A Taste of... deadly dreams

Chapter One

Keep your head about you, Beez. Just a little longer.

As Beatrice Crosby admonished herself, she put money on her little lost lamb being around the next bend.

It was a gorgeous fall morning, with a sun-dappled canvas of bright autumn leaves overhead. Cool air braced her skin, and the sounds of birds chirping and insects buzzing their summer goodbye were like a symphony. Everything was in place for this to be a nice autumn stroll through Tallulah Gorge Park in Northeastern Georgia.

Except for that damn missing person.

Sighing, Beatrice berated herself. She didn’t mean that. Missing people were her lifeblood and had kept her and her husband, Ollie, “in the lifestyle they’d grown accustomed to” ever since he’d been placed on disability a few years ago.

Still, Beatrice knew she wouldn’t be able to fully enjoy the day until she’d safely returned the subject—another lost and hopeless—back to headquarters, whether he wanted to be there or not.

This particular little lost lamb was a sad case. Well, they were all sad cases. But from what she’d heard, this was especially heart-wrenching. A young man, just twenty-two, had gone off after penning a farewell note to his sweetheart, explaining how his life just wasn’t worth living anymore.

After being out on the trail for an hour, she lifted a hand to her chest, as she had for most of her nearly sixty years, picking up her worn Saint Anthony medal and kissing it. As she did, she said a prayer, “Anthony, patron saint of lost things and missing people, please deliver this lost lamb to us and ensure no harm comes to him.”

She’d recited those same words thousands of times, but it never got any easier. She especially hated the young ones, giving up hope while still in the prime of their lives. Beez looked up at the glorious autumn day, blinking against the rain that was just beginning to fall again. Even on a cloudy day, the scenery all around her was glorious. How could one possibly witness such splendor of nature and think that life wasn’t worth living?

Poor lamb.

In her three-plus decades of SAR work, she’d learned to have just as much of a nose for the way these things would go as the dogs she minded. They’d likely find him, sitting alone on a ledge, having determined not to make the jump after all. Then she’d have to employ her sense of diplomacy and a soft, encouraging voice to lure him back from the edge.

At least, that was what she was hoping for. The alternative was so much worse.

Her companion on this particular jaunt was Tiger, a brindle pit bull only a couple months into his SAR career. A tiny thing in stature, still a little skittish, the dog was coming along nicely. Beatrice’d trained hundreds of SAR dogs over the years, and three-year-old Tiger was shaping up to be one of her favorites.

They walked along a steep, narrow path astride the gorge that, in this spot, featured a three-hundred-yard drop to the river below. Tiger was careful about where he stepped, hugging the side of the mountain, and she liked that about him. So many dogs were just too eager, especially at the very start, and they’d make dangerous moves even with the proper training.

But Tiger was instinctively wary. There were quite a lot of fallen leaves on the ground, which could be slippery. The last thing Beez needed was to have him take the path too quickly and slip, sending both of them toppling over and hurtling to the jagged rocks on the gorge floor. Beez had found more than a few hikers at the bottom of the gorge, the victims of such a fall, too late to be rescued.

It wasn’t pretty.

Tiger stopped at a rocky outcropping that jutted out into the gorge, letting out a small whimper. He looked up at Beez to make sure he was doing it right. When she nodded her approval, he ducked his head around the stone blockade, measured, and stepped himself over the obstacle with relative ease.

Not bad, little guy. That was one of the tougher maneuvers in old Tallulah.

Beez often told the other rescuers she trained—and she’d trained dozens of them—that she could walk the gorge blindfolded. She’d grown up in this area, first fishing with her father down on the river and then spending most of her summers as a teenager camping out here, so she knew it like the back of her hand. But that didn’t mean the park was safe, even for her.

There were constant rockslides, especially after rainstorms, and it often seemed as though the terrain was always changing. Plus, many of the rocky trails were perilously narrow, barely enough for one person to walk, and high on a cliff’s edge.

This obstacle, though, posed no trouble for Beez. Though her advancing age meant she wasn’t in the greatest shape of her life, she did keep active. She practically vaulted over the rocky ledge to meet with Tiger on the other side.

She could give those cocky SARs half her age a run for their money, she wagered.

She ruffled his ears. “Good boy. Very good boy. Just a little more. I bet we find our missing man over here.”

The Heights Trail was the only trail rated extremely difficult in the park’s guide map, with the warning: Only experienced hikers and those with proper equipment should attempt. That was two years ago, before three people died on it in one awful summer.

For the next printing of the guide map, online and off, the Heights Trail had been removed, as well as all signage pointing it out from the main road. The only thing that remained was a bright-yellow sign at the very entrance to the trail, only visible to those attempting it. It read:

WARNING: DANGEROUS HIKE AHEAD

The Heights Trail is not for those with physical limitations. Attempt this route only if you are physically fit, wearing proper footwear, and have experience in climbing near exposed cliffs and heights. Be prepared for high winds and allow three hours for a round-trip climb. Avoid this route during inclement weather or darkness. Stay on trail, and do not throw or dislodge rocks onto hikers below.

Permits required; all laws and regulations strictly enforced.

Persons have received serious injuries, and others have died on this mountainside! Do not be one of them!

The sign was usually enough to keep any day-hikers away.

But not always.

There were always several yahoos attempting it, which meant Beez and the others would be called in for a rescue. Most were fine. And then there were people who, either overestimating their abilities or underestimating the dangers the sign warned of, ended up in trouble.

And then there were those who just came here to end their lives.

This poor lost lamb hadn’t said what trail he planned to go to in the suicide letter his girlfriend found. They never did; never made it easy. No, it was usually more like, Goodbye cruel world and I can’t be a burden to you any longer. No specifics on location.

But the call had come in over the police radio at close to the same time that a hiker arrived at park headquarters, breathless and worried. She said she’d been on the Heights Trail and heard someone weeping, and when she’d looked over, she’d seen what looked like a glimpse of an orange parka through the trees.

She’d tried to call out to the person to see if he or she needed help but hadn’t received any answer. It seemed as though the individual was on the very edge of a cliffside, and it had worried the hiker enough that she’d run all the way back to a ranger. Putting two and two together, the rangers had called in the nearest SARs available. Beez was one of them.

She was always one of them. She was proud that she was damn good at what she did. Proud that she was high on the call list.

Sweet of them, really, to leave the strenuous Heights Trail to her, the oldest one in the group.

She didn’t mind, though. She was the most experienced, after all. The climb didn’t bother Tiger or her. She felt more at home on this mountain than she did anywhere else in the world. In fact, her husband had proposed to her at the pinnacle of the trail thirty years ago.

She smiled at the thought of Ollie down on one knee, then helped Tiger up onto a waist-high step in the trail, just as the sun broke through the clouds. It was still raining a bit, so she stopped and looked for the rainbow she knew she would find.

There it was. A perfect arch of vibrant color, appearing like a blessing from the heavens.

Beez smiled again, allowing herself another minute to admire the meteorological phenomenon before taking hold of the metal spike lodged in the rocky ledge and hoisting herself up after the dog, huffing and puffing in a way she never had when she was younger.

Got to lay off those Oreos, she thought as she climbed the last few steps to the very end of the trail, a place overlooking the falls, where the trail opened up. Edging forward and shielding her eyes from the dappled sun with her hand, she looked over the cliffside, trying to spy that bit of orange the hiker had seen.

Nothing.

She looked again, straining her eyes, which also weren’t what they used to be. She pulled out her binoculars and studied the area below more closely. Nothing.

Beez felt sure this was the place the worried hiker had been speaking of and scanned the area again. She could hear the falls from here, along with the swish of the breeze through the trees. But no one calling for help. No sign of life anywhere.

Well, so much for that. Lady must’ve been hallucinating.

That was the problem. Anytime someone reported a missing person, the rescuers took directions from whoever reported it with a grain of salt. It was easy to get turned around or panic in the heat of the moment and forget what you’d seen or where you’d seen it. Often these things were like wild-goose chases.

But knowing that, Beez had kept her eyes peeled for that glimpse of orange the whole way up. She hadn’t seen a thing. She also hadn’t heard a peep from the tracker below, who’d been assigned to scour the base of the cliffs with his cadaver dog.

She’d have to hold off on praising God for his glory on this beautiful day just a little bit longer.

She turned to head to her right, around a bend, where the little-known trail met with the more popular and heavily traveled North Rim Trail. This trail was deemed moderate in the guidebooks. It had its steep drop-offs, but it wasn’t nearly as perilous as the one she’d been on.

She relaxed a little, then picked up her radio. “Come in, headquarters.”

“Hey, Beez, what’s up?”

“Just finished up on the Heights Trail. No sign of him or anyone else yet. I’m alone out here. Anyone else see anything?”

“Negative.”

“The woman give you any more details?”

“Nothing other than what you were told in the briefing. You looking for an orange jacket?”

“Yep. There’s nothing that can possibly be construed to be an orange jacket out here on Heights. Trust me.”

“All right. Keep at it. Come back along the North Rim. You shouldn’t be going back the way you came. Too dangerous.”

She opened her mouth to say that he was wrong. Nothing was too dangerous out here for her. She’d told headquarters that, time and time again. But the ranger beat her to it as the radio crackled and came back with, “For Tiger, I mean.”

She smiled, hitched her walkie-talkie to her belt, wiped a honey-colored curl from her forehead, and adjusted her grip on Tiger’s leash. “Poor lost lamb,” she muttered, still listening for any signs of distress.

Nothing.

Great.

She hated to think what that might mean. That this particular lost and hopeless had finally decided to take the life-ending plunge.

From here, the tree-cover was too much to see the bottom of the gorge. However, if that was the case, someone at the bottom would’ve seen it by now. There were always fishermen down there, and hikers enjoying the falls. Plus, she’d sent Kevin and Molly down Sliding Rock to the gorge floor. If he hadn’t radioed in by now, it was a good sign.

That meant there was still hope.

Noticing Tiger was starting to hang his head and pant a little more than usual, she ruffled his ears. “You thirsty, boy?”

He licked her hand. Aw, of course he was. That’d been some workout. The Heights Trail was not for babies.

The dog was a peach. Ollie’d gotten him for her on her fifty-seventh birthday, from the pound. They’d become the best of friends. Beez had been around dogs all her life, but Tiger was like her second self. Her children were grown and out of the house now, scattered across the United States. She had grandchildren but only got to see them once in a blue moon. So, Tiger was her baby. She doted on him, pouring all the love and attention she had for her six grandchildren on that pup.

Beez glanced up when she heard the noise of footsteps coming close. Heavily traveled was right—it seemed like everyone was off on the North Rim Trail today. She figured she’d probably meet up with a couple of the other rescuers from her SAR team, probably by the Pulpit, but she was high above it. Devil’s Pulpit, a large, very popular rocky outcropping at the bottom of the gorge was probably hopping with people, even on this rainy day. Lonnie had been sent to the South Rim, and Crystal the North.

Beez was familiar with all the roads less traveled, the hidden gems. She knew there was a nice spot to rest only a quarter-mile down the trail, just above the Pulpit, that would be less populated and have more shade for her tired pup. She led Tiger to it, stepping aside on the trail every so often to let more hikers pass her by.

The resting spot was just an area with a nice, scenic view overlooking the falls. There were a couple of picnic benches, but nothing more. She looped Tiger’s leash around the branch of a sapling and dropped her heavy pack, then pulled out his collapsible water dish.

Filling it from a bottle of water, she sat down on one gnarled plank of the picnic table, lowering the water bowl for him to drink before pouring him some kibble into another collapsible dish. He slurped it up in great, thirsty licks, splashing more water out of the dish than swallowing it. She petted his brindled coat and smiled at him with all the love in her being.

“That’s it,” she said soothingly, surveying the area. “Take it easy, boy. Not too fast.”

As she was stretching, she heard it.

She paused to listen, but the sound didn’t come again. It could have been a child, shrieking in glee.

Or a person, screaming in agony.

Beez stood, her knees popping at the movement, and pulled a few treats from her pack. Leaving them on the ground beside the bowl, she headed in the direction of the noise, holding on to the trees for balance.

The skeletal branches of smaller brush clawed at her red L.L.Bean jacket as she took another few steps into the woods, toward the ledge. She crunched over a blanket of newly fallen leaves, pushing aside branches that threatened to poke her eyes. When she reached the ledge, she looked over but saw nothing but some scrubby pine. No flashes of orange. Nothing that she was looking for.

Although…

Wait. There was something.

Nothing obvious, but still, something that didn’t quite fit in.

It looked like there was a bit of something glinting on the side of a faraway ridge just a bit below them, across the gorge. She craned her neck, unable to make it out, and pissed that she’d left her binoculars back in her pack with Tiger.

Beez grabbed instinctively for her St. Anthony medal, praying for some sign.

Whatever the sound was, it hadn’t come from there. That was too far away. The sound was probably just a child having fun on the trail. Sounds always seemed to echo around this gorge. It was all the rocks surrounding them. It was impossible to tell what noise came from where.

Shaking her head, she’d just begun to turn when Tiger barked, the sound like a bullet in the quiet environment.

Tiger was a good watchdog. Almost too good. He barked whenever he saw another human anywhere. Ones he disliked. Ones he liked. Mailmen. Babies. Old men with canes. Birds. Squirrels. And he had a sharp, ear-splitting bark that clawed at her nerves. It was his only flaw.

A gust of wind blew the hood off her head, just as the sun slid behind a fat, gray cloud. Cold raindrops struck her face, and she quickly pulled her hood back up, tightening the drawstrings under her chin.

Tiger barked again. Louder. Sharper. More urgent.

“What is it, boy?” she called, then startled as a form appeared among the dark branches, adorned in a thick cover of sunshine-yellow leaves.

She squinted, blinking away the rain caught in her lashes. Her eyes certainly weren’t what they were. “Jaxon? Is that you?”

No answer.

As the figure drew closer, she recognized the jacket. She’d poured compliments on it back at headquarters, because her L.L.Bean jobbie was fraying at the sleeves and she needed a new one. She’d asked where she could get herself some fancy duds like that. It was from the newest line by North Face.

She had to remember that. She had a birthday coming up, and Ollie, bless his poor, shopping-challenged heart, was always wondering what to get her.

Money was tight, though, with him on disability. She could probably stick with her L.L.Bean jacket for another season or two. She hated to be a fuss.

“Hey, North Face,” she said, pointing over toward the thing glistening in the sunlight across the ridge. “What do you think that is?”

She was joined at the edge. “Where?”

She squinted again, but with the sun behind the cloud, the reflection had disappeared. She shook her head. “I don’t see it now. Looked like a reflection, swinging back and forth like a pendulum.”

Then it hit her, and she actually laughed out loud.

“What are you laughing about?”

“I think what I saw was a wristwatch on a hiker or something like that. My eyes just aren’t what they—”

She never had a chance to finish her sentence as strong hands pressed against her back and pushed.

Beatrice Crosby tried to right herself, tried to reach out and grab somethinganything.

But her hands closed around nothing but air as she fell, face-first, into the gorge she’d practically been raised in. She didn’t have time to fight, but she had time to scream.

 And scream she did. For as long as it took to fall hundreds of feet to the shallow Tallulah River below.

Chapter Two

Kylie Hatfield turned the radio up loud and danced around the office of Starr Investigations. As she did, she opened the “A” drawer and dropped a paper into a file folder under the October tab.

Goodbye, October. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass, she thought, even though there were a couple days still left in the month. She might be leaving for Georgia soon, so October and all its Halloween fun would probably be gone before she walked into this building again.

Lifting her long brown hair up off her shoulders and gathering it into a messy bun on top of her head, she started to pump her legs as she shuffled to the next pile of papers, most of them boring surveillance bills for Starr Investigations’ biggest client, Impact Insurance. They might have been snooze worthy, but they made up a good portion of her paycheck.

It had been starting to get cooler, so she’d broken out a cardigan for the first time since spring. Bad choice. Thanks to Mother Nature’s bipolar personality, today was hotter than previous days. The soft cashmere fabric clung to her body with sweat, so she pulled it off and threw it on her chair, then did a series of squats.

As she transitioned to lunges, Greg walked in and grimaced at her.

He didn’t say a word.

“Hey you,” she said, turning to lunge in his direction. “I’m just a steel town mountain girl. On a Saturday night.”

He harrumphed and stalked to his desk. “I bet you are.”

She sashayed up to him, taking his hand, doing a twirl. “What up, boss?” she sang in time with the music.

He stared at her, then flipped on his computer. “Someone’s happy,” he grumbled. “I hate happy.”

Ah, Greg Starr, the owner of Starr Investigations, the place where Kylie had been working since spring. He had the most successful private investigations firm in the whole city, and he acted like it was a noose around his neck. Kylie had to wonder, if she had been in the private investigations business for that long, would she be just as bitter?

“I’m not happy,” she said, doing a Kick ball change dance move back to the file cabinets. “I’m exercising.”

He looked over his monitor at her. “And…you can’t go to a gym, why?”

She deposited another paper in the proper place and gave him jazz hands. “Because I have so much filing to do,” she sang, drawing out every syllable in as close to a Celine Dion version as she could manage. “I’ve been putting it off for weeks. And not only that, I have a wedding dress to fit into…someday.” She drew the last part out long and loud, channeling the singer’s performance at the climax of “My Heart Will Go On.”

Greg covered his ears. “Fine. Whatever it takes to get it done, but can you dial it down a bit? My ears and eyes are bleeding. I’d give anything to unsee and unhear right now.”

Kylie grinned, genuine affection for the grump making the smile grow wider. They’d been working together so long that, by now, he had to know that she ranked filing and straightening the office, two of the things she’d originally been hired for, somewhere among root canal work. She knew he’d be okay with anything she did to spice up the monotonous grind of her daily grunt work. He just lived to grumble. About pretty much everything.

Plus, this was killing two birds with one stone. She didn’t exercise, but one of these days she and her mom were going to go out dress shopping. They had to. Her fiancé—she held up her left hand, admiring the sparks of light coming off the beautiful diamond Linc Coulter put on her hand not long ago—had hinted about them setting a date for Christmas, which was only a couple short months away. The last thing she wanted to do when she put on her dress was look like a ghost whale.

That took her happiness down a notch or two. The dress. Even the thought of finding the outfit for the day when she was supposed to look her absolute best…gave her hives.

Talk about pressure.

Actually, everything about planning a wedding made her want to go bury her head in the sand somewhere, ostrich-style.

She’d much rather just flashdance her woes away.

“Did they ever call you with more info on the missing SAR woman?” she asked, bumping the filing cabinet closed with her hip. Greg had gotten a call earlier that day, telling her that he had a new case for her, but wanted to sort through additional details before he sent her packing to Georgia. That had been hours ago, and she was itching to know more.

“Yeah,” he said, lacing his hands in front of him. “That’s what I need to talk to you about, kid. I’m sorry for putting this case in your lap so soon after your…adventure.”

She sat down, breathing hard, wiping sweat from her brow. It was so unusually warm for the end of October that it felt like summer, and they didn’t have the AC on. It’d have been a little sticky, even without the dance break.

“Are you kidding me? Bring it,” she said excitedly, grabbing her trusty notepad and pencil. “I’m on the case, boss!”

Kylie never backed down from a challenge. Even though she’d just gotten done with an “adventure,” as Greg called it, that involved learning who her real father was and dealing with a mafia madwoman he’d married after disappearing on Kylie’s mother, she was up for anything. She hated sitting around, waiting for work to fall in her lap. She loved action, loved being in the thick of things.

He lifted a paper from his beaten old briefcase and stared at it, and Kylie’s bit of patience snapped. She turned the music down and leaned forward. “Come on, spill.”

He stared at her through his bifocals, the crotchety look back on his face. “What are you, three?”

“I’m excited! Enthusiasm is a good thing, boss. You should try it.” She stared at the back of the paper he was reading, trying to make out the words. “Come on. I need to get the details to Linc. He’s been doing an online seminar all day, so I haven’t been able to talk about going to Georgia with him yet.”

Linc Coulter, her fiancé.

She never got tired of hearing the word, even as that same word still scared her more than just a little. But she was getting used to it, having someone to lean on, someone she could trust. Someone besides her mother to have her back and love her unconditionally, zany personality and all.

Not only that, she thrilled at the prospect that the two of them could work together, solving missing persons crimes. Since she was training to be a private investigator, and he was a search and rescue guy, they complimented each other so well. In many other ways too.

Where she was a risk-taker, he was the voice of reason. Where she had the brains—when she deigned to use them—he had the brawn. She invited trouble, he deflected it. They’d kick ass together as a team of crime-fighters, like Batman and Batgirl, if only given the chance.

Greg nodded. “Yeah. It’s for a friend of mine from high school.”

She stared at him, her mouth an O of mock-surprise. He hadn’t told her about the close connection when he mentioned the missing SAR woman earlier that day. “Wait. Really? They had high schools when you were young?”

“Haha,” he said, studying the paper. “Most of my classmates are dinosaurs, but Ollie is an actual human being. And he’s in trouble. I think you can help him, you and that ever-so-dreamy fiancé of yours.”

Kylie felt bad for joking about it, even though with Greg, it was just too easy. They could usually go back and forth, mildly insulting each other all day. It made the boring days a lot more interesting, trying to think of ways to get Greg’s proverbial goat since the seasoned PI didn’t get upset by much. But with this, she thought she detected more than a bit of concern in Greg’s voice.

“What do you need us to do?”

Greg let out a breath that smelled of the cigarettes he smoked whenever he wasn’t in the office. “Well, as I told you, he called me, very distraught after his wife went missing in Tallulah Gorge. They still haven’t found her. You know the gorge?”

She shook her head. When it came to state parks, Linc was the expert. “I don’t.”

“Well, it’s on the border between Georgia and South Carolina, only a hundred miles or so from Asheville. Nice scenery, so I hear.”

In Kylie’s mind, anything called a gorge couldn’t be very beautiful at all, but she didn’t say a word. As much as she wasn’t a fan of any outdoor activity, she knew it was right up Linc’s alley. He was the best search and rescue guy in the state, and Linc and his German Shepherd, Storm, made a really unstoppable duo. They’d handled thousands of cases in the area. But this was North Carolina. That was Georgia. A little out of his jurisdiction. “Why us? Why isn’t the Georgia SAR looking for her?”

Greg snorted. “Beez was SAR. She and her dog were on the trails looking for a missing hiker. They found the hiker at the bottom of the gorge, dead from an apparent fall. But Ollie’s wife and her dog just disappeared during the search. Ollie’s heartbroken. Been married over thirty years. He sounds like he doesn’t know what to do, he’s so beside himself.”

“That’s terrible,” Kylie murmured.

“I was going to take a ride down there, just to pay him a visit, but you two would be more help than I could be.”

Kylie nodded. So what if the case involved tromping around in the wilderness? So what if she didn’t know Ollie? She already felt terrible for the poor man and wanted to help. And Greg looked so distraught…

“Yes. Of course.”

The relief that flooded Greg’s features made Kylie even more intent on helping her boss, no matter how much of her comfort zone got destroyed out in the wilderness.

“Woman’s name is Beatrice Crosby, known as Beez to her friends, and the dog is a pit bull named Tiger. She radioed in from the North Rim Trail to tell headquarters that she hadn’t found anything of the missing hiker. That was the last anyone ever heard from her.” Greg looked like he was aging right in front of her eyes. “It’s been raining like hell, slowing everything down, and because of the uptick in visitors wanting to see the fall leaves, there has also been an uptick in missing persons, so the local SAR is being stretched thin.”

“That’s awful,” Kylie said. She couldn’t imagine what Ollie was going through, waiting and wondering for news of his spouse like that. She could only imagine he must be frantic. “Poor guy. And this happened yesterday? Does he think she’ll be found alive?”

He shook his head. “Let’s just say that he’s very worried. Ollie knows that if Beez could have made it out, she would be out by now. Or she would have radioed for help. Something. Ollie’s a good guy. Pretty easygoing. And he’s not quite right with the way things have been playing out, or so he tells me.”

Kylie’s ears perked up. “What do you mean?”

“Well, he thinks that the local authorities aren’t doing enough. He told me he thinks there might be something shady going on. That’s why he was really hoping someone outside of the force would come in and give him an outside assessment.”

There was nothing she liked better than shady goings-on. “Something shady…like what?”

Greg wagged a finger in her direction. “That’s what you’re going to find out.”

Kylie nodded solemnly. “I will do my best.”

Greg rolled his eyes. “Yeah. He tells me his wife was brought up on that mountain and that she can find her way around there in the dark. And she’s had decades of experience as a tracker and outdoorswoman, so it just doesn’t add up in his book. He suspects foul play. Plus, her body not being found is more than a little suspicious.”

“Hmm,” Kylie said, unsure of how quickly a body should be found under those circumstances. “Does seem a little suspicious.”

“Right. So, you on it?”

“Yes!” Kylie shuffled to the edge of her seat. As if there was any other answer.

Then she looked at the last pile of paper on her desk and frowned. The case of her father hadn’t been an official case, but Greg had wanted her to do all the paperwork as if it was. She’d been avoiding it, some because she’d taken time off to tend to the gunshot wound Linc had sustained during the struggle with her father’s crazy mafia-princess wife. But mostly, she just didn’t want to relive how disappointed she was in the man who’d abandoned her as a baby.

“But…can I?” She waved a hand at the folder titled William Adam Hatfield. “You’re okay with me leaving you alone?”

He snorted. “You think I can’t handle this place without you?”

Well, he’d managed this as a one-person office for thirty years, so she suspected he’d be fine. But upon her recommendation, he’d begun some sorely needed technological upgrades. He’d recently gotten them used computers, and she’d switched out the old fire hazard of a coffee maker for a Keurig. But after she’d brought in all this new-ish technology—it wasn’t really new, considering that most people had been using the things for decades—she realized precisely why Greg was averse to it. Technology hated him. And he hated it right back. If it had more than one button, he wasn’t interested.

She motioned to the Keurig. “You and that coffee maker have daily fights. If it weren’t for me, you probably would’ve died from caffeine deprivation.”

“True, the thing is ridiculous. But there’s a coffee shop down the street, and I kept the old one under the sink, just in case. I’ll live.”

“And the computers?”

“I have that help desk you fixed me up with. I’ll handle it.” He shrugged. “Besides, you’re the one who uses the computer. Most of what I do is still manual. Except email. And what can happen with email?”

She gnawed on her lip doubtfully. “But you’re barely ever around this place to begin with. You’re always so busy.” Though she wasn’t sure about that. Most of the time when he was gone, she wasn’t sure if he was out on a case or just gallivanting. “Don’t you need me to help with—”

He waved his hand toward the door. “Get out of here. I’ve been thinking about reducing my caseload anyway.”

She blinked. Thinking about reducing his caseload? She’d noticed that the paperwork had been growing slimmer, and she wondered if he’d started that reduction already. “Why?”

“I’m too old for a lot of this shit, kid. What can I say? I’m not a Hardy Boy anymore. The thrill is gone.”

Her eyes widened. What did that mean? Did that mean he was going to close up shop soon? Retire? After she’d finally found a job she was good at, a job that made her want to wake up in the morning. And she still had over a year before she could get her own PI license. If she was ever going to do this permanently one day, did that mean she needed to start working with another PI before Greg retired? “But wait, what does that—”

“Short stuff. This ain’t like you.”

She stopped short, worry and confusion crashing together. “What do you mean?”

“You’re always chomping at the bit for juicy cases. Now I give you one, and you’re dragging your feet. Why?”

Right. She was known for diving into things headfirst. Kylie studied the piles of paper on her desk. No, that wasn’t the real reason she was hesitant. And she definitely knew Greg would be fine without her.

As much as she wanted to jump at the idea, it wasn’t just herself that she had to think of now.

She was part of a couple. Successful couples took each other’s feelings into consideration. If she was going to get married, she knew she’d have to start doing that, sooner rather than later.

And though juicy cases were all she ever thought of…Linc had quite a different opinion of them. Especially where Kylie was concerned.

She thought of where he probably was right at that moment—in his office, dealing with an online seminar because his injury was still healing, and he’d had to take some time off from physical training. He was still recuperating from the gunshot wound from Kylie’s last case, which had started as a personal search for her father and had ended up…

She shivered, not wanting to think about that.

Kylie looked at her boss’s forlorn face, then thought of her handsome husband to be.

They could think of it as a little vacation away from Asheville, especially since their last “vacation” up to New York had been cut short when they realized the mafia was after them. She really loved the idea of working with Linc, as a team.

But she couldn’t answer for him. He’d had a rough year, dealing with resurfacing memories from his time in Syria. He’d been working through his PTSD, but the last thing she wanted to do was push him.

“I know I should be jumping on it, but I have to ask Linc first. I think his expertise is just what this case needs, but I’m not sure he’s up for it yet, considering his shoulder is still bothering him.”

“Is it?”

“Yeah. He’s frustrated.”

Greg nodded. “Then, by all means, talk it over with him. But let me know tonight. I don’t want to leave Ollie hanging. He’s in enough pain as it is.”

“Okay,” Kylie said, jabbing in a text to Linc.

He was normally a very calm, stoic man, but this injury was pushing him to the limit. She wondered if he’d resorted to throwing things and hurling curses into the air yet. Upkeep at the farm had all but gone to pot since he’d been injured. She’d tried to keep up, but she hadn’t had much luck mucking stalls and brushing llamas. She wasn’t a farm boy, like Linc. He lived for that stuff, almost as much as he lived for nature and tromping through the wilderness.

Kylie sighed. They were supposed to be planning that wedding too. Linc seemed to be pressing her, albeit gently, to get her shit together where that was concerned. But in the weeks since he proposed, she hadn’t done a single thing.

The truth of it was, though the idea of getting married to Linc thrilled her, putting together all the details of the party? Hives. Massive hives. That was her job, though, as bride, wasn’t it? The bride was supposed to love the idea of planning a wedding. But even her mother seemed more excited about the details than she did. She wondered what she could do to psych herself up for it.

Maybe she was still suffering from leftover daddy issues. Even though she felt like she’d resolved most everything with her father and decided that Linc was nothing like him, the concept of forever?

It was a scary thing.

Whenever anyone brought up setting a date, she felt like she was part of a snowball about to be pushed down a hill. Once the planning began, she knew it would pick up momentum, and nothing would be able to stop it until she crashed.

No. She had no doubts about Linc. He was everything to her.

It was really just…the wedding. That was the problem. The whole make this the best day of your life OR ELSE!” thing that always seemed to haunt her every time she thought of the details.

What if she did it wrong and ruined the best day of their lives? Wouldn’t that mean their marriage was doomed before it even started?

She forced herself to stop thinking about it before that sick feeling started to bloom in the pit of her stomach again. “I’ll definitely ask him as soon as I get home. Things have just been crazy. You know, with Linc being down and out. It’s been a whirlwind couple weeks.”

“Gotcha. If it’s easier, short stuff, you can work the job from home. That way you can help Linc out at the farm too.”

She smiled at him. As grumpy as he was, he really was the best boss. “Thank you. I might just. He’s kind of at the end of his rope.”

“All right, kid. Maybe you should give me another tutorial on this space-age coffee machine, just in case.”

 She laughed. She’d already given him three, but she figured one more wouldn’t hurt.


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Deadly Dreams by Mary Stone and Bella Cross

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