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The Closer He Gets, страница 1

 

The Closer He Gets
 


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The Closer He Gets


  She can’t save herself...but he can

  It took the twenty-fifth anniversary of his kid sister’s death to bring Zach Carter home. Determined to solve her murder with his training as a homicide detective, he discovers that his estranged brother has beaten him to the punch and is already on the local force. The two, divided in their parental loyalties and their suspicions, struggle to make headway, until Zach is witness to a fatal beating where the guy left standing is a cop. And a second witness is a gorgeous brunette. Zach is in the impossible situation of protecting Tess Granath from the sheriff’s department while fighting his attraction to her. He’s always known he’s a man who can’t commit. Except now he’s met a woman he can’t walk away from...

  They looked at each other across the body.

  Momentarily stunned, he just stared for a few beats too long. If she’d never seen a violent death, she might be in shock, he reminded himself. Her right hand was bloody, he saw when he could wrench his gaze from her face. She’d touched the victim when she first fell to her knees beside him. Zach lifted his own hand to see that, yeah, his own fingertips were bloody, too. The guy’s face was a chunk of raw meat. The hands and arms he’d raised in defense weren’t any better.

  Recalled by the sound of an approaching siren, he said gently, “There’s nothing you can do. The medics will be here any minute.”

  She looked down, then back up. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

  “I’m afraid so.”

  “Why?” she whispered.

  “I have no idea.”

  Dear Reader,

  I love to write stories fresh out of the news. Actually, given my law-abiding (possibly even staid) lifestyle, where else would I get my ideas? In this case, the newsworthy drama provides the perfect setup to challenge my hero, who has zero interest in a long-term romantic relationship. After his childhood, how can he trust a woman not to betray him?

  If you’re a regular reader, you’ll recognize where I’m going with this. My stories frequently hinge on the lasting effects of childhood trauma. I firmly believe that our most essential character is formed by the time we leave home at eighteen. Often, way before we leave home.

  In The Closer He Gets, I have a hero bearing a lifetime of proof that he can’t rely on anyone. He returns to his childhood hometown to right a very old wrong, and finds the brother who abandoned him—and a woman under siege after she witnesses a horrendous crime. For the first time, Zach has met a woman he can’t walk away from, no matter how much his feelings for her scare him. And in his brother, Bran, he finds another man as damaged by their shared past as he was.

  Yep, my kind of story! And, yes, in a flip of the coin, look for Bran Murphy’s story, The Baby He Wanted, to come in May 2016 from Harlequin Superromance.

  Good reading!

  Janice

  JANICE KAY

  JOHNSON

  The Closer He Gets

  An author of more than ninety books for children and adults, Janice Kay Johnson writes about love and family—about the way generations connect and the power our earliest experiences have on us throughout life. An eight-time finalist for a Romance Writers of America RITA® Award, she won a RITA® Award in 2008 for her Harlequin Superromance novel Snowbound. A former librarian, Janice raised two daughters in a small town north of Seattle, Washington.

  Books by Janice Kay Johnson

  HARLEQUIN SUPERROMANCE

  The Baby Agenda

  Bone Deep

  Finding Her Dad

  All That Remains

  Making Her Way Home

  No Matter What

  A Hometown Boy

  Anything for Her

  Where It May Lead

  From This Day On

  One Frosty Night

  More Than Neighbors

  To Love a Cop

  Two Daughters

  Yesterday’s Gone

  In Hope’s Shadow

  The Mysteries of Angel Butte

  Bringing Maddie Home

  Everywhere She Goes

  All a Man Is

  Cop by Her Side

  This Good Man

  A Brother’s Word

  Between Love and Duty

  From Father to Son

  The Call of Bravery

  SIGNATURE SELECT SAGA

  Dead Wrong

  Visit the Author Profile page at Harlequin.com.

  Get rewarded every time you buy a Harlequin ebook!

  Click here to Join Harlequin My Rewards

  http://www.harlequin.com/myrewards.html?mt=loyalty&cmpid=EBOOBPBPA201602010002

  Contents

  CHAPTER ONE

  CHAPTER TWO

  CHAPTER THREE

  CHAPTER FOUR

  CHAPTER FIVE

  CHAPTER SIX

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  CHAPTER NINE

  CHAPTER TEN

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  EXCERPT FROM THE BIG BREAK BY CARA LOCKWOOD

  CHAPTER ONE

  BRAN MURPHY WOULD have said he wasn’t given to self-reflection. He made one major exception, however. Something like every six months he would feel the pull and next thing he knew he’d be driving slowly by his childhood home instead of parking in his assigned spot at his condo.

  This was one of those times, and he had an idea what had provided the impetus today. A couple of months ago he’d decided the time had come to find a wife and start a family. Three weeks ago he’d asked Paige to marry him and she’d agreed. They’d just taken a vacation together to Hawaii. Last night, after they flew into SeaTac, he had dropped her at her place, carrying her suitcase in for her and then gone home alone. He hadn’t slept well and had found himself feeling edgy this morning.

  What if his desire for a family and the logical way he’d gone about it had started him on a trajectory that would end in a crash landing like the one that had destroyed the not-so-happy family that had lived here in this house?

  Maybe every life had a Before and After. Divorce. A death. Another kind of loss that created a divide. His own happened to be a little more violent than most.

  Today he sat brooding in his car, remembering a time when his family had been whole. There were signs the family who lived in the house now might be. A kid’s bike lay on the lawn, and the barbecue and lawn mower under cover of the carport made him think all-American.

  As tense as if he was about to kick in a door to arrest a violent offender, he got out and followed the sidewalk to the corner, turning and going far enough to be able to glimpse the backyard, possible because none of the houses on this block had fences. The neighborhood was holding its own—not upscale but not run-down, either.

  He’d put some work into this place before he’d sold it after Dad died. Sometimes he still had trouble believing his father had stayed in this house when he knew the local cops and plenty of the neighbors thought he had killed his own daughter.

  And Bran had stayed with him until he’d graduated from high school, using his fists on any kid who dared say anything about Dad or Sheila.

  People forgot, of course. The tragedy that fractured his family irrevocably had taken place twenty-four years and eight months ago. Probably he was the only one who ever thought about it.

  No, wherever his brother was, he wouldn’t be able
to help remembering, either. He’d made a different choice than Bran but would have suffered the same wounds.

  Today, seeing how little the house had changed unsettled Bran. As a teenager he’d convinced his father to paint it a pale gray with white and black trim instead of the white it had always been. Wouldn’t you know the latest homeowners had gone back to white. Nothing had changed the basic lines of the house. Seeing it today was like stepping through a time warp.

  God, he thought, what makes me think I’m capable of being a husband and father?

  The basics wouldn’t have changed inside, either. Two bedrooms downstairs and one up, that one tucked under the eaves with a single window in the small dormer that looked over the front porch. He and his brother had shared it.

  From here he could see some boards still clinging drunkenly to a Y high up in the maple that filled the backyard and shed a bounty of leaves every fall. Dad had helped his boys build the tree fort. Bran didn’t remember ever going up in it again after Sheila died. He didn’t think Zach had, either.

  From the tree fort they would have been looking right down at where her body had been found.

  What am I doing here?

  It was a compulsion. Unresolved issues. He snorted at the thought, however accurate it might be. Open questions ate at him. If Sheila’s killer was ever arrested, Bran doubted he’d feel the need to turn down this street again.

  A police detective, he knew how to find answers. He’d even worked cold cases.

  There were any numbers of problems to prevent him from pursuing this one, however.

  To start with, this house—where his little sister had been killed—wasn’t in his jurisdiction. The small city of Clear Creek had its own police force, which consisted of a police chief and twenty officers. He worked for the county sheriff’s department.

  The general ineptitude of the Clear Creek PD back then was problem number two. Unless he’d missed a whole lot, the investigation hadn’t gone anywhere. He knew more than his parents ever would have guessed, having eavesdropped on police interviews and even Mom and Dad’s whispered arguments in bed. Would evidence even have been saved? If so, carefully enough to allow DNA to be run?

  Problem three? Several of the current Clear Creek officers had lived in the area as long as he had and knew Bran’s connection to the unsolved case. The way they looked at him when he asked questions made him wonder whether detectives had ever considered him a suspect. He’d been young but not so young he wasn’t thinking about sex.

  The chilling thought had only recently occurred to him. He’d spent a lot of years refusing to think about the murder at all. Convinced that knowing what really happened wouldn’t change a thing for him.

  But the twenty-fifth anniversary of Sheila’s death was approaching. A lot that had been buried in his psyche had begun crawling out, giving him nightmares.

  Who was there to give a damn but him? Zach had been even younger than him when it happened and had probably forgotten more. Bran had no idea, since he hadn’t seen his brother in twenty-four years. Anyway, Zach wasn’t here in Clear Creek. Bran was.

  And Sheila deserved justice. Now that Dad was gone, there was nothing to stop him.

  Skin prickling despite the warmth of the sun, he walked back around to the front of the house. He’d swear the cracks on the sidewalk were unchanged, too. Took him right back in time.

  * * *

  HE COULD FEEL the book bag bumping on his back as he headed home. He’d do his homework...later. It was cool having an hour before Sheila and Zach got off, when he became unwillingly responsible for them. Except...that was partly posturing for friends. Really, he and Zach were tight. He couldn’t talk to his little brother about girls or these strange, physical urges he was starting to feel, but that was okay. Zach would get there. And Bran loved his little sister. She thought he was a superhero, which felt good—

  * * *

  BRAN BLINKED, MADE a rough sound and ran a hand over his face. Damn. He hadn’t expected to flash back like that. If he was going to go back at all, it should be to the night when Sheila was taken from her bed. When—

  “Shit,” he muttered, getting into his car. Flashing back to the kid he’d been? What good would that do? He had to look at the crime with a cop’s ability to be dispassionate. To do that, he needed to get past the memories.

  Paige had never said anything to make him think she knew about his past. He sure as hell hadn’t told her. Didn’t plan to unless it became absolutely necessary. Except for his regular six-month visit to this damn house, he was focused on the future not the past.

  As he pulled away from the curb, he took a last look at his childhood home and felt an unexpected pang. How many times had he thought of searching for his brother? Too many. Kids or not, they’d parted as bitterly as their parents had. Chances were they’d pass on the street without even recognizing each other. There was no going back.

  Then why am I trying?

  A good question. It wasn’t as if he believed in the psychobabble about needing closure or any crap like that.

  But he couldn’t deny that the tragedy had shaped his life and still hung over him. He would soon be starting a family of his own. He wanted the foundation to be solid, that was all.

  * * *

  ZACH CARTER’S GAZE roved unceasingly as he drove, touching on his rearview mirror every few seconds before scanning for movement on each side of the street. He identified the speed of cars ahead and behind without conscious thought. Although returning to patrol had been an adjustment for him, the instincts were still there. He made constant, automatic judgments.

  The man coming out of a garage? Homeowner. The cluster of tattooed young guys clustered around a car with its hood raised? Currently harmless, although the way they all turned as a unit to watch as he passed had him keeping an eye on them in the rearview mirror for another block. Car that swerved and corrected course? A momentarily distracted driver.

  He’d been on the job for not quite three weeks. The population of this rural county wasn’t large but the square mileage was. Logging trucks still traveled an east-west highway that followed the river deep into the forested foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range. Only one big lumber mill remained in operation, however, which meant logging as an industry was in decline.

  The dairy farms he remembered from when he was a kid had mostly disappeared. In fact, the east county communities all had an air of desperation. For Rent, For Sale and Going Out of Business signs were common, boarded-up shop windows even more so. It was beautiful country, but tourism hadn’t taken hold. Didn’t help that the couple motels he’d spotted were pretty run-down, in keeping with the general atmosphere.

  So far, he’d been assigned to patrol the river valley part of the county. Today’s route combined new developments, older housing sprawls just outside the city limits of the county seat and farms.

  It had been an incredibly mild winter. With it now the first week of April, daffodils were showing hints of bloom and tulips would follow, weeks earlier than usual. He’d seen the fresh green spikes of corn in fields. Peas weren’t the big crop they’d been when he was a kid, but were still grown, and strawberries, too.

  He’d already discovered that the older neighborhood he’d just turned into was heavily Hispanic. New immigrants and probably some undocumented aliens provided cheap labor for agriculture. He’d been instructed to leave Customs issues to ICE—Immigration and Customs Enforcement—and stick to local law enforcement, which was fine by him.

  Whatever his assignment, Zach varied his route every day, trying to learn every byroad. Despite flashes of familiarity, most of it was new to him. What kid paid attention when he was slumped in the backseat of a car?

  The stretch of county closer to the freeway had changed the most. Real estate in Seattle and its suburbs was priced beyond a lot of people’s means these days, wh
ich meant if they wanted to own a home, they bought farther out and resigned themselves to a two-hour-plus round-trip commute to work. Most of the residents of the newer, more upscale developments eating up what had been farmland were commuters. Midday, he could drive up and down the winding streets of any of those developments and hardly see a soul.

  In contrast, this neighborhood was what he thought of as in-between: the houses modest but still decently cared for. At least some were owned rather than rented, at a guess. No traffic and the last human he’d seen had been a couple of blocks ago: an old man peering suspiciously from his front porch.

  A rack of lights atop a car down the block on a cross street caught his eye. Surprised, Zach made the turn. What was another sheriff’s department car doing here? By necessity, patrols didn’t have a lot of overlap and he hadn’t heard any calls from dispatch that would have sent another deputy out here. Currently empty, the police car was parked on the gravel verge—no sidewalks in this neighborhood. Guy might live here, it occurred to Zach. He’d taken his own lunch break not half an hour ago.

  He was still half a block away when he spotted two men arguing. They stood toe-to-toe on a concrete walk leading to the front porch of a small house. Whatever was happening was intense. The one with his back to the street wore the same olive-green uniform as Zach’s. Then... What the hell? The deputy pushed the other guy, pulled his arm back and punched.

  Oh, shit, Zach thought. No. The cop was using his baton, not his fist. Hammering with it. Blood sprayed.

  Zach slammed to a stop and leaped out, now able to hear the snarls, the cries for help.

  A good thirty feet away, he broke into a hard run. A woman was tearing across the lawn toward the men from the house beyond, too. She was screaming.

  Showing no awareness of anyone else, the deputy threw his baton away and began using his fists instead. “I warned you! Stay away from her. But—” smack “—did you listen?”

  “¡Socorro! ¡Socorro!” The Hispanic man stumbled back.

  Zach caught a glimpse of his face, already battered to a pulp before another fist caught him dead-on and his lights went out.

 
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