Category Archives: Bitterwood P.D.

[Review] Smoky Ridge Curse by Paula Graves

Smoky Ridge Curse  by Paula Graves

Publication date: August 1, 2013
Publisher: Harlequin Intrigue

<div style=”font-size:11px”>Publication date: 05/01/2013</div>Bitterwood P.D. #3
Pages: 217

Back of the book

 
Two former partners find their feelings rekindled when they’re forced to uncover the truth in Paula Graves’s Bitterwood P.D. trilogy! 

Assistant FBI director Adam Brand is out of time. His attempt to expose a domestic terrorist hiding in plain sight has left him with more questions than answers. Still, asking his former FBI subordinate Delilah Hammond for help is even more dangerous.
Once before, the unexpected heat between them drove her back to her mountain hometown-and Adam to the heights of the Bureau. And now, as a new sheriff, Delilah has much more to lose…even as her skills and determination leave Adam breathless all over again. Staying two steps ahead of their ruthless quarry reignites a desire neither can resist. But as Delilah puts herself on the line to set a lethal trap, will they survive to explore the future neither has given up on?



My Review: 

4.5 Star Review – Bitterwood P.D. series

I recommend this book.


As always I enjoyed this book by Paula.  Have yet to be disappointed by Paula as she adds plenty of drama, passion, and romance.  She captures the small town feel and you really feel as if the characters in her books are real.  Look forward to the next book in this series.

I can’t wait for the next book in the Bitterwood P.D. series due out in 2014.
Delilah Hammond starts her new job as detective on the Bitterwood Police department in a week. Before starting the job she is trying to keep her mother from drinking. Her mother has tried to stop drinking for years but has not been able to stop.
Special Agent Adam Brand is on the run from the FBI who thinks he is a traitor. He has been framed for espionage and murder. He has run to his former protégée, Delilah. She is former FBI but left after Brand and her had one night of passion. They both had their own reasons for not fighting for more than one night.      
As they decide what to do about Brand’s predicament someone goes after Delilah’s brother Seth. They rescue Seth and Rachel from danger and get them hidden away while they try to get Brands name cleared.
As they work together on putting the pieces of the puzzle in order the passion that is below the surface overflows.  
They are working against the clock and Delilah assumes once Adam’s name is cleared he will go back to the FBI and she will be picking up the pieces of her heart once again. 
Once they think they have the main player in the frame up. They decide to confront them in a roundabout way. Delilah decides to meet the man and play as if Adam has left her and she will give him up. But there is an explosion and Adam is wondering if Delilah is even alive.
As they uncover the players of the frame up a few of them come as surprises.  You reconnect with a few characters from the Cooper Justice Cold Case Investigation and the Cooper Security series.  If you want to get technical you also get one of the characters from the forbidden series.    

You can feel the chemistry between the two throughout the book.

To find out the answers to the below pick up the book:

Who is behind the framing of Adam?
Who does Adam see who everyone believes died years before?
What happened to Delilah and why?

 

A few of my favorite parts of the book:

He laid his hands on her cheeks, studying her face. “You have to know you’re brilliant and capable.”

“I do know,” she admitted with another little laugh. ”But I’ve never heard anyone else say it.”

He laughed in response, pressing his lips against her forehead. “I never knew you needed anyone to say it.” He pulled away, smiling down at her. “You walked into my office like you owned the place and told me what you intended to do and how I was going to help you make it happen, remember?”

She nodded, cringing a little at the memory. “That’s what you fancy educated people call bravado. I was scared out of my gourd but I didn’t dare let anyone know it. So I pretended I was a big ol’ bitch on wheels who wasn’t going to let anyone tell me no. I kept hoping that if I did that long enough and loud enough, one day I might believe it myself.”

 

“We can set up something really high-tech. We know the stuff to get. Maybe a button mike with a remote receiver. He’d never spot it.”

“This is my mess, Delilah, not yours.”

She stared at him, frustrated. “You called me Delilah.”

“It’s your name.”

 “You only call me Delilah when you’re putting your foot down.”

“It’s too dangerous.”

“No. Quinn’s bought a big building in Purgatory, Tennessee.  Turns out that’s where the old bastard grew up.”
“He wasn’t spawned, fully grown, from some alien space pod?”
Brand gave her hip a little slap.
 

 

Contact Info for Paula Graves

 

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About Paula:


Down here in the American South, we don’t hide our crazy people. We showcase them. I’ve always thought it was because eccentric people make for the best stories, and we Southerners love our stories. Faulkner, McCullers, O’Connor, Porter—these are our chroniclers, writers steeped in the slow, steady pulse of the South’s pride, suffering, honor, madness, venality and redemption. I grew up in Alabama, the heart of the South, and live here still. The need to tell stories has been a driving force in my life from a very young age.

When I was younger, my favorite books were Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries and Harlequin Romances. When I realized there were books that featured both romance and mystery, I knew I’d found my calling. Now I write for Harlequin Intrigue, where I get to play both matchmaker and murderer and get paid for it.  I’ve also recently self-published a couple of romantic suspense ebooks, available on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and Smashwords.

I work a full-time day job at a Birmingham ad agency, where I’m a copywriter and graphic designer, a background that comes in handy when it’s time to redesign my website and create promotional materials for my books. I’m also known among certain circles as the Cat Whisperer, but that’s a whole other story. I love to hear from readers, so please click the contact button and tell me what you think about my books.


 
 

Read an Excerpt

Winter had come to Bitterwood, Tennessee, roaring in on a cold, damp wind that poured down the mountain passes and shook the remnants of browning leaves from the sugar maples, sweet gums and dogwoods growing at the middle elevations. Delilah Hammond remembered well from childhood the sharp bite of an Appalachian November and dressed warmly when she headed up the winding mountain road to her mother’s place on Smoky Ridge.

Reesa Hammond was on day three of her latest hop on the sobriety wagon, and withdrawal had hit her hard, killing her appetite and leaving her shaking, angry and suffering from a persistent headache no amount of ibuprofen seemed to relieve. Frankly, Delilah was surprised her mother had bothered trying to stop drinking at all at this point, since her previous eight attempts at sobriety had all ended the same way, five fingers deep in a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey.

Delilah didn’t kid herself that this time Reesa would win the battle with the bottle. But Reesa had taken a hell of a lot of abuse trying to protect Delilah and her brother, Seth, from their sick creep of a sperm donor, so a little barley soup and a few minutes of company wasn’t too much to offer, was it?

Her cell phone beeped as she turned her Camaro into a tight curve. She waited until the road straightened to answer, aware of how dangerous the mountain roads could be, especially at night with rain starting to mix with sleet. “Hammond.”

“Just checking to make sure you hadn’t changed your mind.” The gruff voice on the other end of the line belonged to a former leatherneck named Jesse Cooper, the man who’d been her boss for the past few years, until she’d given her notice two weeks earlier.

“I haven’t,” she answered, tamping down the doubts that had harassed her ever since she’d quit the best job she’d ever had.

“You’re overqualified.”

“I know.”

“You’re no good at small-town politics.”

“I know that, too.”

“You should have held out for chief of police, at least.”

She grinned at that. “Talk about small-town politics.”

“I can keep the job open for a month or two, but that’s it. Our caseload’s growing, and I can’t afford to work shorthanded.”

“I know. I appreciate the vote of confidence in me, but I’m ready for a change.” She tried not to dwell on just how drastic a change she’d made in the past two weeks. Going from a global security and threat assessment firm to a detective on one of Tennessee’s tiniest police forces was turning out to be a shock to the system even she hadn’t anticipated.

She still wasn’t sure why, exactly, she’d decided to stick around Bitterwood, Tennessee, after so many years away. She only knew that a few weeks ago, when the time had come to go back to work in Alabama after an extended assignment in her old hometown, her feet had planted firmly in the rocky Tennessee soil and refused to budge. She’d returned to Maybridge just long enough to work out her two-week notice, talk her landlord into letting her break her long-term lease, and gather up her sparse belongings. Two days ago, she’d moved into a rental house off Vesper Road at the foot of Smoky Ridge. In a week, she’d start her new job with the Bitterwood Police Department.

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything else about Adam Brand?” she added as the silence between her and her former boss lingered past comfort.

“Nothing yet. We have feelers out. I know you’re worried.”

“Not worried,” she denied, though it was a lie. “More confused than anything. Going AWOL is not an Adam Brand kind of thing to do. And there’s no way in hell he’s a traitor to this country. It’s not in his DNA.”

“Your brother still won’t tell you anything more about the work he did for Brand?”

“I don’t think Seth knows anything more,” Delilah said. “He didn’t ask a lot of questions, and Brand’s not one to shoot off his mouth.” Even when a few well-chosen words might do him a world of good, she added silently.

“Isabel and Ben have both been trying to reach him, but they’re not having much luck. They didn’t keep in close touch with Brand after leaving the bureau.”

“It happens.” Delilah ignored the stinging pain in the center of her chest. “I’ve got to go. I’m taking soup and sympathy to my mom. She’s on the wagon again.”

“Oh.” She could tell by Jesse’s careful tone that he wanted to say something encouraging, but he’d been around for three or four of her mother’s last brief flirtations with sobriety and knew better than to dish out false hope. “I hope she makes it this time.”

“Yeah, me, too. Say hi to everyone. And call me if you get any news about Brand. I don’t think this Davenport case is really over yet, and he seems to know something about it.”

“Will do.” Jesse hung up.

The Davenport case was at least part of the reason she’d stuck around Bitterwood. Two months earlier, the murders had started—four women found stabbed to death in their beds, though they’d clearly been killed elsewhere. A Bitterwood P.D. detective named Ivy Hawkins had made the first clear connection between the murders—all four women had been friends with a woman named Rachel Davenport, whose dying father owned Davenport Trucking in Maryville, Tennessee, a town twenty minutes from Bitterwood.

When Ivy had caught the murderer, he’d admitted he’d been hired to kill the women. With his cryptic dying words, he’d hinted the killings had everything to do with Rachel Davenport, as Ivy had suspected. Someone had wanted to torment Rachel until she broke, and only after several close calls had the police discovered a struggle for control of Davenport Trucking was at the heart of the campaign of emotional torture. 

If there was anything good to come out of the whole mess, it was that Delilah’s black sheep of a brother, Seth, had ended up a hero and even won the girl—he and Rachel Davenport were already talking rings and wedding dates, which seemed pretty quick to Delilah. Then again, she was thirty-four and single. Some might say she was a little too cautious about affairs of the heart.

Her mother’s house was a small cabin near the summit of Smoky Ridge, prone to power outages when the winter storms rolled in. But she had a large fireplace in the front room and a smaller woodstove to warm her bedroom, both of which seemed to be working based on the twin columns of smoke rising over the fir trees surrounding the small cabin.

A thin layer of sleet had started to form on the hard surface of the narrow driveway next to the cabin, crunching under Delilah’s boots as she crossed the tiny concrete patio to the kitchen entrance. She had to bend into the wind as it gusted past her, slapping the screen door against the wall of the cabin.

It swung back as she passed, crashing into her with an aluminum rattle.

She stopped short, skidding on the icy pellets underfoot, and stared at the offending screen door. It hung sideways, still flapping in the cold wind, as if someone had tried to rip it from its hinges.

Moving slowly, she stepped back and reached into her pocket for her keychain, where she kept a small flashlight attached to the ring. She snapped it on and ran the narrow beam across the patio beneath the door.

Dark red splotches, still wet and glistening beneath the thin layer of sleet, marred the concrete surface. Another streak of red stained the aluminum frame of the broken door.

Her first thought was that her mother had gone back on the bottle, taken a spill, and was laid up inside somewhere, drunkenly trying to patch herself up. It was the most logical assumption.

But a lot of bad things had been happening in Bitterwood in the last couple of months. And between her FBI training and her years working for Cooper Security, Delilah always assumed the worst.

Setting the bag of takeout soup on the patio table, she pulled her Sig Sauer P229 from the pancake holster behind her back and tried the back doorknob. Unlocked.

She eased the door open. Heat blasted her, a welcome contrast to the icy breeze prickling the exposed skin of her neck. Somewhere in the house, a vacuum cleaner was running on high, its whine almost drowning out the whistle of the wind across the eaves.

She shut the door quietly. Keeping her eyes and ears open, she moved as silently as she could, checking each room as she went. If there had been blood splotches inside the house, they’d been cleaned up already. The rough wood floor beneath her feet was worn but spotless.

In the den at the front of the house, the sound of the vacuum cleaner roared with full force. Reesa Hammond was running an upright vacuum with cheerful energy, dancing to whatever tune she was singing beneath the noise of the cleaner.

She swirled the cleaner around in the opposite direction and jumped when she saw Delilah standing in the doorway, weapon in hand.

Reesa shut off the vacuum cleaner and put her hand over her chest. “Good lord, Dee Dee, you scared me out of my wits!”

“Are you okay?”

Reesa’s brow furrowed. “I’m fine. Are you okay?”

After a pause, Delilah reholstered her Sig Sauer. “Did you know the screen door to the kitchen’s been nearly ripped off its hinges?”

“Really?” Reesa looked surprised. “It was fine when I got back from the mailbox this afternoon. I guess the wind’s stronger out there than I thought.”

“I don’t think it was the wind,” Delilah murmured, remembering the blood on the patio. “You didn’t hear anything?”

“I was in the shower for a little while, then running the hair dryer, and I’ve been vacuuming the place ever since. I reckon half the mountain could have come down out there and I wouldn’t have heard it.” She cocked her head. “You look tired.”

Delilah gazed back at her mother through narrowed eyes. “I thought you were feeling bad.”

Reesa looked sheepish. “I was, this morning. But when you called and said you were coming over, I didn’t want you to see what a mess the place was, so I started cleaning up. And before I knew it, my headache was gone and I was feeling so much like my old self, I thought maybe I’d surprise you by having dinner ready for you when you got here.” She sighed. “But you’re early. I haven’t put the casserole in the oven yet.”

“I brought barley soup from Ledbetter’s Café.” And left it out in the cold, she realized, where it had probably reached refrigerator temperature by now

“And I’ve ruined it for you by feeling better.” Reesa patted her cheek. “I’m sorry. I know I must seem such a mess to you.”

Unexpected tears burned Delilah’s eyes. She blinked them away. “I’m just glad you’re feeling better.”

Reesa’s smile faded. “This is the farthest I’ve gotten, you know? I’ve never reached the point where I actually feel better not drinking. It’s a surprise, I have to say!”

“Well, good.” Delilah couldn’t keep a hint of caution out of her voice. She could tell her mother didn’t miss the inflection, for Reesa’s green eyes darkened with shame for a moment.

But she lifted her chin and smiled at her daughter. “I think it’s havin’ my kids around me again. I’ve missed you both so much.”

“Seth’s been by?” Delilah asked as her mother unplugged the vacuum cleaner and started looping the cord around the hooks in the back.

“He stopped in with Rachel earlier today.” Reesa slanted a quick look at Delilah. “She’s good for him.”

“She’s great for him,” Delilah agreed. “She’s crazy about him, too. Go figure.”

“What about you?” Putting the vacuum cleaner away in the living room closet, Reesa paused to look over her shoulder. “Met anyone you like?”

“Not recently,” Delilah answered. Actually, she’d met her share of men over the course of working for Cooper Security, but none who’d interested her enough to keep seeing him long-term.

There was only one man she’d ever really wanted, and though he’d never be hers, she still seemed to measure every man she met against him.

“Maybe you’ll meet someone when you start work.”

“Maybe,” Delilah agreed in order to end this particular topic of conversation. She’d already met everyone in the Bitterwood Police Department without a single spark flying. Most were married, and of those who weren’t, only Antoine Parsons was remotely interesting. But he was seeing someone in Maryville, and Delilah had never been a poacher.

Even when the man she wanted was married to his career.

“I can put the casserole in the freezer and make it some other time, since you brought soup.” Reesa nudged Delilah down the hall to the kitchen.

“No, the soup will keep in the fridge. I’m curious to see this casserole you’ve cooked up.” Delilah spotted a foil-covered glass casserole dish sitting by the refrigerator. She sneaked a peek under the foil, recognizing green beans, carrots, chicken chunks and whole-kernel yellow corn, topped with cheese and fried onions. “You made pantry casserole!” She turned to her mother, a smile playing at her lips.

“I didn’t have much in the pantry, but I thought it would be nice to fix something for you.” Reesa’s smile held a hint of apology. “Maybe next time you come, I’ll go shopping first and make something from scratch instead of out of cans.”

Impulsively, Delilah hugged her mother. “Pantry casserole is my favorite. I make it at home all the time.”

Reese’s thin arms tightened around Delilah’s back. “You do?”

“I do. Can’t go wrong—”

“With a casserole,” Reesa finished in unison with her.

“I’ll go outside and get the soup. You get that in the oven and then we can talk while it’s cooking.” Delilah let go of her mother and opened the back door. “Mom, you need to start locking your door.”

“Nobody ever bothers me up here.”

“Famous last words,” Delilah muttered as she stepped out onto the sleet-pebbled patio to fetch the soup.

But the paper bag was gone.

Delilah froze, scanning the area behind the house for any sign of an intruder. Visibility wasn’t great, between the steady needling of sleet and the cold mist swallowing the top of the mountain. Seeing nothing out of place, she pulled out her flashlight and checked the ground around the patio table. No sign of the bag of takeout soup, but the layer of sleet on the patio had been disturbed.

She couldn’t say the streaks of bare patio were definitely footsteps—she supposed it was more likely that a hungry raccoon or opossum had grabbed himself a ready-made meal—but a thin film of blood on the edge of the table was troubling enough to send her reaching for her Sig again.

“Hello?” she called, loudly enough that a faint echo of her voice rang back to her from deep in the woods.

No answer.

The cabin door opened behind her, making her jump. “Dee Dee, is something wrong?”

“The soup is gone.”

“Oh.” Reesa looked nonplussed.

“Probably a raccoon or something.”

“Hope it’s not a bear.” Reesa shuddered. “Pam Colby said she saw a black bear in her backyard just last week, looking for a place to nest for the winter. She shooed it off by banging some pots together.”

“I don’t think it’s a bear.” Delilah’s gaze settled on the film of blood. “I’m going to take a look around, okay? I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“It’s freezing out there. I’m sure it was just an animal, Dee. Why don’t you come back in here where it’s warm? Let the raccoon have the soup. He probably needs it more than we do.”

“I’m just going to walk the perimeter. There’s some blood on the table—maybe it’s injured and needs help.”

“Oh, poor thing. Okay, but hurry up. The temperature’s dropping like crazy out here. They’re talking about maybe our first snow of the season.” Reesa backed into the house, closing the door behind her.

Stamping her feet to get some of the feeling back into her cold toes, Delilah headed out into the yard, keeping the beam of the flashlight moving in a slow, thorough arc in front of her.

She discovered more blood, spattered on the grass in a weaving line toward the tree line. Following the trail, she spotted a white birch tree with a dark streak of red marring its papery bark about four feet up. The mark seemed to form a long fingerprint.

She paused and checked the magazine of her pistol, reassuring herself that the Sig was loaded, with a round already chambered. If her mother was right and their intruder was a bear, she didn’t want to face it unarmed.

Though she listened carefully for any sounds that might reveal an animal or other intruder nearby, all she heard was the moan of the icy wind through the trees. But she felt something else there. Something living and watching, waiting for her to turn around and leave.

What would happen if she did just that? Would the watcher let her go? Or would he pounce the second she turned her back? Not caring to find out, she backed toward the clearing with slow, steady steps. She kept her eyes on the woods, trying to see past the moonless blackness outside the narrow, weakening beam of her flashlight.

Only the faintest of snapping sounds behind her gave her any warning at all.

It wasn’t enough.

She hit a solid wall of heat. One large arm curled around her, pulling her flush against that heat, while a hand closed over her mouth.

“Don’t scream,” he growled.

She didn’t.
 
But he did.

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Filed under 2013, August, Bitterwood P.D., Harlequin, Intrigue, Paula Graves, Review, Romance, Suspense

[Review] The Smoky Mountian Mist by Paula Graves

The Smoky Mountain Mist by Paula Graves

Publication date: July 1, 2013
Publisher: Harlequin Intrigue

<div style=”font-size:11px”>Publication date: 05/01/2013</div>Bitterwood P.D. #2
Pages: 216

Back of the book

 
WHO WANTS RACHEL DAVENPORT DEAD?

Seth Hammond won’t stop until he gets answers. Tapped by the FBI to find out who’s targeting the heiress gives the former Tennessee bad boy the chance to atone for his past sins. But it’s his future he’s worried about when Seth finds himself falling for Rachel…who’s in graver danger than anyone in their small mountain town of Bitterwood realizes.

Ever since she was named CEO of her family business, strange things have been happening-terrifying incidents that could be tied to Rachel’s violence-shadowed past. Seth’s the only one who doesn’t think she’s losing her mind. Her intense, rough-around-the-edges protector has blindsided her with his passion. But Rachel also believes in Seth-believes he’s a good man looking for redemption…and possibly love?



My Review: 

4.5 Star Review – Bitterwood P.D. series

I recommend this book.


As always I enjoyed this book by Paula.  Have yet to be disappointed by Paula as she adds plenty of drama, passion, and romance.  She captures the small town feel and you really feel as if the characters in her books are real.  Look forward to the next book in this series.

I can’t wait for the next book in the Bitterwood P.D. series.  The book is due out in August 2013 “Smoky Ridge Curse” featuring Adam Brand’s story.

Rachel Davenport is trying to grieve for her father and her friends in Bitterwood who have recently passed.   She wants to appear strong even while she is falling apart inside. 

Seth Hammond was a conman who is now trying to atone for those sins.  He feels bad for all the cons he pulled and is working on becoming a better man.  He has many secrets he still has to keep especially as he is secretly working for Adam Brand from the FBI and has been ordered to keep an eye on Rachel.   When he came back to town Rachel and her father gave him second chance and he is currently working for Davenport Trucking.  While at the same time trying to figure out who is killing the people around Rachel.  Why is she targeted and for what purpose?

After Rachel is drugged and almost went over a bridge Seth decides to investigate to figure out what happened.  

Rachel is on the phone with an ex-boyfriend who came to town for the funeral when he gets attacked.  She tries to track him down and comes across Seth who has also been attacked.   They decide to team up and investigate together to find out what is going on. 

Rachel has her own dark secrets of her past that she needs to overcome as someone is trying to make her think she is going crazy. 

Seth opens up about his childhood and how it shaped him into the man he is today. 
Everywhere Rachel and Seth go to get answers everyone treats Seth like he is still a conman and he has to defend himself.  Even his sister Delilah and his old friend Sutton don’t believe him at first about his suspicions about what is going on with Rachel.  That makes Rachel question his motives multiple times.

 

 

To find out the answers to the below pick up the book:

Will Rachel & Seth figure out why someone wants Rachel crazy or dead?

What shaped them both into the people they are today?

 

Can Rachel trust Seth?

 

A few of my favorite parts of the book:

The road into Bitterwood proper from the mountains was a winding series of switchback and straightaways called Old Purgatory Road. Back in the day, when they were just kids, Delilah, a couple of years older and eons wiser, had told Seth that it was named so because hell was located in a deep, dark cavern in the heart of Smoky Ridge, their mountain home, and the only way to get in or out was Purgatory Road.

 

“I thought the first rule of the con game was that you couldn’t con an honest man.” She wasn’t sure where she’d heard that, but she’d always considered it to be a reasonable assumption. Honest men didn’t fall for deals that where too good to be true.

Seth shook his head. “Honest man can be conned. Everyone has a price, even if the price is honorable.” He grimaced. “I guess never breaking the law if you don’t have to isn’t necessarily the first rule of the con game, but it was the first rule Cleve Calhoun taught me.”


Ah, Seth thought. Now we get to the grilling part. “I knew the murder victims. I liked them, and I like Rachel Davenport, too. Her father took a chance on me when he hired me at the trucking company when most people around here wouldn’t spit on me if I was on fire.”


He was beautiful, she thought, standing there in the middle of her haven. Beautiful and feral, constantly on the edge of flight. Despite the façade civilization, despite his obvious attempts to fight his own wild instincts, he would never be fully tame. He would never be genteel or domesticated. He’d always be a wild card.

“The people at a show know what they’re seeing isn’t real,” Seth answered slowly. “They’re willing participants in their own deception.”

Uncle Rafe’s well-lined face creased with a smile. “Damn good answer, boy.” He hooked his arm through Rachel’s and led her to the second row of tables facing the large stage. “Gotta go start deceiving this room full of willing participants in their own deception.” He said with a wink in Seth’s direction. “You’ll stick around after the show, of course?”

His gaze snapped back to hers. “You know what con men really do, Rachel? The kill you soul. You start out a normal person. Caring. Trusting. And then he strikes, and you’re never the same. You trust no one. Nothing. You’re afraid to be nice, because it makes you vulnerable. You’re afraid to care because it makes you an easy mark. You meet a nice guy, a good guy, a guy who would treat you right, and you can’t let yourself believe him because you know sweet words and a tender touch can hide a monster.” He leaned toward her, his gaze so intense it made her stomach quiver. “That’s what I did to Lauren Blount. It’s what I did to God knows how many people along the way.”

She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t even know what to feel.

“I did that.” He sat back, looking away. “I don’t know how a man can forgive himself for that. I don’t know how he lives with it. He can try to pay back the money, he can promise he’ll never do anything like that again, but he can’t change the fact that he had kind of evil inside him and he let it have free rein. How do I live with that?”   

 
Contact Info for Paula Graves

 

 

Down here in the American South, we don’t hide our crazy people. We showcase them. I’ve always thought it was because eccentric people make for the best stories, and we Southerners love our stories. Faulkner, McCullers, O’Connor, Porter—these are our chroniclers, writers steeped in the slow, steady pulse of the South’s pride, suffering, honor, madness, venality and redemption. I grew up in Alabama, the heart of the South, and live here still. The need to tell stories has been a driving force in my life from a very young age.

When I was younger, my favorite books were Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries and Harlequin Romances. When I realized there were books that featured both romance and mystery, I knew I’d found my calling. Now I write for Harlequin Intrigue, where I get to play both matchmaker and murderer and get paid for it.  I’ve also recently self-published a couple of romantic suspense ebooks, available on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and Smashwords.

I work a full-time day job at a Birmingham ad agency, where I’m a copywriter and graphic designer, a background that comes in handy when it’s time to redesign my website and create promotional materials for my books. I’m also known among certain circles as the Cat Whisperer, but that’s a whole other story. I love to hear from readers, so please click the contact button and tell me what you think about my books.

 

Read an Excerpt

Rachel Davenport knew she was being watched, and she hated it, though the gazes directed her way that cool October morning appeared kind and full of sympathy. Only a few of her fellow mourners knew the full truth about why she’d disappeared for almost a year after her mother’s sudden death fifteen years ago, but that didn’t change the self-consciousness descending over her like a pall. 
 
She locked her spine and lifted her head, refusing to give anyone reason to doubt her strength. She’d survived so far and didn’t intend to fall apart now. She wasn’t going to give anyone a show.

“It’s a lovely gathering, isn’t it?” Diane, her father’s wife of the past eight years, dabbed her eyes with a delicate lace-rimmed handkerchief. “So many people.”
 
“Yes,” Rachel agreed, feeling a stab of shame. She wasn’t the only person who’d lost someone she loved. Diane might be flighty and benignly self-absorbed, but she’d made George Davenport’s last days happy ones. He’d loved Diane dearly and indulged her happily, and she’d been nothing but a caring, cheerful and devoted wife in his dying days. Even if Rachel had resented the other woman in her father’s life—and she hadn’t—she would have loved Diane for giving her father joy for the past eight years. “I sometimes forget that he touched so many lives. With me he was just Georgie. Not the businessman, you know? Just a sweet, sweet man who liked to garden and sing to me at night.” Fresh tears trickled from Diane’s eyes. She blotted them away with the handkerchief, saved from a streaky face by good waterproof mascara. She lifted her red-rimmed eyes to Rachel. “I’m going to miss the hell out of that man.”Rachel gave her a swift, fierce hug. “So am I.”The preacher took his place at the side of the casket and spoke the scripture verses her father had chosen, hopeful words from the book of Ephesians, her father’s favorite. Rachel wanted to find comfort in them, but a shroud of loss seemed to smother her whole.

She couldn’t remember ever feeling quite so alone. Her father had been her rock for as long as she could remember, and now he was gone. There was her uncle Rafe, of course, but he lived two hours away and spent much of his time on the road looking for new acts for his music hall.
And as much as she liked and appreciated Diane, they had too little in common to be true friends, much less family. Nor did she really consider her stepbrother, Diane’s son, Paul, anything more than a casual friend, though they’d become closer since she’d quit her job with the Maryville Public Library to take over as office manager for her father’s trucking company.

She sometimes wondered why her father hadn’t ceded control of the business to Paul instead of her. He’d worked at Davenport Trucking for over a decade. Her father had met Diane through her son, not the other way around. He had been assistant operations manager for several years now and knew the business about as well as anyone else.

Far better than she did, even though she’d learned a lot in the past year.

She watched her stepbrother edge closer to the casket. As his lips began moving, as if he was speaking to the man encased in shiny oak and satin, a dark-clad figure a few yards behind him snagged Rachel’s attention. He was lean and composed, dressed in a suit that fit him well enough but seemed completely at odds with his slightly spiky dark hair and feral looks. A pair of dark sunglasses obscured his eyes but not the belligerently square jaw and high cheekbones.

It was Seth Hammond, one of the mechanics from the trucking company. Other Davenport Trucking employees had attended the funeral, of course, so she wasn’t sure why she was surprised to see Seth here. Except he’d never been close to her father, or to anyone else at the company for that matter. She’d always figured him for a loner.

As her gaze started to slide away from him, he lifted the glasses up on his head, and his eyes snapped up to meet hers.A zapping sensation jolted through her chest, stopping her cold. His gaze locked with hers, daring her to look away. The air in her lungs froze, then burned until she forced it out in a deep, shaky sigh.

He looked away, and she felt as if someone had cut all the strings holding her upright. Her knees wobbled, and she gripped Diane’s arm.

“What is it?” Diane asked softly.

Rachel closed her eyes for a moment to regain her sense of equilibrium, then looked up at the man again.
But he was gone.

“I DON’T KNOW. She looks okay, I guess.” From his parking spot near the edge of the cemetery, Seth Hammond kept an eye on Rachel Davenport. The cemetery workers had lowered the oak casket into the gaping grave nearly twenty minutes ago, and most of the gathered mourners had dispersed, leaving the immediate family to say their final private goodbyes to George Davenport.

“It’s not a coincidence that everyone around her is gone.” The deep voice rumbling through the cell phone receiver like an annoying fly in Seth’s ear belonged to Adam Brand, FBI special agent in charge. Seth had no idea why the D.C.-based federal agent was so interested in a trucking company heiress from the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, but Brand paid well, and Seth wasn’t in a position to say no to an honest job.
The only alternative was a dishonest job, and while he’d once been damned good at dishonesty, he’d found little satisfaction in those endeavors. It was a curse, he supposed, when the thing you could do the best was something that sucked the soul right out of you.

“I agree. It’s not a coincidence.” Seth’s viewpoint from the car several yards away wasn’t ideal, but the last thing a man with his reputation needed was to be spotted watching a woman through binoculars. So he had to make do with body language rather than facial expressions to get a sense of what Rachel Davenport was thinking and feeling. Grief, obviously. It covered her like morning fog in the Smokies, deceptively ephemeral. She stood straight, her chin high, her movements composed and measured. But he had a strong feeling that the slightest nudge would send her crumbling into ruins.

Everyone was gone now. Her mother by her own hand fifteen years ago, her father by cancer three days ago. No brothers or sisters, save for her stepbrother, Paul, and it wasn’t like they’d grown up together as real siblings the way Seth and his sister had.
“Have you seen Delilah recently?” Brand asked with his usual uncanny way of knowing the paths Seth’s mind was traveling at any given moment.

“Ran into her at Ledbetter’s Café over the weekend,” Seth answered. He left it at that. He wasn’t going to gossip about his sister.

Brand had never said, and Seth had never asked, why he didn’t just call up Delilah himself if he wanted to know how she was doing. Seth assumed things had gone sideways between them at some point. Probably why Dee had left the FBI years ago and eventually gone to work for Cooper Security. At the time, Seth had felt relieved by his sister’s choice, well aware of the risk that sooner or later, his sister’s job and his own less savory choice of occupations might collide.
Of course, now that he’d found his way onto the straight and narrow, she was having trouble believing in the new, improved Seth Hammond.

“I got some good snaps of the funeral goers, I think. I’ll check them out when I get a chance.” A hard thud on the passenger window made him jerk. He looked up to find Delilah’s sharp brown eyes burning holes into the glass window separating them. “Gotta go,” he said to Brand and hung up, shoving the cell phone into his pocket. He slanted a quick look at the backseat to make sure he’d concealed the surveillance glasses he’d been using to take images of the funeral. They were safely hidden in his gym bag on the floorboard.

With a silent sigh, he lowered the passenger window. “Hey, Dee.”

“What are you doin’ here?” His sister had been back in Tennessee for two weeks and already she’d shed her citified accent for the hard Appalachian twang of her childhood. “Up to somethin’?”

Her suspicious tone poked at his defensive side. “I was attending my boss’s funeral.”

“Funeral’s over, and yet here you are.” Delilah looked over the top of the car toward the Davenport family. “You thinking of conning a poor, grieving heiress out of her daddy’s money?”

“Funny.”

“I’m serious as a heart attack.” Her voice rose slightly, making him wince.

He glanced at the Davenport family, wondering if they had heard. “You’re making a scene, Dee.”
“Hammonds are good at making scenes, Seth. You know that.” Delilah reached into the open window, unlatched the car door and pulled it open, sliding into the passenger seat. “Better?”

“You ran into Mama, did you?” he asked drily, not missing the bleak expression in her dark eyes.

“The Bitterwood P.D. called me to come pick her up or they were throwing her in the drunk tank.” Delilah grimaced. “Who the hell told them I was back in town, anyway?”

“Sugar, there ain’t no lyin’ low in Bitterwood. Too damned small and too damned nosy.” Unlike his sister, he’d never really left the hills, though he’d kept clear of Bitterwood for a few years to let the dust settle. If not for Cleve Calhoun’s stroke five years ago, he might never have come back. But Cleve had needed him, and Seth had found a bittersweet sort of satisfaction in trying to live clean in the place where he’d first learned the taste of iniquity.

He sneaked a glance at George Davenport’s grave. The family had dispersed, Paul Bailey and his mother, Diane, walking arm in arm toward Paul’s car, while Rachel headed slowly across the cemetery toward another grave nearby. Marjorie Kenner’s, if he remembered correctly. Mark Bramlett’s last victim.

“I know vulnerable marks are your catnip,” Delilah drawled, “but can’t you let the girl have a few days of unmolested grief before you bilk her out of her millions?”

“You have such a high opinion of me,” he murmured, dragging his gaze away from Rachel’s stiffened spine.

“Well-earned, darlin’,” she answered, just as quietly.

“I don’t suppose it would do any good to tell you I don’t do that sort of thing anymore?”

“Yeah, and Mama swore she’d drunk her last, too, as I was puttin’ her ginned-up backside to bed.” Bitter resignation edged her voice.Oh, Dee, he thought. People keep lettin’ you down, don’t they?

“Tell me you’re not up to something.”

“I’m done with that life, Dee. I’ve been done with it a few years now.”

Her wary but hopeful look made his heart hurt. “I left the truck over on the other side of the cemetery. Why don’t you drive me over there?”He spared one more glance at Rachel Davenport, wondering how much longer she’d be able to remain upright. Someone had been working overtime the past few weeks, making sure she’d come tumbling down sooner or later.

The question was, why?

“I DIDN’T GET to talk to you at the service.”

Rachel’s nervous system jolted at the sound of a familiar voice a few feet away. She turned from Marjorie’s grave to look into a pair of concerned brown eyes.

Davis Rogers hadn’t changed a bit since their breakup five years ago. With his clean-cut good looks and effortless poise, he’d always come across as a confident, successful lawyer, even when he was still in law school at the University of Virginia.

She’d been sucked in by that easy self-composure, such a contrast to her own lack of confidence. It had been so easy to bask in his reflected successes.

For a while at least.

Then she’d found her own feet and realized his all-encompassing influence over her life had become less a shelter and more a shackle.

Easy lesson to forget on a day like today, she thought, battered by the familiar urge to enclose herself in his arms and let him make the rest of the world go away. She straightened her spine and resisted the temptation. “I didn’t realize you’d even heard about my father.”

“It made the papers in Raleigh. I wanted to pay my respects and see how you were holding up.” He brushed a piece of hair away from her face. “How are you holding up?”

“I’m fine.” His touch left her feeling little more than mild comfort. “I’m sad,” she added at his skeptical look. “And I’ll be sad for a while. But I’m okay.”

It wasn’t a lie. She was going to be okay. Despite her crushing sense of grief, she felt confident she wasn’t in danger of losing herself.

“Maybe what you need is to get out and get your mind off things.” Davis cupped her elbow with his large hand. “The clerk at the bed-and-breakfast where I’m staying suggested a great bar near the university in Knoxville where we can listen to college bands and relive our misspent youth. What do you say, Rach? It’ll be like Charlottesville all over again.”

She grimaced. “I never really liked those bars, you know. I just went because you liked them.”

His expression of surprise was almost comical. “You didn’t?”

“I’m a Tennessee girl. I liked country music and bluegrass,” she said with a smile.

He looked mildly horrified, but he managed to smile. “I’m sure we can find a honky-tonk in Knoxville.”

“There’s a little place here in Bitterwood we could go. They have a house bluegrass band and really good loaded potato skins.” After the past few months of watching her father dying one painful inch at a time, maybe what she needed was to indulge herself. Get her mind off her losses, if only for a little while.

And why not go with Davis? She wasn’t still in love with him, but she’d always liked and trusted him. It was safer than going alone. The man who’d killed four of her friends might be dead and gone, but the world was still full of danger. A woman alone had to be careful.

And she was alone, she knew, bleakness seeping into her momentary optimism.

So very alone.

FOR THE FIRST time in years, Seth Hammond had a place to himself. It wasn’t much to talk about, a ramshackle bungalow halfway up Smoky Ridge, but for the next few weeks, he wouldn’t have to share it with anyone else. The house’s owner, Cleve Calhoun, was in Knoxville for therapy to help him regain some of the faculties he’d lost to a stroke five years ago.

By seven o’clock, Seth had decided that alone time wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Even if the satellite reception wasn’t terrible, there wasn’t much on TV worth watching these days. The Vols game wasn’t until Saturday, and with the Braves out of play-off contention, there wasn’t much point in watching baseball, either.

He’d already gone through the photos from the funeral he’d taken with his high-tech camera glasses, but as far as he could tell, there was nobody stalking Rachel Davenport at the funeral except himself. He supposed he could go through the photos one more time, but he’d seen enough of Rachel’s grief for one day. He’d uploaded the images to the FTP site Adam Brand had given him. Maybe the FBI agent would have better luck than he had. Brand, after all, at least knew what it was he was looking for. 

He certainly hadn’t bothered to let Seth in on the secret.

You have turned into a dull old coot, Seth told himself, eyeing the frozen dinner he’d just pulled from Cleve’s freezer with a look of dismay. There was a time when you could’ve walked into any bar in Maryville and gone home with a beautiful woman. What the hell happened to you?

The straight and narrow, he thought. He’d given up more than just the con game, it appeared.
“To hell with that.” He shoved the frozen dinner back into the frost-lined freezer compartment. He was thirty-two years old, not sixty. Playing nursemaid to a crippled old man had, ironically, kept him lean and strong, since he’d had to haul Cleve Calhoun around like a baby. And while he wasn’t going to win any beauty pageants, he’d never had trouble catching a woman’s eye.

An image of Rachel Davenport’s cool blue eyes meeting his that morning at the funeral punched him in the gut. He couldn’t remember if she’d ever looked him in the eye before that moment.

Probably not. At the trucking company, he was more a part of the scenery than a person. A chair or a desk or one of the trucks he repaired, maybe. He’d become good at blending in. It had been his best asset as a con artist, enabling him to learn a mark’s vulnerabilities without drawing attention to himself. Cleve had nicknamed him Chameleon because of his skill at becoming part of the background.

That same skill had served him well as a paid FBI informant, though there had been a few times, most recently in a dangerous backwoods enclave of meth dealers, when he’d come close to breaking cover.

But looking into Rachel Davenport’s eyes that morning, he’d felt the full weight of being invisible. For a second, she’d seen him. Her blue eyes had widened and her soft pink lips had parted in surprise, as if she’d felt the same electric zing that had shot through his body when their gazes connected.

Maybe that was the longing driving him now, propelling him out of the shack and into Cleve’s old red Charger in search of another connection. It was a night to stand out from the crowd, not blend in, and he knew just the honky-tonk to do it in.

The road into Bitterwood proper from the mountains was a winding series of switchbacks and straightaways called Old Purgatory Road. Back in the day, when they were just kids, Delilah, a couple of years older and eons wiser, had told Seth that it was named so because hell was located in a deep, dark cavern in the heart of Smoky Ridge, their mountain home, and the only way to get in or out was Purgatory Road.

Of course, later he’d learned that Purgatory was actually a town about ten miles to the northeast, and the road had once been the only road between there and Bitterwood, but Delilah’s story had stuck with him anyway. Even now, there were times when he thought she’d been right all along. Hell did reside in the black heart of Smoky Ridge, and it was all too easy for a person to find himself on a fast track there.

Purgatory Road flattened out as it crossed Vesper Road and wound gently through the valley, where Bitterwood’s small, four-block downtown lay. There was little there of note—the two-story brick building that housed the town administrative offices, including the Bitterwood Police Department, a tiny postage stamp of a post office and a few old shops and boutiques that stubbornly resisted the destructive sands of time.
Bitterwood closed shop at five in the evening. Everything was dark and shuttered as Seth drove through. All the nighttime action happened in the outskirts. Bitterwood had years ago voted to allow liquor sales by the drink as well as package sales, hoping to keep up with the nearby tourist traps. While the tourist boom had bypassed the little mountain town despite the effort, the gin-guzzling horse was out of the barn, and the occasional attempts by civic-minded folks to rescind the liquor ordinances never garnered enough votes to pass.

Seth had never been much of a drinker himself. Cleve had taught him that lesson. A man who lived by his instincts couldn’t afford to let anything impair them. Plus, he’d grown up dodging the blows of his mean, drug-addled father. And all liquor had done for his mother was dull the pain of her husband’s abuse and leave her a shell of a woman long after the old bastard had blown himself up in a meth lab accident.

He’d never have gone to Smoky Joe’s Saloon for the drinks anyway. They watered down the stuff too much, as much to limit the drunken brawls as to make an extra buck. But they had a great house band that played old-style Tennessee bluegrass, and some of the prettiest girls in the county went there for the music.

He saw the neon lights of Smoky Joe’s ahead across Purgatory Bridge, the steel-and-concrete truss bridge spanning Bitterwood Creek, which meandered through a narrow gorge thirty feet below. The lights distracted him for only a second, but that was almost all it took. He slammed on the brakes as the darkened form of a car loomed in his headlights, dead ahead.

The Charger’s brakes squealed but held, and the muscle car shuddered to a stop with inches to spare.

“Son of a bitch!” he growled as he found his breath again. Who the hell had parked a car in the middle of the bridge without even turning on emergency signals?

With a start, he recognized the vehicle, a silver Honda Accord. He’d seen Rachel Davenport drive that car in and out of the employee parking lot at Davenport Trucking every day for the past year.
His chest tightening with alarm, he put on his own emergency flashers and got out of the car, approaching the Honda with caution.

Out of the corner of his eye, he detected movement in the darkness. He whipped his gaze in that direction.

She stood atop the narrow steel railing, her small hands curled in the decorative lacework of the old truss bridge. She swayed a little, like a tree limb buffeted by the light breeze blowing through the girders. The air ruffled her skirt and fluttered her long hair.

“Ms. Davenport?” Seth’s heart squeezed as one of her feet slid along the thin metal support and she sagged toward the thirty-foot drop below.

“Ms. Davenport is dead,” she said in a faint, mournful tone. “Killed herself, you know.”

Seth edged toward her, careful not to move too quickly for fear of spooking her. “Rachel, that girder’s not real steady. Don’t you want to come down here to the nice, solid ground?”She laughed softly. “Solid. Solid.” She said the word with comical gusto. “’She’s solid.’ What does that mean? It makes you sound stiff and heavy, doesn’t it? Solid.”

Okay, not suicidal, he decided as he took a couple more steps toward her. Drunk?

“Do you think I’m cursed?” There was none of her earlier amusement in that question.

“I don’t think so, no.” He was almost close enough to touch her. But he had to be careful. If he grabbed at her and missed, she could go over the side in a heartbeat.

“I think I am,” she said. Her voice had taken on a definite slurring cadence. But he decided she didn’t sound drunk so much as drugged. Had someone given her a sedative after the funeral? Maybe she’d had a bad reaction to it.

“I don’t think you’re cursed,” Seth disagreed, easing his hand toward her in the dark. “I think you’re tired and sad. And, you know, that’s okay. It means you’re human.”
Her eyes glittered in the reflected light of the Charger’s flashers. “I wish I were a bird,” she said plaintively. “Then I could fly away over the mountains and never have to land again.” She took a sudden turn outward, teetering atop the rail as if preparing to take flight. “She said I should fly.”

Then, in heart-stopping slow motion, she began to fall forward, off the bridge.

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