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The morning broke gray and dismal. Cloud cover drifted, creeping among the trees of Wolf's Tooth ravine, overgrown with hundred-year-old cedars and western red hemlock. It was a place Matthew Beauchamp would normally enjoy hiking to, but today was no ordinary day.
A freelance photographer taking photos of the area had stumbled upon the body of a little girl. Now, looking down at the body, Matthew thought he had not come across a more heart-rending scene in his entire law enforcement career. Having grown up in the sleepy town of Lantern Cove, Matthew, as chief of police, was more accustomed to crimes of opportunity: petty theft, vandalism, the usual pot smokers and growers. Nothing like this.
Mud spattered her short-sleeve "Princess" shirt and pink sweatpants; she was missing a shoe. Her small toes had the remnants of pink polish and her flaxen hair was matted with dirt and underbrush. Someone had tossed this child away as if she were garbage.
"Feds are on their way. Should be here anytime," Sgt. Oren Lawrence said, coming to stand next to Matthew. Wiping his ruddy nose with the back of his glove, he sucked back the rest of the snot before continuing, "You thinking what I'm thinking?"
Cold seeping into his bones, Matthew nodded. "It's that Linney girl. Went missing a week ago in San Francisco."
"Far from home."
"Yeah," Matthew said grimly. "But only someone who's familiar with this area would've known about Wolf's Tooth. It's not like this place is popular with tourists. It's hard to get to and you risk a broken ankle coming down that ridge." He shook his head.
"How about the shutterbug who found her?" Oren speculated but Matthew shook his head.
"At this point he seems clean. Looked ready to puke. I don't blame him. Coming across a body like this might make any normal person lose his lunch. But I've got Dinky looking into his alibi."
The sound of cars pulling off the shoulder above them drew their attention and Oren grimaced. "Feds." Then he clapped Matthew on the shoulder before returning to the team who were canvassing the area. "Remember to play nice," he said.
Matthew looked up as two agents appeared over the ridge, a man and a woman, and he waved them down.
At first there was nothing extraordinary about the two. They had the look of federal agents, complete with austere coats, serious expressions and an air of arrogance that seemed to come with being affiliated with a government agency. But as they traversed the dangerous, uneven terrain, and walked toward him, Matthew sucked in a sharp breath as recognition hit him in a flash, knocking the wind out of him. He hadn't seen her in almost ten years but he'd recognize that face anywhere.
She had been the fiancée of his best friend—they had all grown up together. Now she was a special agent for the FBI. Kara was the last person he expected to see walking back into his life, if even only professionally.
Time had treated her well enough, although she'd lost the softness of youth. Her cinnamon hair was scraped back in a no-nonsense ponytail at the base of her neck, and she wore neither earrings nor makeup. Her cheeks glowed from the salty sea air and clear, marble-green eyes stared back at him. A stunning young woman had blossomed into a striking adult, not that Matthew was surprised. Good looks had never been her problem.
"Matthew." Her voice gave away nothing of what she may have been feeling, but there was something behind her eyes that betrayed her for a split second. To her credit, she recovered quickly. He acknowledged her with a stiff nod, feeling awkward as hell at the unexpected reunion. She'd never show it, but he suspected she was just as uncomfortable, and he wasn't surprised when she didn't waste time chewing the fat over old times. That was just fine by him. The less time they had to spend in each other's company the better. "This is my partner Dillon McIntyre. We're part of the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team—CARD for short—assigned to the Babysitter cases," she explained as she handed Matthew a business card as a matter of protocol.
"A pleasure," her partner, Dillon, said, his clipped tone accentuated by the subtle British accent that only made his pretty-boy good looks all the more suspect in Matthew's opinion. "It's like tromping around in a meat locker around here. Worse than San Francisco with its infernal fog," he commented darkly. He pulled the lapels of his black wool topcoat a little closer around his neck before muttering, "I'm going to freeze my bollocks off in this place. If I'd enjoyed this kind of weather I'd have stayed in England."
Kara spared her partner a look that said shut it, and he stalked off to talk with the officers canvassing the area.
"I apologize for my partner. He's a little on edge," she said. Then added, "He quit smoking a few days ago and he feels it's only fair that everyone around him is suffering as much as he is."
Matthew offered a curt nod. He couldn't really care less about her partner. He was too busy wondering why, of all the agents in the bureau, it had to be her assigned to this case. He'd rather eat nails than sit and play nice with Kara. It wasn't as if she'd left on the best of terms. But even as anger banked over the years started to flare bright again, he knew now was not the time for what he wanted to say to her. Snuffing his feelings until he could talk without snarling, he focused on the case. "What do you mean by Babysitter cases? Are you saying there's been more than one abduction?"
Kara paused, then answered with caution. "It's possible there have been other cases connected to this one. Has anyone else been down here since you made the call to the bureau?"
"No. Just my team of investigators."
"Good. Hold on, guys. I want to take a look," she said, gesturing to the officers who were preparing the body bag. Matthew was seemingly forgotten for the moment.
Oh, hell no. He didn't like being dismissed. Not by her, not by anyone. Matthew quickly followed. "What are you looking for?" he asked, noting the way her stare slowly perused the body, missing nothing and stopping for long moments on the garish ligature marks marring the child's bone-white skin at her neck and wrists.
She didn't answer right away. Instead, she met her partner's stare and said in a grim tone, "Call the CARD Team. Let them know we found the Linney girl. And then call the task force. We need them here ASAP." She rose. To Matthew she said, "Thanks for making the call. The bureau appreciates your diligence."
He didn't need a pat on the head. "Thanks aren't necessary. Just doing my job."
"You have our appreciation, just the same." Kara flashed a brief smile, devoid of anything aside from professional courtesy and Matthew had to suppress a shiver that didn't come from the weather. Then, for a moment, he could have sworn he'd seen disappointment cross her features when she said with a sigh, "We were hoping for a different outcome this time." But it was gone in a heartbeat when she spoke again. "This is a sensitive case. High profile. The press is all over it. It won't be long before they catch wind that another body has been found. You might want to brief your Public Information Officer on what is acceptable to release and what is not—which is just about everything. My partner will go over the protocol with you, if you're unsure."
"That won't be necessary," Matthew said, annoyed at what he perceived was implied incompetence on their part. "We know how to play with the press."
"This isn't a game." She looked at him sharply. "I'd prefer if you didn't use analogies that belittle the situation."
"Calm down," he said gruffly. "I'm not belittling anything. I'm just saying we're not idiots and I don't appreciate you coming here and implying that we are just because we're not overpaid government employees."
She stiffened and looked to her partner, who had pulled his North Face beanie down low to cover his ears and flipped the collar of his jacket up to ward off the wind. "I'm heading back to the car. Call in the troops. You com ing?" McIntyre asked, the look in his eyes plainly communicating it was time to stop nettling the locals.
"In a minute," she said.
"Suit yourself," McIntyre replied, and wasted little time in returning to the heat of the car. But Matthew distinctly heard him say something about someone being a stubborn ass and he wondered if he was referring to him or Kara.
Kara turned, her eyes sparking with contained irritation but before she could say whatever was on her mind, Oren walked over.
"Doc wants to know if we can move her yet," Oren said, giving Kara a short acknowledgment. "Kara. Been a long time."
Kara nodded. "Good to see you, Oren," she said quietly.
"Go ahead and wrap things up," Matthew said to Oren without waiting for Kara's permission. The older man said little and went to convey Matthew's instructions.
Under most circumstances, he didn't mind working with other agencies, feds included, but the idea of working under Kara—well, it just rubbed him the wrong way. And the fact that he knew he shouldn't let private matters intrude on a case only frustrated him more. Needing to put some space between them so he could clear his head, he started to walk away, but she grabbed him by the arm, her grip strong and unyielding.
"We need to get something straight, right now," she said, low and firm. "We have to work together even if neither of us like the idea. There is something bigger than our problem with each other at stake here. A little girl is dead. And she's not the first child to die. Two boys, Jason Garvin and Drake Nobles, have died in similar circumstances. If we don't find a way to stop this murderer, there will be more dead little girls and boys. Do you hear me? So drop the attitude or I will have you replaced with someone else in your department who isn't handicapped by personal history. Are we clear?"
Matthew slowly pulled his arm free, his gaze hardening on the woman he'd once thought he was falling in love with, and said, "Don't do that again."
"Don't make this more difficult than it already is."
"I'd say it's too late for that, wouldn't you?"
She straightened as if realigning her attitude. "Of course not. I can treat you with professional courtesy. The question is, can you do the same?"
Not to be outdone, Matthew smirked. "I'm just following your lead, Agent Thistle."
Kara smiled thinly. "If that's the case, let's start over," she said, taking a deep breath for emphasis. "I'll want to speak to your medical examiner as soon as he's had a chance to look at the body. We'll be setting up temporary lodging at the Jackson Creek Motel in town but you can call my cell when the M.E. is ready for me to come down."
She started to leave but stopped and turned. "And Matthew, one more thing…I'd appreciate it if you'd keep the private details of my past here in Lantern Cove exactly that. In the past."
She didn't wait for his reply, which was probably a good thing. Matthew wasn't in the mood to agree with anything Kara had to say. And that wasn't professional.
Biting back the hot words dancing on his tongue, he dialed back the response and turned on his heel in the opposite direction, putting his mind back in gear when seeing Kara had made him feel spun out.
They weren't kids anymore. Kara was never the person he'd grown up thinking she was and damn it, no matter what she had to say, when this was all through, Matthew had a few things to say to her. Whether she liked it or not.
"You have a way with the locals," Dillon remarked with his signature wry humor, but Kara didn't find anything amusing about coming face-to-face with Matthew Beau-champ after all these years. It was all she could do to cling to her training. Seeing him had rattled her cage in the worst way. "Care to share what that was all about?" he asked.
He shivered and turned the heater on full blast. "Why not?"
Kara shot him a dark look. "This isn't story hour. I want to stay focused on the case. I got another call from Senator Nobles on my voice mail. How the hell did he know another body was found?"
"Politicians have their fingers in all sorts of pies. No telling where he got the information. Does it matter he knows?"
"Yeah, and he's all over my ass about it."
Dillon shrugged. "He's acting like any father who's lost his son. He just has more clout than most. And considerably more influential friends."
"I know, but he's squeezing pretty hard. My head feels ready to pop."
"That's why they pay you the big bucks."
She refrained from commenting. Pulling onto the main road, she headed for town. She'd known there was a possibility that she'd come into contact with Matthew when she learned they were going to Lantern Cove, but she never would've guessed that it would be ten times harder on her than she imagined it would be. Physically, he was different. Bigger. More muscle. But he still had that silent brooding thing going on that had always intrigued her when they were kids. Whereas Neal had been the joker in their group, Matthew had been the quiet yet guiding force that had kept them from carrying out some of the stupider ideas they'd hatched up as daredevil teens. Those startling blue eyes hadn't lost their brilliance and his thick black hair, although cut shorter than before, was only starting to gray at the temple. Handsome. That's the word other women might use to describe him. It was several moments before she realized Dillon was talking to her. Shaking her head, she apologized. "What were you saying? I zoned out for a minute."
"I noticed. Why don't you just tell me what's going on between you and this local chief. Get it off your chest so you can focus. You know I'm always up for a story, one with plenty of juicy details, so don't skimp on the good stuff."
"Look, blank-faced girl. Don't forget, before I was assigned to this unit I was in interrogation. I know when someone is lying. Even you."
The corner of her mouth tipped up and Dillon's brow lifted in encouragement. She shook her head and said with a shrug, "I grew up here. It's a small town. It's inevitable that I'd run into someone from my childhood. Matthew and I were friends growing up."