Saturday Excerpt: Wild Hearts by Sharon Sala
Past sins cast a long shadow in Sharon Sala’s latest romantic suspense novel, Wild Hearts. Read on for a spine-tingling excerpt from this chilling story, which begins Sharon’s new Secrets and Lies series.
About the Book:
Dallas Phillips refuses to believe her father committed suicide, even though things were tough on his farm and he was deeply in debt. When she hears he’d told a neighbor about an upcoming windfall, she grows suspicious, and her suspicion only deepens when she realizes someone is lurking in the nearby mountains after dark.
For help, she turns to Trey Jakes, local police chief—and her former lover. As they begin to investigate, another mystery comes to light. Trey’s mother is beginning to remember events from thirty years ago, something shadowy that happened in the mountains, and Dallas’s father was there, too. Is what happened that night connected to his “suicide”? As they search for the truth, Trey and Dallas struggle to fight their attraction, but they may not be able to fend off another force—a killer who’s more than willing to kill again to make sure old secrets stay buried.
The cackle of hens and the occasional squawk of a pissed-off rooster were the beginning to Dick Phillips’s day as he went about his morning chores. He opened the coop and began scattering chicken feed, laughing at the rush that ensued as he went in to gather the eggs.
A few years back his wife, Marcy, had got an itch to raise chickens, so he’d built a coop and bought her a few hens to make her happy, and then she died. Afterward, he couldn’t bring himself to get rid of them, so they stayed. As time passed, the flock grew, and now, with over forty laying hens, he was selling the surplus to regular customers, who came to the farm to pick up eggs for their family use.
He took the fresh eggs down to the barn to what he called the egg room. He was favoring his right shoulder. He’d taken a bad fall last week and was certain he’d torn something vital. He couldn’t lift his arm above his head, and it hurt to carry anything, although there was still work to be done. He stood at the worktable, sorting, cleaning and crating eggs, and then stored them in a small walk-in cooler at the back of the room.
He’d just walked out into the breezeway and was getting ready to feed his cows when he heard a car. He paused in the doorway, absently scratching at the old scar on his forehead, and then raised his hand in greeting when he recognized the driver, then eyed the large sack he was carrying, thinking he was about to make a big sale.
“Hey, how goes it?” he called. “You comin’ after eggs?”
“A couple of dozen, please.”
Dick turned to get the eggs from the cooler, unaware that the man had reached into the sack and taken out a long braided rope with a noose at the end. Dick heard the footsteps behind him, but before he could turn, the noose was around his neck.
The man gave the rope a hard yank, and Dick fell backward, landing hard on the back of his head, and at the same time reinjuring his shoulder and cutting off his air. Dick was in shock, uncertain what was happening. His ears were ringing and he couldn’t think what to do. Unaware of what was happening behind him, he began fumbling with the noose.
The man had tied a weight to the other end of the rope, and when he threw it up, it sailed over the rafter and right back into his hands as if he’d practiced the move for days. Then he took off running toward the loft, and when the rope tightened, Dick was yanked off his feet so hard that he momentarily blacked out.
It was the reprieve the killer needed. He reached the steps leading to the loft and began climbing them hand over fist with the rope in his teeth. He glanced down once, and as he did, his heart skipped a beat. Dick was not only conscious but struggling to get to his feet. With no time to spare, the killer threaded the rope through a step and then jumped.
As he went down, Dick went up, high enough that his feet were dangling almost two feet off the concrete floor below.
Dick was moaning and kicking as the man wrapped the rope once around his waist for added leverage, then pulled Dick even higher as he ran back toward the ladder and tied off the rope.
Now Dick was dangling almost six feet from the ground. His face was turning blue, his eyes were bulging and his arms were flailing as he clawed desperately at the rope, trying to relieve the pressure.
“Die, damn it,” the man muttered. And then, in a fit of impatience, he made a run for Dick’s legs and jumped. As he did, he grabbed hold of Dick’s ankles, and when he came down with all his body weight, Dick’s neck broke with a pop.
It was done.
The killer stepped back, looking all around the area to make sure he’d left nothing of himself behind, then pulled out his pocketknife and cut off the weight, taking it with him as he left.
Long after the sound of his car had faded away, the chickens still clucked, the rooster crowed and the cows were still waiting to be fed.
* * *
Betsy Jakes had her cookbook out, going down the list of ingredients she needed to make her famous Italian cream cake. Tomorrow was her son Trey’s birthday, and it was his favorite dessert. She glanced down at the recipe, writing needed ingredients onto her grocery list, and made a note to stop by Dick’s house to buy eggs before she went home.
She had known Dick for most of her life, and in her youth had even survived a deadly crash with him the night they graduated from high school. His girlfriend, Connie, who’d been driving that night, died in the wreck, while Dick, Betsy and her boyfriend, Paul, survived. Even though life had taken them down separate paths, they remained bonded by the past.
Betsy checked out her appearance, making a note to pick up some hair color. Her roots were beginning to show. Then she combed her curly shoulder-length hair and fastened it off at the nape of her neck. There were a few more wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and around her mouth where she smiled, but her brown eyes still danced when she was laughing. Her chin had always been a little too square and with age was beginning to take on a bit of a bulldog look. She frowned, thinking she could lose about ten pounds and get rid of that, and then let the thought go. She was a satisfied widow with no desire to ever marry again. Why bother?
After changing from her work clothes into a clean pair of jeans and a yellow pullover blouse, she made the trip into Mystic in fine fashion. She was listening to her favorite radio station, rockin’ to the oldies, when a Bob Seger song came on the radio. Grinning from the memories it evoked, she turned up the volume and sang along.
When she finally drove into Mystic, she glanced toward the police station to see if Trey’s cruiser was there. He had been chief for over five years, and she was proud of what he’d become. He reminded her so much of her husband, Beau, and she wished daily that Beau had lived to see his children grow up. But the cruiser was gone, which meant he was out and about. Maybe she would see him before she left town.
She shopped quickly, rejecting an invitation to lunch with one of her friends because she was anxious to get home and start the cake. Still, she took time to pull into the drive-through of a local sandwich shop called the French Fry to get a cold drink on the way home. While she was waiting for her drink she finally saw Trey drive by and wondered what interesting stuff was going on in Mystic, and made a mental note to call him later.
“Here’s your Pepsi,” the clerk said, and leaned out the window to hand the cup and straw to Betsy.
“Many thanks,” Betsy said, and waved as she drove away.
She was sipping on the Pepsi and listening to the Rolling Stones when she remembered the eggs and turned right at the next section-line road.
Dick’s farm was small, but it was a beauty, backing up to one of the many mountains that surrounded their little town. She eyed the climbing roses on the trellis against the side of the house, remembering how Dick’s wife, Marcy, had loved her flowers. She missed Marcy Phillips. She’d been a good friend.
She parked on the outside of the yard fence and then knocked on the door. When Dick didn’t answer, she looked around to make sure his pickup was out back in the garage, which it was. The front door was unlocked, so she opened it a bit and leaned in.
“Dick! Hey, Dick, it’s me, Betsy! Are you here?”
With no answer from inside, she looked toward the barn. She could hear the cows bawling and nodded to herself, thinking that was where he would be. Still focused on the long process of making that cake, she ran back down the steps and headed toward the barn with long strides.
The barn had been built over a hundred years earlier, in a style similar to Pennsylvania Dutch. The two-story structure loomed against the landscape with a loft as large as the barn itself. It had a fairly new coat of barn-red paint on the outer walls, while the cross-boards on the old shutters had been painted white. The pasture was fenced off from the house and barnyard and spread out toward the trees ringing the mountain at its back.
“Dick! Dick! It’s me, Betsy! Where are you?” she yelled, but got no answer.
She was looking toward the pasture as she hurried along, thinking he would come walking out of the trees any minute. Then she heard a dog bark and frowned. Dick didn’t have dogs. She wondered if someone was hunting on his property and turned her head to look.
Her gaze moved past the breezeway that ran straight through the middle of the barn, and as it did, she saw something swinging in the air above the ground. She stopped, then began to stare, trying to focus on what it could possibly be. No longer interested in the pasture, she began moving toward the barn, but at a slower gait, her mind unready to accept the truth.
She was about twenty yards away, so close she could see his clothing and his shoes and the awful angle of his neck, when her knees buckled, refusing to carry her another step. She was on the ground, rocking and moaning. Twice she tried to get up, but her legs wouldn’t hold her. She kept trying to make what she was seeing turn into something else instead. But it was Dick Phillips’s lifeless body, swinging slowly in the breeze. The sound that came up her throat was more howl than scream, but it was the impetus she needed to get moving.
Trey! She had to call Trey.
She scrambled to her feet and started running back to her car to get her phone, screaming as she went. When she reached the car, she fell into the front seat, grabbing for the cell phone she’d left in the console. Still sobbing and shaking so hard she could barely breathe, she tried to scroll through her contacts and hit three wrong numbers before she finally got through to Trey. The moment she heard his voice, she started screaming again, and this time she couldn’t stop.
* * *
Wild Hearts is available now from MIRA Books: