Authors: Cathy Perkins
For Love or Money
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by
. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
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Cover design by Fiona Jayde
Manufactured in the United States of America
The author acknowledges the copyrighted or trademarked status and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this work of fiction:
American Sign Language, Apple iPod, Band-Aids, Blazer, Bluetooth, BMW, Bondo, Bookwalter, Bosch, Bronco, Carfax, Carhartt, Chevy, Costco, Crown Victoria,
Dumpster, Ford, Gucci, Home Depot, Jaguar, Jeep,
Karate Kid, The,
Kate Spade, Klaxon, Lilly Pulitzer (Lilly P.), Little Orphan Annie, Manolo Blahnik, Mercedes Benz, Microsoft Outlook, Nirvana, Nissan, Nissan 350Z, Oscar, Pathfinder, Peter Maxx, Plan B, Post-it, QuickBooks, Rabbit, Richter, Rolodex, Round Table Pizza,
Sex and the City, Six Feet Under,
Spudnut, Suburban, Tahoe, Tinker Toys, Toyota, World Wide Wrestling, Yellow Pages, Yoda, Zumba
Beth - This one is for you
Big Flats, eastern Washington
Holly Price picked the wrong moment to admire the Snake River. She managed a quick glimpse of blue water rushing between barren black cliffs before she tripped and staggered off the narrow trail.
Alex Montoya glanced back. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” Her hiking boot caught another of the rocks littering the sagebrush-studded plateau. Arms windmilling, she fought to stay on her feet.
Don’t face plant. Do. Not. Face plant.
She stumbled through a clump of tall grass and a pheasant burst out the other side.
“Rooster!” Alex snapped his shotgun against his shoulder, pivoting to track his target.
The pheasant struggled into the air with a flurry of feathers. A handful of pellets dropped as it made a break for freedom. Who knew “scare the crap out of you” could be literal, was Holly’s next thought—and probably the bird’s last.
Two seconds later, a head-rocking blast hit Holly’s ears and the pheasant tumbled from the sky.
“Did you miss?” She tried to suppress the hopeful note.
“I winged him. Find him, Duke.”
The German shorthair raced ahead, intent on the fallen bird.
“It’s alive?” She gave the rocky field a dubious inspection—not many places for an injured bird to hide.
“Don’t worry.” Her date tossed the words over his shoulder. He jogged to the edge of the cliff. “Duke’ll find him.”
Holly’s shoulders sagged. “Great.”
She followed Alex, but stopped a cautious two feet from the dropoff. Below her, Alex scrambled toward the mushiest patch of ground she’d seen since moving back to godforsaken eastern Washington. “Why are we going down there?”
“That’s where the bird went.” His teeth gleamed against his tanned skin. “Stay close.”
Feet sliding on the rocky soil, he charged after his bird dog and vanished into the tangled foliage lining the Snake River.
When he’d invited her to Big Flats, she’d heard “hike,” while he meant “hunt.” Given the glorious fall day—sunshine and a blue sky that went on forever—she’d expected another picnic. Two weeks ago, Alex had taken her to a mountain meadow. A sandwich and a bottle of wine later, they’d kissed like teenagers and she’d thought about throwing both caution and her clothes to the wind.
Today, he’d morphed into some kind of Neanderthal maniac—me mighty hunter, you Jane. It was a mixed metaphor, but a slow burn started in her belly. She’d tried to be a good sport, but this was ridiculous.
She checked the land behind her—a dry plain dotted with stunted sagebrush, cheatgrass, and jumbled rocks—as if a giant “exit here” sign might appear.
No such luck.
She could probably find the parking lot.
Ditching Alex held a huge appeal, but the thought of quitting chafed as badly as the grit in her boot.
Hands spread for balance, she eased down the goat trail to the boggy tract. She dodged some blackberry canes and stepped onto a line of broken reeds that marked the path through the underbrush.
Alex had been so proud of the first rooster he’d shot that morning. He’d held it out, expecting praise the way her mother’s cat, Fonzie, did when he laid something brown, furry, and dead at her feet. All Holly had seen was the beauty of the mottled breast feathers, the brilliant bands of neck color, and the lifeless flop of the pheasant’s head.
She sighed, resigned. Chasing birds and shooting at them didn’t even register on her Fun Things To Do list. They really didn’t have much in common. Maybe she shouldn’t keep dating him.
Even if he was fun.
When he wasn’t playing with guns.
She shoved further into the thicket and followed the faint trail of bent stalks. Getting lost was so not on her agenda. She never had trouble with directions in the city, but out here she couldn’t tell one bush from another.
The trail split, the narrow ribbons churned to muck by hunters’ boots. She glanced behind her. She didn’t have any breadcrumbs to mark the way back to the cliff.
Only vague thrashing sounds answered her.
Okay, she could figure this out. The left-hand side looked slightly more trampled, so she pushed past the leaning cattails. Willows, canes, and some kind of bushes towered overhead, crowding the boggy track. Soft mud sucked at her boots. The air stank of rotting vegetation and gulls squabbled in the distance. A dozen yards later, the trail divided again.
She peered forward and behind. “Alex,” she called, louder this time. “Where are you?”
She might be the commitment-phobe in this relationship, but surely Alex wouldn’t leave her out here. Everywhere she looked, dangling leaves and dried canes blocked her path. The sharp staccato of a dog’s excited bark broke the silence. Duke—ahead and to the right. The dog must have found the wounded pheasant.
She edged past a mushy spot. A harsher tang that reminded her of the dead fish they’d passed earlier grew stronger with each step. Nose covered with her hand, she rehearsed choice phrases to unleash on Alex when she finally found him, starting with a sarcastic, “Thanks for your concern,” before descending rapidly to “asshole.”
Something big rustled in the dense undergrowth behind her. Heart pounding, she spun around and peered into the thicket. They had coyotes out here. And drug grower/dealer guys.
The only person they’d seen between the gravel parking area and this jungle was an Aryan Nation skinhead dude. Oh, crap. What if this was his territory?
The noise from something plunging through the brush grew louder, closer. Blindly, she turned and crashed through the tangled foliage.
The rushes ended at a mound of dirt. She staggered into the clearing, her gaze zeroing in on her date. Alex was leaning over something on the ground and tugging at Duke’s collar. The dog struggled, twisting his body in a muscular objection.
“Alex. Thank God.” Her knees felt weaker than she wanted to admit. “I heard something in the bushes back there.”
“Probably a deer. Stay back.” He wrestled the dog to the side.
His brusque tone shattered her mini-panic.
Well, don’t I feel silly.
A quick glance around registered the details. A drooping cottonwood canopied the clearing. Sunlit water lapped at the muddy shore. Gulls whirled overhead in a protesting flurry, lingering in a swirling complaint of dirty white feathers.
The clearing looked like a teenagers’ party spot. Tattered food wrappers and empty beer bottles littered the ground. Filthy, torn clothing formed a soggy heap at the water’s edge.
The wind gusted off the inlet, carrying a stench across the clearing.
“Phew.” As bad as it smelled, she wondered if a dead fish was caught in the trash. A few birds remained near the river, their wings raised high, voices screeching defiance.
The pile of clothes had female-shaped contours. Eyes narrowed, Holly gave it a closer look. A pale, mud-streaked foot extended toward her. “Is that a woman?”
She moved closer, curiosity overriding her earlier fear. “Is she drunk?”
“Don’t come over here.” Alex clipped a short leash to Duke’s collar.
He’d never spoken to her like that before. A hint of unease coiled around her chest. “What’s wrong?”
One of the gulls lunged. It stabbed through the matted hair screening the woman’s face and pecked at a glittering object.
“Stop it.” Holly rushed forward, flinging out her arms. “Leave her alone!”
The birds scrambled away.
Alex grabbed her arm. “Don’t.”
Tugging against his restraint, she took another step, then gagged as the condition of the woman’s body registered. Unnatural stillness. Carrion birds. Waterlogged, rotting skin.
“Oh my God.” She backed away. Bile crept up her throat.
Focus on something, anything except the body.
Unable to look away, the golden shape at the woman’s throat caught Holly’s attention—a pair of hearts, a large diamond at the juncture. Recognition rippled a chill through her that had nothing to do with the wind. She immediately rejected the possibility—dozens of people could own a necklace like that.
The breeze ruffled the corpse’s dark hair and revealed more of the ravaged face. Memory replaced the missing pieces of the dead woman’s features. Laughing eyes filled empty sockets. Rosebud lips covered gaping teeth.
Holly’s head acknowledged what her heart already knew. The necklace was a custom piece—and she’d seen it a dozen times.
A roaring started in her ears and her breakfast splattered her boots.
Cars, people, and a confusion of lights and sounds crowded the potholed parking lot. Holly stared at the groups of men and let the swamp of radio chatter, static, car engines, and voices form a protective barrier against too much reality. The men’s uniforms varied—she identified sheriff’s deputies, game wardens, search and rescue, highway patrol, and emergency medical techs—but the super-charged testosterone was everywhere. The murder of a young woman, especially a beautiful young woman like Marcy, had brought law enforcement out in droves.
Holly closed her eyes and hitched the blanket around her shoulders. If she wasn’t so freaked out about Marcy, being around this many cops would make her skin crawl. The small hairs on her neck kept lifting, as if they were little antennae, searching for a threat.
. Not all cops were like Frank Phalen.
Rubbing first her neck and then her temples, she hoped to somehow escape the whole nightmare. Instead, her thoughts returned to the twined hearts, the winking stone.
The empty eye sockets.
Dear God, Marcy’s dead.
“Holly?” Alex’s voice—the tone said it wasn’t the first time he’d called her name.
“You don’t think she’s in shock, do you?” Alex asked the deputy.
She straightened her spine and transferred her attention to the brown-uniformed man who was studying her with equal measures of concern and irritation. Just because she’d thrown up and cried while she and Alex were waiting for the police—including Officer Brown Uniform—to show up, there was no reason to treat her like she was made of glass.
A gust of wind swirled off the river. She pulled the blanket closer and shivered.
Brown Uniform tugged his hat lower on his head. “Let’s give her a few more minutes.”
He turned back to Alex. “How is it you were so deep into that bog?”
Alex pushed his hands into his pockets. “Normally, I wouldn’t have gone back there. You know how it is. Can’t get a clear shot if you flush something, and it’s a bitch to find anything if you do. I clipped a rooster. It ran. I didn’t want to leave it wounded, so when Duke caught a line on it, I followed him. It never occurred to me to tell Holly to wait up top.”
Both men turned a look on her that said she wasn’t very bright.
“You told me to stay with you,” she said, irritated at their discussing her as if she were an inanimate object. Alex’s possessive tone and Brown Uniform’s speculative expression made her madder.
They ignored her.
“Tell me one more time, how’d you find that body?” The deputy drew Alex away.
His words unleashed the memory of the bloated, bird-pecked corpse. Holly’s stomach cramped.
How could this happen to you, Marcy?
Part of her kept playing the dumb what-if game. What if she hadn’t tripped and spooked the bird? What if the pheasant hadn’t tried to fly away? The circular thoughts were pointless. She and Alex might not have found the body, but Marcy would still be dead.
Desperate for distraction, she focused on the activity around her. Men and dogs trailed across the causeway. They straggled through a field in the direction of the bluff and the bog beyond it. Others clumped in twos and threes, doing whatever men did.
Another man, one who wasn’t wearing a uniform, strolled across the parking lot and stopped beside her. She stifled a groan. For the past two hours, assorted law enforcement types had asked her questions—the same questions.
The game warden introduced himself. “Now, Ms. Price.” His voice was as raspy and weather-roughened as his face. “I’m mostly out here checking on hunters, making sure they’re using the right ammunition, keeping the poachers honest, that sort of thing, but seeing as how this young woman’s body showed up in my game management area, I have a few questions.”
The shrewd expression in his eyes said he was smarter than he sounded. The deference the other cops showed him made her wary of the good ol’ boy routine.
He hitched his Carhartts, resettled his gear, and then pulled out a small leather notebook and pen. “Tell me, how well did you know this young woman?”
“Is it really Marcy?”
“I heard tell you said it was Ms. Ramirez. Now why would you think a thing like that?”
“I think it is. I mean, she’s missing—she’s been missing since Tuesday—and she always wore a double-heart necklace…”
“That necklace the victim’s wearing, I heard you recognized it.”
“Marcy wore one like that. I thought it was beautiful.” A flash of Marcy fingering the hearts, a dreamy expression on her face, shot through Holly’s mind and tears again filled her eyes.
If the warden noticed, he didn’t mention her reaction. “Seems like a spendy piece of jewelry, not a trinket you’d pick up at the department store. You know where she got it?”
Holly blinked back the tears and shook her head.
“A gift?” he asked.
“Maybe. If it was, I don’t know who gave it to her.”
He tapped his pen against his pad. “You say she was missing. How’d you know she didn’t just go off with her boyfriend?”
Holly raised her hands in an I-don’t-know gesture. “Her sister reported it on Wednesday. I figured she was in a position to know.”
Another Blazer with a set of rooftop lights rattled past the news vehicles on the state highway and continued down the narrow road into the crowded parking lot. The men parted, then repositioned themselves in its wake.
The game warden glanced at the vehicle. “That’s the Franklin County detective who’ll be handling this investigation for me. I need to speak with him. Now you just hold still a minute.”