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By Debra Webb
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Chapter OneVictoria Colby watched the early morning commuters on the busy street beyond the parking lot four stories below. Deep inside, where she harbored her most secret thoughts and feelings, she knew something was very wrong. This September morning would bring bad news. She could feel it in her bones.
Drawing in a deep breath, she considered that she had worked hard since her husband's death to make the Colby Agency the best in the business. She employed only the very finest in the fields of research and investigation. She knew better than most that no amount of planning or strategy could ward off the unexpected twists and turns life took.
A soft knock on her office door pulled Victoria's attention back to the present. She stiffened her spine and turned to greet the attorney she had summoned so early this morning.
Zach Ashton entered the office, his expression nothing short of grim. "Is Hayden here yet?"
"Not yet." Victoria gestured to one of the wing back chairs flanking her desk as she settled into her own. She braced herself for Zach's report. "Have you been able to reach Alex?"
He shook his head slowly from side to side. "I've called at least a dozen times in the past two hours with no luck." He looked away briefly, and Victoria knew that he was having difficulty considering the possibilities of why Alex had not called in. "I couldn't reach the Bukovak girl either."
An uncharacteristic feeling ofhelplessness welled in Victoria's chest. The sensation was not completely foreign to her; she had known it well during the long months immediately following her husband's death. And she'd known it another time that she refused to consider even after all these years. Doggedly pushing it aside, she leveled a determined gaze on her trusted attorney. "We'll have some answers when Sheriff Hayden arrives."
Zach stared at the floor for a long moment. Victoria knew that he was assessing the situation and reaching the same conclusions she had. And the bottom line was not good, but neither of them was willing to admit that fact just yet.
Alexandra Preston had worked at the Colby Agency almost as long as Zach. She was very good at her job. Trained at Quantico as a special agent for the FBI, Alex was nobody's fool. She was attractive, smart, and tough. But now she was missing in action. They'd had no contact with her in forty-eight hours. No one stayed out of touch that long unless they were stranded without communications, severely injured ... or worse.
Victoria wished she could have saved Zach from this gut-wrenching wait, but he knew Alex better than anyone else in the agency. Victoria needed his input. Usually she avoided teaming two people who had been involved on a personal level, but whatever had been between Zach and Alex was over long ago. Both appeared to have moved on, but they remained close friends. And right now Alex needed Zach on her team, just as Victoria needed his expertise in the upcoming meeting.
Zach lifted a worried gaze to meet Victoria's. "We could be looking at a very bad situation here. Maybe there's someone else you'd rather have making assessments. I'm not sure I can be objective. If this is bad news ..." His words drifted off to be replaced by a too-solemn silence.
Victoria considered her own words for a long moment before she spoke. "We can only hope for the best, but I doubt that the sheriff from Raleigh County, Tennessee, would drop everything and fly up without strong motivation. As to your involvement, I believe you're the best man for the job."
The intercom interrupted whatever Zach intended to say next. "Sheriff Hayden is here," Mildred announced.
"Show him in, please." Victoria stood, as did Zach, to welcome the man who had gotten her up at the crack of dawn to demand a meeting.
Sheriff Mitchell Hayden strode across Victoria's office without hesitating until he stood directly in front of her desk. The first thing that garnered her attention was his too-long hair, which was secured at the back of his neck. The next thing she noted was intense, cool blue eyes.
He extended his hand. "I'm Mitch Hayden, Mrs. Colby. Thank you for seeing me."
His deep, whiskey-smooth voice carried a hint of an unmistakable southern drawl. He was tall, six-one or two, she surmised. And solidly built. Victoria resisted the urge to frown when she considered his faded jeans and khaki shirt. The work boots didn't quite fit the bill either. She couldn't recall meeting a lawman who looked quite like this one.
"Sheriff Hayden," Victoria acknowledged as she gave his hand a brisk shake. "This is Zach Ashton, the agency's attorney."
Already standing, Zach clasped their visitor's hand next. "I hope your flight was pleasant, Sheriff."
"It was fine," he said curtly, then turned his attention back to Victoria. "I have several questions that need answers."
"Make yourself comfortable, Sheriff." She indicated the chair adjacent to Zach's as she resumed her own. "Why don't you tell me what brings you to Chicago this morning."
The sheriff's posture didn't relax as he sank into the seat she'd offered. He was intent, poised for whatever came his way. "Why does your agency have an investigator nosing around in my county?" he asked bluntly.
"If you mean Alex Preston, you're right, she is one of my investigators," Victoria acknowledged. "However, you must be aware that the information regarding the case she is working is private, Sheriff. Was there anything else you wanted to know?"
Only the slightest tightening of his jaw gave away Mitch Hayden's irritation. Victoria was impressed. The man had traveled a considerable distance to get stonewalled in the first two minutes.
"Don't jerk me around, Mrs. Colby," he warned. "I've been up all night and I've come a long way. I need some answers."
"Are you here because Alex is in some sort of trouble?" Zach asked pointedly, his courtroom demeanor going a long way to hide his anxiety.
An unbearable silence hung for two long beats. "I think you already know the answer to that question," the sheriff replied quietly. Too quietly.
"If something has happened to Alex," Victoria countered firmly, "I demand that you tell us now."
He leveled an unreadable gaze fully onto Victoria's. "One of my deputies is dead, and Alex Preston is in the hospital under protective custody. She's also my prime suspect."
Mitch knew he'd gotten their full attention with that announcement. The attorney looked downright sick to his stomach, but the woman, Victoria Colby, seemed almost relieved, as if she'd feared worse. Maybe now Mitch would get some straight answers.
"What happened?" the attorney, Ashton, wanted to know.
"Is Alex all right?" Mrs. Colby demanded.
"She's fine other than having trouble remembering what happened," Mitch explained with as little detail as possible. "The two were found in Deputy Miller's car early yesterday morning by a group of kids who'd camped nearby. Miller was dead. It looks as if they shot each other. There was cocaine in the vehicle." Mitch paused, allowing them to absorb the ramifications of his words. "If you want to help clear her of a murder charge, I'd suggest that you start talking."
"I can assure you, Sheriff Hayden," Mrs. Colby said, more calmly than he would have expected, "that our investigation has nothing to do with drugs, nor is Alex a drug user."
"You're skirting the issue," Mitch snapped. His impatience was showing he knew, but at this point he didn't really give a damn.
"And you aren't?" she returned.
Excerpted from Physical Evidence by Debra Webb
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.