- Pub. Date:
Rancher Brody Fields stops cold when he receives a plea for help from Rebecca Hughes. The onetime love of his life, who was abducted along with her brother fifteen years ago, now believes the kidnapper has returned to tie up loose ends. Rebecca needs Brody's help bringing the kidnapperor killerto justice.
For Brody, the job is risky, but the real danger is their unexpected Texas-sized attraction. As they uncover answers to difficultand deadlyquestions, Brody has a question of his own: Can he trust the woman who once shattered his heart?
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About the Author
USA TODAY Bestselling Author Barb Han lives in Texas with her adventurous family and beloved dogs. Reviewers have called her books "heartfelt" and "exciting." When not writing or reading, she can be found exploring Manhattan, on a mountain, or swimming in her backyard.
Read an Excerpt
Rebecca Hughes held her chin up and kept alert as she thrust her shopping cart through the thick, oppressive North Texas heat. She blinked against the relentless sun, a light so intense her eyes hurt.
The van parked next to her car in the grocery store lot pricked her neck hairs. Blacked-out windows blocked her view of the driver's side or anything else that might be lurking, waiting, ready. A warning bell wailed inside her head as she neared her sedan.
Today marked the fifteenth anniversary of that horrible day when both she and her younger brother were abducted, and it always put her on edge. The two had been isolated in separate sheds. When an opportunity had presented itself to run, Rebecca had escaped, thinking she could bring back help. Instead, she got lost in the woods and never saw her baby brother again.
Steering her cart toward the center of the aisle, she made sure no one could surprise her by jumping from between two cars. Tension squeezed her shoulder blades taut as memories assaulted her. Those thirty-six hours of torture before she escaped without her little brother, the horror and Shane's disappearance would haunt her for the rest of her life.
Shuddering at the memory, she tightened her grip on the handle and pushed forward. The early Friday-morning crowd was out. Most people were just beginning to run errands at the same time her workday ended. Her overnight shift at the radio station kept her sane after years of being afraid to be home alone in the dark.
She and Shane had been twelve and seven respectively when she'd sneaked out to play that stupid game with her friends. They'd been told to stay inside while the annual Renaissance Festival was in town, in full swing. Parents were busy, distracted. Strangers in costumes were everywhere. People came from nearly every state, descending on Mason Ridge in RVs and trailers and filling camp sites. And Shane was supposed to be asleep when she'd slipped out her bedroom window to meet up with her friends, not following her.
But none of that mattered. She should've realized sooner that the little stinker was trailing behind, his favorite blanket in tow. Shane had been her responsibility. And she'd let him down in the worst possible way.
The unfairness of his disappearance and her survival still hit with the force of a physical blow. His screams still haunted her. An imprint left by the horrible man who'd been dubbed the Mason Ridge Abductor was the reason she still watched every stranger warily.
When no one else had disappeared and all leads had been exhausted, law enforcement had written the case off as a transient passing through town. Logic said the man was long gone. Point being, he couldn't hurt her anymore. And yet, every time she got spooked he was the first person who popped into her thoughts. That monster had caused her to lose more than her sense of security. He'd shattered her world and taken away her ability to trust.
Her parents had divorced and become overbearing; friends looked at her strangely, as if she'd become an outcast; and she'd eventually pushed away the one person she'd truly lovedBrody Fields.
The van's brake lights created a bright red glow, snapping her focus to the present. Panic pressed heavy on her arms. Maybe she could circle around the next aisle and get back to the store before being seen.
There were a million wackos out there waiting to hurt unaware women, surprise being key to their attacks. Rebecca was fully present. She tightened her grip on the cart handle a third time, turned around and stalked toward her car. No one got to make her feel weak and afraid again.
Reaching inside her purse as she neared her vehicle, she gripped her Taser gun. Anyone trying to mess with her would get a big surprise and a few thousand volts of electricity. She wouldn't go down without a fight. Not again. She was no longer a shy twelve-year-old who could be overpowered in the dark.
With every forward step, the tension in Rebecca's body tightened. Her gaze was trained on the van.
She heard footsteps coming toward her from behind. Turning in time to catch a glimpse of a man rushing toward her, she spun around to face him. He was less than three feet away, moving closer. He wore a sweatshirt with the hood covering his hair and half of his face. Sunglasses hid his eyes. Before she could react, he slammed into her, knocking her off balance. She landed flat on the ground.
This time, she knew it was himhad to be him. She'd recognize that apple-tobacco smell anywhere. The scent had been burned into her senses fifteen years ago.
With the Taser already in hand, she struggled to untangle her purse strap from her arm. She shook free from his grasp, but not without upsetting the contents of her purse.
"You sick bastard. What did you do to my brother?" Aiming the blunt end of the Taser directly at his midsection, she fired.
The man fell to his knees, groaning, as she scrambled to her feet.
"What are you talking about, lady? You're crazy," he bit out through grunts and clenched teeth, convulsing on the ground.
Shaking off the fear gripping her, she snatched her handbag and ran to her car. She cursed, realizing some of the purse contents were on the ground. No way could she risk going back for them. Not with him there.
She hopped into the driver's seat, then closed and locked the door. Her fingers trembled, causing her to drop the keys. Scooping them off the floorboard, she tried to force a sense of calm over her.
Fumbling to get the key in the ignition, her logical mind battled with reality. That had to be him, right?
This wasn't like before when she'd mistaken one of the garbagemen for her abductor. Or the time she'd been certain he was posing as a cable guy. Anyone who'd come close and roughly matched her abductor's description had given her nightmares.
The sheriff had been convinced that no one from Mason Ridge was capable of doing such a horrific act. He'd said it had to be the work of a trucker or someone else passing through because of the festival. The FBI hadn't been so sure. They'd produced a list of potential suspects that had pitted neighbors and small-shop owners against one another. Personal vendettas had people coming forward.
As the investigation unfolded, there was no shortage of accused. And a town's innocence had been lost forever.
Determined investigators had traced freight cars and truckers that had passed through Mason Ridge the night both her and Shane had been abducted. In the days following, they'd scoured known teen hangouts, drained a lake and even set off dynamite in the rock quarry. But they'd come up empty.
They'd been reaching, just as she was now.
Guilt hit at the thought she could be overreacting. She'd never actually seen the face of the man who'd abducted them all those years ago. Had she just nailed a stranger with her Taser?
A quick glance in the side mirror said it didn't matter. This guy wasn't there to help with her groceries. The hooded man on the ground inched toward her, a menacing curve to his exposed lips, his body twitching.
She turned the ignition again with a silent prayer.
The engine cranked and she shifted into Reverse. Her tires struggled to gain traction as she floored the pedal. Fear, doubt and anger flooded her.
She checked the rearview again as she pulled onto the street. When she could be certain he wasn't following her, she'd pull over and call 911.
A few seconds later, she turned right onto the road and then made another at the red light, zipping into traffic at the busy intersection. A horn blared.
Adrenaline and fear caused her hands to shake and her stomach to squeeze. Tears stung the backs of her eyes. A couple more turns, mixing lefts and rights, and she pulled into a pharmacy parking lot. She reached for her purse, remembering that half the contents had spilled out in the parking lot. Had any of her personal information fallen out? On the concrete? Right next to him?
But it couldn't be him, could it?
Why would he come back after all these years?
The festival? The radio show? Every year she mentioned her brother near the anniversary of his disappearance and got threatening letters at the station. The sheriff's office followed up with the same result as previous years, no enthusiasm, no leads.
Rebecca couldn't write it off so easily, had never been able to. She scoured social media for any signs of Shane. Last month alone, she must've sent a dozen messages to people who matched Shane's description. Although she still hadn't given up, her results weren't any better than the sheriff's. But her resolve was.
Maybe it was her own guilt that kept her searching. Or, a deep-seated need to give their mother closure.
Rebecca rummaged through her bag, desperate to locate her cell, and found nothing. It must've fallen out of her purse. The sheriff's office was nearby. She'd have to drive to the station to file a complaint against her attacker. She cursed. No way could she get there in time for them to take her information and then catch him. He'd be long gone, most likely already was. She fisted her hand and thumped the steering wheel.
If her on-air mention of Shane hadn't rattled any chains, the media might have. Every year before the festival the local paper ran some kind of article referencing Shane's disappearance. This year being the fifteenth anniversary had brought out the wolves. A reporter had been waiting in the parking lot at work two weeks ago, trying to score an interview. He'd said he wanted a family member's perspective. She'd refused and then gone to the sheriff to ask for protection. Again, they did nothing to stop the intrusion, saying no laws had been violated.
Even Charles Alcorn, the town's wealthiest resident, had reached out to her. He'd helped with the search years ago and said he'd like to offer assistance again. What could he do that hadn't already been done?
This time, the sheriff's office couldn't ignore her. They would have to do something. The attack was concrete and too close for comfort. The man had shown up out of nowhere. She'd been so focused on getting away that she hadn't thought to see if he'd retreated to a car. A make and model, a license plate, would give the sheriff something to go on.
Her best chance at seeing him behind bars, overdue justice for her brother, had just slipped away. If that was him, a little voice inside her head reminded.
Did he have her cell phone? A cold chill ran down her back.
Wait a minute. Couldn't the sheriff track him using GPS?
Anger balled inside her as she drove the couple of blocks to the sheriff's office. What if they didn't believe her?
She hadn't physically been there in years, and yet she could still recall the look of pity on Sheriff Randall Brine's face the last time she'd visited. His gaze had fixed on her for a couple seconds, contemplating her. Then, he'd said, "Have you thought about getting away for a little while? Maybe take a long vacation?"
"I'm fine," she'd said, but they both knew she was lying.
"I know," he'd said too quickly. "I was just thinking how nice it'd be to walk through the surf. Eat fresh seafood for a change." Deep circles cradled his dark blue eyes and he looked wrung out. She'd written it off as guilt, thinking she was probably the last person he wanted to see. Was she a reminder of his biggest failure? Then again, it seemed no one wanted to see her around. "We've done everything we can. I wish I had better news. I'll let you know if we get any new information."
His tired stare had pinned her before he picked up his folder and refocused on what he'd been reading before she'd interrupted him.
Rebecca had wanted to stomp her feet and make a scene to force him to listen to her. In her heart, she knew he was right. And she couldn't depend on the sheriff to investigate every time something went bump in the night or a complete stranger reminded her of him.
Somehow, life had to go on.
Heaven knew her parents, overwrought with grief, had stopped talking to each other and to their friends. Instead of real conversation, there'd been organized searches, candlelight vigils and endless nights spent scouring fields.
When search teams thinned and then disappeared altogether, there'd been nothing left but despair. They'd divorced a year following Shane's disappearance. Her dad had eventually remarried and had two more children, both boys. And her mother never forgave him for it. She'd limited visitation, saying she was afraid Rebecca would feel awkward.
After, both parents had focused too much attention on Rebecca, which had smothered her. There'd been two and a half years of endless counseling and medication until she'd finally stood up to them. No more, she'd said, wanting to be normal again, to feel ordinary. And even though she'd returned to a normal life after that, nothing was ever normal again.
Although the monster hadn't returned, he'd left panic, loneliness and the very real sense that nothing would ever be okay again.
Since then, she'd had a hard time letting anyone get close to her, especially men. The one person who'd pushed past her walls in high school, Brody, had scared her more than her past. He'd been there that night. He'd stepped forward and said she was meeting him to give him back a shirt he had to have for camp so she wouldn't have to betray her friends. Her mother had never forgiven him. He'd been the one person Rebecca could depend on, who hadn't treated her differently, and he deserved so much more than she could give. Even as a teenager she'd known Brody deserved more.
Separating herself from him in high school had been the right thing to do, she reminded herself. Because every time she'd closed her eyes at night, fear that the monster would return consumed her. Every dark room she'd stood in front of had made her heart pound painfully against her chest. Every strange sound had caused her pulse to race.
And time hadn't made it better.
She often wondered if things would have turned out differently if she'd broken the pact and told authorities the real reason they'd been out.
Probably not. She was just second-guessing herself again. None of the kids had been involved.
Once Shane had been discovered following her, they'd broken up the game and gone home. Nothing would've changed.
Rebecca refocused as she pulled into a parking spot at the sheriff's office. By the time she walked up the steps to the glass doors, she'd regained some of her composure.
The deputy at the front desk acknowledged her with a nod. She didn't recognize him and figured that was good. He might not know her, either.
"How can I help you?"
"I need to speak to the sheriff."
"Sorry. He's not in. I'm Deputy Adams." The middle-aged man offered a handshake. "Can I help you?"
"I need to report an assault. I believe it could be connected to a case he worked a few years ago." She introduced herself as she shook his hand.
The way his forehead bunched after he pulled her up in the database made her figure he was assessing her mental state. Her name must've been flagged. He asked a few routine-sounding questions, punched the information into the keyboard and then folded his hands and smiled. A sympathetic look crossed his features. "I'll make sure the report is filed and on the sheriff's desk as soon as he arrives."
Deputy Adams might be well intentioned, but he wasn't exactly helpful. His response was similar as she reported her missing phone.
Not ready to accept defeat, she thanked him, squared her shoulders and headed into the hot summer sun.
Local law enforcement was no use, and she'd known that on some level. They'd let the man slip through their fingers all those years ago and hadn't found him since. What would be different now?
She thought about the fact that her little brother would be twenty-two years old now. That he'd be returning home from college this summer, probably fresh from an athletic scholarship. Even at seven, he'd been obsessed with sports. Maybe he still was. A part of her still refused to believe he was gone.
Rebecca let out a frustrated hiss. I'm so sorry, Shane.
What else could she do? She had to think. Wait a minute. What about her cell? If her attacker had picked it up, could she track him somehow? Her phone might be the key. She could go home and search the internet to find out how to locate it and possibly find him. And then do what? Confront him? Alone? Even in her desperate state she knew that would be a dangerous move.
Could she take Alcorn up on his offer to help?
And say what?
Would he believe her when the sheriff's office wouldn't? She needed help. Someone she could trust. Brody? He was back from the military. Even though she hadn't seen him in years, he might help.
If she closed her eyes, she could remember his face perfectly. His honest, clear blue eyes and sandy-blond hair with dark streaks on a far-too-serious-for-his-age face punctuated a strong, squared jaw. By fifteen, he was already six foot one. She couldn't help but wonder how he'd look now that he was grown. The military had most likely filled out his muscles.