Following the Evidence
Bringing a tracking dog to town
put her in a killer's sights
Inheriting a ranch is a fresh start for Emma Pierce, her baby and her search-and-rescue dog—until someone tries to kill her. But Sheriff Reed Atkinson won’t let anyone hurt his first love…especially when they uncover a connection to his vanished sister. Can Reed solve both cases before he loses his sister and the woman he’s falling for all over again?
Emma jerked awake.
She automatically reached for the baby monitor on her nightstand. No cry or whimper came through the speaker, only the slight shushing sound of Lily’s steady breathing. Her muscles relaxed. The baby was fine.
A bolt of lightning streaked across the sky, followed by a loud clap of thunder. The storm must have woken her.
Before Lily came along, there was nothing Emma couldn’t sleep through. Now every creak of the house disturbed her, a side effect of motherhood. Of course, recent events also had her on edge. The threats...
Emma squeezed her eyes shut and forced the thoughts away. If she started pondering her new troubles, she’d never get back to sleep.
Texas storms could be fierce, and this one was no exception. Rain pounded against the roof. Wind whistled around the corner of the old house, a hollow, mourning sound.A shiver raced down Emma’s spine. She tried to snuggle back into her pillow but something felt off. Wrong somehow. She extended her leg, parting the covers near the foot of her bed. Warmth caressed her toes but no solid form interrupted her progress.
Where was Sadie?
A low growl came from the bedroom door.
Emma sat up. Her eyes hadn’t quite adjusted to the dark, but she could make out the large blot of her dog near the doorway.
“What is it, girl?” Emma whispered.
Sadie didn’t turn her head. Her body was rigid, the hair standing up on the back of her neck.
Fear, sharp and instinctive, coursed through Emma. The Labrador wouldn’t behave that way if it was just Vivian, her sister-in-law, moving around.
Lightning momentarily lit up her bedroom and the corresponding hallway. No one was there.
Emma strained to listen beyond the sounds of the storm. It was impossible. The rain was coming down in curtains, the thunder as loud as a sonic boom. Sadie’s ears twitched, and another warning growl rumbled through her chest. This one was sharper and more urgent.
Emma needed no further convincing. She threw off the covers and grabbed her cell phone. She hit the first number on Speed Dial.
A woman answered. “Heyworth Sheriff’s Department.”
“My name is Emma Pierce.” She ran to her closet. “I live at 125 Old Hickory Lane. I think someone has broken into my home.”
“Did you hear someone break in?”
Emma cocked the phone between her ear and her shoulder. Her hands shook as she pulled a small box from the top shelf. She ignored the dispatcher’s question. It would be too complicated to explain Sadie had alerted her. “I need deputies sent to my home immediately. 125 Old Hickory Lane.”
“I’m sending them now.”
It brought Emma little relief. She lived in a rural area. On a good day, she was twenty minutes from the sheriff’s department. With the storm raging outside, it might take twice that long for deputies to arrive.
“Do you know who is breaking into your home?” the dispatcher asked.
“I can’t talk right now,” she said. “I’ll call you back in a moment.”
Emma hung up and fished a Taser out of the box. Her late husband had bought it as a security measure, an extra precaution when she left vet school late at night. She’d almost gotten rid of it when she moved to the countryside, but Mark’s warning had stopped her.
You never know, sweetheart. You might need it.
She gripped the Taser with a shaking hand, simultaneously rising from her crouch and tucking her cell into the pocket of her pajama pants. Sadie followed her into the hall.
Emma had spent sleepless nights running this scenario through her mind. The threats from her cousin Owen were escalating.
When Uncle Jeb unexpectedly died and left Emma almost his entire estate, she’d been flabbergasted. Her mother’s brother had been one of the last living blood relations she had. They’d talked on the phone regularly, had been as close as two people living on opposite sides of the country could be, but never did she imagine he would pass over his only child, Owen, and give her the lion’s share portion of his estate.
It’d taken only one meeting at the lawyer’s office to understand why Uncle Jeb hadn’t left the property he loved so much to his son. Owen bounced from odd job to odd job, from girlfriend to girlfriend and spent most of his time with his hand around a liquor bottle. It would’ve taken him a few months to destroy what Jeb had spent a lifetime building.
Owen hadn’t taken the news well. Her cousin had flown into a screaming rage at the lawyer’s office. Shortly after Emma moved into Uncle Jeb’s home, the hang-up phone calls began. Flowerbeds were destroyed and patio furniture broken. Minor annoyances became increasingly frightening when the phone calls took a more threatening tone and someone attempted to poison Sadie. After that, Emma reported it all to the sheriff’s office. Her complaint hadn’t been taken seriously.
Would Owen go so far as to break into her house in the middle of the night? She feared he might.
She entered Lily’s room. The glow from the night-light glimmered off the little girl’s hair and the curve of her cheek. Emma picked up her daughter, nestling the child’s face against her shoulder. Lily stirred but, thankfully, remained sleeping. As silent as a shadow, Emma flew to her sister-in-law’s room.
“Vivian,” she hissed.
The other woman muttered something in her sleep. Emma placed Lily down gently on the bed before shaking Vivian awake. When her sister-in-law opened her eyes, Emma held a finger to her lips. “I think someone’s in the house.”
Vivian’s eyes widened and her body went stiff.
“Take Lily into the bathroom and lock the door.” Emma pressed her cell phone into Vivian’s hand. “Speed Dial 1 is the sheriff’s office. Deputies are on the way, but you should call them again.”
Vivian grabbed her wrist. “Where are you going?”
“To check it out.” Emma secretly hoped whatever had caused Sadie’s reaction wasn’t cause for serious alarm, but she wasn’t taking any chances.
Vivian’s gaze dropped to the Taser in Emma’s hand. “Please...be careful.”
Emma gave a sharp jerk of her head. “Bathroom.”
Vivian flew into motion. Within moments, the bathroom door clicked closed. Before leaving Vivian’s bedroom, Emma rested her hand against Sadie’s head. The dog’s fur was soft against her fingertips. Sadie glanced at her and Emma could almost hear the animal’s thoughts. Take me with you.
“Stay,” Emma whispered. “Guard.”
If there was an intruder in the house and he managed to get past Emma, he would have to go through Sadie to hurt Lily or Vivian. The Labrador would fight to the death to protect her family—especially Lily. She’d been trained to.Emma slipped out into the hall on silent footsteps. Her heart pounded against her rib cage. Possibilities played in her mind, the images flashing like her own personal scary movie. She was no innocent country girl—she knew full well the horrors people could inflict on one another. As a search-and-rescue volunteer, she’d seen it up close and personal.
Father, please help me be strong. Give me the ability to protect my family if necessary.
She paused at the top of the stairs. Her senses were on high alert. Warm, moist air washed over her and the rain seemed louder, like a door or window was open. She swallowed hard and gripped the Taser a bit tighter before edging her way down the staircase.
She jumped and bit back a shriek. Her hands went numb. The wind screamed through the house, rattling the windowpanes.
Trembling, she took a deep breath and rounded the banister. The sound was coming from the kitchen. She raced down the dark hall, her slippers silent against the wood floor. She paused at the entrance to the kitchen and peeked around the doorframe.
One of the large glass panes on her bay window was broken, the shards scattered across the tile floor. The wind screeched again, rocking a cabinet door forward before slamming it closed. Water from the rain mixed with the glass on the floor. Was that...?
She stepped forward and caught a glimpse of leaves on the floor. A tree branch.
Heady relief washed over her. No one had broken into the house. The storm’s high winds had simply thrown a branch through the glass. She lowered the Taser. A streak of lightning lit up the kitchen, making it as bright as midday. Emma saw them a fraction too late.
Muddy boot prints.
Something moved out of the corner of her eye. Emma spun. The Taser flew from her hand and a cookie jar on the counter shattered as the intruder tackled her.
The storm was a bad one.
Sheriff Reed Atkinson sat in his favorite chair on the screened-in porch and watched the rain batter against the barn. Wind whipped tree branches back and forth, the thunder so loud it vibrated in his chest. Lightning bolted from the sky, striking a nearby tree. Reed sucked in a breath as a limb cracked. It crashed to the ground, narrowly missing the barn’s roof by inches.
Close. Too close. He made sure there weren’t lingering sparks, but the rain drenched any fire before it could start. Reed settled back in his chair. He checked the time. A little after one in the morning.
He’d already called the sheriff’s department and placed himself on reserve. The standard units were working, but with a night like this, sometimes an extra hand or two became necessary. Everything was quiet when he spoke to his dispatch operator, Mona, and he hoped it stayed that way.
Still, he couldn’t manage to sleep. Insomnia and Reed were old friends, albeit grudgingly.
The anniversary of Bonnie’s disappearance was this month. His sister had been gone for a year, and there hadn’t been a single phone call or email from her. Not even a letter. Her social security number hadn’t been used, her bank accounts and credit cards remained untouched. Reed had been a cop long enough to know her case probably wasn’t going to have the happy ending he wanted.
Yet, there was a niggle of hope he couldn’t snuff out that she was alive. It’s what kept him digging. It also kept him awake in the middle of the night.
Reed rose from the chair and stretched. Maybe he would try to lie down anyway. As he crossed the threshold into the tiny living room, his cell phone rang. The familiar number on his screen flashed and his heart skipped a beat. Dispatch.
He answered, his voice gruff but authoritative. “Atkinson.”
“Sheriff, Emma Pierce contacted me a few minutes ago.” Mona spoke in a rush. “She inherited Jeb Tillman’s place.”
“I know who she is.”
A simple sentence that didn’t begin to encompass the complicated relationship between Reed and Emma. They’d had a serious summer romance ten years ago before reality and different life goals sent them in opposite directions. Since Emma’s move back to Heyworth last month, Reed had done his best to avoid her. A ridiculous notion, considering the town’s size. It was smarter to be polite.
Still, when he’d spotted her in the grocery store last week, the rush of emotion had caught him off guard. Reed had turned on his heel and walked the other way.
“She thinks an intruder has broken into her house,” Mona said.
Reed’s chest clenched. Emma was a widow with a small child. That made her an easier target for criminals looking to steal.
“I’ve dispatched the closest unit but with the storm, they’re more than thirty minutes out,” Mona continued. “Since you—”
Reed’s ranch bordered Emma’s. He could be at her house in less than five minutes—a huge, potentially life-saving time difference.
“How does she know someone is breaking in?” Reed shoved his feet into worn cowboy boots.
“She didn’t say. I tried to keep her on the phone, but she hung up, claiming someone would call me right back.”
“Contact the unit and let them know I’ll be on site,” Reed ordered. He didn’t want to be accidentally shot by one of his own men.
He hung up and pulled on his holster along with his jacket. Within moments, he was sliding into the seat of his pickup truck and flying down his driveway.
Possibilities raced through his mind. Violent crime was almost nonexistent in their county, home invasions extremely rare. In this storm, she could have heard the wind rattling the house or had a tree branch shatter a window. Both of those would’ve sounded as though an individual was breaking in. An honest mistake. It’d happened before.
But what if it wasn’t a mistake? It was always the question Reed asked himself whenever he rushed to a potential scene. He treated every case with absolute seriousness. Reed knew, better than most, even small towns like Heyworth had their darker elements.
God, please help me get there in time. Let her and her family be okay.
It’d been a long time since they’d dated, but if Emma was anything like the woman he used to know, she would be first in line to protect her loved ones. Reed battled against the images of her hurt or worse...
No. That wouldn’t happen.
His headlights sliced through the darkness. The old country road was unpaved, narrow and rarely used. It was also the shortest route between his ranch and Emma’s property. His tires ate up the gravel and it pinged against the undercarriage. He was going dangerously fast, but he couldn’t slow down. If something happened to Emma or her family, he would never forgive himself.
Out of nowhere, another truck appeared, racing toward Reed. The vehicle had no headlights on, bouncing down the road at a reckless speed. Teenagers? His office had had a problem with racing on these back roads, but since Reed had become sheriff nine months ago, he’d cracked down on it.
A sick feeling twisted his stomach. Or could this be Emma’s intruder? The truck was coming from the direction of her property. Reed tried to make out the make and model of the vehicle, but in the rain and the dark, it was impossible. He honked his horn, but the truck didn’t change paths. It barreled down on him.
A blinding light filled Reed’s windshield, obscuring his vision. The driver had turned on his brights.
Reed jerked his wheel to avoid colliding with the other truck. His tires hit a slick spot and fishtailed. His heart jumped into his throat. He tapped his brakes, managing to bring his truck back under control before it skidded off the road and into the woods.In his rearview mirror, the other vehicle disappeared. The driver hadn’t even slowed down.
Shaken and angry, Reed allowed himself half a breath. Under normal circumstances, he would do a U-turn and arrest whoever was driving, but he didn’t have the time for that now. He had to get to Emma.
He raced the rest of the way there. Before making the turn to her ranch, he killed his lights. If the intruder was still inside the house, Reed didn’t want to alert him that law enforcement had arrived. That was a good way to turn a home invasion into a hostage situation.
Rain instantly soaked the shoulders of his jacket. In his haste to leave, Reed hadn’t taken his hat. His hair became plastered to his head, water running in rivers down his face and into his collar. The grass was slick under his boots. Mud splashed the cuffs of his jeans as he ran to the front porch.
He scanned the front door and the closest windows with his flashlight. Nothing. Everything looked locked and secure. Lightning streaked across the sky, and above his head wind chimes danced. He needed to go around the perimeter of the house, look for signs of a break-in. The back door maybe—
The sound of a loud crash turned his blood cold. Emma!
The front door was wooden, old, with a flimsy deadbolt. Thunder boomed, and Reed took advantage. He rammed the door with a well-placed kick. His heel screamed in protest, but the wood splintered.
“Come on, come on...” He focused his energy on the weak spot he’d created. He slammed into the door again. It shuddered and gave way.
He entered the house, his flashlight moving over everything. A banister leading upstairs. A dining room to his right. A living room to his left. His breathing was ragged, but the hand holding his weapon was steady.
Which way? Upstairs or toward the back of the house?
He paused, straining to listen. There. A noise coming from the kitchen. He raced down the hallway. Someone was coughing.
His flashlight caught a dark figure bolting out the back door. Reed swung to his left. Emma sat on the tile floor, one hand holding her neck. Her face was red and her long hair stuck out in all directions. Relief replaced the terror in her expression when she caught sight of him.
Reed bent down, scanning quickly for blood. How seriously had she been hurt?
“Go,” she choked out. “I’m okay, and he’s getting away.”
Reed dashed after the intruder.