With a woman's life in jeopardy and a body found in the Colorado wilderness, an agent's homecoming is anything but smooth...
When Kayla Larimer's investigation into a US senator's missing daughter leads her to a Colorado cult, a murdered FBI special agent and the Ranger Brigade's Dylan Holt, the fiercely independent private investigator is determined to ditch the sexy Black Canyon lieutenant and catch the criminals on her own. Dylan admires Kayla's stubborn dedication--even as his protective instincts kick into overdrive. But then a kidnapping attempt on Kayla coincides with the disappearance of the senator who hired her, and these two opposites must fight a faceless enemy--and their growing attraction--to bring a killer to justice.
The Ranger Brigade: Family Secrets
With every scene, the author paints an enticing picture with her words that made the story flow in my mind like watching a movie making it easy for me to step into those mental images and live through the danger, fear, and excitement with the characters.
Kayla Larimer has learned to depend only on herself. She is a lone wolf, a private investigator, who enjoys her work and prefers to her own company. Her parents taught her, the hard way, how to spot a fraud, a conman, to see when being manipulated, and read people's emotions and weaknesses, giving her the tools to excel in her career. They made her weary of relationships, and doubt she would ever want to have her own family, to make a commitment to a man. She is independent and fiercely guarding herself, yet she is smart and capable and doesn't act without thinking.
Dylan Holt is a solid, trustworthy man. He appreciates family values, he respects the people around him. He is kind and considerate, he does not seem to have any of bad baggage from his past, and he has a calming effect on Kayla. He has no intentions to hide his attraction towards her, yet he is willing to wait for her feelings to catch on. He is easy to like and admire, his straightforward and honest character winning me over.
The murder mystery and suspense around the cult was intriguing and distressing. The questionable actions and strange attacks against the law enforcement officers gave a dire atmosphere to the whole camp. The doubts of the cult members honesty were palpable, the tension is high, the uncertainty of the crimes and the destiny of those involved gave the story an intense and fearful, pressured feeling.
With the fascinating and puzzling cult as the focus of the criminal investigation, and the charming and captivating cast of characters searching for clues and evidence, the series is proving to be an entertaining and appealing chain of stories filled with menace and pursuit of criminals as well as happily ever afters.
~ Four Spoons
As jobs went, this one paid more than most, Kayla reminded herself as she parked her battered Subaru at the mouth of the canyon a few miles from the Gunnison River outside of Montrose, Colorado. Small-town private investigators couldn’t be overly picky if they wanted to keep putting food on the table and paying rent, though interceding in family squabbles had to be right up there with photographing philanderers on her list of least-favorite jobs.
Still, this assignment gave her an excuse to get out into the beautiful back-country near Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. She retrieved a small day pack from the back seat of the car and slipped it on, then added a ball cap to shade her face from the intense summer sun. A faint dirt trail marked the path into the canyon, through a windswept landscape of dark green pinion and juniper and the earth tones of sand and gravel and scattered boulders.
A bird called from somewhere in the canyon ahead, the high, trilling call echoing off the rock and sending a shiver up Kayla’s spine. Maybe she should have brought a weapon with her, but she didn’t like to carry the handgun, even though she was licensed to do so. Her work as a private investigator seldom brought her into contact with anyone really threatening. She spent most of her time surveilling cheating spouses and serving the occasional subpoena. Talking to a twenty-something woman who had decided to camp out in the desert with a bunch of wandering hippies hadn’t struck Kayla as particularly threatening.
But that was before she had visited this place, so isolated and desolate, far from any kind of help or authority. Someone holed up out here could probably get away with almost anything and not be caught. The thought unnerved her more than she liked to admit.
Shaking her head, she hit the button to lock her car and pocketed her keys. The hard part of the job was over – she had tracked down Andi Matheson, wayward adult daughter of Senator Peter Matheson. Now all she had to do was deliver the Senator’s message to the young woman. Whether Andi decided to mend fences with her father was none of Kayla’s business.
Her boots crunched on fine gravel as she set out walking on the well-defined path. Clearly, a lot of feet had trod this trail recently. The group that referred to themselves as simply “The Family” had a permit to camp on this stretch of public land outside the National Park boundaries. They had the area to themselves. No one else wanted to be so far away from things like electricity, running water and paved roads. Her investigation hadn’t turned up much information about the group – only a few blog posts by the leader, a young man whose real name was Daniel Metwater but who went by the title of Prophet. He preached a touchy-feely brand of peace, love, and living off the land that reminded Kayla of stuff she’d seen in movies about sixties-era flower children. Misguided and irresponsible, maybe, but probably harmless.
“Halt. You’re not authorized to enter this area.”
Heart in her throat, Kayla stared at the large man who blocked the path ahead. He had seemingly appeared out of nowhere, but he must have been waiting in the cluster of boulders to the left of the path. He wore baggy camouflage trousers and a green and black camouflage patterned T-shirt stretched over broad shoulders. His full beard and long brown hair made him look like a cross between a biker and an old-testament patriarch. He wasn’t armed, unless you counted the bulging muscles of his biceps, and what might have been a knife in the sheath on his belt. She forced herself to stand tall and look him in the eye. “This is public land,” she said. “Anyone can hike here.”
“We have permission to camp here,” Camo-man said. “You’ll need to walk around our camp. We don’t welcome gawkers.”
What are you hiding that you don’t want me to see? Kayla thought, every sense sharpened. “I’m not here to gawk,” she said. “I came to visit one of your –“ What exactly did she call Andi – a disciple? A member? “A woman who’s with you,” she decided. “Andi Matheson.”
“No one is here by that name.” The man’s eyes revealed as much as a mannequin’s, blank as an unplugged television screen.
“I have information that she is. Or she was until as recently as yesterday, when I saw her with some other members of your group in Montrose.” The women had been leaving a coin operated laundry when Kayla had spotted them, but they had ignored her cries to wait and driven off. She had been on foot and unable to follow them.
“We do not have anyone here by that name,” the man repeated.
So maybe she had changed her name and went by Moon Flower or something equally charming and silly. “I don’t know what she’s calling herself this week but she’s here and I want to talk to her,” Kayla said. “Or satisfy myself that she isn’t here.” She spread her hands wide in a universal gesture of harmlessness. “All I want to do is talk to her. Then I’ll leave, I promise. What you do out here is your business – though I’m pretty sure blocking access to public land, whether you have a permit or not, is illegal. It might even get your permit revoked.” She gave him a hard look to go with her soft words, letting him know she was perfectly willing to make trouble if she needed to.
He hesitated a moment, then nodded. “I’ll need to search you for weapons. We don’t allow instruments of destruction into our haven of peace.”
She was impressed he could deliver such a line with a straight face. “So that knife on your belt doesn’t count?”
He put a hand to the sheath at his side. “This is a ceremonial piece, not a weapon.”
Uh-huh. And she had a “ceremonial” Smith and Wesson back at her home office. But no point arguing with him. “I’m not armed,” she said. “And you’ll just have to take my word for it, because I’m not in the habit of allowing strange men to grope me and if you lay a hand on me I promise I will file assault charges.”
A little more life came into the man’s face at her words, but instead of arguing with her, he turned and walked down the trail. She followed him, curious as to what kind of compound the group had managed to erect in the wilderness.
The man turned into what looked like a dry wash, circled a dense line of trees and emerged in a clearing where a motley collection of travel trailers, RVs, pickup trucks, cars, tents, tarps and other makeshift shelters spread out over about an acre. To Kayla, it looked like a cross between the Girl Scout Jamboree she had attended as a child, and a homeless encampment.
No one paid any attention to her arrival. A dozen or more men and women, and half as many children, wandered among the vehicles and shelters, tending campfires, carrying babies and talking. One man sat cross-legged in front of a van, playing a wooden flute, while two others kicked a soccer ball back and forth.
Kayla spotted Andi with a group of other women by a campfire. She looked just like the picture the Senator had given her – straight blond hair to the middle of her back, heart-shaped face, upturned nose and brilliant blue eyes. She wore a long gauze skirt and a tank top, her slim arms tanned golden from the sun, and she was smiling. Not the picture of the troubled young woman the Senator had painted. Rather, she looked like a model in an advertisement for a line of breezy summer fashions. Or maybe a particularly refreshing wine.
Kayla started across the compound toward the young woman. Camo-man stepped forward as if to intercept her, but her hard stare stopped him. “Andi?” she called. “Andi Matheson?”
The young woman turned toward Kayla, her smile never faltering. “I’m sorry, but I don’t go by that name anymore,” she said. “I’m Asteria now.”
Asteria? Kayla congratulated herself on not wincing. “My name’s Kayla,” she said.
“Do I know you?” Andi/Asteria wrinkled her perfect forehead a fraction of an inch.
“No. Your father asked me to check on you.” Kayla stopped in front of the woman and scrutinized her more closely, already mentally composing her report to the Senator. No bruises. Clear eyes and skin. No weight loss. If anything, she looked a little plumper than in the photos the Senator had provided. In fact…her gaze settled on the rounded bump at the waistband of the skirt. “You’re pregnant,” she blurted.
Andi rubbed one hand across her belly. “My father didn’t tell you? I’m not surprised, but he did know. It’s one of the reasons I left. I didn’t want to raise my child in his corrupt world.”
Interesting that the senator had left out this little detail about his daughter. “He was concerned enough about you to hire me to find you and ask you to get in touch with him,” Kayla said.
Andi’s smile was gone now. “He just wants to try to talk me into getting rid of the baby.” She turned to the two women with her. “My father can’t understand the happiness and contentment I’ve found here with the Prophet and the Family. He’s too mired in his materialistic, power-hungry world to see the truth.”
Dressed similarly to Andi, the other two women stared at Kayla with open hostility. So much for peace and love, Kayla thought. She looked around the compound, aware that pretty much everyone else there had stopped what they were doing to focus on the little exchange around the campfire. Even the flute player had lowered his instrument. Camo-man, however, had disappeared, perhaps slunk back to guard duty on the trail. “This isn’t exactly a garden spot.” She turned back to Andi. “What about the Family attracted you so much?” Senator Matheson was a wealthy man, and his only daughter had been a big part of his lavish lifestyle until a few months ago.
“The Family is a real family,” Andi said. “”We truly care for one another. The Prophet reminds us all to focus on the things in life that are really important and fulfilling and meaningful. Satisfaction isn’t to be found in material wealth, but in living in harmony with nature and focusing on our spiritual well-being.”
“You can’t live on air and spiritual thoughts,” Kayla said. “How do you all support yourselves?”
“We don’t need a lot of money,” Andi said. “The Prophet provides for us.”
Camping on public land was free and they didn’t have any utility bills, but they weren’t living on wild game and desert plants, either – not judging by the smell of onions and celery emanating from a pot over the fire. “You’re telling me your Prophet is footing the bill to feed and clothe all of you?”
“I am blessed to be able to share my worldly goods with my followers.”
The voice that spoke was deep, smooth as chocolate and commanding as any Shakespearean actor. Kayla turned slowly and studied the man striding toward them. Sunlight haloed his figure like a spotlight, burnishing his muscular, bare chest and glinting on his loose, white linen trousers. He had brown curly hair glinting with gold, dark brows, lively eyes, a straight nose and sensuous lips. Kayla swore one of the women behind her sighed and though she had been fully prepared to dislike this so-called “prophet” on sight, she wasn’t immune to his masculine charms.
The man was flat-out gorgeous and potentially lethally sexy. No wonder some women followed him around like puppies. “Daniel Metwater, I presume?” Kayla asked.
“I prefer the humble title of prophet.”
Since when was a prophet humble, but Kayla decided not to argue the point. “I’m Kayla Larimer.” She offered her hand.
He took it, then bent and pressed his mouth to her palm – a warm, and decidedly unnerving gesture. Some women might even think it was sexy, but Kayla thought the move too calculated and more than a little creepy. She jerked her hand away, then silently cursed herself for revealing that he had unsettled her. He smiled, and Kayla’s anger rose. “What’s the idea of stationing a guard to challenge visitors to your camp?” she asked. “After all, you are on public land. Land anyone is free to roam.”
“We’ve had trouble with curiosity seekers and a few people who want to harass us,” Metwater said. “We have a right to protect ourselves.”
“That defense won’t get you very far in court if anything goes south,” she said.
The smile finally faded. “Our policy is to leave other people alone and we ask that they show us the same courtesy.”
One of the few sensible pieces of advice that Kayla’s mother had ever given her was to keep her mouth shut, but Kayla found the temptation to poke at this particular charming snake to be too much. “If you really are having trouble with people harassing you, you should ask from help from local law enforcement,” she said.
“We prefer to solve our own problems, without help from outsiders.”
The mafia probably thought that way, too, but that didn’t make them innocent bystanders who never caused trouble did it?
“I’m not here to make trouble,” she said. “Andi’s father asked me to stop by and make sure she was all right.”
“As you can see, Asteria is fine.”
Kayla turned back to the young woman, who was gazing at Daniel, all limpid-eyed and adoring. “I assume you have a doctor in town?” she asked. “That you’re getting good pre-natal care.”
“I’m being well-cared for,” she said, her eyes still locked to Daniel’s.
“Asteria is an adult and has a right to live as she chooses,” Daniel said. “No one who comes to us is held against their will.”
Nothing Kayla saw contradicted that, but she just didn’t see the attraction. The place, and this man, gave her the creeps. “Your father would love to hear from you,” she told Andi. “And if you need anything, call me.” She held out one of her business cards. When the young woman didn’t reach for it, Andi shoved it into her hand. “Good-bye,” she said, and turned to walk away.
She passed Daniel without looking at him, though the goosebumps that stood out on her skin made her pretty sure he was giving her the evil-eye – or a pacifist prophet’s version of one. She had made it all the way to the edge of the encampment when raised voices froze her in her tracks. The hue and cry rose, not from the camp behind her, but from the trail ahead.
Camo-man appeared around the corner, red-faced and breathless. Behind him came two other men, dragging something heavy between them. Kayla took a few steps toward them and stared in horror at the object on the makeshift litter. Part of the face was gone, and she was pretty sure all the black stuff with the sticky sheen was blood – but she knew the body of a man when she saw one.
A dead man. And she didn’t think he had been dead very long.
Cindi Myers worked as a newspaper reporter, travel agent and medical clinic manager before turning to writing full time. She's written both historical and contemporary romance, as well as dozens of short stories and nonfiction articles. Cindi thinks writers have the best job in the world.
Former president of San Antonio Romance Authors, Cindi is a member of Romance Writers of America, Novelists Inc., and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.
She and her husband and their two dogs live in the mountains Southwest of Denver. When she's not caught up in creating new characters and stories, Cindi enjoys reading, quilting, gardening, skiing and hiking. She's also in demand as a speaker, teaching workshops and making presentations to both local and national writing groups.
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