When missing turns to murdered, one woman's search for answers will take her to a place she never wanted to go…
After searching for her sister for two long years, Kate Gallagher is devastated when she’s called to the morgue to identify Chrissy’s body, the runaway teen the victim of a brutal attack. Guilt and grief send Kate into a tailspin. She failed Chrissy once…she won’t do it again. Even if finding her sister’s killer means following a lethal bounty hunter into the heart of darkness, placing both their lives in danger.
Working at Maximum Security has taken Jason Maddox down some dangerous paths, but never for a client he’s so drawn to, or for a case so monstrous. As clues lead them deeper into the city’s underbelly, connections to human trafficking draw them closer and closer to peril, but even Jase’s warnings can’t convince Kate to walk away. As the deadly operation puts a target on their backs, they’ll have to decide what matters most: the truth…or their lives.
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"I'm sorry, Ms. Gallagher. I know this is terribly difficult, but unless there's someone else who can make a positive identification —"
Kate shook her head. "No. There's no one else."
"All right then, if you will please follow me." The medical examiner, Dr. Jerome Maxwell, a man in his fifties, had thick black hair finely threaded with gray. He started down the hall, but Kate stopped him with a hand on his arm.
"Are you ... are you completely sure it's my sister?" She smoothed a hand nervously over the skirt of her navy blue suit. "The victim is definitely Christina Gallagher?"
"There was a fingerprint match to your missing sister. I'm sorry," he repeated. "We'll still need your confirmation."
Kate's stomach rolled. Her legs felt weak as she followed Dr. Maxwell down a narrow, seemingly endless hallway in the Dallas County morgue. The echo of her high heels on the stark gray linoleum floor sent a sweep of nausea through her.
The doctor paused outside a half-glass door. "As I said before, this is going to be difficult. Are you sure there isn't someone you can call, someone else who could make the identification?"
Kate's throat tightened. "My father's remarried and living in New York. He hasn't seen Chrissy in years." Frank Gallagher hadn't seen either of his daughters since he and his wife had divorced.
"And your mother?" the doctor asked kindly.
"She died of a heart attack a year after Chrissy ran away." For Madeleine Gallagher, losing both her husband and her daughter had simply been too much.
The doctor straightened his square black glasses. "Are you ready?" "I'll never be ready to see my sister's murdered body, Dr. Maxwell. But I'm all Chrissy has, so let's get it over with."
The doctor opened the door, and they walked out of a hallway that seemed overly warm into a room that was icy cold. A shiver rushed over Kate's skin, and her heart beat faster. As Dr. Maxwell moved toward a rollout table in front of a wall of cold-storage boxes, Kate could see the outline of a body beneath the stark white sheet.
Emotion tightened her chest. This was her baby sister, only sixteen the last time Kate had seen her two years ago, before she had run away.
The doctor nodded to a female assistant in a white lab coat standing next to the table, and the woman pulled back the sheet.
"Oh, my God." The bile rose in Kate's throat. She swayed, and the doctor caught her arm to steady her.
"Is this your sister, Christina Gallagher?"
The body on the table in no way resembled the beautiful young girl who had been her little sister. At only eighteen, this young woman was gaunt, her cheeks hollow, her skin chaffed and sallow and clinging to her bones. Her closed eyes were dark and sunken. Bruises covered her face, shoulders and chest, all Kate could see of the body.
Tears welled and slipped down her cheeks. "It's her." It wasn't Chrissy in any way Kate remembered her, and yet there was no doubt she was the thin, brutalized, lifeless form lying on the stainless-steel table.
The doctor nodded at the assistant, who drew the sheet back over Chrissy's face. Dr. Maxwell kept a firm grip on Kate's arm as he turned her toward the door and guided her out of the room, back into the hallway. Her legs were shaking, her throat too tight to speak.
"I'm sorry for your loss," the doctor said, finally letting her go.
"Thank ... thank you."
"We have your contact information. You'll be notified when the body has been released."
She swallowed, wiped at the tears on her cheeks. "Do you ... do the police have any leads on the killer?"
"I'm sure they're working hard to find whoever was involved."
Kate nodded. Without saying more, she started back down the hallway. The doctor didn't follow and she was glad. There was nothing left to say, nothing more he could do.
Tears blurred her vision and her head swam as she walked out into the sunlight and crossed the parking lot to her car. She wouldn't be returning to her office today. She needed time to deal with her crushing emotions, the sense of loss and pain. The terrible sense of failure.
She needed time to grieve.
Kate slid in behind the wheel and shoved her key into the ignition. Fresh pain struck so hard she couldn't breathe. Instead of starting the engine, Kate put her head down on the steering wheel and started to weep.CHAPTER 2
Jason Hawkins Maddox sat at the old-fashioned long bar in the Sagebrush Saloon, a country-western hangout with a live band for dancing on the weekends and a jukebox that served the same purpose the rest of the week. The place, out I-30 on Bruckner Boulevard, was a spot Jase had been to before but not for a couple of years.
He was there tonight on business, meeting an informant he hoped would give him a lead on the fugitive he was hunting.
Randall Darren Harding, a cement contractor, had been arrested for the brutal murder of his ex-girlfriend. He'd been out on bail when he'd decided to flee instead of standing trial, where most likely he would have been convicted.
On the outskirts of Dallas, he'd had a firefight with police, shot two sheriff's deputies and escaped. The guy was tough. He wouldn't go down easy.
From what Jase could find out, Harding was a rotten, self-centered, mean-tempered bastard, the kind who could wind up killing again. He'd strangled his girlfriend in a fit of rage, but a fancy lawyer had gotten him out on bail.
Jase had a warrant for Harding's arrest — rearrest, technically, since the guy had already been charged with murder-one, the premeditated kind that could earn you the death penalty in Texas.
The reward for catching him was a fat 15 percent of his million-and-a-half-dollar bond. Jase planned to collect.
Thus his meeting with Tommy Dieter at the Sagebrush Saloon.
It was relatively early, a little after 9:00 p.m., but the place was already more than half full. A big dance floor dominated the interior, surrounded by a sea of wooden tables. Being Wednesday, there was no band, but the juke was belting Willie Nelson so a few couples two-stepped out on the floor.
It was a decent place, not one of the rat holes he occasionally frequented for information, the crowd a mix of cowboys and bikers, couples of various ages, and a smattering of tourists, there to try some real Texas line dancing.
From the mirror in the carved oak back bar across from him, Jase could keep an eye on the front door and watch for Tommy's arrival. Between a row of liquor bottles, he could see himself on a bar stool next to a little guy in a blue Texas Rangers baseball cap. The little guy made Jase look even bigger than his six-foot-four-inch, 210-pound frame, a size that in his job often came in handy.
So far Tommy hadn't shown, but he wasn't due for another few minutes. In the meantime, Jase was enjoying the local scenery, his attention fixed on the tall blonde with the pretty face, sexy curves and amazing cleavage, but then half the guys in the bar were watching her.
In a short denim skirt, a pair of cowboy boots and a bright pink tank top, she had danced to five songs in a row. Jase figured as long as her stamina held out, she wouldn't lack for partners. If he weren't there on business, he might have asked her for a turn around the floor himself.
The blonde finished the dance and sat back down on a bar stool a ways down from him. He noticed she was drinking tequila shooters. Looked like someone was going to get lucky tonight. Hearing the throaty purr of her laughter, he felt a tug in his groin and couldn't help wishing it was him.
The front door swung open and Tommy Dieter walked in. Jase tossed money for the Lone Star he'd been drinking on top the bar. Time to go to work.
Tommy spotted him and walked over to the bar. "Hey, Hawk." It was a nickname Jase had picked up thanks to his middle name. They called him the Hawk because he swooped down on his prey and always got his man. Or so the story went.
"Tommy." He was a slender guy in his early twenties with carrot-red hair, not a bad sort, but he hung with a bad crowd, which gave him access to a lot of dirt, and he was hungry enough to deal the info for money.
Jase nodded toward an empty table at the back of the bar, and the two of them made their way past a pool table where a couple of cowboys clacked balls across a sea of green.
Tommy and Jase both pulled out chairs and sat down at the battered wooden table. Jase didn't ask Tommy if he wanted a beer. It wasn't healthy for an informant to spend too much time with a guy who hunted people for a living.
"You got something on Harding for me?" Jase asked.
"Yeah. Randy has a girlfriend in Houston," Tommy said. "Mexican girl. No papers. She keeps him happy. He pays her rent."
"What's her name?"
"Rosa Diaz. She's got a brother in town. A mechanic named Paulo."
"You think Randy's still in Houston? I figured he'd leave the state, head for Arizona, maybe, or New Mexico."
"Word is he's got the serious hots for Rosa. According to Randy, she's a great piece of ass."
The words sent Jase's gaze back to the blonde who had returned to the dance floor with a lanky biker too short for her, too skinny and a few years too young.
She wasn't meant for the boy biker, but she was just Jase's type, luscious, with legs that went on forever. And, as she slid her arms around the boy biker's neck and he pulled her close, clearly uninhibited. It didn't take much to imagine the way she'd feel moving beneath him.
Jase ignored a surge of heat and forced his mind back to business. "If Randy's that close, you'd think the cops would already have him in custody."
"I don't think the cops know anything about the girl."
Probably not. They had their hands full without having to arrest the same guy twice.
Jase reached into the pocket of his black T-shirt, plucked out a folded-up hundred-dollar bill and slid it across the table to Dieter. "Let me know if you come up with anything else."
Tommy snagged the hundred. "Good luck," he said. "I hope you nail this prick. What he did to that girl ... fucker deserves to fry."
Jase made no comment since he completely agreed. One of the perks of the job was bringing dicks like Harding to justice.
As Tommy walked away, Jase noticed his seat at the bar was still empty. Since he wasn't ready to leave, he picked up his beer and headed back the way he'd come.
He watched the blonde as he passed the dance floor. He'd been watching her all evening. The good news was, she'd been watching him, too.
When the song came to an end, she left the boy biker and walked toward him, stopped right in front of his bar stool, the heels on her boots pushing her closer to his height.
She smiled. "You like to dance, cowboy?"
"On what? The song?"
"Who I'm dancing with."
A dark blond eyebrow went up. "Is that right ..."
"That's right, darlin', and you'll do just fine." Without waiting for a reply, Jase swept her onto the dance floor. She felt good in his arms, fit him just right. She was a good dancer, but so was he. He was a Texan. He'd done all the usual things a Texas boy did. Played football, drank beer down on the river, rode horses and two-stepped.
"What's your name?" he asked as he whirled her around the floor.
"Kate." She smiled. "You're Hawk."
So she'd heard Tommy greet him. "I prefer Jason or Jase."
Her smile widened into a grin that etched a dimple into her cheek, and he felt jolt of heat. He realized she was on her way to drunk, but so far, he didn't think she'd crossed the line.
"I like Hawk," she said. "It's sexy."
"You think so?" As the song came to an end, he drew her off the dance floor into the shadows, took a chance she wouldn't slap his face and kissed her.
She softened against him and kissed him back, and he took it a little deeper, felt the rush hit his system. Since they were standing in a bar full of people, he didn't let it go too far.
Kate ran a finger along his jaw. "You looked like you'd be a good kisser and you are," she said.
"We can go outside and I'll show you just how good I can be, but it's gotta be up to you."
Something flickered in her big brown eyes, and for an instant her bright smile faded. "I need that. Just this once, just for tonight." Her grin returned. "Come on, cowboy, let's go."
She left him long enough to grab her purse off the bar. When she led him outside, he didn't resist, just followed her out the door and pulled her back into his arms. She tasted better than good and he deepened the kiss, sinking into those plump pink lips, inhaling her soft perfume.
Kate was right there with him, taking the hot kiss deeper, pressing her full breasts into his chest, turning him rock hard and making him reckless.
"My house or yours?" he asked. He wasn't into one-night hookups, not usually, but this woman hit every hot button he had.
For the first time, Kate looked uncertain. "I might want you, big boy, but I'm not dumb enough to leave with a total stranger."
He leaned down and kissed her. "Smart girl." Pulling the keys to his big black Yukon out of the pocket of his jeans, he clicked the locks, flashing the lights, and gave her the keys. "So you know I'm not going to drag you off somewhere."
She looked down at the keys, then over at the SUV parked in the dark at the edge of the lot. In his job, it paid to be careful. Kate slid her arms around his neck and kissed him again, hot, wet and deep, and the last of her reservations seemed to fade.
"I need this," she softly repeated, speaking more to herself than to him. Grabbing his hand, she pulled him over to the SUV. Jase jerked open the backseat door, climbed inside and hauled Kate in behind him.
He lifted her, settled her astride his lap, one of her knees on each side, making her short skirt ride up on her thighs. He tried not to wonder what she was wearing underneath, which, with any luck, he was about to find out.
Sliding his hands into her long, thick, honey blond curls, Jase kissed her until both of them were breathless, until she was squirming against his hardon and moaning.
She shoved up his T-shirt, and he stripped it off over his head. He pulled off her tank top, unfastened the front hook on her lacy white bra and slid it off her shoulders, filled his hands with her luscious breasts.
"Beautiful," he said, admiring the soft globes that perfectly fit his big hands. He kissed the side of her neck, and Kate tipped her head back to give him better access. He trailed kisses over her shoulder and took a rosy nipple into his mouth. Breathing hard, Kate ran her hands over the muscles in his chest.
"I love your body," she said, leaning down to kiss him. "Please ... Jason."
"I'm all yours, baby." He was reaching between them to unzip his fly when he heard a young couple walking toward the SUV. The girl was laughing, a soft, sweet sound more like a teenager than someone old enough to be drinking.
Kate's whole body went tense.
"Easy," he said, pressing his mouth against the pulse beating in her neck, kissing his way down to her shoulder. "They'll be gone in a minute."
Kate dragged in a shaky breath. A noise came from her throat that sounded something like pain.
"It's all right," he said. "They're just kids. They aren't going to bother us." But she was already moving off him, reaching for her bra and sliding it on, hooking the front, grabbing her tank top and pulling it over her head.
"I'm ... I'm really sorry," she said as she slid off his lap. "I'm not like this. I don't do this kind of thing."
"You're a grown woman, Kate. You can do whatever you want." He wanted to be mad. Nothing worse than a tease, but the pain in her eyes leashed his temper.
She cupped his cheek, and when she looked at him, he realized there were tears in her eyes. "Something bad happened today. My sister was killed. I couldn't ... I can't get the image of her dead body out of my head."
"I just ... I just wanted to forget for a while."
Jase pulled her back into his arms and she let him, her body softening against his. She started crying and he tightened his hold. He knew a lot about death. He'd been a marine. Now he was in law enforcement. He knew a lot about grief.
"It's all right," he said. "It just takes time."
"I'm sorry." Her hand shook as she wiped tears from her cheeks. "I made a fool out of myself tonight."
"I don't think you're a fool, Kate. And everybody does things they regret once in a while."
She drew away from him, opened the door and climbed out of the SUV. Jase grabbed his T-shirt and pulled it on, followed her out and she handed him back his keys. He was still hard as a brick, aching with every heartbeat. He couldn't remember wanting a woman so badly.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Deception"
Copyright © 2019 Kat Martin.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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