’s mouth opened and closed, as if he was considering the impact of spending ten years being the prime suspect for killing the woman he loved. “Hell.”

“Exactly.” The air felt heavy with the weight of Kaden’s regret. He could tell himself it was his dislike for Vanna that had made him oblivious to the torment her absence was causing his brother, but deep inside he’d known that he’d been a selfish SOB, so caught up in building his career that he’d ignored the tragedy swirling around Darren. “My brother drank himself into an early grave, driven there by the cloud of suspicion that haunted him.”

“Okay.” Dom cleared his throat. “Let’s say the skeleton was your brother’s fiancé. What do you intend to do?”

Kaden reached into the closet to grab his heavy leather jacket. “First I’m headed to Pike.”

“Why?”

Kaden turned away, as if ensuring that he hadn’t forgotten anything. He didn’t want Dom to see his troubled expression. His friend knew him all too well.

“I want to be there when the body’s identified,” he said.

“And then?”

“Then I’m going to find out what the hell happened to her.”

Dom stepped toward him, as if considering whether or not Kaden needed a good shake to clear his brain.

“You can do all of that from here.” He finally pointed out. “It’s not like you can perform the autopsy, or whatever it is you do to ID a skeleton. And you’re certainly not qualified to investigate a suspicious death.”

Kaden turned back to meet his friend’s worried gaze. He didn’t have a good answer so he offered the truth.

“I ignored my brother’s cries for help when he was alive. I’m not going to fail him again.”

Dom flinched at the bleak words, his hands clenching at his side. “You still haven’t told me what you intend to do.”

“Get answers. One way or another.”

Kaden grabbed his suitcase and coat before heading toward the staircase. He’d worried about getting a ticket once he got to the airport.

For now, it was enough to feel as if he was one step closer to giving his brother the peace in death that he’d never had in life.

***

Kaden hadn’t spent much time in small towns. Madison might not be a bustling metropolis, but it was a city with all the usual amenities and a large university. Driving down Main Street in the center of Pike, Kaden frowned at the empty streets and businesses that were locked tight despite the fact it was after ten in the morning. It wasn’t until he pulled into the parking lot next to the courthouse that he realized it was Sunday.

Damn.

He studied the building that looked like a solid, square box with large windows It’d been late when he’d arrived in Madison last night and for the first time in five years he was relieved that he’d continued to pay rent on Darren’s fancy condo. It didn’t matter that the place was a tangible reminder that he still hadn’t accepted his brother’s death. All he wanted was a bed to tumble into so he could fall into an exhausted sleep.

He’d still been in a tired stupor when he’d roused himself this morning and drug himself to the shower. Less than half an hour later he was dressed and plugging the directions for Pike into his phone as he climbed into the Jeep he’d rented at the airport the night before. Now the caffeine from the coffee he’d bought at a gas station during his two hour drive north was finally kicking in and squaring his shoulders, Kaden climbed out of the Jeep and headed up the shallow steps to tug on the front door.

Locked. Kaden frowned. The government offices were obviously closed on the weekend, but when he Googled the address of the sheriff’s office it showed it was located in the courthouse. That surely had to be open, right?

No matter how sleepy the town might appear, there had to be a law official on duty.

“The place is closed until Monday.” A voiced called out behind him.

Kaden turned to see a teenage boy bundled in a heavy parka and ski cap. The stranger was studying him with a curious expression and Kaden guessed that the town didn’t have many visitors.

“Where can I find the sheriff?”

“Sheriff’s out of town.”

Great. Kaden resisted the urge to stomp his feet. The motorcycle boots were great for working in his shop, but they didn’t offer much protection against the cold weather. His toes were starting to freeze.

“Is there a deputy around?”

“Maybe,” The boy wrinkled his nose, as if considering his answer. “They’re probably all at church. If it’s an emergency you should call…hey, wait.” The boy blinked, his mouth parting in shock. “You’re Kaden Vaughn.”

Kaden hid his grimace. Although it’d been five years since he’d had a regular series, Do or Dieremained popular in reruns and on the internet. Enough to gain the attention of a younger audience. It meant that he ran into fans almost everywhere he went. Not his favorite part of the job. Especially when he preferred to remain anonymous. Then again, his fame might help him get the information he needed.

“I am,” he admitted, strolling down the steps. “And you are?”

“Wayne. Wayne Nielson.” There was a flush on the thin face that had nothing to do with the brisk morning breeze. “What are you doing in Pike?”

“Actually you might be able to help me.”

“Cool.”

Kaden grabbed his phone out of the pocket of his leather jacket, pulling up the picture of the skeleton. He turned it to show the image to the boy.

“I’m looking for whoever uploaded this picture.”

The pale eyes widened in shock. “No. Way.”

Lowering the phone, Kaden belatedly wondered if he’d rattled the kid by showing him the gruesome image. He looked to be sixteen or seventeen years old, but the small community might keep people around here a lot more protected from the evils of the world.

Kaden shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. “Sorry.”

“I mean.” Wayne nodded toward the phone. “That was me.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m Waino2006,” the boy clarified. “I’m the one who uploaded the picture.” He released a nervous laugh. “This is crazy. I can’t believe you saw my post.”

Kaden’s mind was reeling. It seemed like fate was stepping in to lend him a helping hand. How else could he explain nearly stumbling over the very person who’d brought him to Pike?

“Do you mind if I ask you some questions?”

“Seriously?” The boy beamed with excitement, then without warning, the sparkle in his eyes faded. “Oh.”

“Is something wrong?””

“I’m late for work.” He hunched his shoulders beneath his heavy parka. “It wouldn’t matter, but I was late yesterday after I found the body.”

“You were the one who found the skeleton?”

“Practically.” Wayne kept his answer vague. “Anyway, Ms. Porter is really nice and I don’t want to disappoint her.”

Kaden hesitated. Did he continue his conversation with the boy or look for a law official? It was the distant sound of church bells ringing that made up his mind. He had no idea where one of the deputies might be located, and he had no intention of dialing 911.

“Where do you work?” he asked.

“Porter’s Grocery Store.” The boy pointed toward the south. “Just a few blocks from here. I won’t be long. On Sundays I just go in to sweep and mop the floors. If you want to wait around I can—”

“Do you mind if I walk with you?”

“Course not.” The boy offered an eager smile, nearly bouncing as he walked down the icy sidewalk. Kaden, on the other hand, took far more care. The last thing he needed was to fall and break a hip. Dom would never let him hear the end of it. “Man, I can’t believe you’re here.” Wayne abruptly dug into the pocket of his jeans, pulling out a phone. He waved it toward Kaden. “Do you mind? I need proof.”

Kaden swallowed a curse, pinning a smile to his lips as they halted long enough for the boy to stand close beside him and lift the phone to take a quick selfie. Seconds later they were continuing their journey down the frozen street.

“Thanks.” Wayne shoved the phone back into his pocket.

“Tell me about the picture you posted.”

Without warning, the boy shot him a worried glance. “I’m not in trouble am I?”

“No trouble.” Kaden held up his hand. “I promise.”

“Okay.” Wayne blew out a relieved sigh, a plume of vapor circling his youthful face. “I was headed to work yesterday morning when a couple of friends—” He grimaced, as if the word threatened to stick in his throat before he was continuing his story. “Before they climbed up from the old railroad tracks and said they’d found a body. Honestly, I didn’t believe them. They’re jerks most of the time. But when I crawled down there, I could see the bones. They were just there. Frozen in the ice like something out of a horror movie. That’s when I took the pictures.”

“It’s odd that no one had ever noticed them before.”

“Not really,” Wayne protested. “None of us ever went around the tracks. There was no reason to. There was nothing down there but thorn bushes and a bunch of broken bottles that kids used to throw off the bridge. It wasn’t until they shut down the tracks to replace them that the guys decided they could use the steep hills for some sledding fun.”

Kaden offered a grudging nod. He supposed the explanation made sense. Unfortunately, it did nothing to help establish when the person had died, or how they’d gotten to such a strange location.

Had it been a tragic accident? Or something more sinister?

“Did you see anything else?”

“Like what?”

Kaden cautiously avoided a slick patch in the middle of the sidewalk, not entirely sure how to frame his question. He wanted to know why Vanna might have been in Pike.

“Anything the person might have had with them. A purse or a briefcase?”

“Oh.” Wayne scrunched up his face, as if he was struggling to recall anything that might impress Kaden. “Nope,” he finally conceded. “I didn’t really notice anything but the skeleton. I was pretty freaked out.”

“I don’t blame you,” Kaden offered a sympathetic smile. “What about your friends? Did they happen to notice anything?”

Wayne snorted. “They were even more freaked out than I was. Especially, Drew. He puked his guts out. Course, he still went back down to show me the skeleton. He even moved aside some of the branches so I could get a clearer view. Cord wouldn’t. He flat out refused to go.”

“Drew?” Kaden kept his tone casual even as he tucked away the fact that the boy had not only found the skeleton, but he’d also touched it. He seemed like someone Kaden needed to meet.

“Drew Hurst,” Wayne said.

“He lives around here?”

“Yep. He’s a senior along with me at Pike High School.”

“I might have a word with him.”

Wayne looked disappointed. Was he hoping he’d be the only one in town to talk to Kaden? Then, he suddenly perked up.

“I can set up a meeting if you want. You know…introduce you. Oh, and you might want to talk with Cord Walsh. He was there too, you know. He might have noticed something.”

Kaden smiled. “That would be great.”

Wayne came to an abrupt halt in front of a red brick building with a glass door set between two large windows. Just above his head was a heavy sign with the name PORTER etched into the wood.

“This is the place.” Wayne shoved open the door, releasing a welcome blast of warmth. “We can talk more inside.”

“Great.” Kaden eagerly followed the young man into the narrow space that was lined with shelves. It felt dark and cramped, but there was a warm smell of cookies that drifted through the air and a gleam on the planked wooden floor that revealed it had recently been mopped and polished.

Wayne took off his parka and tossed it on a nearby counter. “You know, you haven’t said why you’re interested in the skeleton.”

 

Chapter 3

Lia was busy scrubbing the coolers when she’d heard voices outside. Assuming that Wayne was chatting with one of his friends before coming in to work, she’d headed toward the front of the store. Sundays were usually slow and it was the best time to stock the shelves and get the cleaning done. Wayne was a good worker, but he needed supervision. If she didn’t give him specific directions he’d spend the next three hours staring at his phone.

When the teenager stepped into the store, however, it wasn’t a friend with him. It was a mysterious stranger.

The sort of mysterious stranger who belonged on a movie screen, not in an aging family store in the middle of Wisconsin.

Lia sucked in a sharp breath, her gaze roaming over the dark hair that fell to the man’s broad shoulders. Usually she disliked long hair on men, but his was thick and glossy, framing his starkly chiseled features in a way that only emphasized his male beauty. He had high cheekbones and a proud nose that might have been broken in the past. It was his eyes, however, that made her feel as if the air was being squeezed from her lungs.

They were pure silver. The precise shade of mercury. And probably just as lethal. The thought had just whispered through the back of her mind, when she heard Wayne ask the stranger about his interest in the skeleton. Her odd fascination was shattered and with a muttered curse, she hurried toward the counter.

She didn’t know who the man was or why he was interested in the skeleton, but she wasn’t going to allow him to abuse Wayne’s innocent trust in people.

“What’s going on?” she demanded, coming to a halt directly in front of the man.

It was at that point she noticed the stranger was a good six or seven inches taller than her with hard packed muscles that were visible beneath his soft leather jacket. That’s also when she noticed the tattoos that crawled up the side of his neck. A shiver raced through Lia. She told herself that it was only natural to be afraid. This stranger could easily break her in half. But deep inside she knew that it wasn’t fear that was prickling down her spine. It was…

Nope. She wasn’t going to finish the thought. Instead, she turned to study her employee with raised brows.

“Wayne?”

“Hey, Ms. Porter.” A wide grin split the teenager’s face. He nodded toward the stranger. “Look who’s in town. Can you believe it?”

Lia hesitated. Was she supposed to recognize the man? “Is he a relative?”

“I wish.” Wayne sent her a chiding glance, clearly disappointed in her less than insightful guess. “This is Kaden Vaughn. The best motorcycle stuntman of all time.”

Stuntman. That fit the stranger. He looked like the daredevil type. “Oh.”

Wayne rolled his eyes. “Don’t you remember his TV show? Do or die?

Lia avoided the question by turning to stretch her hand out. “I’m Lia Porter.”

The man’s lips twitched, the silver eyes silently telling her that he was well aware she didn’t have the faintest clue about who he was or his seemingly famous TV show.

“Kaden.” He gripped her hand in a firm grip.

A jolt of electric pleasure zapped through Lia. His fingers were chilled from the frigid winter air, but that didn’t keep them from searing her skin. Crap. Lia yanked her hand away and took an instinctive step back, battling against Kaden’s magnetic charisma.

“Kaden saw my picture of the skeleton,” Wayne intruded into her deranged musings. “I told you it was gonna go viral.”

Lia narrowed her eyes. “What does the picture of a skeleton have to do with a motorcycle stuntman?”

“That’s what I just asked,” Wayne admitted, visibly bubbling with joy at meeting a real-life celebrity.

The boy would clearly say or do anything to impress this man.

Lia stepped between Wayne and Kaden, facing the teenager. “I drove over to Grange yesterday to restock our canned goods.” It was a routine she’d started years ago. Delivery to the small town cost a fortune. It saved money for her to drive to the food wholesale warehouse and pick up the merchandise. Not the most exciting way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but it wasn’t like she had anything better to do. “Would you mind getting them out of my vehicle and putting them in the storage room?”

Wayne scrunched his face into a disappointed expression. “Now?”

“Yes, please. Then you can start sweeping.”

“Okay.” Heaving a deep, dramatic sigh, Wayne glanced toward Kaden. “I’ll be around if you have any more questions.”

“Good to know,” the man assured him.

Dragging his feet, Wayne plodded his way between the aisles and out of the main section of the store. Still, Lia waited until she heard the back door slam before she turned to send her companion a suspicious frown.

“Wayne is only seventeen.” She didn’t bother to mention the boy would be turning eighteen next month. “And very naïve.”

Kaden blinked, as if blindsided by her fierce defense of the teenager. “I don’t mean him any harm.” He held up his slender hand. “I swear.”

“So why are you here?”

He hesitated. Was he reluctant to disclose his reason because he didn’t trust her? Or because he knew that she wouldn’t approve?

“I think I might know the identity of the skeleton,” he finally revealed.

It was Lia’s turn to be caught off guard. She stared at him in disbelief, belatedly realizing that she’d been distracted by the revelation that he worked in television. Was it any wonder that she’d assumed that he intended to sensationalize the skeleton in some sick way?

Now she struggled to accept that he might have an actual connection to the victim.

“Are you joking?”

He arched a dark brow. “I’ve been told I have an odd sense of humor, but not that odd.”

Lia grimaced. It’d been a stupid question. She glanced around the empty store. She’d gone from wanting to get rid of the stranger before he could lure Wayne into doing something stupid, to wanting to discover exactly what he knew about the skeleton.

“Follow me.” Without waiting to see if he would obey her sharp command, Lia marched down the center aisle and into the narrow hall. Then, entering her office, she turned to watch Kaden cautiously step in behind her. He looked mildly surprised as he glanced around, no doubt comparing the sleek, modern furniture and expensive computer system with the cozy shabbiness in the front of the building. She waved a hand toward one of the steel and leather chairs set in the corner. “Have a seat.”

He paused, then with a faint shrug, he moved to settle on the chair that was designed for comfort as well as function. She occasionally held business meetings in the office and she wanted to make sure that no one was in a hurry to leave.

“It’s my turn to ask what’s going on,” he said, eying her with a curious expression.

Lia perched on the edge of her desk. “First I need to be certain you aren’t here to exploit that poor woman,” she said, still not convinced she could trust this man.

“Exploit her? What are you talking about?”

“Wayne mentioned you have some sort of television show.”

His jaw tightened, as if he was offended by the suggestion he was there to take advantage of the situation.

“No longer. Nowadays I’m just a mechanic in Vegas. My presence in Pike is strictly personal.”

She studied his starkly beautiful face. She didn’t think he was lying to her, but she wasn’t sure he was telling her the whole truth. At last, she shrugged. Right now all that mattered was discovering the identity of the woman she’d seen all those years ago.

“You said you think you might know who the skeleton is.” She grimaced. “Or who she was.”

He tapped one slender finger on the arm of the chair, the silver gaze moving around the office before returning to study her with unnerving intensity.

“Do you work with the police department?”

“No.”

“Then what’s your interest?”

“The same as yours.”

He made a sound of annoyance at her vague response. “I feel like we’re talking in circles. Frankly, I’m getting dizzy.”

Lia sighed. He was right. Neither of them wanted to be the first to reveal what they knew. Like poker players trying to disguise what cards they held.

“I saw the woman the night she died,” she abruptly confessed.

She heard Kaden suck in a startled breath. “Where?”

“She was on the old bridge that spans the railroad tracks just outside of town.”

Kaden leaned forward, his brow furrowed in puzzlement. “The place she was found?”

“Yes,” she agreed, although it wasn’t the exact spot.

“Describe her.”

A sick sensation clenched Lia’s stomach, but she forced herself to answer. “It was after midnight and I couldn’t see her clearly, but I don’t think she was old. Probably in her twenties or thirties. Her hair was long and dark, although I’m not sure if it was brown or black. She was wearing a heavy leather jacket and pants that looked like it was a uniform. And she had a large gold badge.” Lia pointed toward a spot just below her shoulder blade. “It was pinned here on her jacket. At first I thought she was a cop.”

“Vanna,” he breathed.

The sickness at dredging up the disturbing memory was forgotten as she clutched the edge of the desk in a tight grip. She’d waited fifteen years to put a name with the woman who’d haunted her dreams.

“You knew her?”

He nodded sharply, his tension humming through the air. Absently she wandered if being near Kaden Vaughn always felt like standing in the middle of a thunderstorm.

“Vanna Zimmerman,” he explained. “She was engaged to my older brother. When did you see her?”

“Fifteen years ago.” Lia’s breath caught in her throat as she realized what day it was. “Almost exactly.”

His jaw tightened. “Vanna disappeared December fourteenth, 2007.”

“The same night I saw her.”

“And the same date her body was found fifteen years later.”

They shared a glance, both wondering if it was a coincidence or fate. At last, Lia shook her head, breaking the strange connection she felt with this stranger.

“She disappeared from where?” she asked.

“Madison. She worked as an inspector for the EPA.”

That explained the badge, Lia silently acknowledged. But nothing else. “Why would she be running away from Pike in the middle of the night?”

He looked equally baffled. “She was running?”

“That’s what it looked like.” Lia dredged through the memories of walking along the dark lane on that fateful night. “She appeared out of the darkness, and when she saw me on the pathway she suddenly stopped.” Lia could recall the precise expression on the woman’s face. Terror. “I don’t know if I startled her, or if she thought I was someone else, but she climbed onto the railing of the bridge and jumped.”

“That’s…” Kaden shook his head. “Crazy.”

“That’s exactly what I thought.”

His brows drew together, as if he was trying to figure out a reasonable explanation for his brother’s fiancé to be running through the dark and jumping off railroad bridges. At last, he appeared to concede defeat.

“Did she injure herself when she landed?” he instead asked.

Lia lifted her hands in a bewildered gesture. “I really don’t know. I called out for her and even went down the slope to search in case she needed help. It was dark, but there was enough moonlight to know that she wasn’t lying on the tracks. At least not anywhere I could see here. As far as I could tell she’d simply vanished.”

Thankfully he didn’t press her for whether or not she’d searched through the heavy brush that crawled along the edge of the tracks. She didn’t want to admit that she’d been too scared to do more than make sure there wasn’t a body beneath the bridge before racing back up the slope and scurrying home.

“Was there anyone else around?”

She shook her head, knowing what he was asking. If Vanna was running, it was quite possibly because she was being chased.

“Not that I could see. I walked the rest of the way into town without encountering anyone.” Lia grimaced. “That doesn’t mean they weren’t there. They could easily have been hidden in the shadows.”

With a restless surge, Kaden pushed himself out of his chair to pace her small office.

“What was she running from?”

“And why was she in Pike?” Lia added.

Both questions had to be answered if they were going to figure out what happened to Vanna Zimmerman.

Kaden continued to walk in a circle, his expression distracted. Lia remained perched on the desk. There was only room for one pacer at a time in the cramped space. Plus, she didn’t want to risk brushing up against his hard muscles. The touch of his hand had been enough to send tingles through her. She was afraid if she actually had full-body contact she might self-combust.

Thankfully unaware of her absurd thoughts, Kaden came to an abrupt halt, turning to face her.

“I wonder if it’s possible she was here in her official capacity.”

“As an EPA agent?”

“Yes.”

Lia had never encountered an EPA official in town, but she assumed that they made yearly inspections in every community. The city water supply, landfills, maybe even the local dairy farms. It seemed doubtful, however, they would do their inspections in the middle of the night.

“Can you ask your brother if there was a reason she might have been in Pike?”

His jaw tightened. “Darren died five years ago.”

The words were carefully devoid of emotion, which only made them more painful. This man was still mourning the loss of his brother.

“I’m sorry.”

“He never stopped searching for Vanna.” Kaden clenched his hands into tight fists. “He was certain her disappearance wasn’t an accident.”

Lia felt an odd urge to reach out and offer him comfort. She sensed that this man didn’t easily share his emotions. Even his grief. With an effort, she resisted temptation.

“He thought someone deliberately hurt her?”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

“He didn’t say. At least not to me.” Kaden shrugged, but Lia didn’t miss the pain that darkened his eyes. As if the memory of his brother was still an open wound. “But if she was running down the road in the middle of the night, then it seems possible he was right.”

Lia wrinkled her nose. “I don’t remember hearing any rumors of anyone in trouble with the EPA.”

“It was a long time ago. You couldn’t have been more than…” He tilted his head to the side, studying her with open curiosity.

“Fifteen.”

“Fifteen. What were you doing out in the middle of the night?”

She snorted at the hint of reprimand in his voice. “You never snuck out when you were a teenager?”

“Constantly. But I was a rebel. I doubt you were.”

She stiffened, offended by his words. Even strangers assumed she was a follow-the-rules, always-dependable bore.

“Why do you doubt I was a rebel?”

“Because you look like an angel.”

Oh. Her heart fluttered. Really and truly fluttered. Like a butterfly trapped in a net. Good grief. She cleared her throat, battling back the urge to blush.

“Did you come here to ID the body?”

His lips twitched, but he allowed her to return the conversation to the reason he was in Pike.

“No. I assume that Vanna’s foster parents will have the dental records or whatever they need to prove that the skeleton is hers. They’ll be the ones to do the ID.”

Lia tucked away the knowledge that Vanna had come from a foster home. It didn’t seem relevant, but who knew? Right now all they had was questions.

“Then what are you doing here?”

“To find out what happened,” he said without hesitation. “For my brother.”

Lia nodded. She understood. Not knowing was like an aching tooth that gnawed at her year after year. They both obviously needed closure.

“Have you spoken with the sheriff?”

He rolled his eyes. “Apparently there’s no officials on duty during church hours.”

Lia grimaced. “Our real sheriff is out of town. And our best deputy, Lindsay, just took a job in Green Bay. We’re down to Anthony and a couple new deputies who work parttime.”

“When will the real sheriff be back?”

“I don’t know. Not until after the holidays.”

Lia swallowed a sigh. No one begrudged Zac his time off after what he’d gone through the past few months, then again, it was a pain in the ass when they needed a lawman with an actual brain.

“So who’s in charge?” Kaden demanded.

“For now It’s the mayor, Tate Erickson. Unfortunately.”

“Why do you say unfortunately?”

“He’s barely capable of being a mayor.” She ground her teeth, still angered by Tate’s rude dismissal of her eye-witness account. It was as he if wanted to pretend the skeleton had been tossed off the train with no connection to Pike. And maybe he did. God knew the town didn’t need any more bad press. “There’s no way he can be a decent sheriff.”

Kaden shook his head in disbelief. “I feel like I wandered into The Twilight Zone.”

“More like Dukes of Hazzard. Complete with Boss Hogg.”

***

Drew Hurst shivered, cursing as the icy wind cut straight through his letterman jacket. It’d been his bright idea to meet at the graveyard. It was not only on the edge of town, but the tall cedar trees that framed the cemetery made sure no one could see him from the road. The perfect spot when he wanted some privacy.

Unfortunately, it was also cold enough to turn his balls blue.

At long last he heard the gruff rumble of a pickup that echoed loudly enough to wake the dead. That had to be his best friend, Cord Walsh. He’d inherited the piece of shit truck from his grandfather his freshman year and hadn’t bothered to replace the muffler. Or the tires. Or the sketchy brakes. The thing was a rolling death trap. The engine cut off and a few minutes later, Cord pushed his way through the trees.

Like Drew, his friend was almost as broad as he was tall. And he was wearing a matching letter jacket that barely fit over his broad shoulders. They had been raised on local farms where they spent the summers tossing around haybales and hammering fence posts. Their size and strength made them perfect linemen for the high school football team.

“Dude, where have you been?” Drew stomped his feet against the frozen ground, trying to get some feeling back in his toes. “I said to meet at eleven.”

Cord hunched his shoulders, spitting a stream of tobacco juice through his front teeth. “I had to wait for my mom to head out for church.”

“Why?”

“She’s decided you’re a bad influence on me. I’m forbidden to see you.”

“Forbidden, eh?” Drew chuffed out a breath, pretending he found the idea funny as hell.

Mothers had been forbidding him to be around their precious kids since he was in pre-school. What the hell did he care?

“That’s what she said.”

“Bitch.”

Cord frowned. “Hey, that’s my mom.”

“Whatever.”

Perhaps sensing that Drew wasn’t completely indifferent to being considered a pariah, Cord changed the conversation.

“Why did you want to meet?”

“Did you see what Neilson just posted?” Drew shoved his hand into the pocket of his jacket, pulling out his phone.

“What?” Cord moved to stand next to Drew, watching as the image of a smiling Wayne popped up on the screen. Next him was a tall, stern-faced man who was easily recognizable to any male who owned a television. “Kaden Vaughn in Pike? No friggin’ way,” Cord breathed in disbelief. “This must be some sort of trick.”

“The twat isn’t smart enough to photoshop.”

“I don’t know.” Cord reached up to wipe the snot running from his nose before it froze. “He always gets good grades.”

Drew shook the phone in front of his friend’s face. “This is real.”

“Why would Vaughn be in Pike? There’s nothing here but snow and cows.”

“Have you forgotten the skeleton?”

“What about it?”

Drew rolled his eyes. Cord wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Most of the time he used his head for running into things, not actual thinking.

“Vaughn does reality shows, dumbass.”

Cord ignored the insult. “Yeah. He does stunts and rebuilds awesome bikes. He doesn’t do old bones.”

“Maybe he’s trying a new gig.” Drew shrugged. As far as he was concerned the only reason a cool dude like Kaden Vaughn would be in Pike was because he thought he could make money off the skeleton. There wasn’t any other reason for a stranger to come to this frozen hellhole. “He’s getting kind of old to be racing around on motorcycles.”

Cord’s eyes brightened. The guy was no doubt going to be stuck on his family farm, milking cows for the rest of his life, but he loved anything with an engine. Race cars, motorcycles, four-wheelers. Even tractors.

“I don’t care why he’s here. I just want to meet him. How long do you think he’ll be around?”

“That’s what I want you to find out. If he is in town to do a show on the skeleton, I have a couple items he’s going to be interested in.”

“Items?” Cord blinked at the unexpected revelation. “What items?”

Drew smiled. After he’d nearly landed on top of the skeleton, he’d panicked. He’d scrambled up the hill, screaming like a girl and then promptly upchucked in front of that jerk, Wayne Neilson. It’d been almost as humiliating as the time he’d pissed his pants in kindergarten. That was the only reason he’d agreed to take Wayne down to see the bones. And why he’d forced himself to reach out and touch the thing. He wanted to prove he wasn’t a pussy. He hadn’t expected to discover a potential treasure while his companion was busy digging out his phone and taking pictures.

“A little something I found on the body,” he murmured in mysterious tones.

Cord spit another string of tobacco. “Liar.”

“It’s true.” Drew held up his hand. “Swear to God.”

“Show me.”

“No way. You’d blab about it all over town and it ain’t going to be worth shit.”

“Blab what?”

Drew shook his head, impatient to get going. The day wasn’t getting any warmer, and he was going to have to walk. The sooner he could get to his destination, the better.

“Just find out where Vaughn is and how long he’s going to be in town.”

Cord jutted out his lower lip. He looked more like a baby than a guy who’d just celebrated his eighteenth birthday.

“Why don’t you do it?”

“First I’m going to see if I can make some money. I’d rather be rich than famous.”

 

End of Excerpt

Desperate Acts is available in the following formats:

Zebra • 1420155504

February 21, 2023

Pike, Wisconsin

Romantic Suspense

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Desperate Acts

Pike, Wisconsin, Book 4

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