Keep your friends close—and your enemies closer....
Bar owner Raina Harper can’t say for sure what Duncan Welch is to her. With her small Nevada town under siege by a ruthless casino development and still reeling from a spate of murders, she knows that trusting the public face of the corporate invaders is risky to say the least. Though, damn, it’s one fine-looking face.…
Duncan may be a mercenary when it comes to getting the job done, but he’s no villain. In fact, the calculating fixer soon finds himself in the bad guys’ crosshairs, framed and facing professional ruin. To clear his name, he’ll need help from Raina and her roughneck motorcycle club, the Desert Dogs. Gaining their trust won’t be easy, and the molten sexual tension between Raina and Duncan only makes things more complicated—especially since Miah Church, Raina’s friend and ex-lover, would sooner strangle Duncan than shake his hand.
One thing’s certain, though: If they don’t deal with their incendiary attraction soon, the whole damn town might go up in flames.…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
PRAISE FOR CARA MCKENNA
ALSO BY CARA MCKENNA
Agent Ramon Flores eyed his suspect through the glass.
An average sort of man. Average height, a touch heavy, mouse-brown hair in need of a cut. His clothes were filthy, but that came as no surprise. He was sunburned to boot, scalp flaking where his hair was thinning, and the past weeks he’d spent as a fugitive had aged him—he looked sixty, not the forty-seven Flores knew him to be.
And Flores knew a lot about David Peter Levins. He’d memorized the man’s file in the month since he was assigned to finding the guy. Levins had a wife and two grown sons in Mesquite, and twenty-four years’ experience in construction. He’d been a foreman for a big commercial operation—Virgin River Contracting. And it seemed he’d thrown it all away in a fit of greed.
“He’s ready to spill,” said Dan Jaskowski, Flores’s colleague. “Some of these guys just aren’t built for the fugitive lifestyle.”
“He cracked enough to turn himself in,” Flores said. “No doubt he’s got some interesting shit knocking on the backs of his teeth, just dying to get let out.”
“Like whether he and Tremblay acted alone.”
Flores nodded. “And whether he had anything to do with Tremblay getting offed in the county jail.”
“Whole town’s gonna be curious to hear some answers, once his surrender makes the news,” Jaskowski said.
“I’m curious myself.” Flores grabbed his recorder and his fat file labeled LEVINS, DAVID P. and headed for the door. Let him fold. Let him break, and let Flores get back home to Spring Valley in time for his daughter’s sixth birthday party in two weeks. Combination pony and mermaid theme. Highly anticipated.
Levins was stooped in his hard plastic seat before the metal table, wilted by exhaustion, but he sat up straight at the click of the lock. Flores closed them in together, in this little cube of cinder block intimacy.
“David,” he said, and sat. He switched the recorder on. “I’m Agent Flores. Everybody’s been looking for you, son.” He tacked the diminutive on just to keep the guy on edge. No matter that Levins was eight years his senior. “Me especially. Can’t figure out if I’m disappointed I didn’t catch you myself, or relieved you finally decided to give us all some closure. You ready to talk?”
“Do I get my sentence lessened? Because I turned myself in?”
“That all depends on what comes next,” Flores said. “On how cooperative you decide to be. Because three people are dead. A fine deputy—Alex Dunn—and your accomplice, Chuck Tremblay. And this mysterious body we’ve heard about but not actually been able to get our hands on.”
“Tremblay handled the bones. I got no idea what he did with ’em.”
“How convenient for you. And how about Tremblay’s bones? You got anything to do with his unfortunate end?”
Levins shook his head violently. “No, no way. I was in Texas when I heard. But I know who did it—his creditors.”
“He had gambling debts. Huge ones—a hundred grand, at least. I dunno who with, but some real rough characters. Mob types down in Vegas, if I had to guess.”
Flores hid his surprise. He’d heard nothing about that, though it had a ring of truth to it. Tremblay had been an alcoholic—fifteen years sober, but one self-destructive compulsion often got swapped for another. He made a casual note, one that would prompt an intense investigation and probably ruin somebody’s weekend.
“That’s why he needed my bribes,” Levins continued.
“Bribes in exchange for what?”
“For overlooking some corners I had to cut, with the work.”
“Now, why would you be cutting corners, David?”
“’Cause all the foremen get big bonuses for hitting these crazy deadlines that the Virgin River bosses laid out for us. Shit they promised the casino developers to score the contract in the first place. Only way I could’ve hit those was to cut corners. And I couldn’t cut corners unless I had somebody in the department willing to rush and fudge my permits.”
“Why’d you approach Tremblay? Seems awful ambitious, going straight to the sheriff of Brush County.”
“I didn’t—Tremblay approached me. I was sweating over this blasting permit I needed, like, yesterday. They sent Dunn over, but no way was he signing anything without going through every goddamn check box. So I went straight to Tremblay. I was desperate, and I kind of knew him from other issues with the construction. I knew he was really pro-casino, and thought maybe he’d respect my worries about the deadlines. He told me, if he helped me out, would I maybe help him out? Slip him a percentage of my bonus? As a ‘show of appreciation,’ I think he called it.”
“And you said yes.”
Levins nodded, looking . . . sad. “I did. I had to.”
The man shrugged. “Looking back, it sounds so trivial . . . But I got two kids, one in college and one about to start. My wife’s out of work. I needed the money. It was harmless shortcuts I was trying to take, just red-tape, bureaucratic shit. Nothing that would hurt anybody.”
“But now it has—Dunn, for one. Your old partner in crime, the sheriff. And who else, David? Whose bones did that migrant worker find on your site?”
“I dunno. I really don’t. Just a heap of charred shit, in a shallow grave. Some drug runner, Tremblay figured.”
“So you covered it up?”
“Yeah. We did. The way we saw it, if we obeyed the law, then construction gets halted. We lose our slice of the bonuses, hundred men lose a few weeks’ pay while guys like you investigate it. We find out in the end it was just some shit-bag narcotics mule, probably some illegal—”
Flores raised his eyebrows at that, and Levins blanched.
“Some undocumented migrant,” he said, backtracking. “Some criminal, not worth risking all that money, and all those workers’ paydays, to do right by.”
“That’s an awful lot to assume about some pile of bones, David. And there’s some folks who don’t believe you actually found bones. They think maybe those bones were still inside that man or woman or child’s body, and that you maybe burned them up yourself. Forensics thinks that’s real likely, matter of fact.”
Levins went pale beneath his sunburn. “No, it was bones. Just bones. Animals had started digging them up. I’ve never killed nobody in my life. Not Dunn—that was all Tremblay’s plan. Not Tremblay, neither. I was in Texas, like I said, too scared to risk coming back here. And not those bones. I never killed no one in my entire life. I wanted the money, that’s all. Wanted the best for my family.”
“Maybe you did. But that doesn’t change the fact that now there’s three human beings—with families of their own, I’d wager—dead. And what I need, and what you have to bargain with, is answers.” He consulted his notes. “These creditors of the sheriff. Now, why would they do that? Have the man murdered? Surely that’s no way to collect on his tab.”
“So he wouldn’t disclose who they were, I guess. When he went to trial. Their outfit didn’t sound too legal.”
Flores made another note, faking boredom, so Levins would stay eager to be of use. “These answers are all very convenient, David. You sure nobody else from Virgin River was in on your little arrangement with Tremblay?”
“Nobody I know of.”
“So there’s nobody else? Nobody with blood on their hands, aside from you and the late former sheriff?”
Levins swallowed, eye contact wavering.
“There is one other guy who knew about it all. Who got his slice, just like Tremblay.”
“Tell me who.”
Levins licked his sunburned lips. “Not from VRC, or the sheriff’s department.”
Flores leaned in, leveled the diminished man with his stare. “Tell me, son.”
I’ve got to stop sleeping with Miah.
Raina shifted under the covers, feeling him all around her. His arm locked to her waist, the warm length of his sleeping body pressed along her back and legs. His bed beneath her, his scent in the pillow under her cheek.
She was surrounded by old smells. Familiar ones. Though strangely, until a few weeks ago, she’d never actually been in Miah’s bed. They’d been lovers for a few short, blazing months, two summers back, but the man was claustrophobic. They’d come to know each other’s bodies on blankets under the wide-open northeastern Nevada sky, on the grass, and in the bed of his truck . . . Closest she’d ever come to laying him indoors had been the cab of that F-150. She still remembered every moment. The radio had been playing. “Life in a Northern Town” had come on, and goose bumps had broken out all over her skin, Miah’s fingers on her clit and his mouth on her neck as she’d come.
This is different, she reminded herself.
Jeremiah Church’s long, strong body was dressed in a tee and shorts, and Raina still wore her jeans and tank and bra.
This sleeping together was strictly literal.
But it really had to stop.
They’d lost a childhood friend six weeks ago—Alex Dunn, a sheriff’s deputy. Raina hadn’t slept properly since the day she accepted that Alex’s death hadn’t been the drunk-driving accident everyone had believed it was. The same day, Sheriff Tremblay had been called out and incriminated himself. She’d shut Benji’s late that night—three a.m., probably—and even after that, she and Miah had sat together on the bar’s front stoop, nursing a whiskey between them. Miah had been too drunk to drive home, and too upset besides.
They’d fallen silent. It should have felt cold. It got down to the forties at night in Fortuity, even now at the close of summer. But Raina hadn’t registered the temperature, couldn’t even remember the minutes or hours passing, with the two of them just sitting there.
After a long time she’d said, “Well.” No other thoughts had come, no lament about the state of their town or the tragedy surrounding their friend.
Miah had said even less. Not a single word. Instead he’d gotten to his feet and taken her hand. He’d led her through the bar to the back stairs, up to the second floor to her apartment. Through the kitchen and den and into her room, where the dawn light was just beginning to slip through the front windows and swallow the aura of the neon sign flickering outside.
He’d thrown the covers wide and she’d taken his lead when he pushed off his boots. Whatever he’d needed, she’d have given. Any persuasion of sex that might have offered an escape for the both of them. But all he’d done was draw her onto the mattress and held her. Spooned her. Fully dressed. No words, no sex or kissing, just the jerky sound of his uneven breathing against her neck, and his strong arms clinging as though she were the only thing keeping him from drowning.
The same thing, the night after. And the night after that. Then they’d switched to meeting at Three C, Miah’s family’s cattle ranch, as his work demanded that he get back to his usual routines. And her new routine became driving over there once the bar was closed. She’d find him waiting on the front porch, and he’d lead her inside. Sometimes he held her, sometimes the other way around. Sometimes they lay on their backs, fingers laced on the sheets between them.
It was weird, and probably not especially healthy, and no doubt confusing. But so was everything about their lives just now. She was thirty-two and he was a couple of years older, but all the recent uncertainty had them feeling lost as teenagers.
She took a deep breath, ribs expanding and pressing her into Miah’s warmth. Everything was so fucked right now, fucked and shapeless, the mysteries far from solved. But their two bodies were solid, amid the chaos—something to hold on to.
This fraught spooning was what Miah needed, and Raina had gotten herself accustomed to offering far less to men, the past few years. It felt nice, being what a man needed beyond the mechanical release of sex, for a change. And this particular man deserved good. Which was more than she could say for most of the ones she’d known. Or fucked.
But she really had to stop sleeping with him. Last night, he’d whispered to her as they were drifting off, about how she was the only thing that let him sleep. His lips had moved against her neck as he’d said it, and heat had trickled through her. Something in those words or the caress of his mouth had her thinking, Sooner or later, this need is going to turn carnal. He was going to want more from her—the things she’d taken away when she broke his heart, two summers ago. The things she was promising now, frankly, by coming back every night. Things she wanted, too, in her body . . . but not any place deep enough to make it okay. Because he wanted far more than Raina had in her to give.
As another dawn rose, staining the sky dark aqua through the skylight above them, Raina’s thoughts turned to another man. The near stranger who’d helped her friends find some truth in the shadows obscuring Alex’s murder. A man who presented like an entitled prick, but whose reckless actions had been those of a reluctant hero.
The stranger was tall, also. But where Miah smelled of the ranch—of leather and sweat and earth—the other man smelled of civility. Linen and soap, and a hint of cologne that didn’t cloy, merely flirted. A man whose jaw was as smooth as Miah’s neglected one was now bearded. Whose eyes were clear gray to Miah’s near-black ones; his hair light brown and styled, versus Miah’s overgrown black waves. His voice cultured and British and velvet-dark to Miah’s down-home, plain-speaking one. Their accents, their hands, their shoes, their jobs—everything opposed. The Churches were well off—they came from old railroad money on Miah’s father’s side, and were rarities in that they still managed their ranch; most owners were rich absentees. Though you’d never guess Miah was wealthy, to look at him. He dressed like the ranch hands he oversaw, whereas that other man oozed privilege from every pore. Everything about the two of them was mismatched, but for the way they roused Raina. In that, they were perfect equals.
As the sky grew lighter, her instincts urged her, Go. Miah would be waking soon to start his long workday. She always slipped out before he rose, worried he’d try to kiss her good-bye. Worried one kiss would be all it took for them to tear aside this flimsy barrier and find themselves clawing at each other’s clothes, hungry hands moving over familiar skin. And tempting as the sex was, it wasn’t fair. Because he was a good man, and it meant far more to him than it did to her. He was rare, that way. Sex was an expression of his feelings for a woman.
For Raina, sex was merely the scratching of an itch. And that itch was all she felt, for men. All she wanted to feel for them. It made her think of that other man, one too cold to ever get truly close to. A beautiful shell, too glossy-smooth for the creeping vines of attachment to take hold. Safe. The man at her back? Dangerous.
For long minutes she willed herself to wake Miah, to get her balls together and rip off this Band-Aid, quit leading the man on. But the morning air was cold, his body and the covers so warm. And she was so goddamn tired from not having slept properly in what felt like forever.
But it had to happen.
Miah’s arm was draped along her side, his exhalations hot and lazy on the back of her neck. She touched his wrist, stroking softly until he stirred.
“Hey,” he murmured, then yawned into her hair.
“I want to talk to you, before you have to start work.”
She took a deep breath. “These past few weeks have been awful.”
“But this has been nice. Us, I mean.” She could sense his hopes rising, and realized her wording had been cruel in its kindness. “But it has to stop. It’s been simple, but it won’t stay that way.”
He rolled her over, and suddenly she was losing her footing in this talk, that handsome face like a punch to rearrange her priorities. Even after a few hours’ sleep, his breath was sweet. “What do you mean?”
“You and me, pretending like we can just spend night after night in the same bed together, and not take things too far.”
He smiled faintly. “Would that really be so awful?”
Reckless, tempting logic. But she knew better than to trust it. “Not at first, no.”
“We both know what we’re missing, Raina.” His hand closed around her wrist, and her breathing grew shallow as she let him lead her slowly, so slowly, between their bodies, then cup her palm to the front of his shorts. She swallowed, head swimming.
Too true. I know exactly what I’m missing. She could feel precisely that, stiff and hot against her hand. If any other man on the planet tried that shit with her—took her hand and showed her where to put it—she’d have torn him a second asshole. But she trusted Miah implicitly, far more than she trusted herself. She indulged him for a single, incendiary stroke, then gently escaped his grip.
“I won’t lie,” she said softly. “I do miss that. I want that, or my body does. But you need things I can’t give you. And you deserve those things.”
“You mean love.”
Intimidated by the eye contact, she drew closer to speak below his ear. “Love, for keeps, whatever you want to call it. Dating, marriage, kids, forever—all that stuff any other girl on earth would die to give you. The most I’m willing to offer you is sex, and I know that’s not enough.” And that was the cruelest part, because she knew how good they were. She wanted him so bad right now her body was begging her mouth to promise him anything, just to feel him inside her again.
He sighed, the noise thin with annoyance, steaming against her temple. “You think I can’t be selfish, too? Can’t make this just about sex?”
“I know you can’t. Not with me, anyhow.”
“Wow. Think that highly of yourself, do you?”
She pulled back to meet those dark eyes. “I’m not blind. I see how you look at me. And I felt what I did to you, when we were together—both the good and the bad.” The wonder of their chemistry, then the aching, dogging grief that tailed the both of them well after she’d broken things off. She kicked away the covers and left the bed. “You’re the most eligible man in Fortuity, cowboy. You should have moved on ages ago.”
“You’re not that easy to replace.”
“Well, try harder. Because this is never going to end with you and me and a farmhouse full of brown-eyed babies, Miah.”
As she pulled on her socks, he asked, “It’s him, isn’t it? Welch.”
She sought his gaze, held it. “No, it’s not.”
“Don’t lie to me. People in this town talk, and I’ve heard from plenty of them, asking me how I feel about the way my ex has been flirting with the developers’ corporate mercenary. The public face of the casino that’s brought nothing to this town so far except death.”
“Those murders have nothing to do with Duncan Welch—he risked his job to help us.”
“Doesn’t change how people think of him, though. And his personality’s not doing him any favors. He keeps strutting around town the way he does, he’ll wind up with worse than the broken tooth Tremblay gave him. You’d be a fool to get yourself associated with all that.”
“Welch means far less to me than you do, so trust me—my ending things between us, it’s nothing to do with him. It’s about me, and you know it. It always has been. We had the only break-up in history where the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ bit was true.”
“I’ve seen the way you two talk, in the bar.” Miah sat up. His black hair was rumpled, his arms tan against his dark gray tee. So handsome she had to turn away.
“And he can no doubt see the way you and I look at each other,” she said. “But Welch is nothing to me beyond a customer and a curiosity. But you—you’ve been my friend since we were kids. You’re my ex.” She chanced a quick glance. “The past few weeks we’ve been each other’s therapy. But I’m stopping it, because deep down I know I’m using you, and as good as it’s felt up until now . . . it’s starting to feel shitty.”
Miah seemed to hold in a reply.
“I hope you’re using me, too,” she added, and stepped into her boots, their leather cold and stiff. “Though I’m afraid I know you better than that.” He gave too willingly to possibly know how to exploit anybody.
He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, planting his elbows on his thighs. “Guess we’re going back to bartender and patron again, then.”
She took the elastic off her wrist and snapped it around a sloppy bun. “Bartender and patron—and hopefully friends, for both our sakes. And for the sake of the club.”
Before this summer, the Desert Dogs had been nothing more than the name they’d called their bygone gang of childhood friends. Back then, they’d spend long summer days hiding from the baking sun in the auto shop, dicking around on motorcycles, thinking high school would go on forever. They were in their thirties now, and life had lost its simplicity. Miah was married to his job, and Raina was tethered to her dad’s bar. Their friend Casey had disappeared to chase after shady money for close to ten years, earning himself a criminal record in the process, and not returning until a few weeks earlier. His older brother, Vince, had done time as well, for recreational felonies. Alex was dead. And the mysteries shrouding Fortuity seemed unlikely to lift any time soon, so the four of them—Vince, Casey, Miah, and Raina—had resolved to come together again, but with a purpose now. To protect their town from threats unknown, while the law was preoccupied with the more obvious ones.
Miah didn’t reply, looking more weary than annoyed. She sighed and stepped close; touched his dark hair, laid a kiss on the top of his head. “You always were too good for me, Miah.”
“Everyone but you, I imagine.”
He caught her wrist, holding it until she met his eyes. “Whatever you are to me,” he said, “it counts for a lot. I ever hear about you going with some man who has the nerve to say that to you—that you’re not good enough for him or for anybody else—I’ll have more than words for him.”
She smiled sadly as he let her go. “I know you would. And I know I’m a fool for running from what you’ve got to offer. Again.”
His lips thinned to a tired smirk. “You always were good at running.”
She nodded, throat tight and hurting. “Watch me go.” She checked for her keys, grabbed her helmet off Miah’s dresser. As her fingers closed around the door’s cool knob, she heard words at her back, nearly too soft to make out.
“You know I will.”
The old farmhouse was quiet save for the muted sounds of Miah’s mom in the kitchen. She’d be starting the coffee, probably making pancakes or eggs and bacon or some other perfect, wholesome breakfast, fit for her hardworking husband and son. Some meal Raina never would have made as well, had she ever let herself get deep enough with Miah to wind up a cattleman’s wife. A Mrs. Church. She wasn’t built for that shit. For the softer sorts of nurturing. She’d been birthed by some flighty facsimile of jailbait, raised by a bachelor bar owner who’d needed as much caretaking as he’d offered. She had zero qualifications to be the woman Miah had coming to him . . . and zero interest in earning them. She slipped out the back, skirting the far side of the house like a coward, in no mood to run into the warm and lovely woman who’d never, ever be her mother-in-law.
Her little Honda growled to life between her legs in the cold dawn air, and as she exited the ranch’s big front lot, the grinding of rubber on gravel felt like the only noise in the world.
The wind bit, waking her quicker than coffee ever could. The closer she drew to downtown and home, the heavier the guilt grew.
Any sane girl who wanted something real, something good, would’ve taken what Miah had offered two years ago. Stayed with a man whose body roused hers and whose nature promised stability. She’d have fallen past lust and into love with him, got married maybe, had a kid or two, settled down for a life of relentless reliability. Raina had been given the chance to pick a guy worthy of acting as her anchor, and then what? Resent him for taking away her freedom? Or, worse—lose him, maybe, as she’d lost her dad? Care enough to cling, then lose him to an accident or another woman or a midlife crisis or who knew what? Miah was steady, but he was still a man.
“I can make you happy,” he’d told her once, back when they were lovers. “Why won’t you just let me?”
She hadn’t answered him. Hadn’t been honest and simply said, “I don’t want a man who’ll make me happy. I want to feel relief when things end, not grief. Why would anyone choose grief?”
Regrets were ugly, but they scattered like ashes soon enough.
It was attachment you had to look out for. Affection. Love. There was a certain line, where emotions were concerned, past which experiences ripened to memories, and it couldn’t be passed over lightly.
Love had bones to it. Solid, rattling things bent on cluttering you up long after the soft parts melted into the ether. You had to carry those bones around with you. Make room for them, dust them, trip over them.
She parked behind the bar and headed for the back door.
Sex and moments of easy companionship were enough—just don’t let those bones grow in. Keep it soft and shapeless with no skeleton, no means to follow you when the time comes to walk away.
Raina stepped across the very threshold where she’d been left as a baby, and into a thousand dusty memories of her dad. She shut the door behind her, feeling interred.
Good God, what was she doing here? She should have sold this place and moved on three years ago, after he’d died, quit surrounding herself with nostalgia for the only man she’d ever truly loved, and given these wounds a chance to finally heal.
There was still time. A flashy new bar and grill was coming to town in the next year, ahead of the casino, and only a block west of Benji’s, on Station Street. The outsiders would be tearing down the derelict old tack shop and building from scratch. They had big money, and big plans, and undoubtedly stood a better chance at attracting the future gaming tourists than Raina would. They’d serve food, with a side of clean, friendly, faux-rustic charm. That basically left Raina cornering the Friday night fistfight market, with not nearly enough profits coming in to fund the overhaul she’d need to put in a kitchen, hire more staff, and undertake the renovation necessary to stay competitive.
And why bother? This place had been her dad’s project, not hers. He’d opened it just before she showed up, and with Raina’s mom MIA, he’d struggled to nurture his child and his business in tandem. This bar had been her home her entire life . . . but now it was her burden, a constant reminder of how badly she missed her father. A reminder, too, that she was still cleaning up after him, still keeping his dreams afloat, and her own on hold. It was a haunted place, its heartbeat silenced. She could sell it, and handily. Developers would be scrambling to buy up commercial real estate as the Eclipse’s grand opening drew closer.
She could find a new place to call home. A new town. A new life. It wasn’t too late . . . Was it?
Maybe this is your home now, a voice in her head whispered. The boneyard itself.
Can’t you hear the clattering, girl?
Duncan Welch eyed the vodka and tonic sitting before him on the bar. His second of the night, and the sun had only just dipped behind the mountains to the west and dunked the town in premature dusk.
A troubling development, one that had arrived right along with his recent professional worries.
For all intents and purposes, Duncan was on probation. He worked for Sunnyside Industries, the development company that was designing and eventually running the Eclipse, the casino slated to open in two years, here in Fortuity. He was Sunnyside’s legal counsel, and more to the point, their fixer. Up until six weeks ago, he’d been a model worker. Up until he’d met Vince Grossier, king of the local roughnecks, a man on a mission to prove that his friend had been murdered. Duncan had been drawn in to run interference between Grossier and the people at Virgin River Contracting, but then circumstances had grown complicated. He’d exploited his position to uncover information that led to very real suspicions of criminal activity on the part of VRC. Sunnyside couldn’t in good conscience fire him, not when his trespass had resulted in the exposure of a murder cover-up. But they weren’t pleased. And Duncan had never been in this position before—never given an employer cause to chastise him. Having his reputation damaged made him deeply uneasy . . . had him wondering if the careful façade he’d built around himself these past twenty years might be showing cracks.
He took a deep drink.
At least he’d cut down on the Klonopin, in recent weeks. One vice was human; two was a crutch.
He eyed his bartender. Make that three vices.
Raina Harper. So not Duncan’s style, yet he’d grown all but infatuated with her. He was tall, and so was she—perhaps five foot eight—though their similarities ended there. She was dark—wavy dark hair, dark eyes, tan skin. Black tee or tank, always, and black lace tattooed over one shoulder, like a veil that had slipped from her face and caught there. Long legs in tight jeans and cowboy boots. She was probably thirty-one or -two to Duncan’s thirty-eight, yet in some ways she made him feel hopelessly childish. She’d probably shot a gun, ridden her share of horses, taken dares, placed bets, crashed a car, fucked more people than Duncan ever would, and with far more abandon.
She made him want things he’d never given much thought to. Noisy, messy sex; nails raking his back. Instincts he didn’t trust any more than he trusted his newfound two-drink minimum.
He shifted on his stool, trousers feeling tight.
Raina was the owner of this charming-cum-rabid establishment, Benji’s Saloon, currently Fortuity’s sole watering hole. An old wooden whale of a place, its thick rafters ribbing the high ceiling, a dozen world-weary Jonahs gathered around the jukebox in the so-called old-timers’ corner, swapping tales from the bygone golden days. They’d be off soon, replaced by the next generation—noisy, lively packs of ranch workers who drank, and presumably mated, with the boundless, indiscriminate enthusiasm of youth.
Raina’s monopoly on the town’s nightlife would change when the casino was up and running . . . provided it ever got finished. Construction had been halted for a month now while the feds investigated Virgin River for widespread corruption. With progress frozen, Duncan didn’t have nearly enough to occupy him. And the idleness chafed at him like a cilice.
He watched Raina chatting with patrons at the other end of the bar.
Another woman was working—Abilene. A girl, really. She was plump and short and angelic, the perfect foil to her employer. She came over as Duncan set his empty tumbler on the wood.
He smiled. “I’ll wait.” He let his eyes drift to Raina’s profile. “Not that I find anything lacking in your bartending skills.”
Abilene smiled back. “I don’t blame you. Those ones she mixes you must be, like, two-thirds vodka.”
“Perhaps she thinks the tonic is a garnish.”
Abilene was called away by another customer, and Duncan went back to studying the unlikely object of his fixation. The two of them made about as much sense as Duncan made in this bar, with its gritty floors, dusty rancher clientele, and ever-flowing river of watery domestic beer. Then again, none of the things that transfixed Duncan had ever made much sense to him. Perhaps Raina was simply par for the course.
Plus, he doubted anything was ever going to happen between them. He was merely an amusement to her—an obnoxious, entitled outsider who tipped like an overzealous ATM, fit only for toying with.
Which was perfect, really, as Duncan quite enjoyed the sensation.
Abilene passed by her boss, saying something to Raina that Duncan couldn’t hear. But he could guess, as the woman turned and headed straight for him.
Slender fingers circled his empty glass, but she didn’t take it away just yet. “Another?”
“Two’s usually your limit. Do I need to stage an intervention?” She was teasing—hers was a bar where men proudly boasted of downing a dozen shots just to celebrate the close of a workweek.
“I’m afraid all the recent inactivity doesn’t suit me,” Duncan returned.
“Poor baby. I’d kill for a night off. Don’t think I’ve had one in three years. But even if I got one, I’d probably spend it tattooing.”
Ah yes, her side gig. Duncan rankled inside his expensive suit jacket to imagine her hands inching over strange men’s naked skin.
“At least you’re still getting paid,” she said. “Want to feel bad for somebody, save your sorrows for the dozens of construction guys who’re twiddling their thumbs for nothing, waiting to find out if they’ll ever get to go back to work at all.”
She mixed his drink and he tipped her outrageously, then watched as she gathered the empties scattered around the counter. The vodka was working, now. He felt warm and loose, urges and emotions slipping out from under the cap he kept on his vulnerabilities, to flurry about in his blood. To make him hungry. The vodka, or the lust? In either case, he ought not to trust the way he’d recently begun gravitating toward both. Yet here he was. Night after night.
Raina had an ex, one she was still close with. Or at least Duncan thought Jeremiah Church was her ex . . . the way the man looked at Duncan sometimes, he had to wonder if there was still something simmering there. Though apparently not anything strong enough to keep Raina from flirting with Duncan, the virtual friction between them so intense it was a wonder their clothes didn’t catch fire. The question marks surrounding her and Church had gone from poking him to clawing at him as of late, however. The hazards of an idle brain. He was itchy for answers, wanted them even more than he wanted to maintain the flimsy illusion that he couldn’t care less who warmed her sheets.
He made it ten minutes—half his drink and three laps of Raina around the bar—before he blurted, “So, you and Jeremiah Church.”
She batted her lashes, posture changing utterly. She cocked her hip and chin, subtle as a cat hunkering down to stalk a mouse hole. He could just about see her tail twitching. “Yes?” she asked sweetly.
“What exactly happened between you two that he gives me a look most men would reserve for their mother’s ax murderer?”
She shrugged, graceful collarbone flashing beneath two layers of black lace—the straps of her top and the ink decorating her skin. “Guess my side effects include withdrawal or something.”
“You turn a tame man feral.”
She busied herself stacking nearby empties. “Don’t all women?”
Not the ones I’m used to. “You dumped him, I take it?”
She smirked. “I like you drunk, Duncan. Makes me suspect you might even be half human, under all that smooth, icy snakeskin.”
A snake, am I? How terribly Edenic. Though Raina had clearly bitten into that apple ages ago, savored every scrap of its flesh, and spat the seeds at her jilted lovers’ feet.
It didn’t matter that he’d helped her and her friends get to the truth surrounding the death of Alex Dunn. Or that Duncan had gotten pistol-whipped in the process—by the sheriff, right before Tremblay attempted to escape. That had been a month ago. Duncan’s broken tooth had been fixed and the stitches removed from his lip, and once again he was back to being a suspect outsider in Fortuity. He’d earned the cursory nod of greeting from Vince Grossier, but that didn’t change the fact that he was the face of the company that was bringing a massive resort casino to their sleepy town. He was gifted with dirty looks daily by any number of distrustful Fortuitans, and he knew what people called him. The names ran the gamut from faggot to cop killer. The former didn’t bother him, but the latter stung. He’d risked a lot to expose Alex Dunn’s actual murderer, but to some of these locals, his mere affiliation with the casino made him complicit. Guilt by association. He was probably taking a risk even drinking here, but if there was one thing Duncan Welch didn’t abide, it was intimidation. Especially when it tried to come between a man and his vices.
Duncan’s image didn’t do him any favors, either. He was corporate. He was overdressed; he was a British expat; he was wealthy. He was cold and clean and calculating. He was wrong here, in every possible way. Wrong for Raina Harper’s bed, as wrong as her ex was right. And yet ex was the operative word, wasn’t it?
He sipped his dwindling drink and the alcohol spurred him to tell her, “I don’t think your ex is over you.”
“That’s his problem, not mine.”
“And you accuse me of being cold.”
She grabbed some bills left by another customer and organized the register as she spoke. “Maybe we’re not so different, then, Duncan. In any case, I’m perfectly happy on my own.”
“Handsome, rugged cowboys need not apply?”
She smiled, the gesture indulgent. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’re jealous.”
“Well, I don’t need a man, handsome or otherwise. Not for more than a night or two. I’m already everything a woman wants to be—a mother to everyone who spills their drunken souls all over this wood,” she said, stroking the bar in front of him. “A sister to my closest friends. A lover when it suits me.”
“A corruptor,” he added, lifting his glass.
“That also suits me.”
“I can appreciate your desire for impermanence.”
She smirked at that. “I’m sure you can. I bet you’re counting down the days until the casino’s built and you get to book it the fuck out of Fortuity, move on to the next job.”
“Indeed. Though it’d be unfortunate if the construction’s stalled indefinitely and I have to leave two years sooner than planned, with nothing to show for it. Just a load of unfilled foundations drilled into your foothills.”
He anticipated her reply, something to the tune of glee at the idea of the casino never arriving to take over her hometown. But she surprised him, frowning thoughtfully. “You know, it seems like an odd match for a man like you—working on the Eclipse. Luxury resort or not, gambling seems too seedy to be your style.”
“I’ll stoop to most any adjective you can think of, if the pay is good. I’m not bothered what my bosses are planning.” He sipped his drink. “Casino, water park, megachurch—it’s all the same to me. I came here only to do my job, and to do it well. My commitments are about as personal as a whore’s.”
She smiled. “A high-class one, no doubt . . . Shame my town hasn’t treated you too gentle, so far.”
Duncan’s tongue went instinctively to the smooth resin that now composed half of his left front tooth as Raina was called away to attend to other customers. He watched her at it.
Her assumptions about him offered some comfort. It seemed he still appeared to be in control, above it all. In truth, his life was feeling anything but certain. And it went far beyond all this boredom, as everyone waited for Virgin River to get the green light to recommence construction.
He tongued his imposter tooth again, feeling a kinship with it. The both of them were imitations. Passing for perfect but underneath . . . broken.
* * *
Raina was starting to think the evening was never going to pick up and that she’d have to send Abilene home, when a dozen regulars came through the door—a pack of young women and the ranch hands that followed them like lemmings. The lot of them tipped like shit, but they brought some much-needed energy on a quiet Thursday night like this. The jukebox made a U-turn, lazy country giving way to pop and dance music, the bass throb of foreplay.
Raina watched them, her own hips swaying softly behind the bar, body restless. She’d been trying to ignore Duncan’s presence, but her body felt hard-wired to his. Like opposite poles, the two of them attracted. And the closer she let herself drift to him, the hotter she crackled, the harder the pull.
Then it came on—her song of the moment. She didn’t even know who sang it, but the beat was infectious, relentless, the tone of it pure red wine, making a woman’s blood pump hot and thick.
The opening notes drifted from the speakers like pheromones, and Raina knew her cue, as though this had been ordained. No patrons waiting on refills, everyone’s glasses looking refreshed, Abilene on top of the stock. The frayed tether that had lashed her back together with Miah finally cut. She skirted the bar and strode right over to where Duncan was scanning the glowing screen of his phone. He’d shed his jacket, crisp sleeves rolled up to display the elegant muscles of his forearms. She plucked the cell from his fingers. His face cocked up, gray eyes flashing cold as steel, then softening as he registered it was her, not some drunken local looking to start something.
Raina smiled to know he thought her less dangerous than her male counterparts.
“You dance, Duncan?” she asked.
“No,” he said evenly, taking back his phone. “I do not.”
“Perfect time to learn, then.” She took that smooth, manicured hand and led him to the space before the jukebox like a dog, wedging them between the younger bodies. He came willingly enough, though she suspected that it was merely some aversion to scene-making. Or perhaps the vodka’s doing. Either way, she turned, boxing herself into his space, bringing their thighs tight. Not much choice, in this crowd.
A man led a waltz with his hands, but Raina led the dance with her hips. She glanced up, expecting discomfort on that flawless face, but if anything, her partner looked blasé. He moved a little more, a little more, answering her cues with minimal finesse, but also zero embarrassment. A snake indeed. She’d bet his blood ran cold as Dead Creek. She knew Miah’s would be coursing like lava if he were here, watching this.
I’m not his property.
But she was his friend—a friend she’d shared strange but definite benefits with, and she knew she had the power to hurt him. Badly. Yet it was hard to parse lust and guilt at the same time and deny that the latter was an aphrodisiac in itself.
She studied Duncan. Watched him change, ever so slightly. His lids looked heavier and his lips were parted. She saw him swallow, and in that tiny gesture she caught a crack forming, a glimpse of his humanity shining through.
Or if not humanity, heterosexuality.
She turned with the beat and moved against him, butt to crotch—Fortuity’s official mating dance.
Finally, a hot palm at her waist. Then another, and a brush of his thigh against hers. Moment by moment, the heat of his body grew as he sealed them closer together. His hips against her ass, moving subtly, then bolder. The boy had rhythm. Who knew?
He had more than rhythm, actually, to judge by the hard excitement rubbing against her. And his breathing had grown audible, exhalations hot at her temple. She felt the same heat wave settling around her body, but she’d be damned if she let him know it. One thing she craved more than sex just now was a chance to have the upper hand on the man who so clouded her instincts.
She smiled over her shoulder and found his gaze foggy.
“Dancing tells a woman everything she needs to know about how a man’ll be in bed,” she informed him.
“I can’t imagine what dancing with me is telling you.” That buttery voice had changed, just like his breathing. Lower, darker. Distracted.
She grinned, unseen. “Tells me you’re a quick study.”
“I was always an excellent student.” More flippant words, but his tone said she had him. That she could have him, if she wanted. “You mix a very strong drink,” he said. “If I didn’t know better I’d think you wanted me to forget myself.”
“Just your snooty manners,” she countered, dropping low for a moment, sliding back up. “What are you like in bed?”
His entire frame stiffened for a beat, and he seemed to catch himself, gathering his misplaced control like a dropped jacket. “It’s amazing how little of your business that is.”
Funny how his annoyance seemed to rouse her as another man’s excitement might. “Judging by your perpetually shiny shoes,” she said, “I bet you keep a box of wet wipes on the bedside table and shower the second it’s over.”
After a pause, “That’s a theory.”
“Or,” she drawled, grinding low against him, “maybe you’re a real freak in bed. Maybe that’s how you cut loose, when the stress of being so collected and perfect gets old. Maybe you’re into some real kinky shit.” To spank, or be spanked? “You like girls, Duncan?”
He answered with his hand, spinning her around. Long, graceful fingers hooked into her belt loops, drawing their middles together. Still rock hard, against her mound now. Eyes burning down at hers. She reeled, her lead in this exchange lost in a heartbeat.
“What do you think?” he breathed, his cock giving its answer with every veiled stroke, every motion of his hips.
“I think I may have underestimated certain parts of you.”
“Are you trying to seduce me, Ms. Harper?”
“Trying’s not really my style. A girl doesn’t like to look too eager.”
“Well,” he said, “I’ve already sacrificed a tooth to help you and your little hoodlum friends. It strikes me as greedy that you seem to want my honor as well.”
She laughed. “I’ll have you tattooed within the week.”
His smile was slow and dry as summer. “I’d sooner consent to most any other thing you could think of.”
“Would you, then? I’ll give the options some thought.”
His face came close. So close she discovered there was stubble on that seemingly flawless jaw, and felt his nose graze her cheek.
That velvet voice turned to moss, lush and earthy in her ear. “Your intentions intrigue me.”
Her intentions . . . In truth, she hadn’t intended to seduce him at all—just to wind him up, rattle him. Scandalize this man she’d taken for an uptight prude. And in further truth, she couldn’t say which of them was doing the seducing anymore.
“This is all just dancing,” she lied. “Shame on you, Duncan, for making it into something sordid.” She let her hand drift up, fingers seeking his hair. Soft as his skin and voice. Soft as the lips whispering along her temple.
“Shame on me,” he agreed, and his own hand drifted—warm and sultry, fingers spread to snake up her waist, over her ribs, stopping just shy of her breast. “Mean old coldhearted corporate bastard, come to rape your innocent little hardworking town.”
“Fortuity’s far from innocent,” she said, letting her hips underline that fact.
“And its residents are far from subtle,” he breathed. And suddenly he was gone, hand falling from her waist, body drawn back by a step, then another. He gave her a look—a zing. Nice try, that sharp smile said, while his mouth said, “Thanks for the lesson, Ms. Harper.” He smoothed his tie from his collar to the V of his vest and they both wandered from the gyrating crowd. “Consider me educated.”
“I’ll consider you warm-blooded.”
Another smirk. “The alcohol must have ignited me.”
“I got you dancing,” she mused. “You asked about my ex.”
“So much humanity, all of a sudden. This all because you’re underworked? You only taking my bait because you’re bored?”
“Does it matter? Business or biology—neither’s personal.”
“You sure know how to make a girl feel special, Duncan Welch.” Though she shared that philosophy herself.
“Apologies. But if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with my motel room and a box of wet wipes.”
Snarky little fucker. “You’re a real piece of work, aren’t you, Duncan?”
He met her eyes with those pale ones. “I’ve been told I’m a real piece of something. I leave it to the individual to fill in the blank.”
She came close, pretending to fuss with his tie but tugging the knot loose, shifting it all cockeyed. He corrected it the second she took her hands back, the act looking more reflexive than petulant.
She smiled sweetly. “I bet you jack off with your pinkie stuck up in the air, don’t you?”
His smirking lips twitched, faint and quick as a flea sneezing. “Picture it however you like.”
“Good night, Duncan.”
He offered a smarmy bow. “Ms. Harper.”
She gave a little curtsy, glaring at his back as he exited. She couldn’t tell if she wanted simply to fuck with that man’s head or straight-up fuck him. In either case, she’d pay good money to hear him beg for mercy.
Duncan was hungover.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been properly hungover. Overindulgence was not his style. He’d walked back to the Gold Nugget Motor Lodge with a sway in his step, the five or six shots’ worth of liquor in those drinks like a bender to a normally temperate man. To a man who craved self-discipline. He’d escaped, slipping out of range of a cat’s batting paws before he could find out what Raina might want out of him. Would that have ended with Duncan’s body wound in her sheets, or did her pleasure come merely from her ability to wind him up? She had far too much control over him. And control was a commodity Duncan treasured above all others.
So rather than follow the flirtation to its natural conclusion, he’d headed to the motel, popped a couple of Ambiens and more than a couple of ibuprofens, and woken up with a brass band playing in his skull, and chores beckoning. Always chores.
The bathroom fan whirred all around him, and the world was speckled laminate and smooth white acrylic. His knees hurt, the towel-thin bath mat and his lounge pants doing nothing to protect them from the biting tile. But he wasn’t bowed before the toilet, sick from the vodka. No, he was sick in a far different, and deeply familiar, way.
His shoulder ached, and his lower back, and he felt high from the bleach. But that was good, surely. Meant the stuff was doing its job.
He scrubbed at the plastic tub. Plastic—worst. Porcelain would be so much easier to disinfect. Plastic never felt clean enough to trust. Never.
Degrading though these chores were, the calm was coming to him now. The fumes and the ritual were subsuming him, quieting his brain, banishing the panic and the pulsing headache.
He could hear his bygone foster mother’s voice in his head—that soft, cultured accent offering the only kind words he’d known in the first half of his life. Look at that! You cleaned that all by yourself? What did I do to deserve such a good helper? To deserve him. Insane, those words had seemed—insane and wondrous as a choir of angels after ten years of being called a burden at every turn. Thirteen measly months he’d gotten with his silver-haired savior. Then she’d been taken away, her kind voice and eyes hollowed out by a stroke that had scared Duncan worse than any slap or threat issued by his harsher guardians. She was gone as quickly as she’d appeared, and Duncan had been dropped neck-deep back into the shit of the foster system. Just over a year, she’d given him. One good year, and a fondness for Wagner, and this compulsion to clean when he felt uncertain.
He scrubbed harder, so hard that it roused the perennial ache in his right elbow, cartilage whining. Repetitive strain injury, a doctor would tell him. Whatever you’re doing, knock it off. Same as a doctor would tell a masochist to quit with the self-flagellation and those raw red stripes would clear right up.
Yes, because that’s going to happen. He might as well give up breathing while he was at it.
The bucket was just about empty, the scrubber sponge shedding blue flecks. He braced his rubber-gloved hands on the ledge of the tub and shakily made it to his feet, joints wailing. He turned on the shower to rinse his handiwork.
Clean. Pretty damn clean. The tub was shining. The sink, too, the mirror spotless, and the grout between the mint green backsplash tiles whiter than it had been since the Carter administration, surely. No surface neglected, no room for oversight. The plastic would never be perfect, but by anyone’s standards, no trace of this tub’s former sins had been spared. He felt marginally cleaner himself.
Satisfied, he snapped the gloves from his hands and draped them over the rim of the empty bucket. He washed his hands once, twice, three times, rinsed the sink. He flipped off the light but left the fan on to suck at the fumes.
He eased the bathroom door open a couple of inches, peering out and finding his roommate predictably planted at the threshold.
“Keep out, Astrid. Bad enough your daddy’s disinfected half his brain cells. Let’s keep one of us lucid.” With a gentle push of his foot, the tabby gave up her post, rising to stretch and saunter toward the bed.
Duncan shut the bathroom door at his back and gulped two lungs’ worth of comparably fresh air.
He wandered to the edge of the bed and switched on the television, greeted by the regional news. His shaving bag was behind him and he fished out an orange bottle and swallowed a Klonopin dry. Astrid leaped onto the covers and he stroked her back, her spine rising in reply. Poor beast, stuck with these four walls and the parking lot for a view. She had to be missing their Southern California skyline as much as he was. Still, the motel beat any other housing option at the moment—better than some grubby little room for rent, or a trailer such as the Virgin River foremen stayed in. He’d also negotiated an insanely generous bonus for this job, spearheading Sunnyside’s first big out-of-state project. A bonus, and a promise to be kept close to home for his next assignment. Time would tell if it proved a worthy trade beyond the figures on a page.
“Two years,” he murmured, taking in little more than flashing colors and garbled words as commercials assaulted the screen. He flopped backward and Astrid took it as an invitation to sit on his belly.
Two years until the project was done. Allegedly—this current delay might merely be the first of many. Even after the casino was running, who knew how long until Duncan’s service was deemed complete? The Eclipse’s PR demands would merely evolve after the ribbon was cut by that walking Napoleon complex known as Mayor Dooley. At least by then Duncan would be set up in one of the luxury apartments slated for construction on the east face of Lights Out. And for all of its many faults, Fortuity did boast one hell of a sunrise.
Shit, though. He’d be in his forties by the time his contract was fulfilled.
Time passes quickly for the industrious, he reminded himself.
With the bleach smell fading, the calm wouldn’t linger, but the ritual performed him, not the other way around. Do as it says or have a panic attack. Not really a choice, in Duncan’s estimation. Normally the demands of his job kept him too busy to indulge the urges more than once or twice a week—he went through the motions of his role each day, cleaning up the messes left by progress. It kept his brain too distracted to push him around. Kept his mortgage paid and his cat fed.
Kept his mind off Raina Harper . . . and his right hand off his cock when he inevitably failed at the former. Christ, when would this standstill be done, already—
A startling thump, thump, thump, thump at the door had him sitting up so suddenly Astrid tumbled hissing to the floor.
He hastily zipped the prescription bottle in his bag and lamented his relative state of undress. He smoothed his hair as he went, a perverted bit of him hoping against hope it’d be Raina. Though what good would that be, when the incriminating state and scent of the bathroom precluded him from inviting her in?
He needn’t have worried—the peephole offered a bespectacled tan face and buzz-cut hair, a dark suit.
He undid the chain and opened the door. “Can I help you?”
“Yes.” The morning air was cold on his naked arms and feet, the rising sun piercing his pickled brain through his eyes.
“Going to need you to put on some pants and come with me,” said the man.
Duncan frowned. “And who are you, exactly?”
The man pulled a wallet from his back pocket—not a wallet, a badge. He flipped it open. Fed. “Agent Flores.”
Duncan blinked, cold misgiving creeping across his bare skin like spreading frost. “What’s this about? The Virgin River investigation?”
“Just change out of your pajamas and come with me.” He nodded to a silver SUV parked beside the Mercedes.
Duncan’s eyes narrowed. “You do realize I’ve been more than cooperative in these matters for the past month, don’t you? I can’t say I appreciate being addressed like a suspect.”
Flores looked grim. “I’m sure you can’t. But you may want to get used to it.”
* * *
Not ten minutes later, they pulled into the Brush County Sheriff’s Department, half a mile down Railroad Avenue. As Flores parked, Duncan tongued his tooth again, eyeing the spot on the asphalt where he’d fallen to his knees, cupping his bleeding mouth. No good ever came of this place, he decided.
His guts were churning, and from far more than the hangover now. Flores had refused to discuss anything on the way, and the uncertainty was torture—physical torture, wringing his insides with vicious fists. They exited the vehicle, the sun already baking here at the edge of the desert, its glare sharpening Duncan’s headache. He felt naked, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, probably still smelling of bleach. No time to shower or fix his hair or put on proper clothes. He felt as though his skin had been stripped away, exposed to his very nerves.
You’ve nothing to worry about. He’d already been punished by Sunnyside for the one thing he’d actually done wrong. And if this matter had to do with that bit of trespassing . . . surely that was no concern of the feds. As they strode for the BCSD’s entrance, Duncan faked the confidence he was entitled to.
The young assistant looked up from her computer screen as they entered, but Flores led Duncan down a short hall and into a windowless room. Two mismatched chairs, one table. An interrogation room.
“What, no handcuffs?” he asked, shooting Flores the tiniest taste of the contempt boiling in his body. “No orange jumpsuit? I feel unloved.”
Flores didn’t reply until he’d set a tape recorder on the table and depressed its red button. “You’re a suspect, not a criminal.”
“A suspect for what crime, precisely? Up until this morning I was a valued and cooperative witness.”
“Have a seat, Mr. Welch.” Flores waved to one of the chairs, a hard plastic utilitarian number, sitting himself on the far more dignified, upholstered one.
Duncan sat, clasping his hands in his lap to hide their shaking. “Tell me what on earth this is about.”
“This,” Flores said, lacing his fingers atop the wood, “is about money. You like money, don’t you, Duncan? Nice car I saw in front of your room. S-class, isn’t it? What’d that put you back? Ninety grand? Ninety-five? And nice clothes, I’m told. Nice state-of-the-art, luxury high-rise condo, back in San Diego.”
Duncan frowned, lost. Another loathsome sensation. “I make a decent salary. Surely that’s not an arrestable offense.”
“No. But accepting bribes is.”
The blood drained from Duncan’s head, seeming to rush into his heart to force thick, strangling beats. “Excuse me?”
“Specifically, accepting bribes from a suspect in a murder and conspiracy investigation.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We’ve been informed by a key party that you accepted bribes from Virgin River foreman David Levins in exchange for not reporting shoddy construction practices to your bosses.”
“What?” Being found guilty of such a crime could get a person permanently disbarred—and to Duncan, a man whose profession was everything he’d worked for, everything that defined him, the possibility felt tantamount to execution. “Who said this?”
“I’m not at liberty to say.”
Duncan paused, body rocked with every roaring heartbeat. Wait. “Levins. Has Levins been caught?”
“Does that make you nervous?” Flores asked, leaning forward.
“No,” Duncan said, livid. “No, it does not. Because I’ve never exchanged a thing with that man aside from pleasantries and paperwork.” Still, the thought calmed him some. “Is he the one who’s accused me? If so, it’s a criminal’s word against mine, and I’ve done nothing wrong that hasn’t already come to light. And why on earth would I have participated in the investigation that implicated him, if he was privy to my own complicity?”
“We’ve wondered the same things,” Flores said smoothly.
“As you should. There’s no case to be made here. Probably just a desperate man’s ploy to distract everyone from the real scandal, the real crimes. Or retribution, for my involvement. Do what your job demands, but we both know these accusations are going nowhere.”
“Do we know that?” Flores asked, eyebrows rising dryly.
Duncan sighed, annoyed and tired and insulted. And hung the fuck over. Mustering courtesy took a superhuman effort. “I appreciate that you have protocol, and motions to go through, but come on. You know as surely as I do, there’s no evidence against me.”
Flores tapped a pen against a yellow legal pad. “I’m afraid that’s not entirely true.”
Duncan’s head went eerily quiet. “Excuse me?”
“A worker’s come forward. A laborer with Virgin River, who claims he saw you accepting money from Levins.”
Duncan gaped, feeling struck. “That’s preposterous. Money? What, a big stack of bright green bills? A fat envelope with Bribes for Duncan written on it?”
“Calm down, Mr. Welch.”
Duncan realized he’d leaned forward in his seat. His chest hurt, and his underarms were prickling with sweat. He needed to be careful, before he gave himself an attack. “When was this meant to have happened? My accepting bribes?”
“We’ll get into details soon enough. Just wanted to let you know how everything’s shaping up. I take it you’re not changing your position based on this development?”
“You can’t honestly believe this is a credible witness. Levins could have arranged it all before he turned himself in. Paid this person off, or intimidated him—”
“It’s not my job to believe anybody. That’s what judges and juries are for. Just consider yourself in the loop.”
“I’m free to go, as it were?”
“Free to go? That’s all relative. Free to leave Fortuity? Not any time soon, except under special circumstances.”
“For Christ’s sake.”
“Free to escape my company? Not yet. I need to take a look inside your motel room.”
“What?” Duncan felt more naked than he’d have guessed, imagining strangers poking around in his borrowed space, smelling the evidence of his compulsions, upsetting his cat. They wouldn’t find anything incriminating, surely, but suspicious . . . ? Some aspects of his daily routine did defy logic.
“Search warrant should be waiting at the front desk by now,” Flores said calmly. “I just want to take a quick look around. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about. I’ll drive you back to your premises. Then you’ll be asked to wait outside. Any property seized as a result of this search will be made known to you—”
“I know how a warranted search works.”
Flores smiled. “Do you, then?”
Duncan rolled his eyes furiously, not in any mood for banter. “This is fucking ridiculous. All of it.”
Flores’s eyebrows rose. “Then you’ve got nothing to fucking worry about, I imagine. Be thankful you haven’t been accused of anything violent or deemed a flight risk—no need to detain you.”
“I should hope not.” He sighed his disgust. “Haven’t you got more pressing matters than this to occupy yourselves?”
“Sure. But until the team gets a viable lead on those bones, looks like I’m stuck ruining your day, Duncan.”
Bones. Christ, that word. Everything had begun to go wrong with that one little syllable, spoken by Deputy Dunn, obsessed over by Vince Grossier. Now those bones had drawn Duncan into their miserable orbit.
“Perhaps your team ought to try a little harder,” Duncan said. “Those bones will prove me innocent as surely as they’ll prove Levins guilty.” Forensics would supply the victim’s identity, likely motives, and lead the investigation to the truth—and away from Duncan.
Ignoring that, Flores got to his feet and beckoned Duncan to do the same. “We’ve been in touch with your employers, of course.”
All the misplaced blood was suddenly rushing in Duncan’s ears, leaving his face hot. That was all he needed, when he was already on informal probation. He pulled himself together. “Of course. This wretched morning wouldn’t be complete if you hadn’t.”
“You’ll probably need to negotiate some time off. We’ll be chatting again soon, maybe often.”
Time off. He’d be lucky if Sunnyside didn’t sack him. Christ, then what would he do? Who would he even be, with that blemish on his otherwise perfect professional record? And God forbid these accusations make the news—exonerated or not, he’d be a pariah for the rest of his career, to say nothing of what the angrier locals would want to do to him . . . Duncan got dirty looks simply for being associated with the development. If people believed him complicit with the men who’d murdered a well-liked deputy, he’d be attracting more than just glares.
“How long am I trapped in this town, precisely?”
“Hard to say,” Flores said, drawing car keys from his pocket. “Search shouldn’t take too long. Once you let us in, feel free to go find yourself some breakfast.”
Duncan would take a walk, at any rate. He needed the air, the sun, the ground under his feet. Proof the world was still solid, that he still existed.
They headed out to the front room, where Flores was met by a slim young black woman dressed in BCSD khaki, curls pulled back in a voluminous ponytail.
“This is Deputy Ritchey,” Flores told Duncan. “She’ll be assisting me in the search.” To Ritchey he simply said, “This is Welch.”
She offered a curt nod, then held out an envelope to Flores.
He opened it and glanced at the paper inside. “Would you like to view the warrant?” he asked Duncan.
He read it. It granted Flores permission to search his motel room and his car for suspicious amounts of money. Annoying, as it meant they could basically tear his room apart, but at least they couldn’t seize his phone or laptop—he suspected he’d be needing them in the coming days.
“Understood?” Flores asked, taking the paper back.
“It’s neither here nor there. I’ve nothing to hide,” Duncan lied. He’d very much like to hide all traces of his mental issues, for his pride more than anything—under this warrant, Duncan’s meds and cleaning supplies and any other oddities were none of Flores’s concern. Still, they probably wouldn’t help matters.
They headed outside, where the deputy climbed into a beige cruiser. The sun was far too bright and cheerful, Duncan decided.
“I have a cat in my room,” he told Flores. “Upset her and I’ll be very cross.”
Flores unlocked his car. “A cat?”
“Yes, a cat. She’s been specially trained to digest human skeletal remains and I’ve secreted thousands of dollars inside her.”
Flores’s smile dropped. “Don’t get cute with me, Welch. I’d prefer not to form any biased opinions about you.” They climbed into the car and buckled up, not speaking until the three of them were at Duncan’s door.
“I’m coming in to put my cat into her carrier,” he said to Flores and Ritchey as he unlocked his room. “She’s not good with strangers.”
Flores nodded to tell him to go ahead.
“She’ll be less likely to panic and lacerate me if you let me go in alone.”
Flores shook his head, no surprise.
“Fine.” Duncan preceded the others, and managed to wrangle Astrid into her carrier with Deputy Ritchey’s help, both of them suffering the consequences. He offered her his stiff thanks, then turned to Flores. “Please be sure to lock up behind you, and leave the cat where she is. My car keys are in the desk drawer—do lock that as well. I’ll be at the diner for the next hour. I imagine you’ve already got my mobile number?”
“I do.” Flores fished in a pocket and handed Duncan a business card. “And now you’ve got mine. Don’t leave town without contacting me first.”
Duncan’s eyes narrowed. “Why not just clamp an ankle tracker on me?”
What People are Saying About This
Cara McKenna Delivers
“Sexy-as-hell bad boys.”
—New York Times Bestselling Author Jaci Burton
“Sweet, smoking-hot, standout romance.”
—New York Times Bestselling Author Beth Kery
“Well-done, real-life, gritty erotic romance.”—Smexy Books
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Cara McKenna is a fantastic writer. The characters are fascinating. This has the moody darkness of After Hours and a bit of a thriller /mystery thrown in. It has nothing to do with motorcycle clubs. I find motorcyclr clubs boring and mysogynist, and that kept me from reading this series for a long time. Read them in order.
This is the second book in the Desert Dogs series, a name that comes from a group of childhood friends who formed a club of sorts, and still have each other's backs even as they've had to deal with the ups and downs of relationships and life in general. There is a continuity to the plot from the first book, in which a casino developer moved into their town and brought some shady dealings, including murder into their midst. You don't have to read the first story to enjoy this one, the setup is laid out well, but it definitely would be of benefit if you want to know more about Vince and Kim, whose story is the first in the series. This story focuses on Raina, the bar owner and all around feisty heroine type and Duncan, the suave and sophisticated legal counsel for the Casino company - a man who finds that by aiding the Desert Dogs in their murder investigation in the previous story is now a suspect as a result and his life unravels before his eyes. He's already got mental health issues, and they are definitely exacerbated by the new events. In an effort to clear himself, he decides that solving some of the still remaining mysteries should fall to him. But in being a suspect and considered a shady character by many of the townsfolk, his life is also threatened and Raina takes him in, a thank you of sorts for his help and the fact that his own career is threatened by him aiding their club. I really enjoyed the relationship that builds between Raina and Duncan. She's such a strong character, and yet she's able to be what Duncan needs, without diminishing herself. Her history with Miah, her childhood friend and former lover isn't glossed over, and it's clear that while they have strong feelings for each other, it's not enough to make for a future for them. (Incidentally, a novella was released after this story, Drive it Deep, that looks more closely into Miah and Raina's prior relationship). Duncan was fascinating as he gets slowly taken apart and rebuilt as a new person, something that's happened to him before and yet now, finally, he feels at home in his own skin. I loved reading about that transformation. There is a tense underlying feel to the story, the knowledge that there is a murdered man somewhere out there, and combined with the harassment of Duncan, makes for a compelling read. The sex scenes between Raina and Duncan are super hot (as expected of Ms. McKenna) but tender too. I felt like this was more Duncan's story than anything else, and I really liked how the whole thing was put together. The ending leaves us with some mysteries still to be solved and I'm looking forward to the next story in the series!
You can't go wrong with Cara McKenna. I recomend this book.
Give It All is the second book in the Desert Dogs series which was even better than the first, full of mystery, suspense and action, and of course let's not forget the steamy hot romance to go along with it. It didn't take long once I'd started reading to recall the events of Lay It Down, I really enjoyed reading about Raina and Duncan far more than I thought I would, in the previous book Duncan came across as a British snob who was better than everyone, it's in this story that we find out why he's the way that he is and and the facade he feels he needs to show the world. Paired with Raina who doesn't do romance or anything mushy and it just works and as a couple they make sense, providing quite a few laughs throughout with their dialogue towards one another. When Duncan is set up and then accused of taking bribes to cut corners on the building of the casino, his life will unravel and he'll finally come to discover that he's more than fancy suits and money, he may even find people in town that will have his back and be willing to stand up for him, something he has never had in his life before. I look forward to the third book which will focus on Casey, his interactions with barmaid Abilene are highly amusing and I think that their book will be full of laughs and a delight to read. I'm really enjoying this series, which seems to be getting better with each new book released.
Reviewed by Annie and posted at Under The Covers Book Blog In the second installment to the Desert Dog series, Cara McKenna has every intention of snatching reader’s attentions and running with it. In GIVE IT ALL, McKenna’s writing is flawless, delving deep into character’s psyche while also introducing an intricate suspense plotline concerning the aftermath of what happened in the first book of the series. While you don’t necessarily need to read the first in the series to appreciate this story, it is ideal if you want the full reading experience. Raina Harper is one tough woman who intimidates but also intrigues Duncan Welch. Though they seem like polar opposites, their unexpected romance blooms beautifully under McKenna’s care. I loved how she was able to keep both their strong personalities in tack, never compromising who they were while creating a believable romance. Duncan surprised me. His OCD, while not his defining characteristic became something that initiated the help that Raina offered. Without it, there wouldn’t be much depth to his personality, but McKnna also uses it to create more vulnerability in a self-made man. I found him very intriguing. GIVE IT ALL definitely showcases McKenna’s talents as a writer in this suspenseful but also deeply thought-provoking instalment to the Desert Dogs series. *ARC provided by publisher
Betrayal, heartbreak and resolution: 4.25 stars--SOME BACKGROUND: Eclipse Resorts and Casinos has made many enemies in the sleepy, small town of Fortuity, Nevada as they forge ahead with plans to build and open a new casino. But a murdered police officer and ‘missing bones’ continues to spark anger and betrayal for the people of Fortuity when ERC dismisses the claims as PR and revenge by the angry townspeople. This is not a series about a motorcycle club but about a family of brothers and friends who like to ride. Told from third person point of view, GIVE IT ALL is the second installment in Cara McKenna’s contemporary, adult Desert Dogs erotic romance, suspense series focusing on a tight knit group of friends and family from Fortuity, Nevada who call themselves the Desert Dogs. This is bar owner Raina Harper and Duncan Welch’s storyline whose history together began in book. I would highly recommend reading the series in order as there is important information revealed in book one-LAY IT DOWN-regarding Eclipse Resorts and Casinos and their connection to Fortuity, Nevada. As the investigation continues into the death of police officer Alex Dunn and the story about ‘missing bones’, Eclipse Resorts and Casinos is still making enemies but this time their former solicitor Duncan Welch is the target of Fortuity, Nevada. With his career in ruins and his reputation in question by a town that sees him as the enemy, Duncan begins an investigation of his own earning the ire of local law enforcement and the FBI. Duncan will uncover more than he bargained and become the number one suspect in a possible murder-he will become the target of property damage and threats against his life as he continues to investigate the possibility of missing persons and murder. To keep him safe, bar owner Raina Harper will force a reluctant Duncan to move in with her knowing that her attraction to the well dressed litigator may be her undoing. The relationship between Raina and Duncan is one of immediate attraction but there is another man vying for Raina’s attention. Duncan tries to keep his distance but Raina offers a friends with benefits package – one that doesn’t guarantee a happily ever after or words of love and forever. Duncan is a well to do, British lawyer, with a hidden past, whose life style will be dramatically changed by his presence in Fortuity, Nevada including falling in love with the most unlikeliest of woman. The $ex scenes are intimate, revealing and provocative. The world building continues with the investigation behind Eclipse Resort and Casino’s involvement in murder, missing bodies, missing bones and a cover up. The well developed, colorful supporting and secondary characters include Vince and Kim (from book one) as well as Vince’s brothers Casey and Miah Grossier. Miah is a man obsessed and in love with Raina Harper but Raina is unable to give Miah what it is he wants- a forever and something more permanent. GIVE IT ALL is a romantic suspense filled storyline where two people from different backgrounds find love and a happily ever after for now. Nothing is guaranteed in Fortuity, Nevada when a powerful casino wants to destroy the area’s footprint bringing gambling and tourism to town for the bottom line. Interference will not be tolerated and anyone questioning their motives will find themselves targeted for termination. Cara McKenna pulls together family, friends and the town of Fortuity, Nevada into an intriguing storyline of mystery, suspense, romance and love. There are moments of betrayal, heartbreak and resolution blended with a growing relationship between a woman who sees herself as unworthy and a man who doesn’t quite fit in.