GUILTY AS SIN
Fourteen years ago, Kate Beckett was a teenager more interested in summer romance than babysitting. Then the unthinkable happened: her younger brother was kidnapped and murdered on her watch. Now she is an advocate for missing children, and her newest case brings her back to the small town where she lost her brother-and where she left behind the first boy she ever loved.
Tommy Ibarra's world fell apart after Kate broke his heart, and he's spent his adult life making sure that he'll never be vulnerable again. When a teenage girl vanishes, he offers his expertise as a high tech security expert to help find her. Although he's determined to keep his distance from Kate, it isn't long before he's falling under her spell all over again.
As they race against the clock, their investigation leads to a brutal killer with a shocking connection to Kate's tragic past. And this time, the killer has Kate firmly in his sights.
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Guilty as Sin
By Jami Alden
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 Jami Alden
All rights reserved.
As Kate Beckett steered her rented sedan off Highway 95, she felt her stomach clench with dread. Though she'd had nearly an hour and a half during the drive from the airport in Spokane, as she pulled off the highway and headed for the center of Sandpoint, Idaho, her heart rate doubled and the lump in her throat threatened to choke her.
While her dashboard display claimed it was a toasty eighty-three degrees outside, typical for the end of August, even in the mountains of Idaho, Kate felt like ice water was pumping through her veins, her fingers numbly clutching the steering wheel as she glanced down at her phone to double-check the directions.
Her route took her through the center of town and past Sandpoint's City Beach. Fourteen years had passed since Kate had been here, and she felt she was seeing the town as though through a dream. Everything at once searingly familiar yet oddly different as she cataloged the changes the town had undergone in a decade and a half. First Street was still crowded with tourists, as it always was in summer, families enjoying the last gasps of summer on the lake before school started.
The shop that had once sold beautiful hand-sewn quilts was now occupied by a Starbucks. But there was still a line trailing down the block in front of Ike's ice cream store. Kate watched two teenage girls and a boy, tanned and waterlogged from a day on the lake, towels draped around their necks, emerge from the shop. As they laughed and jostled each other around licks of enormous soft-serve cones, Kate felt her chest pinch and a burning behind her eyes.
How many times had she, Lauren, and Michael finished up a day of water-skiing and suntanning with chocolate dip cones from Ike's? They had been that carefree, that joyful, completely unaware of the asteroid hurtling toward them, moments away from blowing life as they knew it to smithereens.
Kate gave herself a mental shake and continued along the lakeshore. She needed to keep a sharp eye out for street signs, not lose herself in wallowing in the past.
The truth was, anything and everything in Sandpoint—from the way the piercingly blue sky competed for brilliance with the azure of Lake Pend Oreille, to the scent of the air—sunbaked earth mingled with crisp pine—to, yes, something as simple as the sight of an oversize ice cream cone—could send her hurtling back into the black hole if she let it.
But right now there was no time for that. Now she had to be strong, focused. Another girl, another family needed her and her expertise. She needed to be completely focused on getting her back to safety. To save the girl who still had a chance and waste no time grieving over the one who was long gone.
Kate turned down Kootenai Bay Road and tried to calm the trembling in her stomach. She knew this road, which wound its way through one of Sandpoint's most luxurious developments, all too well. She knew so many of these houses, houses occupied by her "lake friends," as she, Lauren and Michael had called them. Families who, like Kate's, had rented the same houses at the same time every year, until they'd formed something of a community, albeit one that only lasted a month or so out of every summer.
Once Kate and her family had been deeply entrenched in that community. But after the tragedy—as Mother called it—it was as though the previous seven summers hadn't existed, as though she and her sister and brother hadn't spent eleven months of the year anticipating the one they would spend here. This part of their lives—all the joy, friendships, everything—had been excised from their existence like a cancerous tumor.
She'd often wondered if their little community had gone on without them. She knew some had reached out to her parents and tried to keep in touch, but only because Kate had found cards and letters unopened in the trash. Put there by her father's social secretary as per his and her mother's instructions.
Did the Michaelsons still rent number 293? she mused as she drove by a familiar, massive post-and-beam house that edged up onto the lake.
There was another, even more impressive log home two houses down. Did the Burkharts, who lived most of the year outside of San Francisco, still own what they loved to call "their little lakeside retreat"? Did teenagers still gather around their bonfire before pairing off into the darkness to make out?
At the thought, a face flashed in her brain. Dark eyes sparking with amusement, a flash of white teeth against tan skin. Tempting her to sin even as she knew there would be hell to pay if she ever got caught ...
She gave herself a mental smack, sent the image fleeing.
She pulled up in front of number 540, which, had been rented by the Cunninghams the last summer she'd spent here. Kate hadn't spent much time there since the Cunningham kids were a few years younger. But her brother, Michael, had made fast friends with the oldest, Billy, the summer they were both eleven and had spent the next two summers having sleepovers here when they weren't watching movies and camping out in the Becketts' spacious rental about a quarter mile away.
She noticed the sheriff's car parked along the curb as well as the news van and the small throng of reporters and felt an eerie sense of déjà vu. Though she dealt with reporters all the time, seeing them in this setting was unnerving. Reminding her, reminding the world, that even in an idyllic setting such as this, evil could still lurk in the shadows.
She pulled into the driveway and braced herself before knocking. The noise from the crowd hit her like a wave as she marched determinedly up the front walkway. The press, anticipating her arrival, came at her like a swarm. She pushed her way through, ignoring their questions and saying only "I won't be making a statement until I meet with the family and the local authorities."
She barely had time to knock before the door swung open, revealing a middle-age woman dressed in khaki shorts and a light blue polo shirt. "It's good to see you again, Kate. Come on in." The woman gestured her in with a sweep of her hand. "Though I wish it could be under better circumstances," she quickly added.
Kate cocked her head at the woman's greeting. Kate was on television often enough that occasionally she was recognized, but the familiarity in the woman's voice and smile said that she should know her. She studied the woman's face for a moment, and then she got it.
Trade in the salt-and-pepper hair for dark brown and erase a decade and a half's worth of lines from the woman's face, and Kate recognized Tracy Albright who ran the quilt shop—now Starbucks—down on Main Street. "It's nice to see you too, Mrs. Albright," Kate said, smiling automatically though it felt strained at the edges.
She waved a hand. "Oh, call me Tracy. You're not sixteen anymore, and having a grown woman call me Mrs. Albright makes me feel about a hundred years old!"
"Are you a friend of Mr. Fuller's?" Kate asked as she followed Mrs. Albright—Tracy—through the slate-tiled entryway to the great room that adjoined the kitchen.
"Not exactly," Tracy replied over her shoulder as Kate took stock of the house where Michael had spent so much time that last summer. Though Kate herself hadn't spent tons of time here, she'd visited often enough to notice the changes. The layout of the house was the same—a massive great room with a stone fireplace adjoined the kitchen and was the center of the main floor. A wooden staircase led up the hall to the second floor with a gallery looking over the great room and two bedrooms on either end. A hallway off the great room led to two more rooms.
Two sets of sliders offered an unimpeded view of the lake and the Bitterroot and Selkirk Mountains above. Outside, the house was surrounded by a wooden deck with stairs that led down to the communal dock reserved for the houses clustered along this stretch of beach.
And across the lake, Kate could see dozens of Jet Skiers and power boats. In two weeks the lake would be virtually empty, no one left but the locals to enjoy the mountain paradise.
The mission-style couches and tables Kate remembered were gone, replaced with an overstuffed leather sectional and love seat. The kitchen, she noticed, had been completely remodeled. The terra-cotta tiles she remembered had been replaced by hardwood floors, the appliances all shiny stainless steel, the kind you'd find in a restaurant kitchen. Yet more evidence that life here had continued after the Becketts had left.
"After I sold the shop last summer, I thought I'd spend my retirement kicking back on the boat in the summer and cross-country skiing all winter," Tracy said as she led Kate down the hallway off the great room. "But turns out after working my tail off every day for thirty years, I don't have much patience for sitting around on my duff dangling a fishing pole over the side of the boat. I was bored stiff after just two weeks. Not to mention Art—my husband," she clarified, "thought that since I was home all the time, it meant I was going to turn into his personal servant. Got all ticked off when I wouldn't cook him a hot lunch every day. Thirty-five years of marriage and I've never made him a hot lunch, and suddenly I'm supposed to be Betty Crocker?"
Despite the circumstances, Kate felt the corner of her mouth quirk up at the woman's exasperated yet affectionate tone. She'd forgotten that about this place, how friendly the people were, inviting you into their homes and sharing confidences as if you were lifelong friends even if she hadn't set foot in the town in fourteen years.
Not to mention, they—her father, in particular—hadn't left on the best of terms with several of the locals.
"So anyway, instead of staying home thinking up ways I could kill Art without getting caught, I realized there are a lot of renters here with extra cash who might want to spend it on someone who can help with the grocery shopping, the cooking, the boat rentals, all that kind of stuff so when they get here they're all set up to enjoy the lake. So now the rental agency hires me out as sort of a personal concierge for renters who request it."
"That sounds like a great business," Kate said politely, though as she heard the low rumble of male voices coming from behind the closed door at the end of the hall, she felt a surge of anxiety, a need to get down to business. In the back of her mind she could hear the clock ticking with every beat of her heart, each second forward more foreboding than the last.
"These last couple of days I've been putting in some extra time here with the Fullers," Tracy continued, her face now somber. "I don't want Jackson and Brooke to worry about anything as silly as cooking dinner. I'm sure you can relate," she said, a sad smile tugging her lips as she reached out to pat Kate's arm.
Kate nodded, resisting the urge to yank away from the other woman's touch.
She knew the other woman meant nothing but kindness, but to this day, she couldn't help her violent, gut-deep resentment of such empty gestures. The sympathy, the pats on the hand or shoulder, the look of false understanding.
No one who hadn't gone through it could really understand. And even then, each person experienced the loss in a different way. Each family endured their unique crisis in their unique way.
She masked all of this behind the bland smile she'd perfected for the cameras and whispered a quiet thank-you to Tracy.
"That poor family," Tracy said with a sorrowful shake of her head. "First they lose the mother to cancer, and now this happens."
Kate's heart squeezed in sympathy, thinking how unfair the universe could be. Jackson's wife, Suzanne, had died of cancer less than a year ago. To face the possibility of losing a child ...
She swallowed back the lump in her throat and followed Tracy down the hall to the office. As Tracy knocked on the door, she straightened her shoulders and brought her focus back on the here and now. The past was the past. Now nothing was more important than to make sure the people behind the heavy wooden door did not become one of the people in the world who could truly relate to what Kate had gone through.
The door opened to reveal a tall, broad-shouldered man in his late forties. His face was haggard—Kate couldn't imagine that he'd slept in the past thirty- six hours. Deep lines were carved into either side of his mouth, and his silver- dusted blond hair looked like he'd run his hand through it a thousand times. Still, he was handsome, with his square jaw, sharp cheekbones, and blue eyes that glimmered with intelligence behind their strain.
Kate held out her hand. "Hello, Mr. Fuller," she said, unsmiling, her gaze locked on his. "Under different circumstances I would say it's nice to meet you, but I wish you didn't need my help here."
There was a faint twitch of his lips, a ghost of a smile. "Thanks for that. I have to say I agree. But I'm glad CJ was able to get in touch with you—any support we can foster in the community and the media will help."
At the mention, Kate smiled at the man who was lingering behind Jackson Fuller. Though she'd dreaded coming back to Sandpoint, she couldn't deny the flash of warmth she'd felt when she'd heard CJ—short for Cody James—Kovac's voice on the line yesterday morning. She'd met CJ when she was twelve, when his family had rented a house a few doors down from the Becketts. Two years later, his father decided to cash out of his successful software business and moved the family out to the lake full time.
Kate and Lauren had joked that with his sun-streaked brown hair and tanned, muscular—and usually shirtless—torso, CJ would have looked more at home on the beaches of San Diego than on a mountain lake in rural Idaho. With his quick smile and easy charm, CJ had taken it on himself to be their ambassador in Sandpoint. Once he'd earned his official townie status, he started taking them to all the cool parties none of the tourist kids ever got invited to.
Now she couldn't help noticing that his once-smiling green eyes had a somber cast. Partly due to the reason she was here, she was sure. But she knew most of the shadows had to do with the last year of his own life and the circumstances that led him to leave a promising career with the FBI and return home to Sandpoint.
It was funny seeing the boy who'd once smuggled a six-pack of Coors Light under his sweatshirt dressed in the brown and tan of the Bonner County Sheriff's uniform. And as she stepped forward to give him a hug, she couldn't help notice that he'd gotten a few inches taller and the muscular torso had filled out solidly enough that it strained the fabric of his uniform shirt.
"You look good, Kate," he said simply as he engulfed her in a hug. "I see you on TV all the time, but I'd forgotten how pretty you are in person."
Kate felt a flush of heat in her cheeks. At one time, CJ had made no bones about the crush he was nursing on her. But then Kate had only had eyes for another local boy.
She pulled away from CJ, turning her attention back to Fuller when she caught a movement from the shadows of the office from the corner of her eye.
"You—" The word got stuck halfway up her throat, and she took a step back as though punched by an unseen fist. Tommy Ibarra stepped fully from the shadows, and her mind spun with a thousand memories, a thousand questions. She stood there, dumbstruck, as one managed to squeeze its way to the surface of the quagmire. "What are you doing here?"
"Jackson asked me to join you," he replied.
Every cell in her body came alive at the familiar rumble of his voice, deeper now than it had been at nineteen. Yet there was nothing familiar in the flat, stony stare that met her own or the tight, grim line of his mouth.
Even as he looked at her with none of the warmth or tenderness she remembered, flashes of hot and cold tore through her and her stomach dove for her feet.
Get it together, she scolded herself. She'd known damn well when she decided to help with the Fuller case that she ran the risk of running into Tommy. She didn't know if he still lived here or not—it wasn't like she kept tabs on him. No matter how strong the urge to Google him sometimes became.
However, as his parents had lived here for generations, their sheep ranch one of the oldest in the area, their roots were so deep and so strong she couldn't imagine them ever leaving.
Excerpted from Guilty as Sin by Jami Alden. Copyright © 2013 Jami Alden. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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