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Deputy Clay Starke has come home to Wrangler's Corner for one reason only: to solve his brother's murder. Denied the official resources that will help him unravel the case, Clay is forced to rely on his wits—and on the help of beautiful social worker Sabrina Mayfield. But Sabrina's willingness to assist him soon draws her into the troubles of Clay's past. Now both Clay and Sabrina have targets on their backs, and Clay is at risk of losing not only his...
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Deputy Clay Starke has come home to Wrangler's Corner for one reason only: to solve his brother's murder. Denied the official resources that will help him unravel the case, Clay is forced to rely on his wits—and on the help of beautiful social worker Sabrina Mayfield. But Sabrina's willingness to assist him soon draws her into the troubles of Clay's past. Now both Clay and Sabrina have targets on their backs, and Clay is at risk of losing not only his heart, but also his life. Will finding his brother's killer cost him the woman he has come to love?
Wrangler's Corner: Family comes first
Social worker Sabrina Mayfield pressed the phone to her ear as she pushed away from her desk. "Jordan? What is it?"
"I need your help," he whispered. "I think I'm in trouble."
"What kind of trouble?"
Jordan Zellis, one of her kids who'd been in the system but was trying to make something of himself, would call only if he truly needed help.
"I I need a ride. Will you come get me?"
Sabrina tightened her grip on the phone. "Have you been drinking?"
"No, j-just hanging out with friends. I ah started taking some pictures of you know the trees and birds and stuff and they ah left me here."
He gave her the address. She heard shuffling and a whisper. Then silence. "Jordan?"
Her worry spiked at the new tone in his voice. "What is it?"
"Never mind. I can get home. I'm fine. Don't come here. Just just don't come here, okay?"
"Jordan Zellis, what's going on? You tell me right now." Sabrina hoped the maternal-sounding order would get him to talk.
Silence. Sabrina wondered if she'd pushed too hard. Then she heard him suck in a deep breath. "Oh, boy. I think I may be in some deep trouble. I just now found something. I didn't know " His voice shook.
"Found what, Jordan?"
An audible gulp. "I think I might know who killed Steven Starke."
Her throat tightened. Steven Starke, her friend and book buddy. And a Wrangler's Corner deputy who'd been found dead almost four weeks ago. "What? Who? Who killed him?"
"Don't come here," Jordan whispered. "It's dangerous."
"Which is why you shouldn't be there. Get out now."
"I can't leave. I've got to get— Uh-oh—"
But he was gone, the line disconnected.
Sabrina punched in the number for the police department and raced to her car, calling over her shoulder to her boss that she'd be back soon. "Jordan's in trouble. I'm going to find out what's going on."
Rachel came to her door. "You be careful."
Sabrina waved and pushed through the glass doors, her heart pounding. She gave the information to Tara, the dispatcher, who promised she'd have someone on the way. "Sabrina, don't do anything stupid."
"When have I ever done anything stupid?"
Tara paused. "Well, true, I can't think of anything, but there's always a first time."
Sabrina silently agreed. She knew she'd beat the police there. She was only a little over two miles from the address Jordan had given her, but he'd sounded so scared on the phone. He needed her.
Within minutes, she pulled into the gravel drive and stopped to stare at the rusted, dilapidated trailer.
Mondays never brought anything good, and today didn't look as if it was going to be the exception.
She couldn't help wondering if she went in, would she come out in one piece.
Wrangler's Corner, Tennessee, population 1,037, had its share of beauty—and problems, depending on which side of the mountain one lived on. The most prevalent issues in the small town were unemployment and abject poverty.
Dark blankets covered the windows on the inside of the trailer, and trash littered the outside. Someone had strung a sad little strand of Christmas lights around the door of the trailer as though to attempt to offer a small ray of hope.
It didn't work.
Swallowing her nerves, Sabrina opened the car door, stepped out and tugged her fleece pullover down around her hips. She ignored the late-November wind that whipped her hair across her eyes and sent a chill up her spine.
She approached the ragged wood meant to pass as the front porch. At the bottom of the steps, she assessed it. Would it hold her? She placed one foot on the first step, then the second. It trembled but held.
She reached the top and banged on the door. "Jordan? Are you in there?" Nothing but the sound of the dog barking next door. "Come on, Jordan, you called me!"
The teen had been on her radar for a while. She'd done everything she could to help the kid, even trying to foster his interest in photography and meeting him at the office to tutor him after school. It seemed as if he'd been trying so hard lately, going to school and not causing any trouble. Until now.
Although she had to admit, he'd sounded truly scared on the phone. She banged on the door again. "Jordan!"
A thump sounded from inside. She jerked and stepped back. What was she doing? She shivered. He'd warned her not to come, that it was dangerous. When she'd put the address in her GPS and realized where she was going, she'd almost backed out and let the police handle it.
But Jordan had sounded so scared. And Steven had been her friend. If there was a chance she could find out who killed him, she wasn't going to pass it up.
However, getting killed wouldn't help anyone. She didn't normally worry about that, but in her line of work, she never kidded herself that it couldn't happen. People got real testy when you took their kids away from them. And sometimes she had to go into areas it was best she didn't go.
At least not without backup.
She glanced back at her car, then at her watch. Where was the officer? Scanning the area, she spotted a neighbor directly across from her. The woman caught her eye, then stepped back to close the door.
People around here minded their own business. It was safer that way.
She took another step up and held on to the rickety railing. Her nose twitched. The smell of ammonia hung in the air. A hose ran the length of the trailer to disappear into a cracked window.
She knocked again. "Jordan? Come on."
A clanging sounded to her left. She jerked and turned, slow and easy. Had one of the neighbors dropped something? Kicked a metal can?
Nothing. No, wait . A shadow? Was someone around the corner of the trailer?
Her gaze flitted from one trailer to the next, looking for any sign of life. Deserted was the word that came to mind. Or everyone was in hiding.
A bad feeling gathered in her midsection, and her pulse picked up speed as her adrenaline surged.
She glanced back toward the end of the trailer where she thought she'd seen the shadow. Was someone watching her?
Ever since Steven had been murdered four weeks ago, she'd felt watched. Spied on. And right now she definitely didn't feel safe. She glanced back at her car, then swiveled to look at the trailer. But what if Jordan was in there and he needed her? What if he was hurt?
She called the Wrangler's Corner dispatch. Tara answered. "I'm at the Prescott trailer. Where's my backup, Tara?"
"He's on the way. Should be pulling in any minute."
"Tell him I'll be waiting in my car."
She hung up.
A low wail from inside the trailer reached her ears. She gasped. A baby crying? Or at least a young child. Or was it some sort of animal?
Oh, Lord, please tell me what to do.
She lifted her chin. Only one thing to do when no one answered the door and she thought a kid might need help.
She twisted the knob and felt her heart sink.
The door was locked.
She'd spun to head back to her car to find out where her backup was when a loud crack sounded, followed by a thud near her left ear.
Sabrina froze for a split second. Had someone just shot at her?
Sheriff's deputy Clay Starke wheeled to a stop in front of the beat-up trailer. He heard the sharp crack and saw the side of the trailer spit metal.
The woman on the porch careened down the steps and bolted toward him. Terror radiated from her, spiking his adrenaline. He shoved open the door to the passenger side. "Get in!"
Breathless, she landed in the passenger seat and slammed the door. Eyes wide, pupils dark black holes in the blue surrounding them, she lifted shaking hands to push her blond hair out of her eyes.
Clay got on his radio and reported shots fired at the Prescott trailer.
He glanced through the back of the squad car. If someone was shooting, they needed to be somewhere else. He cranked the car and started to back out of the drive.
She grabbed his arm. "No! We can't leave!"
"What?" He stepped on the brakes. "Lady, if someone's shooting, I'm getting you out of here."
She whirled to look out the back, then whipped around to stare at the trailer. "But I think Jordan's in there and I can't leave without him."
"A boy I work with. He called me for help. He sounded scared. I'm worried he might be hurt."
Clay put the car back in Park. "Then stay down and let me check it out."
She grabbed his arm. "But if you get out, he might shoot you."
That would definitely ruin his day, but if a kid was in trouble.
He waited. No more shots. "Stay put. I think he might be gone."
"Or waiting for one of us to get out of the car." True. He could feel her gaze on him, studying him, dissecting him. He frowned. "What is it?"
He shot a glance behind them, then let his eyes rove the area until he'd gone in a full circle and was once again looking into her pretty face. "What about me?"
Red crept into her cheeks. "You look so much like Steven. Are you his brother?"
He stilled, focusing in on her. "I'm Clay Starke. You knew my brother?"
"Clay? I'm Sabrina Mayfield. Steven and I were good friends. He talked about you so often, I feel like I know you well."
Sabrina Mayfield. Wow. "We'll have to catch up later. Can you give me details about what's going on here?"
"One of my clients called me. He doesn't actually live here, but this is where he asked me to meet him." She met his gaze. "I don't know what he's doing here, but he said he thought he knew who killed Steven and he needed me to come get him."
Shock raced through Clay. Finally. After weeks with nothing, this could be the break he'd been looking for. "Then I want to know what he knows."
"Well, we have to find him first." She paused and looked out the window. "Without getting shot, preferably."
Clay checked in with backup. "What's your ETA?"
Clay stiffened. "Why so long? I've got a possible shooter here!"
"Car wreck on I-40. Fatalities involved. All units responded. Now I've got two heading your way as fast as they can. More coming ASAP. Sit tight and don't take any unnecessary risks."
Right. He'd heard the car-wreck call but hadn't thought about it, since he'd already had his assignment.
And there hadn't been any reports of shots when he'd gotten it. Great. He had a possible shooter and was on his own with a woman and a possible kid to protect.
"I didn't realize you were back," Sabrina said. Her voice quivered and she clasped her hands together in front of her. "Steven said you were really busy in Nashville. That you'd just passed your detective's exam." She seemed to want to talk about anything but what had happened. What might still be happening.
Her way of coping, probably.
"Yes." He forced the word from his tight throat as guilt ate at him. He should have come home when Steven called him. But he hadn't, and his brother had died. Now Clay was home to find out who'd killed him. His first week back in Wrangler's Corner he'd attended his brother's funeral. The second week had consisted of the sheriff, Ned Anderson, convincing him he needed to take the now-open deputy position. The past two weeks had been spent getting into a routine. And while his main goal was to find his brother's murderer, he'd also had to deal with ongoing family stuff.
Clay swallowed hard and pushed Steven out of his mind. For now. He craned his neck and looked through the windows, behind, in front. "No sign of the shooter."
"No one's answering the door. I think I heard a child crying." She gripped the door handle.
"Any shots from inside the trailer?"
"No, but I'm afraid for Jordan. He didn't answer the door when I knocked, but I heard something. It was a child. I'm almost sure of it."
He climbed out of the car. The trailer door opened just as he took a step. A young boy peered out. When he saw Clay, his eyes widened and he slammed the door.
The passenger door opened, and the social worker darted toward the trailer.
"Sorry," she yelled over her shoulder. "That's Tony, Jordan's little brother." Before he could stop her, she was back up the steps and banging on the door.
Clay followed, expecting to hear the bark of a rifle and feel the bite of a bullet.
He leaned around her and tried the door. "Locked."
"Tony! Open the door, hon!"
He was close enough to get a whiff of a tangy orange scent that almost covered the ammonia smell. Subtle and spicy. He was also close enough to see the bullet hole in the trailer next to her head.
He made sure he had her covered but squirmed as the middle of his back tingled. A perfect target for a shooter.
A wailing cry split the air. Clay lifted a brow. "Okay, that's it." He moved around Sabrina, leaned his shoulder against the flimsy door and shoved. Hard.
With a pop, the door swung in. Clay stepped inside and came to a stop. In the space of about half a second, he noticed two things. The stench that turned his stomach—and two pairs of bright blue eyes that met his. Two children stood at the entrance to the hallway, looking as if they were ready to bolt.
The little girl wrapped her arms around her big brother and buried her face in his stomach, but not before Clay saw the tears on her cheeks, heard her trying to stifle her sobs.
The big brother settled his hands on her shoulders and glared back at Clay, defiance and fear mingling.
Sabrina stepped around him. "Tony? Maria? What are you guys doing here?" Her voice was soft and low. Clay decided if he was a kid, he would have trusted her instantly.
"He left," Tony said.
"Why would he leave you here?"
The boy shrugged, trying to be brave and failing miserably. "He looked out the window and said for us to sneak away as soon as he was out of sight. He said to be careful 'cause there was a bad man outside. He said he'd make sure the bad man followed him while we got away and hid in the woods. Then he'd come back and take us home."
"Bad man?" Clay asked.
"I saw you when I opened the door. I thought you might be the bad man."
"He's a deputy, hon," Sabrina said. "Didn't you see his uniform?"
Tony's lower lip trembled, but he managed a manly shrug. "I don't know. But we weren't scared or nothin'."
Sabrina moved forward to gather the little girl in her arms and whisper in her ear.
While Sabrina talked to the children, Clay took in the surroundings. Everything around him shouted meth lab. The smell, the hose through the window, the Pyrex bowls on the stove, the blankets and plastic on the windows. He turned and spoke into his radio. "Got a possible meth lab here. We're going to need someone to clean it up."
He wondered who the sheriff would call. Federal law mandated only DEA-certified individuals could dismantle a meth lab. Clay seriously doubted there was anyone qualified in Wrangler's Corner.
He checked the window again. So Jordan had seen a "bad man" and left to draw him away from the trailer so the little ones could sneak out.