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USA Today Bestselling Author Kennedy Layne continues the Safeguard Series with this fast-paced romantic suspense novel that leads the SSI team on the trail of a serial killer who continually seems to be one step ahead...
USA Today Bestselling Author Kennedy Layne continues the Safeguard Series with this fast-paced romantic suspense novel that leads the SSI team on the trail of a serial killer who continually seems to be one step ahead… Coen Flynn has always done the right thing, even if it meant siding against his own family. His sense of justice was what led him to take a job in law enforcement, though his choice of agency was a bit unorthodox. His current assignment was believed to be a simple protection detail. He was never supposed to be identified by his charge, but a murder took priority and changed the course of his mission.
Brettany Lambert’s life is suddenly rocked when she finds the body of a dead friend on the eve of what was supposed to be a special wedding. Now Brettany and Coen are trapped in the middle of a blizzard and their attraction will fuel the heat of temptation. Good intentions always have a way of backfiring, but his desired intent won’t matter if a notorious serial killer can finish what he started.
Series Description: Safeguard Security & Investigations (SSI) is owned and operated by Townes Calvert, a retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant who returned home to the States a bit more damaged than he'd care to admit. Not that anyone could tell outside of a very select group of former active duty buddies. It had taken Townes quite a while to acclimate to civilian life and he'd kept himself busy in the interim working in treacherous situations with even more dangerous friends. The final result is a close-knit unit of highly trained former military men who have the experience to protect the innocent, investigate crimes on the gritty edge, and aid local law enforcement when justice has taken a back seat to political correctness. Follow along as Kennedy Layne conveys each of their gripping stories as they work together on investigations that lead them down perilous paths of passion, intrigue, and suspense...
One week ago…
The shrieking howl of the bitter cold wind pierced through the walls of the tiny log cabin as it endeavored to find a way inside. The flames of the blazing fire reflected a thousand tiny flickers on the river rock hearth as it rose through the rafters and beyond. The view was mesmerizing as the dancing columns of blue and yellow fluttered briefly in their efforts to consume enough oxygen.
The crisp night air finally succeeded in finding an otherwise tiny gap in the roughhewn pine logs that nevertheless continued their valiant fight to keep Old Man Winter at bay. The tail ends of each curling spark were like desperate souls trying to fight for their survival.
The irony of that useless battle wasn’t lost on her as the fire consumed its fuel.
Brettany Lambert slowly ran her hands up her arms and over the soft fabric of her chain-knit sweater in a vain attempt to absorb the warmth emanating only a few feet from the fire. The electricity had gone out hours ago, the backup generator had failed to start, and the wind chill had already dipped well below zero. The night proved to be long, but she didn’t have to spend it alone. She shot a glance toward the window that usually offered her a charming view of Mount Evans, but all she could see were large, distorted snowflakes battering the windowpane that Jack Frost had decorated with a whimsical etching of the winter winds.
Nothing but darkness.
The Colorado mountain range was picturesque in the middle of winter, but it certainly wasn’t her idea of an idyllic place to host a romantic wedding. Who wanted to say their vows against a backdrop of a wind chill that was in the double digits? Add on to that the fact that each of the guests had to use snowmobiles or an arctic cat to reach their destination. That should have clued in the future bride and groom that a classic Aruba beach wedding would have been much more appropriate—in addition to being a lot warmer, even during the latter part of the season. Eighty-two degrees sounded pretty good right now.
Brett sighed in resignation as she reached for the scarf she’d strung up over the coatrack earlier. She personally would have preferred any Caribbean location, but her proposal had been tossed aside like a bad penny the moment the wedding planning had begun over a year ago. She usually tried not to dwell over where she stood on the friendship scale, but at that moment she had been shoved aside given that certain souls born in the West Elk Mountains of west-central Colorado were strange breeds anyway. It was as if exposure to all those dark winter months affected their perception of what was obvious to everyone else.
The bride had listened to her maid of honor, despite all the other opposing views. Heidi had thought Louise and Chad marrying where they met would be romantic, but it turned out to be a total disaster. The wedding journey had started off with the incredibly difficult task of finding a heavy winter coat that would cover a traditional wedding dress. Unfortunately, the beautifully added layer wasn’t needed by the end of the rocky passage to wedded bliss.
Chad had decided the day before the ceremony was the perfect time to bring up old wounds, unearthing some deep-seated bitterness that had never been completely wiped clean. Louise had been all but blindsided as the groom had heatedly declared that the wedding was off, although most of the still sober guests suspected an alcohol-soaked bachelor party was to blame. It instantly caused their family and friends to take sides.
“Complete idiots,” Brett muttered in fondness, wrapping the cashmere scarf around her neck before lightly binding the ends together. “Any Caribbean island would have sufficed. But no, we had to come to a place that resembles Antarctica.”
She loved them both dearly and didn’t want either of them to throw away a life together over a past mistake that had been rehashed over and over again until there was nothing but ashes. Louise and Chad thrived on drama, though. It followed them no matter where they went—even on their wedding getaway to the great white north.
Luckily for them, all the guests were now stranded on this isolated mountain range until the storm lifted and permitted everyone to take what snowmobiles and conveyances there were across the pass to safety. Until then, it gave Chad and Louise’s family and friends time to try to talk sense into the two of them…at least those who weren’t in favor of a total and complete separation. Had that been Heidi’s plan all along? She never did like some of Chad’s friends.
Brett shrugged into the horribly expensive parka she’d specifically bought for this trip, ignoring the path her thoughts had taken. She wasn’t one to judge, and that certainly wouldn’t help the situation now that everything had blown over, so to speak. The bottom line was that she could either stay out here in this tiny, frosty cabin she’d been assigned to for the whole weekend and go stir crazy, or she could join the others up at the lodge and see if the massive hoard of proffered nuptial booze was still available.
It wasn’t that the main inn was some kind of colossal log structure that could fit hundreds of guests. It was much more of a larger cabin…maybe triple in size as the one she was currently staying in with a large kitchen to host the twelve or so guests occupying the camp. It also helped that the lodge had a larger generator that worked even at these temperatures.
Brett checked herself over one more time, taking in her winter jacket, scarf, gloves, and waterproofed Ugg boots. She had somehow drawn the shortest straw without even realizing it when she’d been assigned the cabin farthest from the lodge.
Suddenly, the scene from Jurassic Park popped into her head when the actors drew lots to see who would race those velociraptors through the utility tunnels to turn the power back on to the contaminated pens.
She honestly hadn’t minded the distance in the least, until the storm had hit. Watching the groundskeeper string rope from each cabin had put the dangers of such extreme weather into serious perspective.
Brett finally gathered the courage to crack open the hatch.
The wind was stronger than she had expected. She barely maintained her hold on the side of the door as a strong gust tried to rip the wood from her fingers. The snowfall didn’t feel like the normal white fluffy flakes collecting on the ground, but instead like pelting ice crystals trying to penetrate her cheeks similar to little needles. She pushed down her gathering irritation that they could all be lying on the beach somewhere enjoying the trade winds with those umbrella drinks to drown their disappointment with the cancelled ceremony.
Brett turned away as she pulled the door closed behind her, not bothering to lock the latch. One, she trusted everyone here not to snoop. Two, no other sane person not stupid enough to attend this debacle could possibly be this high up on the mountain range in this crappy weather. Three, there was nothing of value that she’d brought with her other than her laptop anyway. It wasn’t like her computer was even of any use, considering there wasn’t Wi-Fi or any other type of cellular service that could be activated to reach the Internet.
This area was as primitive as it got, which was why a shiver ran up the back of her neck that had nothing to do with the bitter cold. God help them should anything happen that would be considered a real emergency. They were a very long way from medical rescue help. There would be no life flight helicopter with this storm, just a whole lot of pain for a very long time.
Another shriek of wind jarringly howled as the strong gusts of frigid air traveled through the ancient pines surrounding the campground. Had she not been listening to that exact same eerie sound all evening, she would have thought it was a screaming banshee somewhere off in the distance. It was downright terrifying. Mother Nature at her worst. Brett breathed a little easier as the screeching wail slowly faded.
She had no choice but to expose her face to the harsh elements as she looked for the knotted rope that would guide her toward the lodge. It occurred to her that the knots were evenly spaced at ten foot intervals. She reached into her right pocket and pulled out a small black lithium battery flashlight they had all been given by the groundskeeper. That vital contribution alone should have clued her in as to how severe these conditions could develop from a simple prediction of two to four inches into something truly monstrous as the system stalled swirling over the top of the range like a miniature hurricane made up of icy winds.
The meteorologist had certainly gotten this one wrong. His ass should be fired.
Brett focused the beam in the direction of where the rope had been tied off to a small stake in the ground ahead of her. She had no trouble locating the line tied to her post on the front porch, though it was rather difficult to walk against the wind out in the open. At least seven inches of heavy snow had already dropped with many more expected according to the last radio transmission she’d heard this morning before the power and the wedding failed.
Now one of the children’s songs from Frosty the Snowman got stuck in her head.
Put one foot in front of the other…
Each step Brett managed to undertake took effort, but it wasn’t quite so hard with the joyful melody in her head. She mentally kept track of her pace, figuring she wasn’t even halfway to the next cabin and even farther from her intended destination. That was okay. Her daily runs kept her in fairly good shape. It was getting a little hard to breathe, but she chalked it up to the altitude and the temperature.
Brett tried to catch herself as her boot caught on something solid buried in the snow. Not even her tight grip on the rope could keep her upright. The cushion of the thick white blanket did nothing to stop the blunt force of her body hitting the ground with a muted thud. She landed on her hands and knees abruptly. The impact instantly sent her good spirits and the merry little melody packing. It didn’t help that she’d lost her hold on the tiny flashlight. The item in question had landed about four feet in front of her.
“Damn it,” Brett muttered in frustration, instantly lifting both hands in the air as she sat back on her legs. She tried to shake out the snow that had stuck itself into the sleeves of her jacket, but it was too late. “Ugh.”
The cold slush had already melted against her wrists and was instantly soaked up by the material of her sweater sleeves. It didn’t help that the thin denim of her jeans became saturated by the cold moisture around her knees in spite of her long johns underneath, though her boots were well insulated and protected her ankles and feet.
There was always a silver lining, right?
Well, she couldn’t stay outside in these unforgiving temperatures forever. She quickly reached for the rope that was now shoulder height above her. She finally caught onto the coarse twine, but she didn’t stand. Instead, she scooted forward on her knees and reached out toward the bright light illuminating the snow like a brilliant beam driving up into the night’s sky.
What was on top of the snow?
Brett instinctively closed her gloved fingers into the palm of her hand. Her mind immediately rejected the grisly word it had formed, her heart breaking for whatever poor animal had been hurt in such a harsh winter storm. She couldn’t stand to think of such an innocent creature suffering in pain.
She tried to look around, but it was a futile effort.
Had the critter found shelter, food, and water?
Brett maintained her hold on the rope as she reached over the splatters of red dots for the flashlight. She followed the trail with the beam, easily making out the darker circle that had already melted the snow underneath.
That was a lot of blood for an animal.
“Shit,” Brett muttered, left with a decision that could very well be detrimental to her own health. She wanted to help whatever animal was bleeding so profusely, but she didn’t want to put herself in any danger of getting lost in the winter landscape. It could be a bunny rabbit or a doe some hunter had wounded that simply needed a bandage and some shelter in order to recover. Or it could very well be a very large black bear, in which case she would immediately regret her choice of not leaving well enough alone. “This is the kind of crap that gets me into trouble. Nothing like this would have happened in Aruba.”
Brett’s parents had to deal with more strays than any other mother and father in their old neighborhood. She really should have become a veterinarian, but teaching kids had seemed less daunting than Taming the Shrew, her ode to her favorite classic author. How wrong she’d been, but she could ruminate about her life’s choices another time. A wounded animal was somewhere close by, and she couldn’t leave them to fend for themselves in this crap.
She made a rash decision to quickly check out how far the trail of blood went with every intention of turning back once she reached the outer edge of the camp. She wouldn’t venture any farther than the back clearing the cabins were in. Taking in how far she’d already walked, Heidi or Martin’s cabin had to be to the right of her current location. Her search should be safe enough, if she discounted the fact that she was starting to shake from exposure to the cold.
The pool of blood that had soaked into the ground happened to be right underneath one of the other ropes, so Brett grabbed ahold of the thick twine and cautiously proceeded to follow the trail. She didn’t want to inadvertently stumble upon a wounded animal, so she slowed her steps. The critter would almost certainly react in defense of itself, most likely striking out at her. It wouldn’t do to have them both hurt and bleeding.
Brett couldn’t stop her teeth from chattering as the cold moisture from her denim and the wetness from the sleeves of her sweater started to soak into her skin. It didn’t help that the wind had once again picked up to a howl, propelling the little needles directly into her face. She blinked several times, unable to stop her eyes from watering as the forceful gusts refused to relent.
After halting her progress a couple of times to wipe the tears from her cheeks with the back of her gloves, she finally managed to find the end of the blood trail. Surprisingly, it was on the doorstep to one of the cabins. Had someone already taken whatever it was inside?
She lifted the flashlight and shined the beam on the assigned number.
That was Heidi’s cabin.
Brett surmised that the animal must have curled up underneath the small awning, but a slow swipe of the artificial light revealed nothing of interest.
Well, that wasn’t exactly true.
A splatter of blood was literally at the threshold of the door.
Had Heidi heard the injured animal and brought it inside?
“Heidi!” Brett called out after a couple of knocks on the door. “Heidi, open up!”
As a matter of fact, the wind had died down and the snow appeared to be falling at a slower pace as the flakes leisurely found their home with the others on the ground. It had become eerily quiet as the echo of her voice faded in the clearing.
The smell of firewood burning drifted through the air from every direction, reminding Brett that everyone was trying to ride out the storm and stay warm. Had Heidi brought the wounded animal inside to keep it warm or had she taken it up to the main lodge?
Brett looked over her shoulder, shifting her hood after she’d released her hold on the rope. She swiped the beam of the flashlight over the area, though she found no one else around. That wasn’t surprising. All the other guests were probably enjoying a late dinner and trying to patch up Chris and Louise’s relationship so that tomorrow’s ceremony could continue without further delay.
Brett would knock one more time, just in case Heidi was still inside. She might need help bringing the little critter up to the central cabin.
“Heidi?” Brett called out with a bang of her fist to the frozen wood, certainly not expecting the door to unlatch and swing open from the simple force of her knock. She instinctively used her shoulder to push open the entrance upon sensing the heat from inside…only there was no fire. There was only darkness…and the distinct smell of copper. “Hello?”
Heidi must have already left to join the others, leaving her fire to burn itself out. Brett was well aware that leaving a roaring fire burning in the hearth when no one was present wasn’t the brightest of ideas, but this campground had no electricity at the moment. The only structure she knew of with a working generator was the main lodge, but that didn’t help the individual cabins once the main power to the camp had failed.
It also didn’t help to extinguish the strong odor of what could only be blood.
Had Heidi been unable to save the animal, or had she sought help from the others? Brett’s curiosity always got the better of her, and now was no exception to that rule. She quickly swiped her arm in one long motion, only wanting to confirm that the animal hadn’t been left behind. It took more than a few seconds for the sight before her to penetrate the deep-seated denial that her mind instantly created.
The gruesome image trying to form in her mind was of Heidi’s sightless, cloudy, dilated eyes staring directly into the beam of Brett’s flashlight, but that couldn’t be right.
Her friend couldn’t dead.
That wasn’t right.
“Heidi?” Brett took a step closer because the name falling from her lips came out as nothing but a whisper as her breath billowed in the air. Heidi wouldn’t be able to hear her. She hadn’t been loud enough to be heard properly. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Heidi?”
Brett’s boot slipped out from under her. She tried to catch her balance, but there was nothing for her to grab ahold of as she swung her arms wildly and caught nothing but air. She landed hard on her side where her hip took the brunt of her body weight. Unfortunately, her flashlight once again slipped away from her grip and rolled a couple feet away.
Panic had already started to infuse itself, because there was no way she could accept the scene which was painted in front of her. This had to be a horrible joke—a very sick and cruel joke. That didn’t stop the horror of what could possibly be reality bubble into a scream that never released. Brett was too busy scrambling for the flashlight and crawling toward the beam that was now directed toward herself.
Brett stared in revulsion at the red, thick coagulating liquid coating her hand. She’d first thought her palms had landed in the melting snow she’d brought in with her boots, but this…this was all blood.
“No, no, no,” Brett chanted over and over as she finally picked up the flashlight and swung the light back toward Heidi.
Was this real?
Oh, my God!
Heidi’s lips were parted as if she were silently screaming, while her eyes were trained on something no one on this earth could possibly see. Her normally ivory white skin had lost its vibrancy, reminding Brett of the glue her class used to make arts and crafts. She’d never be able to glue glitter on construction paper again without recalling this grisly image.
Blue. The color of Heidi’s lips and her discernable veins were blue.
Her friend was almost certainly dead.
And the blood.
There was so much blood.
Brett swallowed against the bile in her throat as she attempted to stand without falling. She recognized the need to call for help, but she couldn’t get her body to agree to move. No one would hear her anyway.
All she could manage to do was stare in horror at…death.
Death had come knocking without a wedding invitation.
Heidi was too young to have her life cut so short.
Terror unlike anything Brett had ever experienced settled over her like a cold blanket at the thought that someone had done this to Heidi. There had been no wounded animal. The blood outside had been Heidi’s and someone had brought her inside to bleed out.
Icy spindles wrapped themselves around Brett as she finally grasped the understanding that this hadn’t been an accident. Someone had done this to her friend.
Someone had committed murder so far away from the rest of the world.
And that someone had to still be here in the campground, trapped by the storm…trapped here with her.
* * * *
He hadn’t had time to finish what he’d started.
Anger morphed into rage, but he had no outlet.
Not now that the body had been discovered.
That had been taken from him the moment Brettany Lambert had walked into Heidi’s cabin. He’d been trying to cover the tread of the boot marks he’d left in the snow when he’d heard a muffled cry, alerting him to the fact that he hadn’t been alone anymore.
Brettany had walked right by him, not even realizing she had been arm’s length away from the sharp blade of his knife. He should have stabbed her then and there, dropping her in the snow.
Now, he had to watch from afar as the beam from her flashlight finally faded from his sight as she entered Heidi’s cabin. He waited in the darkness for the satisfying scream to carry through the air. It took longer than he thought it would.