Excerpt from Falling in Love on Willow Creek
FBI agent Chase Roberts stood ankle-deep in wet snow in the middle of the woods outside of Highland Falls. He’d rather be sitting in his car with the heat on high, watching the antics of Elijah Gray’s sister in the window of I Believe in Unicorns. Instead, he was freezing his ass off waiting for an agent from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation to arrive.
On the request of NCSBI agent Nathan Black, a man he’d never met, Chase had spent the better part of his Sunday morning surveilling the unicorn store on Main Street in Highland Falls. He’d been about to make contact with Sadie Gray and her grandmother when Black called to say plans had changed, directing him to a cottage on Willow Creek owned by the Grays. An hour later, he’d received another call from Black, asking him to check out Payton Howard’s house on Chestnut Lane.
Now here Chase stood at meeting place number four with no sign of the other agent.
Chase wasn’t impressed, with the man or the location. He was so far out of his comfort zone that he might as well be standing on the moon in the middle of a geomagnetic storm. He was big-city born and raised and wanted nothing more than to get transferred back to DC. But other than in a body bag, the fastest way out of this backwater was to tag a career-making case. From the little he’d learned about Elijah Gray; this case wasn’t it.
No, he thought, as a disheveled, long-haired man with a heavy beard tromped through the dark, desolate woods toward him, this was Chase’s payback for DC. His new boss didn’t like him any better than his old one had.
“Hey, man, sorry I’m late. I’m undercover and couldn’t get away without drawing attention.” Dressed like he rode with a biker gang, the guy was a behemoth, an easy six-five with two hundred and forty pounds of muscle bulking up his broad-shouldered frame. Chase didn’t need his BS meter to go off to tell him the other agent was bad news. He wouldn’t trust this guy as far as he could throw him.
“You’re twenty minutes late, Black. You have lipstick on your neck, your hair doesn’t look like you’ve combed it in a week, your eyes are bloodshot, and you smell like you drank your weight in bourbon last night. So my guess is you’ve spent the better part of the day in bed nursing a hangover”—he reached over and tugged a long hair from the zipper of Black’s leather jacket—“with a blonde to keep you company while you sent me all over Highland Falls to see if Elijah Gray had made an appearance.”
Black grinned, shooting a finger at him. “Got it in one. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Word is you’re a freaking genius. The guy who brought in America’s Most Wanted all by his lonesome. By the book and uncompromising with a work ethic that puts your fellow agents to shame, you have more enemies than friends at the bureau.” Black crouched, picked up a stick to move some snow-covered leaves around, and then glanced up at Chase with a flash of white teeth through his heavy beard. He looked like a wolf.
“Me,” the other agent continued, “I’m as good as you but the exact opposite. Everyone in law enforcement loves me. I know better than to write up my boss for skirting the rules to crack a case. So play your cards right, and I might be able to get you that transfer back to DC that you want so bad.”
Law enforcement agents were a small, incestuous bunch. They gossiped more than a table of seniors at a small-town church social. So Chase had no idea why he was remotely surprised that, despite being assigned to the field office in North Carolina only ten days ago, he’d already become fodder for the rumor mill.
What proved a bigger mystery—and one he occasionally tried to solve when the spirit moved him, which wasn’t often—was why his dedication to seeking justice and upholding the law was considered a character flaw in the eyes of his fellow agents and bosses. Maybe if he cared what other people thought about him, he’d spend more than a few minutes thinking about it. But all he really cared about were the case files awaiting him on his desk.
And DC, he reminded himself. He cared about going home. So maybe he had to work on his people skills. The thought gave him a headache.
“I won’t be riding back to DC on the coattails of this case, no matter how cozy you are with the powers that be, Black. It’s not big enough. Elijah Gray’s a petty criminal who made the mistake of thinking the gang he was running drugs for wouldn’t miss a few blocks of cocaine. Talk to the Jackson County sheriff. The Whiteside Mountain Gang are in his jurisdiction.”
“I can’t talk to the sheriff. That’s why I wanted a face-to-face. It’s why I requested you.” Black stood up, dropped the stick he’d been using to move around the leaves, and shoved his hands in his pockets. He searched Chase’s face as though gauging whether he could trust him or not.
A damp wind whistled through the leafless trees, the iced branches clicking together like wind chimes—the only movement and sound in the utterly still and quiet forest.
Chase lifted the collar of his coat against the bitter breeze, waiting while Black struggled with whatever he was about to say. This was more than just a case for the other agent. This was personal.
“Three days ago, a friend reached out. He’s a deputy with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department,” Black said. “We were supposed to meet here two days ago.” He looked down at the ground as though searching for a clue. “Brodie never showed, and I haven’t been able to reach him.”
“Since you won’t take this to the sheriff and I spent the better part of the day tracking Elijah Gray’s last-known movements, I’m guessing your friend has intel that links the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department to the Whiteside Mountain Gang.” And the fact that deputy had been missing for the past two days didn’t bode well for him.
Black nodded. “He got the intel from Elijah Gray. He was Brodie’s confidential informant. Gray approached Brodie for help when the drugs he was delivering for the Whiteside Mountain Gang went”—Black made air quotes— “missing last summer. But when the situation got too hot for him to handle, Gray took off. Brodie finally managed to track him down a few weeks ago. Apparently Gray wasn’t having much fun on the run and hoped to trade information to get out of the mess he was in.”
“And your friend believed his intel was reliable?”
“I know what you’re thinking. I thought the same. Gray isn’t exactly a stand-up guy. He had no qualms leaving his sister holding the bag. She was just lucky Highland Falls’ chief of police was a former New York City homicide detective and good at his job, otherwise she’d be having her baby in jail.”
Chase thought about the woman with the long dark hair standing spreadeagle in the window of I Believe in Unicorns. He’d looked into her, not too deeply, but deep enough to gather Sadie Gray was smart, ambitious, reliable, and well liked by her colleagues but perhaps not the best judge of character given her previous and current romantic relationships. Still, she’d been brought in for questioning last summer for a reason.
“Or she’s just good at hiding who she really is,” Chase said. “She might have been involved from the beginning. She’d left a well-paid job to operate the tour bus for her brother last summer.” Highland Tours was how Gray had delivered the product for the gang.
“Then there’s the fact that Elijah’s girlfriend, Payton Howard, stopped by the family’s store this morning,” Chase continued. “She didn’t stick around for long and came out holding an envelope. My bet is it contained cash. Either to pass on to Elijah or to keep Payton quiet. I checked out her place and didn’t see any sign Gray was there. But there were signs someone had been staying at the cottage on Willow Creek. You might want to pass that on to Highland Falls’ chief of police.”
“I want to hold off on that. I think I can trust the guy, but I don’t want to take a chance the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department gets wind that I’m looking into Brodie’s disappearance. Gray told Brodie he had evidence the sheriff was involved. From things Brodie witnessed over last year, he thinks other deputies might be on the take as well.” He blew out a breath and scrubbed his face. “I need to find him.”
“You know the odds, Black. It’s been forty-eight hours . . .” He held up his hand at the other man’s tortured expression. “You’re right, there’s a chance your friend is fine and lying low.” Chase calculated there was about a ten-percent chance the deputy wasn’t buried in a shallow grave.
“So you’ll help me? No one, including your special agent in charge, can know what we’re looking into.”
“Wait a minute. What does my boss think I’m doing with you?”
“He owes me. I called in my marker. He has no idea what I need you for, only that I needed a partner.”
That didn’t make sense. This went well beyond interagency cooperation. There was more to this, more to Nathan Black, than Chase knew, and he didn’t like it. Maybe he’d been right after all—his boss had found a way to get rid of him.
To confirm his suspicions, Chase considered asking Black how many of his partners had wound up in the hospital or the morgue, but decided to let it go. No matter his concerns about Black or how dangerous the assignment might be, Chase was now convinced he’d found a case big enough to get him back to DC.
“All right, Granny,” Sadie said. “There’s no one in the shop so now’s your chance to tell me why you gave Payton Howard an envelope filled with twenty-dollar bills.”
Agnes had been putting Sadie off for the past several hours. At first, she’d used Brooklyn as an excuse, pretending she was having a hard time reading her. Poor Brooklyn thought it meant she didn’t have a future. But when her grandmother began spouting readings without going into a trancelike state, there’d been no doubt in Sadie’s mind that Agnes was faking it. The question was why, but that was a question Sadie would save for another time because her grandmother had seemed genuinely distressed at her inability to do a reading.
Sadie didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with two dramas today. As soon as Brooklyn had left the store, they’d been inundated with customers, ensuring that Sadie remained on her feet all day. Her back was killing her, she was tired, and she had a four-hour drive ahead of her in crappy weather. The rain had changed to sleet about fifteen minutes ago and now was changing to snow.
She rubbed her lower back, thinking of the work awaiting her when she got home. She still had several hours to put into tomorrow’s presentation. And then there was Drew to deal with. She eyed the whimsical pink couch in the corner of the store, barely resisting the urge to walk over and curl up on it and sleep for a week.
“Oh now, it’s nothing. Just helping the lass out is all. She’s fallen on hard times, and we take care of own. She’s. . . she was our Elijah’s girl.” Avoiding Sadie’s narrowed gaze, her grandmother walked to the window. “You’d best get on the road. We can’t have you driving down the mountain in the snow at dark, now can we?”
She was right, and it was obvious Sadie wasn’t going to get more out of her. And if she was being honest with herself, she didn’t want to spend another minute thinking or arguing about her brother.
“I’ll let this go for now, Granny. But I’m calling Gabe. I’ll let him know that Elijah has been spotted around Payton’s house and the cottage.” As well as being Highland Falls’ chief of police, Gabe was her best friend Mallory’s fiancé. “So don’t even think about helping Elijah out. You’d be charged with aiding and abetting.” She walked over and kissed her grandmother’s powder-scented cheek. “I don’t want to visit you in prison.”
Ten minutes later, Sadie was on her way. It didn’t take long for her to realize she’d made a mistake. Despite the frantic swish of the wipers, snow was building up on her windshield. But if she turned back now, she could kiss the art director position goodbye. She thought about the additional credit card debt Drew had saddled her with and took several deep, calming breaths. She had to keep going. Her SUV had four-wheel drive and winter tires.
Leaning forward to peer past the snow pelting her windshield, she murmured, “Just a few more miles and we’ll be through the worst of it, baby.”
Maybe not the worst of the weather, but the road would widen and straighten. There’d be more traffic too. At that moment, she was the only one on the road, her high beams all that were visible through the wall of white. The trees on either side of the road were already coated with snow. She might have appreciated the winter wonderland more if she weren’t driving. Her stomach tightened as though to remind her she had a baby onboard. She gasped when the cramp didn’t immediately subside, instead deepening and lengthening.
She breathed through the pain. “It’s just Braxton Hicks contractions. Nothing to worry about. Perfectly normal at this stage. But if you could make them stop until we get back to Charlotte, I’d really . . .” Her tires hit a patch of ice, and she sunk her teeth in her lower lip to stifle a scream. Tightening her grip on the steering wheel, she struggled to regain control of the car.
Several terrifying seconds later, her tires were headed in the right direction. She glanced out the passenger-side window. A dark sedan and an army-green jeep were pulled off the road.
And that’s when she decided that, no matter how much was at stake, she couldn’t take the risk. She continued driving, looking for a safe place to turn around. Her stomach tightened with another cramp, this one stronger than the last.
Her pained groan turned into a strangled gasp as her tires once again hit an icy patch. She tried to breathe through the contraction while fighting to keep the car on the road but it was getting harder to do as one contraction rolled into another. A gush of water ran down her legs onto the mat and the pedals. Her foot slid onto the gas, causing the car to spin.
She took her foot off the gas. The car kept going, plowing into the guard rail on the opposite side of the road, whipping her forward against her seatbelt and then jerking her back against her seat. A plume of white thumped down on the windshield.
She leaned against the seat, trying to calm her breathing as she smoothed her palms over her rock-hard stomach, searching for a sign her baby was all right. But even as she did, she knew there’d be no tiny flutters or kicks to alleviate her fears. She was in labor.
Fingers shaking, she undid her seatbelt. Spotting her cell phone on the passenger-side floor, she leaned on her side across the middle console. She stretched her fingers to grab it, gritting her teeth in frustration when it slid out of reach. The console pressed against her stomach as she rolled onto it to get closer, a small sigh of relief pushing past her lips when her fingers closed around her phone. When she finally managed to get herself into an upright position, she turned it on. Her heartbeat stuttered. No bars. She powered down her window, snow rushing inside the SUV as she stuck her phone outside, searching for a signal.
She swallowed a sob and her panic. Neither would do her or her baby any good. She had to stay calm and figure a way out of this. At the sound of tree branches snapping, she looked toward the dark woods.
From the shadows a form took shape.
It was a man.