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by Dani Pettrey

Learn More | Meet Dani Pettrey
Piper bolted upright, sweat dampening her pj’s despite December’s chill.

What was that?

Her bleary gaze flashed to the clock—1:30—then to Aurora standing like a sentinel at her bedroom door. The husky’s white fur rippled down her back, her ears alert.

Piper shifted the tangle of snowflake flannel sheets binding her legs, listening.

There it was again. Creaks echoed along the floorboards below. Heavy steps. Not Kayden’s.

Aurora lunged at the door, pawing the battered wood frame. A low growl rumbled through the dog’s throat.

Piper got to her feet, ignoring the cold shock of the floor as she crossed the room.

She cracked her door ever so slightly and peered into the darkness.

Another creak echoed from the downstairs hall. The footsteps paused at the base of the stairs.

Aurora whimpered, nudging at the opening with her muzzle.

Piper reached down to grab Aurora’s collar but wasn’t quick enough. Aurora charged into the hallway.

Piper shot out after her, but her sister pulled her up short—with a rifle in her hand. Kayden released her grasp on Piper and raised her finger to her lips.

They moved down the hall as Aurora barreled down the stairs, growling.

A male grunt sounded below them. Something hit the ground hard.

Kayden aimed her rifle at the chaos below. “Get the lights,” she whispered.

Piper flipped the switch.

Aurora stood at attention a foot away from the man on the floor. He pulled his arm away from his face and looked up.

“Reef?” Piper gaped at her brother in horror. “Is that blood?”

Landon Grainger slammed back the shot of rum and let the warm fire crinkle through his chest.

“Looks like you’ve got some sorrows to drown, Officer.” Becky Malone shifted on her stool, leaning in until the spicy scent of her perfume tickled his nose.

He set the empty glass on the bar and signaled the bartender for another. “You have no idea.”

She trailed her finger along the rim of her glass. “Oh, I think you’d be surprised how much I know.”

Her confident tone startled him. Was he that transparent?

“Heartbreak is no stranger to me.”

Landon grimaced. Apparently he was that transparent.

“Another shot?” the bartender asked, the bottle poised over Landon’s empty glass.

He hesitated, wanting the oblivion, needing it. . . . But it was the needing it that had him wary enough to try to stop his slide. “Better make it a beer.” He needed to walk out. Needed to drive home. One beer and he’d call it a night. He shouldn’t have entered the bar in the first place, definitely shouldn’t linger.

“You know”—Becky scooted closer, her thigh nestling against his—“I find company is a surefire cure for heartbreak.”

He’d have asked why she was so certain it was heartache fueling his need to forget but knew the question would only expose him further. If Becky mentioned Piper’s name . . .

Piper. Landon gripped the neck of the beer bottle with two fingers and tilted it to his lips. Funny how quickly old habits returned. If he wasn’t careful, he’d find himself at the bottom of the slippery slope he was skirting. He’d walked the straight and narrow for too long to let the pain knock him back that far.

“What do ya say?” Becky trailed her fingers down his chest, creating no less burning than the rum had. “I’m real good company.”

“I’m sure you are, but . . .”

“Those buts . . .” She shook her head. “They’re half your problem.”

He took a quick draught of his beer, tossed a ten on the bar, and stood.

Becky cocked her head with a smile. “Is that an invitation?” She swiveled to face him. Her long legs were bare between the fringe of her black jean miniskirt and the tops of her red alligator boots.

“Aren’t you a little underdressed for our Alaskan weather?” Thanksgiving was barely past and it was already ten below and snowing. She was a Yancey local. She should have known better.

“Oh, sugar.” She got to her feet and smoothed her skirt. “I know how to keep warm.”

Warmth sounded good. He’d been cold and alone for far too long, and it was painfully clear that nothing would ever happen with Piper—at least not as far as he was concerned. He bit back the memories of the night’s events.

Becky’s fingers intertwined with his. “Why don’t we take this party somewhere more private?”

“ . . . it would seem like wisdom but for the warning of my heart.”

Why had he read The Lord of the Rings so many times growing up? So many lines were ingrained in his mind.

“Just a few drinks between friends,” she said, leading him toward the door.

“And then?” He knew exactly what she anticipated then.

“And then . . .” She grabbed her coat off the rack, pushed open the door lined with tacky red tinsel, and led him into the parking lot.

Tariuk’s frigid coastal air slapped the harsh sting of reality across his weathered cheeks.

Becky slipped her arms into her jacket and wrapped them around his waist. “And then . . . we’ll see what feels right.”

Nothing about this feels right. “I appreciate the offer—


“But . . .” He sighed, glancing at the loosened strand ofChristmas lights lifting in the wind, then lashing back against the battered gutter of Hawkings Pub. It wasn’t one of Yancey’s finer establishments, but on an island as small as Tariuk, it was about as out of the way as he could manage.

She smiled. “I told you those buts are only holding you back.”

His cell rang and her eyes shifted to his pocket.

“I’ve got to take this.”

She didn’t bothering loosening her hold.


“It’s Tom.”

Becky nuzzled against him.

He tried to extricate himself from her hold. “This isn’t a good time.”

“You can say that again.”

“What’s going on?”

“There’s been a murder.”

Landon downed a couple Tylenol to ward off the headache he knew would be coming and drove with one hand on the wheel while he guzzled what remained of an energy drink. He’d attempted to erase, or at least drown out, the earlier evening’s memories, but after a few drinks and a close call with Becky, they only gouged deeper. What had once been an effective form of escape now imprisoned him, cementing in his mind everything he was trying to forget.

He crushed the empty can in his fist.

What was it going to take to forget Piper? To stop the agonizing pain slowly eating away at his insides?

He tossed the crumbled can on the floorboard and accelerated.

The road was empty except for him—a long, dark abyss stretching ahead. He’d been teetering on the brink for a while, but tonight . . . He clamped the wheel, pain spreading through his limbs, his heart. Tonight had pushed him over the edge.Reality had struck like a bolt of lightning.

Watching Piper with Denny Foster at Cole and Bailey’s engagement party had made it all so painfully clear. One day it would be Piper’s engagement party, Piper’s wedding, and he’d be standing on the sidelines forced to watch the woman he loved pledge her life to another.

Ahead, faint whispers of red danced in the overpowering glare of floodlights. Squinting against the assaulting brightness, Landon pulled to a stop beside the patrol car with its lights still swirling. Taking a steadying breath, he stepped from his truck, bracing himself for what lay ahead.

The frozen ground crunched beneath his boots as he made his way past the Midnight Sun Extreme Freeride Competition’s temporary headquarters—a series of modular trailers and tents, and on to Trailside Lodge, where the athletes were housed. The normally quaint and sedate wooden-beam lodge was a flurry of activity, and the floodlights only seemed to be heightening the confusion and further fueling the frenzy. A crowd stood outside, gawking at the sheriff and his deputies as they cordoned off the front area with caution tape, effectively corralling the fifty-some guests, probably mostly event competitors—snowboarders and skiers—into a partition along the lodge’s main stone entryway.

Deputy Tom Murphy spotted him through the crowd and advanced toward him.

“Whose bright idea was the floodlights?”

Tom cleared his throat and inclined his head toward Sheriff Slidell.

Landon sighed. Of course. An elected official with no previous police training, Landon’s boss waffled between near noninvolvement on one case to dramatic oversight on the next.

Despite his position, Bill Slidell didn’t know the first thing about running a proper crime scene, and it showed, painfully.

“Let’s see if we can’t cut these lights once we are certain the area’s been secured. No need to go scaring folks any more than they already are.”

Tom tipped his hat. “You got it.”

Landon entered the lobby, surprised at finding a fire still roaring in the large stone hearth and the still-lit Christmas tree. Easily twelve feet high, the giant spruce almost touched the vaulted wood ceiling. The flames reflecting off the decorative silver balls magnified the fire’s glow amidst an otherwise empty lobby.

Andy Miner, the owner and manager of the nineteenth-century establishment, stepped from the back room. “Landon, I’m glad you’re here. Slidell made all my guests get up and stand out in the cold. It’s nearly two in the morning, for goodness’ sake.”

Landon glanced at Tom.

Tom shrugged. “Boss’s orders.”

He grimaced. “Let Slidell know once the perimeter’s secure there’s no harm in letting folks back inside. Tell him they’ll be more cooperative and easier to question if they’re not freezing to death.” Not to mention easier to keep track of.

“You got it. Do you want to wait for me or head up on your own?”

“Where’s she at?”

“Ladies’ restroom, top floor.”

“Who’s stationed up there?”

Tom cleared his throat. “Slidell wanted us down here, searching.”

“So you left the murder scene unmanned?”

“We taped the entrance, and with all the guests out here . . .”

Landon headed for the stairwell, taking the steps two at a time to the seventh floor. His heart pounded in rhythm with the pounding of his boots against the concrete stairs. He preferred to get his blood pumping, his adrenaline going, before entering a crime scene, sort of revving the organ before experiencing the shock of what awaited. He figured that way it wasn’t such a jolt to his system—at least not physically.

He exited the stairwell as Tom exited the elevator. “I thought you were going to talk to Slidell about killing the floodlights.”Slidell would react far better to Tom’s suggestion of bringing the guests inside than his. After the last murder case they’d worked, Landon thought he and his boss were finally finding common ground, but now, with Slidell’s reelection campaign in full swing, his boss was becoming more a politician and less a cop with each passing day.

“I am, but there’s something you need to know first.”

“What’s that?”

“I didn’t want to say anything in front of Andy, though I’m sure he knows. By now everyone probably knows.”

“Everyone knows what?”

Tom rubbed the back of his neck. “The witnesses . . . they say . . .”

“Witnesses?” Could they be that lucky? “They witnessed the murder?”

“Close enough. Walked in on the killer finishing up. Her blood all over him.”

It wasn’t often that a case caught such a big break. “Run me through what happened.”

“One of the athletes said she left something up here earlier in the evening.”

“You get her name?” Please tell me you got her name.

“Just a sec.” Tom fished a small notepad out of his shirtpocket. He flipped it open and scanned the page. “Ashley Clark.”

Landon made note of the name. “Go on.”

“So she and her friend came back up to retrieve it.”

“The friend’s name?”

“Tug Williams, also a competitor.”

“Okay.” Landon jotted down the name.

“They get off the elevator, start down the hall. They hear some commotion coming from the ladies’ changing room, so Ashley pokes her head in. Sees the victim dead in the killer’s arms, the murder weapon still in his hands.”

“We have the killer in custody?” Why hadn’t Tom said so?

“Afraid not. He argued with Tug before ramming past him and Ashley and fleeing the scene.”

Argued? “The witnesses knew the suspect?”

“That’s correct.”

“So who is it?” Why was Tom hedging?

“You aren’t going to like it .

. .”A sick feeling roiled through Landon’s gut. “A woman’s been murdered. I don’t like any part of it.”

“The killer’s Reef McKenna.”

Darkness flashed before Landon’s eyes. “Reef?” It couldn’t be.

“Both witnesses ID’d him.”

This will kill Piper. “Has Slidell already put out an APB?”

“Nope. Just set us to work securing the guests and the perimeter.”

He doubted Reef had remained on the premises. “Any sign of him?”

“Not a glimmer. You want us to send someone out to his family’s place?”

“I’ll go.” If anyone was going to break it to them, it would be him.

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