Mary Stone - Winter's Gamble (Winter Black FBI Mystery Series Book 22)

A Taste of… Winter’s Gamble

Chapter One

The ceiling light cast a dim glow over the faded and frayed brick red motel bedspread. Pacing in nervous anticipation, Terry Abbott thought about sitting to wait for his date, but that quilt didn’t look like it had seen the inside of a washing machine in months. The room stank of sweat, cigarettes, and sex, and Terry knew he should leave. He should be at home with Nell and Skyler, watching a movie.

Hell, Terry knew he should be doing anything but meeting another woman in the grungiest motel room he’d seen since his college days.

He knew for damn sure his wife Nellie would rather he not engage in this tryst, and he wished he could resist. Just pretend he hadn’t dreamed of a night like this for most of his life, even though it meant lying to the one woman who’d ever truly loved him. She thought he was downtown at a new investors’ function, celebrating the next start-up about to go public.

And he had been. But after the first twenty minutes at the event, Terry had begged off, claiming the shrimp cocktail hadn’t agreed with him. One of his coworkers batted an eye at the obvious fib, but she wouldn’t tell anyone he’d left early, least of all Terry’s wife. He’d covered for that same coworker a week back when she skipped out on a board meeting to hit the beach with her guy of the month.

It’s what people do. We help each other get what we need.

And Terry needed this.

He needed it so bad, it was all he could do to keep his clothes on until his date showed herself.

Surveying the bed again, Terry wondered how much of his skin he’d actually want to expose to any part of the room. Maybe he should flip the comforter wrong side up or hide it in the closet. The Black Cat Motel was hardly his first choice for a night of no-holds-barred fun with no strings attached. People used this venue to roll around, exchange first names or no names, and quietly go their separate ways without a second glance. But at least the rate was cheap.

Nell didn’t pay much attention to the household finances, and she surely wouldn’t balk at a fifty-dollar cash withdrawal. If she did, he’d just say he used the funds for tips at the upscale hotel hosting the investors’ function.

He’d wanted his date to meet him at the nicer hotel hosting the function, since he could’ve used his corporate card to pay for the room. Even if Nell got nosy about the money, she’d never find that charge.

But Terry’s date insisted on the Cat, so here he was, itching for her arrival. He’d left the second key tucked into an empty soda cup from a fast-food joint right outside the door, just like she’d instructed. Any moment now, she’d walk through that door.

He checked his phone for updates. Her last DM read, ETA 15. Be ready for me, lover boy.

Oh, Terry was ready. As ready as he’d ever been.

Deciding to take the risk, Terry perched at the foot of the bed, soaking in the beige walls, the stained and torn curtains over the one window, and the ratty, yellowed towels hanging in the little bathroom. Are they the cause of that funky smell? He didn’t want to know.

He got up and closed the bathroom door.

Terry stayed on his feet, wondering once more if he should just bail. Maybe this was a setup, and a cop or a P.I. would burst into the room with Nell.

The thought had him laughing out loud.

As if she’d be that attentive to what he was doing day-to-day. Since Skyler’s birth, Terry’s homelife had become one long cycle of routine and dissatisfaction for everyone. He and Nell went to work, Sky went to school, and everyone came home and watched TV after dinner. On the weekends, Nell saw her girlfriends and he saw his buddies, while Sky got lost playing some video game or streaming some show.

Wash, rinse, repeat. Same old, same old for almost a decade.

Sometimes, Terry and Nell would have sex before falling asleep, but she always seemed to need a couple of drinks to get in the mood.

So here he was. Waiting for some chick to show up to this funky place so he could get his rocks off the way he always wanted. It’d be a onetime thing, just to get the urge out of his system.

But, damn, I wish it could be anywhere but this dive.

He’d heard stories about the Cat. A guy who handled Terry’s accounts at the office liked to use the place whenever he needed something he couldn’t get at home.

Once Terry realized he was in the same boat, well, it hadn’t taken long before he was bending that guy’s ear for tips on how to set up a one-night stand. He already had profiles on a few dating apps that he kept secret from Nell, but none of them were as good as Wandering Hearts. That app had so many layers of security and could only be reached on the dark web. She’d never find him on there.

Before he’d seen the profiles on that app, Terry had never seriously considered cheating. Sure, he’d scrolled through other dating profiles in search of cute faces and body shots, and he’d watched his share of porn, but Wandering Hearts was so in-your-face, so honest.

The irony of using that word to describe a dating app for cheaters was not lost on him, but that was what Wandering Hearts was. People stated their marital status, their intentions, and their desires plainly, removing all the guesswork.

And, oh, the things he was finally going to do. The fantasies his date had promised to make a reality.

He checked his phone again. Still nothing new. If his date didn’t show, he’d uninstall the app. He should do that regardless. If Nell ever broke into his phone, that would be the end of everything.

The app was probably loaded with spyware, but what the hell. The DMs from this woman—as well as her photos—were smoking hot.

He thumbed through a few of his favorites while he waited.

A key wiggled in the lock, and Terry backed up a bit to stand near the bathroom door. This was his last chance to call off their rendezvous. No clothes had come off yet, and heck, she wasn’t even in the room, just jiggling the doorknob.

He’d had trouble getting his key to work, too, so he wasn’t surprised.

Should he just bail? Open the door and say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” before slipping past her and fleeing?

Or should he follow through and finally experience a real good time?

Terry leaned against the wall by the bathroom, lifting the hem of his too-small t-shirt to show off his abs a little. He had a naturally athletic build from a youth spent playing sports.

With one more wiggle of the key, his date opened the door. A shadowy figure stepped inside, closing the door behind her. She wore a wide-brimmed hat and was taller than he’d expected. But, of course, there was no one else in her photos for a reference point.

Plus, most of those pictures were close-ups.

“Hey, I’m Terry.”

She hesitated. While the hat obscured most of her face, he could see her full lips, painted with deep red lipstick. Her chin shook a little. Was she nervous too? Or was she already playing her role from the fantasy they’d talked about? Maybe she just needed a little encouragement.

“It’s okay if you want to take things slow, you know. I’m in no rush here.”

She nodded and inched closer. “I’m glad you beat me here. Did you bring the knife?”

“Yeah, got it right here.” Terry patted the hunting knife on his right hip. His dad gave him the blade as a gift for his eighteenth birthday, right before he left for college. He never thought he’d use it for a night of fantasy in a crappy motel room, but he’d asked for a little rough role-playing, and she’d said to bring his favorite weapon to enhance the fantasy. When he’d mentioned the gift, she’d called it perfect.

She stepped forward again, still playing coy, like they’d discussed.

“You’re a good man. You keep your promises.”

Her voice dropped a little, like she was sure of herself. But she wasn’t supposed to start out as the top. That was Terry’s role. At least, that was how he remembered the plan from their DMs.

Then she rushed forward, closing the space between them and bringing her hands to his chest. Apparently, she’d decided to go completely off book, but an officially aroused Terry found her enthusiasm contagious. As she sank to her knees, he let his head fall back against the wall, waiting while her hands went to his belt.

Maybe she was doing what they’d talked about. He was supposed to be holding the knife on her, though. His hand touched the hilt, unsnapping the band that held it in the sheath. He fingered the leather as she undid his buckle. She pushed his hands away, tucking them behind his lower back, before returning to her task.

Terry gave up on playing out the fantasy. He just wanted to roll with finally getting what he’d always wanted from a lover. Closing his eyes, he anticipated her first touch.

His belt came loose, and she slid his pants down his hips. His bare skin turned to goose flesh in the air-conditioned room. Her fingertips traced the waistband of his boxers, hooking in, tugging, and dragging the fabric down to free his dick.

With her hands on his hips, holding him back from thrusting forward, she blew warm, exciting breath across his taut skin.

Her hand slid down his leg as she continued to tease him. When he felt something pulling against his thigh, he cracked his eyes open, tilting his head forward so he could look her in the eyes before she began.

Instead, he discovered her holding the knife in a reverse grip. Before he could react, she swung her hand back and thrust the weapon into his chest.

Agony exploded under Terry’s heart. A burning, screaming pain flooded through him, sending him sliding sideways down the wall as he cried out. She went down with him, glaring as she held the knife securely inside him.

“You came here because your heart wants to wander. Well, now it can, because I’m going to cut it out of your fucking chest.”

Terry slipped onto the ugly brown motel carpet. Nell would find him here. She would see him like this and tell Skyler.

He wanted to shout at the woman killing him, to tell her he’d only wanted the fantasy—not to really die. Not to be stabbed with his own knife, which was supposed to be his toy for the date, to cut off her clothes.

“Just role…play. Alex, you’re…killing me. Why?” Terry choked on his words, coughing up blood.

“I came here to teach your cheating ass a lesson. Liars never get what they deserve, but now they will. And it all starts with you, Terry Abbot.”

How does she know my last name…?

Terry yearned for relief, but his arms had gone numb, and with warm blood swimming in his throat, he could no longer speak. The hatred in her eyes told him everything was a lie from the start. She wasn’t his date. She was never going to be his fantasy.

She was his end.

He wanted to plead with her, to beg her to stop, to help him stand up so he could go to a hospital. Or home to Nell.

Nellie…baby, I’m sorry.

His killer wrenched her hand from side to side, slicing his insides apart, before sitting back and yanking the knife free. Warm blood spread across his chest and pooled around his body as he rolled onto his stomach.

Terry watched her wipe the blade on the bedspread, adding his lifeblood to all the other indiscretions littering the fabric. She stepped over him, grabbed his shoulder, and rolled him back over. He stared into her malevolent eyes, blinking away tears and trying desperately to lift an arm—to grab at her, pull her hair, anything.

He managed only to flap a hand, wet and slick with the blood that had saturated into the mangy carpet.

In response to his lame attempts, a devilish smirk curled the corners of her mouth. She crouched closer, her voice like a whisper in a dream. “Broken hearts are the reason for all the world’s pain. If people had more respect for love, nothing bad would ever happen again.” She placed something small and cold on his forehead, but he could only focus on the black spots clouding his vision and the fireball erupting in his chest.

Terry’s life drained away, soaking into the filthy carpet.

As the light dimmed, his thoughts went to Nellie and Skyler. He feared, even in death, that they’d never love him again. Everyone would know he’d come here to cheat on the family, to go outside his marriage.

And for what?

More tears stung his eyes, and his throat grew tight with the heat of blood and regret over downloading Wandering Hearts and choosing this woman.

He had love, once upon a time. He could have had it again, couldn’t he? If he’d tried. For Nellie and Skyler.

Why couldn’t I let them be enough?

Chapter Two

Winter Black-Dalton sat on her back patio, breathing in the late winter air. Though she’d already checked dozens of times, she couldn’t stop herself from scanning for any hidden cameras that might be watching her every move.

It’d been nearly a month since she’d found the camera hidden under the eaves of her grandparents’ back porch. And though she’d lived in some level of paranoia for most of her life, she found herself checking over her shoulder more than ever now.

Will I ever find peace?

Her laptop sat open on the table behind her, next to an empty coffee mug, her third cup that morning. The weeks since her grandmother’s diagnosis of kidney failure had been an emotional and physical roller coaster. She longed to work at her office, but today she needed to stay home and watch over Gramma Beth.

Two mornings each week, Winter had her grandmother over while Grampa Jack ran errands or kept his own medical appointments to deal with his lupus. Even with the worst of Gramma Beth’s health concerns behind them, Winter still worried.

Her grandparents had been the only constant in her life, save for her best and truest friend, Autumn Trent. But ever since Winter left Richmond to relocate to her husband, Noah Dalton’s, home state of Texas, even Autumn had begun to occupy a temporary space.

We came here to be closer to family and maybe start one of our own.

The scare with Gramma Beth taught her nothing and no one lasted forever. She couldn’t imagine a world without her grandmother, and this recent health crisis had her reevaluating the long hours and devotion to her business. She wished she could change that, but she’d only just gotten her private investigation company off the ground.

Winter checked her phone, anxious for any news from her office assistant, Ariel Joyner. She’d scheduled a meeting with a new client later that day and was itching to return to work once Grampa Jack got home.

Just the thought of being in the office for an entire day tomorrow lifted Winter’s mood. It quickly crashed back down when she realized she was looking forward to time away from her grandmother.

Guilt churned the three cups of coffee in her belly. How had her life become a choice between so many demands, all of which she felt a desperate obligation to meet?

She checked her phone one more time before heading back inside.

Still no word from Ariel, and I’m sure Gramma could use some company.

She walked into the cozy kitchen her grandmother had helped decorate, passing through a doorway and the empty dining room—she and Noah hadn’t found time to shop for a proper dining table—and into her living room, where a smile spread across her lips and a comforting warmth filled her heart.

Gramma Beth still sat on the sofa, crocheting.

With tightly permed snowy white hair, a round face accentuated by wrinkles, and lively blue eyes, Gramma Beth had been Winter’s rock for most of her life. Ever since Douglas Kilroy, the infamous Preacher, had slain her parents.

After the tragedy, Jack and Beth took Winter in, raised her, and tended to the nasty head wound Kilroy had given her. All the surgeries and doctor’s appointments had traumatized Winter, but whenever she thought she couldn’t take another day of treatment, Beth had been there to hold her up.

“What’s that gonna be?” Winter gestured toward the collection of crocheted material in her grandmother’s lap.

Beth never missed a beat as she wove the green and yellow yarn into a design. “A scarf for Noah.”

Winter chuckled under her breath. “You made him a scarf for Christmas, Gramma. Remember?”

Beth’s cool eyes gave Winter a once-over. “That one was gray. This one is more colorful.”

Winter didn’t bother telling her grandmother that Noah wasn’t big on scarves. She knew avid crocheting kept Beth’s mind off the endless appointments and treatments for her ailing kidneys.

I’m sure she’d rather be cooking than listening to the smoke alarm go off every time I set foot in front of the stove.

A knock on the front door startled Beth. “That can’t be Jack. His doctor’s appointment isn’t even for another half an hour.”

Winter smirked while walking toward the door. “It’s not Grampa. He wouldn’t knock. It’s someone else.”

“Who?” Beth asked as Winter opened the door.

Standing on the porch, thumbs hooked into his tool belt, was the grizzled contractor Winter had hired to fix up her office. Kline Hurst wiped his feet on the doormat as he greeted Winter with one of his usual scowls.

She had a soft spot for the ornery guy. On one occasion, he’d saved her life, and he always seemed to be there when she needed him. Still, he’d refused numerous times to attend her family’s Sunday dinners, despite the “standing invitation.” Since he’d proven obstinate to a fault, Winter decided to step in and ensure her favorite employee and her grandmother finally met.

“Thanks for coming.” She waved him inside. “My grandmother’s on the sofa.”

Kline shuffled through the doorway, his baggy overalls hanging from his slender frame.

As Winter showed Kline in, she watched him assess her sparsely decorated living room. She could only imagine what the older man thought of her decorating skills, especially after he’d spent so much time crafting her office bookcases into works of art. She was grateful she’d at least cleared away some of the packing boxes.

“Gramma, this is Kline. The man I was telling you about who helped me get my office in shape.”

A sheepish Kline shifted into Beth’s line of sight. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. McAuliff.”

Beth lowered her readers from her nose. “Mr. Hurst. I’ve heard a lot about you.” She glanced at Winter. “What brings you here?”

Winter smiled, hoping to sell her grandmother on her idea. “I asked Kline to come and talk to you about the handrails in your shower.”

Beth’s eyes narrowed. “What handrails?”

Winter added a smidgen of stubbornness to her tone. “The ones your doctor told you to put in over a month ago. With your go-ahead, Kline wants to measure the area.”

Kline nodded. “Yes’m. I know what you need. Installed a few of them in the past. Handy to have when you get older.”

“You can’t be much younger than me.”

Winter cringed. This wasn’t going well. “Gramma, you have to have them. The doctor said you need them if you get weak in the shower. You’re not one hundred percent yet, and I think it’s a great idea.”

Her grandmother hmphed. “Well, they’re not going up in your shower, are they?”

“I promise they’ll be aesthetically pleasing.” Kline inched toward the sofa. “I know how to make them blend into the shower and bath. You leave all the work to me, and if you’re not happy, I can take the rails out or put something else in.”

Winter grinned, pleased with her contractor’s efforts.

Beth’s disgruntled frown slipped, and the right side of her cheek tweaked upward. “I guess you’ll need my keys to get inside the house.”

Kline hitched up his tool belt. “That’s why I’m here. Wanted to see if you had anything specific in mind too.”

Beth shook her head and reached for her purse on the side of the sofa. “No. Just don’t make it look like I need help walking through my own house. Shower rails are fine, I suppose, but I can get around everywhere else with no trouble. And I plan on taking everything down once I’m recovered.”

Kline scratched his chin. “Naturally.”

Winter heaved a relieved sigh as her grandmother handed Kline her keys and rattled off the address, along with instructions on where to find her master bath. The way Beth ordered the man about gave Winter hope. It had seemed like forever since her grandmother had shown so much strength. After the initial diagnosis, she’d spent most of her days sleeping or staring at the TV.

Kline gripped the keys. “Yes’m. I’ll see to everything just as you want it.” He glanced at Winter. “I’d better get going. Be back in a jiffy with this.” He dangled the keys.

Winter showed him to the door, wanting to get out of her grandmother’s earshot before she thanked him for coming over. “I found a camera at my grandparents’ house about two weeks ago. I want you to sweep for more while you’re there. I can’t do it because she’d get suspicious.”

Kline raised his eyebrows. “What the hell? Why would someone put those there?”

She placed her hand on the doorknob. “To get to me. You know how dangerous this business can be. I’ve been doing regular sweeps, but two pairs of eyes are better than one.”

Once on the porch, Kline stopped and looked over his shoulder at her. “I’ll have your back. Don’t you worry.”

She stood inside the doorway, watching the older man return to his pickup and wondering why she had so much faith in him.

Swipe right for love. Swipe left for death.

In the aftermath of another harrowing case, FBI agent turned private investigator Winter Black is battling personal demons: guilt, her grandmother’s failing health, a strained alliance with a key detective, and the eerie knowledge that someone has been spying on her family. Amid these trials, Winter’s newest case emerges as a rare glimpse of normalcy, offering a seemingly simple investigation far removed from the deadly threats that have marked her recent past.

Until her new client turns up dead, a knife through his heart. Read More