A Taste of... Winter's Return
Bobby Burner dropped a fresh ice cube into his glass of Johnnie Walker and surveyed the spectacle surrounding him. Elite Motors’s annual Halloween party was in full swing, with costumed bodies filling up almost every inch of his showroom floor.
It made Bobby happy to watch his employees and their significant others laughing together in little groups because a happy employee worked harder and made him more money. Lucky for him, the entire crew appeared to be ecstatic tonight. They were socializing and throwing back enough free booze to drown a herd of elephants while a bass beat rattled the windows.
The party was awesome…as usual. Bobby wouldn’t allow for anything else.
A whiz of motion by the electric blue Stingray caught his eye, and Bobby barely managed to hold back a laugh. Paul from accounting was already busting out his rusty backspin moves. Truth be told, the geeky accountant wasn’t that bad.
“Hey, you break it, you buy it!”
Bobby’s joke drew a few laughs from a nearby group that included his “sexy mouse” receptionist. While he normally detested rodents, Crystal, wearing a faux fur minidress with a plunging neckline and fuzzy little ears, was an exception to his vermin aversion.
“Remember, Crys,” he winked over his shoulder as he swaggered away, “you’re off duty tonight. Make sure you have some fun. I can remind you what that is, in case you’ve forgotten.”
After saluting her with his whiskey, he turned and continued cutting across the polished showroom floor in search of his errant wife. Where the hell was she? He didn’t have to look for long because her uniquely resounding giggles drew his attention toward a cozy spot behind a red Porsche pickup.
Tawny, his devoted wife of thirteen years, had her breasts pressed up against his youngest salesman’s arm. Chad, the dashing employee she’d sidled up to, grinned like a damned Cheshire cat as he shared some riveting tale. The twenty-two-year-old douchebag didn’t appear to care that Bobby had a front-row seat to the scandalous interaction.
Truth be told, Bobby didn’t give a shit either. He’d understood the minute his wife donned the skintight, latex Catwoman bodysuit that she’d be out for blood that evening.
Making the matter even richer, Chad was dressed as Batman. That would no doubt be Tawny’s drunken defense when she and Bobby were having it out at midnight. He could almost hear her now…
“What was I supposed to do, Bobby? It was fate.” She’d draw out the vowel of the last word long enough to make him want to puke. “If you’d wanted me to hang on your arm, you should’ve worn the Batman costume I brought home instead of dressing up as boring old James Bond.”
Tawny would convince herself—had already convinced herself, Bobby was sure—that it was his fault she’d all but ignored him for the duration of the party. It was always his fault, no matter the time or circumstances.
He waited for a fiery, jealous rage to consume his entire being, but all he felt was the pinpoint burn of indigestion in his gut. Maybe it was the four stiff drinks talking or the decade plus of Tawny making it clear that having a husband and kids didn’t equal settling down, but at that moment, Bobby was certain he’d divorce her five times over before he got rid of Chad.
That kid could sell a damn car.
“Here’s to priorities!” Bobby raised his whiskey in a mock toast to the happy couple before swigging a gulp. As far as his priorities went, keeping his dealership empire alive and well topped the list.
“Hey!” Chad’s vainglorious voice called out. “Bossman, toss me another beer, will ya?”
The youngster slurred his words and flashed a drunken smile at no one in particular, missing the hostile glare that passed between Tawny and his boss. Bobby retreated to grab a can and lobbed it at Chad’s head, angling it so it’d be sure to miss the Porsche.
“Drink as many as you want, kid.” He stalked by them toward the exit, grinding his teeth and muttering under his breath. “Then go play in traffic, you egotistical little shit.”
Maybe he was more upset about the Tawny situation than he preferred to admit.
Shoving open the door and stepping into the brisk October air, Bobby focused on the fleet of sleek, top-of-the-line luxury vehicles before him. Even though it was a week before All Hallows’ Eve, the Texas air was chillier than normal. The gleam of chrome and steel beneath the overhead lights served as an instant mood boost, heating him up.
Money. Money. Money.
Retirement from playing minor league baseball had opened up a whole new world of financial prosperity, but for Bobby, it was never enough. The lucrative empire of Elite Motors would be Bobby’s legacy, and he intended it to be a massive one. His sons wouldn’t have to worry about money for a single second of their lives.
Pride swelled in his chest as he stumbled forward, sloshing his drink and sweeping his arms wide. The vision of his automotive kingdom spurred inebriated tears to spring to his eyes. “You’ve done good, Bob. You’ve done—”
A flash of movement toward the back of the lot cut him short. Apparently, he wasn’t the only poor soul who’d needed a break from the festivities.
When Bobby swiped the moisture from his eyes, though, an uneasy tingling needled his scalp. The person skulking around the used cars was no party guest. They wore an oversized hooded sweatshirt that concealed their face, and their bent posture and skittish movements announced less-than-lawful intentions.
He sucked in a breath, standing straighter with the action.
Some punk’s trying to steal one of my cars while everyone gets wasted on the showroom floor.
Kind of genius, really. No one would expect a robbery with so many people present.
Whiskey-fueled adrenaline surged through Bobby’s veins. Whoever the bastard was, he’d jacked with the wrong guy. Bobby Burner reigned supreme over his automotive kingdom, and no little two-bit hoodlum was going to mess with that.
He charged forward like he was sprinting for home base, letting out a bark that was sure to send the moron running. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, asshole?”
As he drew closer, a wave of smug masculinity washed over him as he closed in on the little shit. The sensation dissipated the second the intruder whirled and thwacked him in the ribs with a brutal swing of a baseball bat.
Pain exploded in Bobby’s side, dropping him like a stone to the hard pavement. Sprawled on his back, Bobby struggled to focus on the face looming above him, but the agony tearing at his ribs blurred his vision.
Move. You need to move.
Panting from the pain, he rolled himself onto his hands and knees, gasping for enough air to offer the bat-wielding psycho whatever he wanted. Cars, money, a hot night with Tawny. Anything to give Bobby a minute to recover and recalibrate.
I need help. I can’t breathe. I have to—
Hissing air was Bobby’s only warning that the bat was moving through air again. He remembered the sound from his baseball days.
The best days of my life.
Instead of connecting with a little white ball, the bat slammed into his skull an instant later, igniting a starburst of electric pain that silenced his racing thoughts for good.
Winter Black-Dalton leaned over the porch railing, sipping a mocha latte and savoring the cool January air while chirping birds serenaded her from a canopy of live oaks. Down the street to the west, a small gathering of children waited at the neighborhood bus stop, exuberant and carefree. Their laughter carried to Winter’s ears and prompted her to grin in return.
In the opposite direction, a woman pushing a stroller stopped on the sidewalk to chat with an elderly couple walking a pair of basset hounds that Winter had already had the pleasure of meeting.
All in all, experiencing the peaceful Austin, Texas morning felt a little like being transplanted into a dreamworld.
Just one week of living in the Destiny Bluff subdivision had provided ample time for Winter to witness the community’s congeniality. Neighbors rushed to help each other carry groceries inside. Friendly faces hollered across the street, offering fresh barbecue off their grills. Even in January, the lawns were well tended. Of course, there was no ocean or beach, but the happy little subdivision was still its own type of—
“Paradise.” Noah Dalton spoke the word softly behind her, sliding his arms around her waist. “I always told you Texas was paradise, darlin’.”
Winter turned in his arms, careful not to spill her drink. “You did. And I never doubted that, for you, it was.” Smiling and leaning into his tall frame, she cupped a hand to his cheek. “Just wouldn’t have guessed that, someday, I’d be standing here agreeing with you.”
Noah planted a kiss on her forehead before stepping back and straightening his tie. “Well? Do I look like a seasoned FBI agent ready to defend the Texan citizens from whatever darkness lurks their way?”
She laughed and ran a hand down the silky tie. “Yes…but you sound like the voice-over for a testosterone-fueled movie premiere. My advice would be to use sign language for the rest of the day.”
Noah’s theatrical sigh was loud enough to be heard two blocks over. “Well, there goes my first-day confidence.”
Stretching on her tiptoes, she pressed an apologetic smooch to the corner of his mouth. “Teasing. You’re going to do great. Amazing. Jaws will drop at the sight of my dashing, intelligent husband and all of his federal agent wisdom.”
He chuckled as he grabbed his briefcase and inched down the porch steps backward. “And the world will tremble as Winter Black, P.I., forges her new path of ruthless investigation across the bustling Texas landscape.”
“Seriously.” She shook her head when Noah turned toward the driveway and nearly tripped over his own two feet. “You’re going way overboard with the dramatic-flair thing.”
Winking, he blew her a kiss before disappearing into his truck and cruising down the street. The multiple friendly waves he gave to neighbors as he passed filled her with another ripple of satisfaction.
I’m glad to be here.
They’d made the right decision to move. Relocation had allowed them to leave painful memories behind in Virginia while also enabling them to form their own little family haven right there in Austin. Noah’s sister, Lucy Dalton, was already an Austin resident, and with a little persistence, Winter had convinced her grandparents to make the move as well.
Now, Gramma Beth and Grampa Jack lived just four blocks away in the same subdivision.
She sipped her coffee, welcoming the absence of the claustrophobic worry that had marked so much of their last year in Virginia. Texas was a fresh start, but the key factor fueling a newfound sense of peace was the knowledge of what—or who— was locked away in a secret subterranean dungeon. No more waiting around wondering when her serial killer little brother would strike next. No more getting dragged into his sick games or fretting over which innocent lives he’d end just to upset her.
The bloodthirsty reign of Justin Black was over, and every single person on the planet was better off for it.
Especially her and Noah.
Cupping the warm mug between her hands, Winter turned to survey their new home. The classic, white two-story craftsman came complete with navy blue shutters and a white picket fence. A porch swing hung to the left of the front door. On the right side, a small army of terracotta pots waited for Noah to test out his green thumb once the warmer weather arrived.
He’d promised her a rose garden as well. The idea appealed to Winter, as long as he followed one simple request.
The flowers could be any color but red.
A shiver crept down Winter’s spine, delivering a stab of apprehension in the otherwise peaceful morning. When she was just thirteen years old, a sick man named Douglas Kilroy—or The Preacher—had stolen Winter’s family. He’d murdered her parents, kidnapped Justin, and gifted her with a massive head wound before leaving her for dead.
Emergency brain surgery had saved her life, but Winter had never been the same after that day. In addition to her trauma and loss, she’d gained an unwanted ability that scientifically wasn’t possible. Sometimes, it was as simple as an outline or glow of red around an object or place, alerting her to clues and information that often proved helpful in solving cases.
“And other times, it causes migraines from Hades.”
Absently rubbing her temples, Winter counted her blessings that she hadn’t experienced a single episode since moving to Texas. Yet.
The blindingly painful attacks—always accompanied by a nosebleed—intensified until she blacked out. That was when the visions started. A reel of footage played out, sometimes making perfect sense, but too often, foggy and confusing instead.
The special abilities were the aftermath of that fateful night long ago, and a small part of Winter prayed that with the clean break from her past, maybe she’d left behind her curse of a sixth sense as well.
Focus. Freak ability or no freak ability, this is your first day at a new job. Get to work.
Stepping inside, Winter strode through the home, admiring—for the umpteenth time—the original hardwood flooring, arched doorways, and sturdy framework. “We picked a good one.”
Her statement echoed off the mostly undecorated walls and bounced around rooms full of half-unpacked boxes. “We’ll get you all set up, slowly but surely.” Although so far, “slowly” seemed to be in the driver’s seat.
Winter continued down the hallway to the repurposed first-floor bedroom and surveyed the space with satisfaction. Modest as it was, her office was ready for business.
She only hoped that she was too.
Pausing in the doorway, she fought off an excited shiver and tried to process the fact that she was no longer a special agent for the FBI. Instead, she was the official owner of Black Investigations, licensed by the Texas Department of Public Safety and Private Security Board to legally operate as an independent private investigator.
A fresh start that was also solitary.
Even her name was solitary when it came to the business. Noah had insisted she use her maiden name as her professional one, because, “Darlin’, we’re a team in every single way, but this business is all you. I’ll support you a thousand percent and with my last breath, whether you have my last name or not.”
She’d chosen the career change, but that didn’t make it any less daunting to step into the P.I. role. Winter was accustomed to operating with the support of a tight-knit squad of talented, intelligent, and highly trained colleagues.
Right about now, her old team would be filing into the Richmond Field Office, greeting each other, and preparing for a new case surrounding a new psychopath. Her best friend, Autumn Trent, would—
Miss them later. It’s. Time. To. Work.
Taking a deep breath to tame the sudden pinch of sadness, Winter crossed over to her desk and settled into the rolling chair. The red flashing light on her desk phone signaled voicemails to check.
Looks like that painful advertising budget was a smart decision after all.
She might be alone in her new career, but hopefully, she wouldn’t be bored.
“Here goes nothing.” Winter put the message system on speaker and pressed play.
“You have…seventeen…new messages.”
Her eyes widened as the robotic voice delivered the report. “Seventeen? Already?”
Glancing at the calendar to double-check that her ads had only been live for four days, Winter grabbed a pen and began taking notes as the messages played.
The first one was from a local car insurance company requesting assistance with proving a claim fraud. Next came a man who was certain his ex-wife was blowing child support on manicures and shopping extravaganzas. The third was a woman who left her number and no other information whatsoever.
Some of her initial excitement faded. So far, so blah. “Come on, give me something good.”
The fourth call was another insurance claim, but the fifth call granted Winter’s wish.
“My name is Mahoney Fitzgerald, and I am willing to pay whatever it takes to gain your services.” The man’s voice held an unmistakable edge of desperation. “I have…um…well, a situation has come about in my personal life that must be addressed. Immediately. Please call me back as soon as you possibly can. My number is…”
Winter yanked the notepad closer and jotted down the number. She didn’t need a sixth sense to detect the caller’s misery. Something had gone horribly wrong in his world, and there was no denying that her interest was piqued. Inhaling a cleansing breath to calm her nerves, she placed the return call.
Not two full rings passed before her first prospective client picked up. “Mahoney Fitzgerald.”
“Mr. Fitzgerald.” She injected all the confidence she’d gained over the years into her phone voice. “Winter Black here, returning your call to Black Investigations. Do you have a moment to discuss your case?”
Boisterous laughter, a blatant contrast to the palpable angst in the man’s voicemail, boomed through the speaker. “Of course I don’t. I’m a very busy and important man, Miss Black. Handsome, too, in case you were wondering.”
Winter fought the gag climbing up her throat. “It’s Mrs. Black-Dalton, but you can call me Mrs. Black.” Her business might be built on her name alone, but she loved being able to knock this bastard down a few pegs with her married moniker. “If you’d like to call me back at a better time—”
“No!” He all but yelped the word. “Now works. And please, call me Fitz.”
“Okay. Fitz.” A few ideas for nicknames were already forming on Winter’s tongue, none of them as benevolent as Fitz. “Can you give me a little insight into your situation?”
Her wooden wall clock ticked off the seconds that followed. Just as she began to wonder if Fitz had either hung up or passed out cold, his voice started booming again. “My girlfriend has disappeared. She just stopped communicating two weeks ago, and I’m…I’m scared for her. I think something horrible has happened to her.”
Winter swallowed an exasperated groan. So much for the promise of an exciting case. If she understood correctly, Fitz wanted her to track down a girl who’d ghosted him.
No shock there. She’d spent all of forty seconds talking to the man and could already understand the temptation.
Her grip on the pen tightened. Keep it professional. You can use this call as practice for real clients.
“What’s your girlfriend’s age?”
An adult. That was good, but it also made what she was about to say even harder for her potential client to hear.
“It isn’t unheard of for an individual to take off on their own. This happens more often than you might think and for a multitude of reasons. Could you tell me exactly what reason you have to believe she’s been harmed?”
She doodled a little ghost next to Fitz’s number while she waited for him to answer.
After another few seconds slipped by, Fitz cleared his throat. “See, that’s the weird thing. Everyone who knows her,” he blew out a long breath that whistled over the phone’s speaker, “at least, the people I met while she was standing right next to me…are trying to convince me that she never existed at all.”
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