Witnessing a murder plunges Nina Owens into nerve-shattering danger. Police chief Flint Colton is sure the perp is taking down witnesses, so the handsome cop orders Nina into protective custody in his home! And while she's grateful to him, Nina just can't shake her deep distrust of police. But all that falls away when Flint's scintillating kiss awakens something deep within her.
As Thanksgiving approaches with Dead River quarantined, the search for a missing child puts Nina and the killer on a collision course. She knows Flint is haunted by a past failure to save a witness and that he'll put himself in the line of fire before he ever lets her down.
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Chief of Police Flint Colton jammed on the brakes of his patrol car and with a quick flip of the steering wheel, squealed to a halt along the side of the gravel road.
He slapped his black cowboy hat more firmly on his head and jumped out of the car, closing the door as quietly as possible behind him. He pulled his gun and headed into the woods that formed a perimeter on one side of the small town of Dead River, Wyoming.
He entered the heavily wooded area with his adrenaline pulsing through him. He'd seen something moving among the nearly bare trees not just something, but rather someone on two legs, someone who definitely didn't belong there.
It could be either one of two people, a cold-blooded killer who was on the loose or the stupid kid who had left Flint's cousin, Molly, at the altar, but not before he'd cleaned out her bank accounts and stolen Flint's grandmother's heirloom ring.
Right now he didn't much care which man it might be; he only knew he'd seen the flash of a red jacket running through the woods that might mean an arrest, and he was desperate for something positive to happen.
He'd lost sight of his prey, but raced in the direction he'd last seen the person running. All of his senses were acutely alive. The scent of November surrounded him with smells of withering leaves and the pleasant odor of a wood-burning fireplace coming from somewhere in the distance.
He not only heard the snap and crackle of dead tree limbs and the crunching of leaves ahead of him, but he also heard the nearby scurry of wildlife disturbed by his presence in their home.
A desperate need drove Flint forward. The town needed something good to happen after the past month of nothing but bad news and abject fear. He hoped the man he chased was Hank Bittard, a murderer who had nearly killed a deputy when he'd escaped from custody last week. Getting that man back behind bars would at least ease some of the worries of the people of the small town.
He muttered a curse as he tripped over an exposed root, nearly going down on one knee. He straightened up and then paused and listened.
Nothing. He didn't hear the noise of somebody crashing over dried brush or the snapping of twigs as anyone ran away. He heard nothing to indicate that he wasn't completely alone in the woods.
Had Flint only imagined the flash of red, the motion of a person running in the woods? Or was the person he pursued also standing perfectly still now as well, waiting for Flint to make a move and give away his position?
He tightened his grip on his gun, hearing his own heartbeat echoing in his head. Bittard wouldn't think twice about putting a bullet through Flint's heart. He was a ruthless killer who had initially been arrested for the murder of his boss. Flint would love to get him back into custody. But Flint also didn't know for sure if the man had a weapon or not.
He moved forward once again, a dose of reality taking the edge off the initial adrenaline rush that had gripped him. He had to admit that whoever he might have been chasing was gone now, and he had no idea in what direction to proceed.
He continued walking and veered slightly to his left, attempting to move as quietly as possible. His breath caught in his chest as he came gun to gun with a man in a white HAZMAT suit.
Flint instantly raised his hands and slowly backed away, grateful that he was clad in his black police uniform and that the sun caught and glinted off his badge.
Flint knew there was only one reason the man in the HAZMAT suit would shoot him and that was if Flint tried to get by him and step out of the perimeters the CDC had set up. Whoever Flint had been chasing wouldn't have a way out of town, not with the quarantine in place.
"Did anyone come this way before me?" Flint asked.
The man in the suit shook his head.
Discouraged, he slowly continued to back away from the man and then turned and headed to his car.
The opportunity to catch the person in the woods had been lost this time.
It was just after noon. He'd check in with his men at the station and then head to the diner for some lunch. He still believed that Hank was hiding out in the woods, a place where he'd often go with his buddies for target shooting. The woods would continue to be a focal point for Flint to hunt for Hank.
As he drove onto Main Street and into the center of town, he was disheartened by the lack of people on the streets, the eerily deserted air of what had been a thriving little town until the mysterious disease had struck.
He clenched his hands around the steering wheel, acknowledging that at the moment there was nothing that could be done about the quarantine preventing people from entering or leaving the town.
The entire town of Dead River was trapped by a deadly disease with no cure so far and shut in with a desperate killer who had no place to run and had yet to be apprehended.
The police station was in the middle of town, a one-story brick building with two small jail cells in the basement and a larger general holding cell. The two cells had seemed adequate for such a small town when Flint had been voted in as chief of police, but he wondered now if, because of the quarantine, they'd have to figure out a way to cobble together more cells as tensions rose and tempers flared. Already occupying the general holding cell was Doug Gasper, a stalker who'd recently been apprehended at his brother Theo's ranch.
The pair of cells in the basement were reserved for the likes of of Hank Bittard and Jimmy Johnson, the young man who had taken advantage of sweet Molly, and it was anyone's guess who might go around the bend and become a danger to others due to the stress and anxiety of the quarantine.
He parked his car and got out, hoping that one of his deputies might have some news about the two missing men, or perhaps an update about the mystery illness that had struck and forced the CDC to quarantine the town.
Kendra Walker greeted him from behind her desk in the small reception area. She worked during the day as both receptionist and dispatcher.
"Hey, Chief," she said and then the phone rang, taking her attention away from him.
He gave her a wave and pushed through the doors that led into the area where the officers had their desks. His private office was at the back of the room, along with a single room that was used for interrogations or staff meetings.
Flint was thirty-two years old but at the moment he felt closer to sixty. The weight of the events of the past month sat heavily on his shoulders, and even heavier in his heart.
"Have you been rolling around in the woods?" Officer Patrick Carter stepped in front of Flint and picked out a twig that had been trapped beneath his collar. He tossed it in a nearby trash can and then turned back and looked at Flint expectantly.
"I was patrolling near the woods on the west side of town, and I thought I saw somebody running. I got out and gave chase, but I didn't manage to catch whoever it was," Flint said, unable to help the frustration that edged into his voice.
"Hmm. That squares with a report we got earlier this morning. Walt Jennings called in to say that somebody broke into his shed overnight. Whoever it was, they stole some rope, a fillet knife and some canned goods that Walt had stored in there. Mike and Larry went out to talk to Walt and check out the shed to see if maybe they could pull some prints."
"Sounds like one of our fugitives is getting desperate," Flint replied thoughtfully. "This makes three break-ins in homes around the perimeter of those woods. It was a gun and food that was taken last week. I'd like to know if it's Bittard or Johnson who now has a gun and a knife."
"Let's hope it's Jimmy. He might be able to charm a young woman right out of her life savings and break her heart, but I don't think he has it in him to shoot or stab anyone," Patrick replied.
"Let's hope," Flint said. "I'm going to head over to the diner for some lunch. You want to join me?"
"Nah, I grabbed a burger earlier. I'll stick around here and hold down the fort."
"If you need me just give me a call, and let me know if Mike and Larry discover anything useful at Walt's place," Flint said and with Patrick's nod of assent, Flint left the building.
The diner was two blocks from the sheriff's station, and he decided to walk it. The November sun was warm on his back although there was a definite bite to the air that portended winter's imminent appearance.
Winter in Wyoming could be rough, but this winter would be particularly tough on the town if they had to spend Christmas still under quarantine, if a desperate killer was still trapped in the town and not in custody and if more people got sick and died.
The Dead River Diner was like diners and cafés in hundreds of small towns across the country, with red booths lining the walls, square tables in the center and a long counter where Flint usually sat whenever he came into the place. There was even an old working jukebox that played ancient country songs for a quarter, and it was played a lot.
As he walked the sidewalk, he passed the post office, a dress boutique and the grocery store. Across the street was the Blue Bear Restaurant, popular for special-occasion dining. There was also the Dead River Café and a hardware store.
He waved at the old man who sat on a bench in front of the hardware store. Eighty-five-year-old Harvey Watters had lost his wife three years ago.
Since Harvey's wife's death, the old man ate breakfast each day at the café and then sat on the bench until lunchtime. He'd return to the café for lunch and then resume his seat on the bench until just before dark, when he finally headed home. The only days Harvey wasn't on the bench was when it rained.
Harvey lived two houses down from Flint's house in the center of town. The two men had struck up an unlikely friendship, and it wasn't unusual for Flint to stop in at Harvey's house for a quick game of chess or a couple of beers on an occasional evening. Unfortunately, over the past month there had been little time for that kind of pleasant socializing.
He took off his hat and shoved open the door to the diner and was greeted by the scents of burgers frying and sauces simmering, an olfactory assault that was pure pleasure.
Even more pleasurable was the sight of Nina Owens, the diner's owner, behind the counter. He'd been attracted to Nina since the moment he'd moved back to town, but with his brother Theo's health issues and the fact that he'd suddenly found himself chief of police, there had been little time to pursue anything resembling a romance.
And now, with the additional pressures of a murderer loose and the virus that had people afraid of their own shadows, this definitely wasn't the time for him to think about a relationship.
In any case, he was fairly certain Nina wasn't particularly attracted to him. Although she was always friendly when she served him, she rarely stuck around to chitchat, and he'd always felt a distance, a wall rising up whenever she interacted with him.
She stood at the far end of the counter, her pretty face lit with a warm smile as she poured more coffee into a cup for Jeff Cambridge, a muscular, dark-haired man who worked as a teller at the bank.
Her thick and wavy auburn hair was captured with a red tie at the nape of her neck, but he knew that when it was loose, it was a glorious mane of burnished reds and gold that fell to just below her shoulders.
The black slacks that were part of the diner uniform fit perfectly on her slender legs, and the white blouse showcased a slender waist and full breasts.
She finished pouring the coffee, put the pot back on the burner and then turned and saw him. He wasn't sure if he imagined the slight narrowing of her hazel eyes, but by the time she reached him, she smiled at him in friendliness.
"Good afternoon, Flint," she said. "What can I get for you?"
"A burger and fries and a cup of coffee," he replied. Before she turned to place the order, he quickly spoke again. "How's business these days?"
"Not great, but I suppose I can't complain. At least we still have customers coming in." She looked around the diner, which on a Saturday afternoon would usually be packed but now only held a handful of people. "I almost feel as if I'm on vacation since we're opening at 9:00 a.m. now instead of five-thirty, but business has dropped off enough that I couldn't justify the early hours anymore. I'm planning a big Thanksgiving feast for everyone in town, a free traditional turkey dinner. I'm hoping to have a big crowd that day. I think we could all use a day of community and mutual support."
"That sounds great. It's a generous gesture." He knew through the grapevine that Nina was known as a positive force in town. She was a Search and Rescue volunteer and had a reputation for being cheerful and optimistic no matter what the circumstances.
He frowned thoughtfully. "Aren't you afraid of getting sick? You work here with the public every day, and if you're inviting the whole town to a feast, there's really no way to know who might be sick with the virus and who isn't."
Her eyes sparkled, and her lips curved into a smile that fired a hint of heat in the pit of his stomach. "If I was going to get the Dead River virus, it probably would have already happened by now. Besides, I refuse to live my life being afraid of friends and neighbors."
She didn't wait for him to reply, but instead twirled on her feet, placed his order with the kitchen and then wandered back down to the opposite side of the counter.
Flint drew a weary sigh. It was obvious she didn't feel any spark of interest in him. It was probably a good thing because with a killer to catch and his own grandmother suffering from the mysterious illness that had the town quarantined, the last thing he needed to entertain was any idea of a romance with the hot owner of the local diner.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another wonderfully written Colton story!
The chilling undertones of the story based on the circumstances of the town are contrasted with the budding romance creating a unique and impacting mix. There are so many layers to this story that you’re always on your toes, wondering what will happen next and getting lost in this enchanting story. The passage of time is easily marked without rushing the reader or breaking the intensity of the story. I really appreciate the fact that the story takes place over weeks rather than days. That way you don’t feel like the relationship is a whirlwind based on a whim. This excitingly fast paced story definitely kept me coming back for more. I found that learning about the characters’ pasts in such detail made the story seem more intimate and personal. Seeing both characters’ POV in the story not only developed the characters well and provided insight into the story at large but also made for some rather comical moments. Not only that, but the main characters were such inviting individuals that I found myself really wanting to know them and be a part of their story. As a whole this was an intricately written and very well put together novel. It’s an easy, quick read that both kept me on my toes and gave a healthy dose of romance. Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this work in exchange for an honest review.