Saturday Excerpt: Undercover Hunter by Rachel Lee
Bestselling author Rachel Lee returns to her popular Conard County: The Next Generation series with a new tale of romance and suspense. In Undercover Hunter, two investigators must learn to play nice — and pretend to be married — before it’s too late to catch a killer. Read on for an excerpt!
About Undercover Hunter:
Detective Cade Bankston never had any luck with female partners. So when he’s assigned to work with feisty, raven-haired DeeJay Dawkins, he isn’t pleased at all. Posing as a married couple, the investigators must team up to catch a killer. That is, if they don’t kill each other first.
Putting their mission first proves tricky as mutual disdain evolves into mutual desire. But distraction is not an option. The killer who seemingly vanished five years prior has returned to Conard County, Wyoming, to finish what he started. And he just set his sights on two new victims.
In January beneath a leaden sky, special agents Cade Bankston and DeeJay Dawkins rocketed down an empty state highway toward the town of Conard City, Wyoming. They had been summoned to find a serial killer.
Cade had been to Conard City a few times years ago, very briefly, and had found it unremarkable but pleasant. DeeJay had never seen it. Given her background, he wondered how she would react. But then he couldn’t figure out what the hell a woman with her past was doing working as a criminal investigator for the state of Wyoming. As a former military cop for an elite MP unit, she should have had her pick of jobs.
Maybe it was that prickly nature of hers that caused her problems. Certainly they’d had a few near-fights over the past three days, and they’d only just been made partners. If there was something, imagined or real, for DeeJay to object to, then she seemed to find it.
The red car they were driving was kind of sporty for the country, but that was the idea. To look like outsiders rather than insiders. To act as cover for a couple of investigators pretending to be married travel writers.
That “married” was still the biggest bone of contention between them. Not that it had been their decision. Nope. None of this had been their decision, and if they could just wrap their heads around that part, maybe the spats would ease up.
He kept his attention on the road. Snow blanketed the open spaces around them, although it was still a thin blanket. Plenty of brush stuck up through it, and tumbleweeds tossed like agitated prisoners against the barbed wire that had snared them. If there was life out here that was mobile, it had found somewhere to hide. Even the ranch houses were invisible from the road, although occasionally a sign pointed the way or smoke from a woodstove signaled in the distance.
He glanced at his companion. Well, okay, partner. He’d never wanted another female partner again, but that was a subject he wasn’t about to explore again, now or later. He just didn’t like it and didn’t want it, had learned it contained huge pitfalls. Now here he was with a woman stapled to his side for the duration.
She’d have been pretty enough if he hadn’t already discovered she was a prickly pear cactus with enough sharp spines to leave a man in ribbons. Inky black hair, high, wide cheekbones that bespoke some Native American ancestry, a straight nose that was just right for her face and a mouth that, damn it, looked like it was begging for a kiss. Even when it was compressed in disapproval, which it often was as far as he could tell. And that inventory didn’t even get to her figure, a great figure for someone who was in the peak of physical conditioning, which she clearly was. He liked women who were fit.
He clapped his eyes back on the empty road and schooled his thoughts to a safer area. The woman in the passenger seat was off-limits, no caveats, no exceptions. And she was probably still stewing because he was driving.
That had been their first disagreement of the day. Just the opening salvo. The next battle had ensued over the choice of radio station. He liked country music while he was driving. Turned out she liked NPR. Now why would that surprise him? Thing was, when he was driving he preferred to escape into fantasies about losing the woman, the truck and the dog rather than listen to real-world discussions that usually riled him up because he mostly didn’t like the way the world was going these days.
So no radio at all. Some compromise.
Then there had been the disagreement about where to get coffee. Crap, that beat it all to hell. She wanted the expensive place; he’d have been happy with any roadside diner. So he took her to the chain coffee shop and then she’d ordered ordinary coffee. Not a fancy drink, just a gigantic cup of black and strong. Same as him. So why the argument?
He hoped they found this serial killer soon, preferably before one of them killed the other in a shoot-out at high noon.
“I need to eat,” she announced. Her first words in 250 miles.
Not we need to eat. No, just announcing her own wishes. Of course, maybe she was used to that. He’d heard she’d been an officer, kind of way up there or something. Maybe she said jump and was used to having everyone do it. Well, he wasn’t used to jumping and wasn’t about to begin.
“You see a place to stop?” he asked mildly enough. Not exactly a courteous response on his part, and even he knew it. But he figured if he gave DeeJay Dawkins an inch, she’d take a country mile.
“Next place,” she replied.
“Greasy spoons from here on out.” He hoped she’d object to that. After all, she was the type who went to specialty coffee shops to get ordinary coffee. Next he’d be hearing about organic food restaurants and how she lived on fresh salads.
She shocked him by saying, “Fine.”
Man, the conversation in this car was a real crowd-pleaser. The thought of having to share a house with her until they finished this investigation made him want to change jobs. Except he mostly liked his job, so he wasn’t going to let anyone, especially her, make him throw it away.
Focus on the job, he reminded himself. Not the partner. They were after a serial killer, or at least the local sheriff thought so. One who was taking adolescent boys. No bodies yet, but apparently it had happened a few years ago, too, then abruptly stopped. They didn’t find the evidence until later. Much later. Now the sheriff feared it was starting again.
Not unusual. Some serial killers were fairly smart. They often changed locales and evaded the law until they died. Or they went to prison for a while for some unrelated crime and their trail went cold. If the sheriff was right, they couldn’t hope for a stupid killer this time, because that would be a really idiotic assumption on their part.
It had happened before; now it was happening again, and half a decade was a long time for a copycat to suddenly show up. Ergo, it had to be the same creep.
Around a tight bend in the road, settled into a hollow almost out of sight, he spied a roadhouse. One of those places that somehow hung on in the middle of nowhere, serving people who lived too far from a town to want to make a lengthy trip for a drink, some socializing and a lousy sandwich or overcooked burger.
Without a word, he flipped on the turn signal and nosed them in. Only a couple of dusty pickups sat in the gravel lot, but the open sign blinked red neon at them. Rusty, ancient-looking signs announced beer, food and cigarettes. Sort of an outdated convenience store, except there’d be a bar. There was always a bar. He just hoped the place didn’t house any trouble right now. He and DeeJay, dressed in brand-new Western clothing and boots to fit their assumed roles, might as well be wearing neon signs of their own: dude alert.
He climbed out and waited. DeeJay followed a moment later. He’d already learned not to open a car door for her, even though they were supposed to look married. He hadn’t fought that one much, though, except to annoy her.
She came to the head of the car, and he watched her size up the place with experienced eyes. Then she glanced at him, and her dark gaze seemed to say, We can handle them.
Yeah, they could. If it became necessary and it probably wouldn’t. He wondered how many times in her career as an MP she’d had to walk into places like these, probably a hell of a lot more crowded with drunks. Maybe not much, if she’d been an officer. How the hell would he know? She wasn’t talking, and he was damned if he would ask.
When they reached the battered door, at least she didn’t argue about him opening it. He was on the left. He’d have let anyone on the left open it given the way it swung. He walked in behind her and took it all in, familiar from countless places in the past. Wood everywhere, darkened, stained and scratched by the years. A long bar, also scratched and stained, stools that had needed to be replaced forty years ago, the stench of stale alcohol, tobacco, sweat and other things he didn’t care to pick out. No scouring in the world would get rid of those odors now.
The jukebox was wailing some bluegrass, the bartender, maybe owner, looked like a leftover from gold-rush days. A number of old men gathered at a corner table, watching them suspiciously.
DeeJay took one look around, then strode up to the bar as if she owned the place. Cade stayed by the door. The Native ancestry stamped on her face could still cause problems in some parts. He waited to see how she’d be received.
“Coffee,” she said to the bartender, “and a menu. Please.”
The gray-bearded man hesitated only a moment, his old pale eyes darting to Cade, then he grabbed a ceramic cup from the stack on the counter and filled it from what looked like a fresh pot. He carried it to DeeJay, then slapped down a plastic-covered menu that was probably sticky. Weren’t they always?
Cade meandered over to take a seat by DeeJay. The bartender had issued the message We don’t want no problems here.
Good enough for him. He ordered his own coffee, and agreed silently with DeeJay that a burger was probably the safest thing to choose, not that the menu was big. Soon the smell of frying beef rose from the griddle and it was like someone let the tension out of the room.
Lunch without problems. Always a good way to go.
Then DeeJay astonished him almost to speechlessness. She lifted her head from her burger and said, “This is a great burger. Just the way I like them.”
The bartender froze and stared at her. He probably received a compliment once every hundred years or so.
DeeJay pushed her jacket out of the way, reached into her hip pocket and pulled out one of the phony business cards they had for this trip. “We’re travel writers,” she said. “We write about great places to stop. If you have a card, I’d like to tell folks about your burgers.”
Now the bartender’s jaw dropped. Silence fell from the far end of the room, except for Hank Williams Sr. wailing tinnily about cheatin’ hearts. You could almost hear the ice in the room crack as it thawed.
“Ain’t got no card,” the bartender said. “Take one of them menus, iffen you want.”
“I’ll do that,” DeeJay said. “Thanks.”
For her efforts they both received a complimentary piece of apple pie.
Cade let DeeJay pay, figuring this wasn’t the time or place to get into an argument about who was buying lunch, and it was all the state’s money anyway. When at last they stepped back outside, he drew in lungfuls of fresh cold air and remarked, “Great job.” He didn’t even sound grudging.
“The pie crust was heavy,” she remarked, her only response.
Stifling a sigh, he climbed back in behind the wheel and set them once again on the road to Conard City.
However long it took to catch this killer, it was going to be too long.
* * *
DeeJay didn’t care for men. It was one thing to have a fling with one, another to work with one. In a single instant she’d seen the resistance in Cade Bankston’s eyes when he’d heard they were to be partnered, and that had been all she’d needed. He was a macho meathead who couldn’t accept that women were as capable as men. Like that pinheaded CO who had turned her life into a living hell because he didn’t think a woman was qualified to command an MP unit. That freaking martinet had wanted every i dotted, and it damn well better be dotted clearly enough. But he wasn’t the only one. There’d been the CO in Afghanistan who’d warned her that if she filed a rape charge her career was over. And the series of them who had been infuriated when she insisted on investigating the rapes of other soldiers. There’d also been too many men working for her who didn’t get why they should take orders from her. And then there’d been the guy who had forced her out.
They hadn’t all been bad, but enough of them had that DeeJay had a real burn on for men. A guy got one chance with her. Bankston had torched his.
Still, she had to work with him. She wasn’t ready to nuke any bridges on this job. There was a killer to catch, although she still didn’t understand what lamebrain had come up with the idea that they had to pretend to be married. Wouldn’t it have been enough that they were working together on a travel story?
She looked down at the thin gold band on her ring finger, courtesy of an evidence locker somewhere, and wished she could fling it out the window.
She glanced occasionally at Bankston, taking in his square jaw and chiseled face from the side. His hair was a light brown, a little wavy, and he had a pair of aquamarine eyes that she would have admired in any other setting. He probably believed he set women’s hearts aflutter, and maybe he did. For a guy who must be pushing toward forty, he took good care of himself.
All she knew about him, though, was that he had a lot of experience and had been with the criminal investigation unit for most of that time. She’d heard that he’d once been a beat cop in a major metro area, but she didn’t have any idea which one. It wasn’t a whole lot to go on.
She did know, however, that he didn’t want to be working with her, and she didn’t want him any closer than the job required. When they’d received the news that they were pairing up for this, she’d seen it clear as anything in his eyes. If he’d been a mule, he’d have dug in his heels and brayed. She had to give him some credit for taking an order he didn’t like, but she wouldn’t give him any more than that.
Nor did she feel as if she needed to prove herself to him. She’d proved herself countless times in a much tougher organization, and she’d learned the hard way that conciliatory women were considered weak, and tough ones were called bitches. She preferred being a bitch. At least no one tried to take advantage of her that way.
Stifling a sigh, she wished this drive would come to an end. Looking out the window, with the mountains still purple in the distance, had begun to bore her. She wasn’t used to sitting still for so long.
She glanced again at Cade and decided that maybe she should back off him a little. She’d made her position clear repeatedly over the past few days, but they still had to work together. The question was how much she needed to back off. Except for their disagreement about who would drive, he’d done his share of backing off. And she’d let him drive only because he’d made the logical argument that he knew this country and these roads. It had been clear at that point that he wasn’t insisting because he thought the man should always drive.
Okay, give him back a point, but after that expression when they’d been told they were working together, he still had a lot of points to earn.
“I guess that you don’t know much about the sheriff we’re working with, unless someone gave you a dossier,” he said, disturbing the endless silence between them, a silence filled with the humming of the car engine and tires on the road.
“Not a thing,” she admitted reluctantly, wondering if she had been deliberately left out of some loop. Men often tried that with her.
“He’s good,” Cade said. “Not your average elected official whose chief accomplishment has been kissing babies.”
Despite herself, she almost wanted to laugh. Even as an MP she’d had to deal with that kind of local law enforcement occasionally.
“He’s former DEA,” Cade went on. “Undercover operative until a car bomb nearly killed him and wiped out his entire family. He still carries the scars.”
DeeJay swore quietly. She knew a lot of stories of car bombs all too well. Some of them had involved families.
* * *
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