Bridget Augusta had never intended to take her clothes off for a living. But one thing she learned in her nineteen years on Earth was that life was full of surprises.
Here she was…alone…on a Saturday night…at a remote gas station near Middle of Dang Nowhere, Texas. Of course, she’d been in similar places for years. For a runaway, home was often anywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Her life changed once she found work—such as it was—dancing at seedy dives. An offer to work at private parties for rich men eventually came along, and Bridget now had a place she could legitimately call home. It had been a while since she kissed her old life goodbye. She liked money and planned on never being without it again.
And for the moment, her clothes were firmly in place.
Which was a good thing, since an icy January wind whipped off the adjacent highway. She held back her long brown hair with one hand and pulled her coat closer with the other while she watched the gas pump numbers tick nearer to full.
“C’mon, c’mon,” Bridget urged, as if she had the power to do anything but wait for the tank to fill. Finally, the pump chimed, and she spared a hand to remove the nozzle from her Volvo. She pulled her coat tight again as she headed to the station to collect her receipt—this was a business expense, after all.
“Maybe next time, I’ll get a nice hotel room instead of heading home after work.”
Her clients rarely offered her lodging once her job was done, even if they did offer lots of other opportunities. She had rules, though, and never went for the offers, no matter how tempting. Plus, she’d been warned about watching out for guys who promised to take her away from all this. Safer and better to just head out on the road, even if it sometimes meant topping off the tank late at night.
“Demands of the job, girl. You knew that when you signed up.”
After getting her receipt, Bridget hurried back to the comfort of her warm car and reached for her sports drink. Only another half an hour on the road before she could crawl into bed and sleep. She started the engine and yawned before heading out onto the deserted highway. The lights guiding her to the interstate on-ramp were few and far between, but she was less than a quarter mile away.
She took another sip, hoping it would help the dull headache crawling up the back of her head. She blamed her discomfort on the long night. The money she made dancing for the wealthy partygoers was great, but the groping, the encouragement to drink more than she knew was safe, and the endless invitations to go somewhere else always bugged her.
Bridget was a dancer, not a whore, but men could never tell the difference.
The dark expanse beyond her headlights added to her unease with the remote location. Maybe she should have pushed her car to reach Austin before stopping. As the road bent right, coming around the curve, the glare of flashing hazard lights caught her attention, and she let up on the gas a bit.
A black Mustang coupe convertible sat parked on the shoulder. Someone leaned against the side of the car.
It was dark and a long walk back to the gas station if this person was on empty or needed some other kind of assistance. Against her better judgment, Bridget slowed her car. Not too much, though. She was fully prepared to take off if it turned out to be a guy, or guys, but she’d become curious about who was stranded on the desolate road. Curious enough to at least give them a moment of her attention.
She’d been stranded before and knew the feeling.
Bridget squinted to make out the person’s features, and as her car eased closer, she caught the profile of a young woman in a fancy designer outfit and high heels gripping a handbag that would’ve cost Bridget a full night of dancing for her wealthiest clients. She debated passing by, until the glint of tears on the woman’s cheeks moved Bridget’s foot off the gas pedal.
This is the last thing I need.
Bridget wanted to be tough and keep driving, but she thought of herself in the same position. Stuck alone on a deserted road in the middle of the night wasn’t a situation any woman wanted to be in. She understood the stranger’s tears. They would have been her own.
She eased the car closer to the Mustang and stopped. Lowering her passenger window, Bridget looked up at the woman, still sticking close to her driver’s side door. She seemed afraid.
Who could blame her?
“You need some help?” Bridget anticipated a glimmer of relief in the woman’s face, but there was nothing.
“My phone’s dead.” The young woman sniffled. “And I’m out of gas. My husband didn’t want me to go out with my friends. He always tells me I’m careless and irresponsible. This will make him so pissed. I’m afraid of what he might do to me.”
The tough, independent woman Bridget strived to be shuddered at the memories of her father’s blows and the feel of his hands between her legs. The endless torture had driven her from the trailer park she’d called home. She’d hoped her nightmares would end after the sick bastard blew his brains out. They didn’t. The bruises might not have lasted, but the abhorrent pain remained.
Bridget eased across the passenger seat. “I can give you a lift to the gas station. I’m sure they have a gas can you can use to fill up your car.” She offered the woman a friendly smile. “With any luck, you won’t have to mention a thing to your husband.”
The tension in the stranger’s shoulders eased, and she loosened her grip on her fancy handbag. “Oh, I can’t tell you how much I’d appreciate that.”
She hurried to the passenger door as Bridget sat back in her seat. It felt good to help another woman, even if the atmosphere of the empty road gave her the creeps.
Bridget waited for her passenger to buckle in, then checked her mirrors. Not a car in sight on the dark highway.
She did a quick U-turn and headed back to the gas station. Bridget got a better look at her passenger under the occasional passing streetlight.
The woman looked young to her, but what did she know? Barely nineteen, Bridget couldn’t buy beer without a fake ID.
She was about to ask the stranger her name when a loud pop came from the front of the car, and the steering wheel jerked in her hand. Bridget’s heart shot to her throat as she gripped the wheel, fighting the pull of the vehicle to the right.
The unmistakable thunk, thunk, thunk of a flat tire made her groan.
Son of a bitch. Of all times…
Bridget checked her rearview mirror and peered out the windshield, wondering what she’d hit. There was nothing on the road.
She pulled over, skidding as gravel pinged and bounced along the car’s undercarriage. They drew to a stop, tilting slightly to the right.
Bridget reached for her car door to check out the damage, and her passenger gripped her arm.
“Please, don’t go.”
The wide-eyed terror in the woman’s pale face made Bridget wonder just how dire her situation was. A woman in a good relationship didn’t fear every little thing. She should know. The PTSD that lingered from her days with her father still reared its ugly head from time to time.
She patted the woman’s forearm, loosening her grip. “It’s okay. I’ve got to see what I hit. Then I can call roadside assistance.”
“My husband’s going to know I screwed up now.”
Bridget held the woman’s tiny hand, wanting to relieve her anxiety and offer a suggestion of getting her a hotel room for the night, but decided not to say anything for now. First, she needed to take care of her car. After that, she could deal with the skittish stranger.
She climbed out of the car, worried about the woman’s situation. She wasn’t one to go out of her way to help people, but this woman pulled at her heartstrings. Maybe her past had caught up with her. Who knew? At least she could try to do some good.
The bitter wind slapped Bridget’s face, and she pulled her coat tighter. The idea of being stuck on the highway far away from her warm bed didn’t sit well.
No good deed goes unpunished.
The right front tire, as she anticipated, was shredded. She stooped, getting a closer look at the wheel. Thank goodness for the bright moonlight. Without it, she’d be fumbling around in the dark with only the flashlight on her phone to aid her.
A few yards back on the road, a brown bag caught the moon’s glow. Suspicious, Bridget walked over to check it out, praying she wouldn’t find a kitten or puppy corpse inside.
“What is it?”
Bridget jumped at the young woman’s cry. “I’m not sure,” she shouted back. “Roll the window back up.”
With trembling hands, she opened the filthy bag and peeked inside. A handful of thick, shiny, industrial nails glistened inside.
Rage mixed with fear coursed through her, immediate and hot. She gazed back down the road toward the gas station, thinking everything through.
Someone had placed this bag here on purpose. As a joke? Or worse?
Heading back to her car, she fumbled with her phone. How long would the roadside service take? Would she be better off walking to the safety of the gas station? Changing the tire herself and getting the hell out of there?
She didn’t know.
A flash on the road just ahead disintegrated her internal debate. The gleam of metal made her take a step forward. More nails in case the first bag didn’t do the trick? No…this was too big to be a nail.
If it was, she could use a weapon right about now.
Bending to inspect it, she nearly fell over when a piercing scream rose from behind her. Before she could run or do anything, a hand covered her mouth and something sharp sank into her neck.
Her hand flew to the wound, and she stumbled forward. But the person behind her tightened their grip, pressing her against their chest.
Bridget tried to struggle, tried to pull the hand away from her mouth. At least she thought so, but her movements did no good. An odd sense of floating overwhelmed her, and she couldn’t seem to control her legs. They wobbled and threatened to give way.
The air thinned, and she struggled for breath. Her mind raced for explanations.
What’s happening to me?
The world spun, and she tumbled to the gravel-strewn roadside. The hand was gone from her mouth, but when she sucked in a breath to scream, only the smallest of whimpers escaped her throat.
In the distance, she spied treetops swaying in the chilly night breeze. The cold that had bothered her before didn’t register anymore. A rock cut into her cheek as she fell, but she didn’t care.
A blanket of calm enveloped Bridget, and her mind became a fuzzy mess of scrambled memories. She pictured herself back in her bed, cozy and safe.
Bridget closed her eyes, and the world instantly melted away.
A heady whiff of yeast drifted past Winter Black-Dalton’s nose as she pushed a black lock of hair from her face with a flour-dusted hand. The sunlight pouring through the kitchen windows highlighted the butterfly posters, cabinet handles, and matching light fixture with Tiffany glass accents. The room had a warm, welcoming feeling that Winter hoped to recreate in her kitchen. Once she and her husband, Noah, finished unpacking it.
Winter’s determination to copy Gramma Beth’s bread recipe to the letter had taken up most of her Sunday afternoon. She punched the thick dough on the wooden cutting board, swearing the damn blob didn’t feel the same as she remembered. The consistency was off.
“Is there a problem?” A face framed by wavy silver hair popped up beside her.
Winter glanced at her beloved Gramma Beth. Her gingham-checked apron didn’t have half the flour on it that Winter’s did.
“It’s not right.” Winter punched the lump of dough again. “I did something wrong.”
Her grandmother reached for the unmade bread, poking a finger into the side of it. “I’m sure it’s fine.”
Winter sagged against the counter, reveling in the aroma of the rump roast drifting across the kitchen.
Gramma Beth added a few more sprinkles of flour to the dough. “You just need to work it a little longer.”
Winter folded her arms as she watched the woman work, not caring about her flour-coated hands and spreading even more dust onto her shirt. “I’m hopeless. I’ll never be the wiz in the kitchen you are.”
“You have other skills, dear.” Her grandmother moved the dough to an oiled bread pan.
“I was hoping to impress you,” Winter confided. “I wanted to make this week’s Sunday dinner special.”
Gramma Beth wiped her hands on her apron and cupped Winter’s cheek. “It is special. You’re here. Noah’s here. That’s all Jack and I wanted when we left Richmond. To be closer to you two.”
Winter’s heart squeezed. “Only after I twisted your arm to move to Austin.”
The move had been a fresh start for everyone, especially after the horrors of dealing with her younger brother, Justin, and his psychotic rampages. Her grandparents, living only four blocks away and in the same neighborhood, ended up being a godsend.
Beth’s airy laughter filled the kitchen. “You didn’t twist my arm. Your grandfather and I wanted to come. I told you before, my only condition was our traditional Sunday dinners.” Her grandmother winked. “You’ve held up that end of the bargain so far.”
Winter dampened a towel and set it over the loaf of bread. “Sometimes, I feel guilty. Like I took you and Grampa away from your life in Virginia.”
Her grandmother returned to the stainless stove. “Nonsense. I have everything here I had there. I even get to crochet blankets for the Austin homeless shelter.”
This was new. “Since when?”
Beth lifted the lid on her pot of bubbling brown gravy. “Oh, that started just recently. And you know how much I love to crochet.” Her grandmother gave her a wary side glance. “How’s the new job going?”
Winter had tried not to think about her first case as a private detective. Saving her first client from a murderous childhood acquaintance out for revenge had been a dark and gruesome task. Remembering how rats were used to consume the murderer’s victims still gave Winter nightmares. She never wanted to see another rat as long as she lived.
“It’s not what I expected.” Winter plucked a green bean from a bowl on the counter and snapped off the ends.
Winter’s good-looking, broad-shouldered husband, Noah Dalton, the type who looked like he belonged herding cattle on a local ranch, stuck his head in the door. “Smells great, darlin’. When do we eat?”
She frowned at him. “Not for another half an hour. Go back and keep Grampa Jack company. How’s the game going?”
Noah’s playful grin never faltered, even as he pressed a hand to his stomach. “I might faint before the last quarter. Just one nibble to hold me over?”
Winter liked the stubble on her husband’s chin. He rarely went without shaving, but the grizzly look suited him. His brown hair had grown from his usual crew cut, and she could run her fingers through it at night when they were alone in bed. His forest-green eyes appeared more vibrant, thanks to his bright red shirt.
When she didn’t answer, the smile fell away, and Noah stepped into the kitchen. “You okay?”
He knows me so well.
Gramma Beth raised her wooden spoon. “She’s fine, now get your hide in the living room and make sure my husband doesn’t nod off before he’s had his supper.”
Winter lowered her head, holding back a snicker as Noah hurried out of the room.
Beth brought the pot of gravy to the counter and set it next to Winter. “Is there something you’re not telling me?” She nodded at the entrance. “He looks worried.”
Winter wished her husband hadn’t set off alarm bells for her grandmother. “He just thinks I’m working too hard. Noah’s the one who suggested taking off for this three-day weekend. No work. Just us. He wanted me to relax after my last case.”
Gramma Beth opened a cabinet and removed a white gravy boat. “Was it that bad?”
Winter rested her hip against the counter, mindful of her words. “Not bad. Just taxing.”
Her grandmother studied her with a probing gaze. “Do you think you should be taking all this on before you settle into your new home?”
Winter peered into the dark gravy. “Unpacking is driving me insane.”
Beth lifted her chin. “Yes, but you need a home before you can have a family. Set down your roots here before you go off looking for cheating husbands, missing people, or whatever it is you do.”
Winter was about to enlighten Gramma Beth when her phone vibrated in her back pocket. Linked to her desk phone used only for Black Investigations, it signaled that her voicemail box was full. But how could that be? She’d set it to take up to thirty-two messages.
Retrieving her phone, she checked the screen. It was full.
What the hell?
“You were supposed to leave that at home.” Gramma Beth waved a finger at her. “I asked you and Noah for a work-free evening.”
Winter itched to be alone and check her messages. She hoped it was a new job—anything to keep her from having to unpack one more moving box.
She smiled at her grandmother, hoping to assure her all was well. “I remember. I’m going to the bathroom, but when I get back, we’ll talk about what I do for a living. And it’s not chasing cheating husbands.”
Beth kissed her forehead. “As long as you aren’t hunting killers like you did in the FBI. That terrified me.”
In the paneled hall outside the kitchen, Winter wiped her eyes, glad to escape the kitchen before Gramma Beth could see the effect of her words. She slipped into the baby-blue powder room that smelled of lilacs.
Shutting the door, she rested her head against the cool wood, taking a minute to clear her mind. Then she wiped her fingertips clean on a towel and opened her phone screen.
The thirty-two voicemail alerts charged her with excitement. Thirty-two people wanted her services.
She swiped through the list of missed calls over the past three days. Winter had stuck to her agreement with Noah and diligently avoided her phone. But now, knowing the overwhelming list of potential clients waiting for her, she couldn’t hold off anymore.
One number appeared on the list five times—that someone had repeatedly reached out to Winter sent a shiver of alarm through her. Only two kinds of people left repeated messages…the crazed or the desperate.
Winter listened to the voicemail to determine which one the potential client might be.
“My name is Julia Eversmeyer.” She rattled off her number. “I’m calling because…because…I need to protect my children from my ex-husband. They’ve been massively traumatized by our divorce, and now I…well. I believe he’s…sick. Please. Help me.”
Winter hesitated before playing the remaining voicemails. The heightened fear in Julia’s voice added to Winter’s concern. If children were involved, she would have to take the case. That had become her weak spot as of late.
Visions of little Timothy Stewart played in Winter’s head. His small form, lying on the RV floor, his mouth duct-taped shut, tears streaming down his face as he stared at his mother’s lifeless body. How her despicable brother, Justin Black, escaped from his locked psych ward unit, drugged her, and forced her to kill Timothy’s parents to save Little Timmy and his sister, Nicole…
With that gun pointed at the kids, Justin held all the cards. She was at his mercy. Failing to choose was the same as putting the gun to Tim’s head and pulling the trigger herself.
Kill the father, or Justin would murder the kids.
“Ticktock, Winter. Four…three…”
A heartrending cry escaped little Tim. The noise ripped at Winter’s defenses, shattering something inside her.
She battled the anguish that threatened to drag her under. She was an agent. Calm under pressure, cool under fire. Emotions couldn’t help her now, so Winter locked them away, allowing clinical detachment to descend instead.
She had a choice to make.
The dad…or the kids.
Out of time.
When Winter glided forward, her legs didn’t even feel like her own. Nor did her hands as they reached out to cradle Greg’s head. She registered the warmth of his skin, and the stubble that prickled her palm.
There was no more thinking, only instinct and muscle memory carrying her through the motion. A sharp, forceful twist, and—
Winter still heard that sound in her sleep, and often during her waking hours. To this day, she refused to even think about what Justin put the little boy through after kidnapping him. Timothy had spent months traveling the world with her psychopath of a brother because of her. She’d never been the same since that horrible day.
Even as she forced the images of Timothy and Justin from her mind, Winter knew who her next case would be…Julia Eversmeyer. The other twenty-seven messages could wait. Julia needed her first, and Winter felt compelled to help. Maybe in some small way, it would make up for the guilt that still gripped her after what had happened to Timothy.
Winter closed her eyes and held onto the sink. She wished she could clone herself and take on multiple cases simultaneously, but the science wasn’t there yet.
Back outside the bathroom, she tucked her phone into the pocket of her jeans. She rounded the corner to the kitchen, freezing when she saw her grandmother staring into her bread pan.
“What is it?” she asked, rushing into the warm room.
Gramma Beth held out the moist towel she’d placed over the bread pan. “You might want to start over with that bread recipe, dearie. That mound of flour you made isn’t going to rise to the challenge.”
Good thing Gramma made a loaf earlier.
Winter pressed her lips together and marched toward the counter where her unbaked loaf waited. “Just wait. I’ll conquer your recipe if it’s the last thing I do.”
Her grandmother’s lighthearted chuckle chased away the disappointment she felt in her cooking skills. “You do that, dearie.” Beth returned to the oven and slipped on her oven mitts. “Just leave the rest of the cooking to me. Otherwise, you might burn my house down.”
Nice girls finish last. Bad girls finish dead.
When Private Detective Winter Black-Dalton receives a slew of messages from a mother desperate to protect her children after a traumatizing divorce, she takes the case without hesitation. Not only is it a welcome distraction from unpacking boxes, but Winter hopes to assuage the guilt still fusing her to her past.
She should have known better… Read More