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"... intense, emotional, captivating and very heartwarming"

Annette

Alan wants answers for his best friend’s murder, but he’s not happy when the evidence points to him.

Middle-of-the-night phone calls are never good news, and minutes after his, Alan’s on his way to Bears Hollow, North Carolina. Fact was, Daniel could drive those roads blindfolded, so there was no way he accidentally drove off the side of the mountain.

After a cursory glance at the crash site, Chief Jessie Kendall tends to agree. Too much unexplained evidence on the road, on the car, and in the bushes, all lead her to think Daniel Carson’s car had a little help over the side.

Alan suspects Daniel’s dissatisfied wife. Jessie agrees until she sees them together. Then she suspects them both. Can Jessie and Alan put aside their issues and growing attraction to work together to discover the truth?

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Excerpt:

PROLOGUE

The low fuel warning dinged from the dash. I checked the gas gauge, then my watch and, sure enough, it was late. I hoped Meryl’s remained open: I couldn’t remember their hours.

Why did I stay out this late? I knew the reason, but I didn’t want to think about it. I hated my life, but it would all soon change. A new start awaited me. Any day now the check would arrive in the mail, I’d have all the money I could ever want and no one to boss me around or tell me how to spend it. That would be the day I celebrated my freedom.

The newly opened Gas and Go convenience store emerged ahead and, thankfully, it was one of those twenty-four-hour businesses. It wasn’t Meryl’s, where I usually stopped when I was up this way, but I didn’t care. I would get gas and head home, so much nicer without always hell to pay from my better half. What a joke!

As I pumped gas, I noticed Daniel’s silver Toyota Camry parked near the front door. What’s he doing here? Could it get any better? I paid for the gas, remembering to use cash rather than card, and backed my truck under the trees’ dark cover, where I waited and watched for his return.

Should I do it tonight? What about her alibi? But could I pass up an opportunity like this one? Could I? Should I check with Leta first? Debating the pros and cons, my mind wandered to our last lunch date, after we’d worked up a sweat. I chuckled.

When Daniel loaded himself into his car, I made up my mind. Now or never. A few seconds after he left, I pulled onto the road and followed him.

* * *

Roadside gravel pelted against the Camry’s undercarriage. Daniel jumped, and struggled to pull the rear tire back onto the blacktop without losing control. The car corrected, and he drove nervously up the treacherous mountain incline. Shaking, he mopped the sweat from his brow. That was a close one.

He struck the steering wheel with the palm of his hand; how could he have been so stupid? Almost home, but not quite. He rubbed his eyes before taking a long, deep breath, calming his nerves. At least he wasn’t a mile down the road, where it lacked a shoulder and a guard rail and there was nothing to stop him from plunging into the ravine below. Almost certain death—even if the trees managed to stop him, he’d likely die from the crash.

He activated the air conditioner and aimed the cold air directly at his face. It would help keep his eyes open a little longer, he hoped. Not much further and he’d be in his warm bed, curled up next to his loving wife. He would make it. He could stay awake long enough.

As he topped the hill, bright lights appeared behind and glared into his eyes from the rearview mirror. “Dammit!” He reached up to tilt the mirror toward the ceiling, but whoever it was dimmed their lights, so he left it. He relaxed a bit.

Relief short lived; the vehicle rapidly closed the space between them and drew so close Daniel was able to see the shadowy outline of a large, dark colored truck and the glint of a Ford badge. “Okay buddy, come on by if you’re in such a big hurry.” Daniel slowed slightly and held to the side of the road. The truck stayed right behind him though, its lights illuminating the interior of his car. “Well screw you then!” He planted his foot on the gas pedal.

As he accelerated, their distance increased, but the other driver responded. The gap he’d gained diminished and, incredibly, the Ford kept coming. “Son of a bitch!” Who the hell is this guy? What does he want?

The motor behind him roared as the truck slammed into the Camry’s rear end. He swerved right, then left, just managing to hold the car on the road.

Adrenaline pumped through his veins, and his body suspended any need it had for sleep. He floored the gas again, but the Ford’s speed increased, and he barely stayed beyond its reach. The dangerous, winding descent dropped away before him. He could feel his hair brushing against the fabric of the car’s roof – it was actually standing on end. The truck collided with his fender, not as hard as the last time, but again and again. He needed to get away from this maniac, or it would be the end for one, if not both, of them.

Something in the Camry cracked.

The Ford moved side to side as it closed in. It smacked into the Toyota’s left corner panel, making it snake wildly. Daniel struggled for control as his tires screeched against the asphalt. He yanked the wheel left and then straightened as the car threatened to spin the other way. The tailpipe scraped the pavement, sparks licked the right side of the car.

The truck backed off. Daniel let out a deep breath and became aware of his shaking hands. His battered car handled awkwardly, and he was driving far too fast for this stretch of descent, but still, this counted as a respite. He prayed to God he’d make it home.

Then, in the rearview mirror, he saw the truck coming after him again, and all hope evaporated. He could do nothing to stop the lunatic on a mission. His only hope, he and the Camry would handle the next assault.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Alan Pearce woke with a jolt, an insistent ringing in his ears. The sound continued until it dawned on him the noise wasn’t part of his dream, it was the shrilling phone.

Pushing the hair from his face, he glanced at the glowing red numerals on the bedside clock: 3:15 A.M. “Damn!” Who could that be? Whoever it is better have a good reason for . . .

As the racket persisted, he realized he would either have to answer it or get more and more irritated by it. Either way, he could forget about going back to sleep.

Wondering which of his many clients had a problem, he rolled over and reached for the receiver while rubbing the sleep from his eyes with his free hand. “Look, whatever it is, can’t it wait until morning?” One of the drawbacks to his job, some of his clients didn’t seem to care what time they called.

A man’s squeaky voice answered him. “This is Bears Hollow—”

“What? Who is this?” Alan swung his legs over the side of the bed and combed his fingers through the shaggy blonde locks that had, once again, fallen across his eyes.

“This is Officer Randy Johnston, sir, from Bears Hollow Police Department. I’m sorry to wake you, but there’s been an accident on secondary road 1008. Leta Carson asked me to call you.”

That’s the road leading to Daniel’s house. Leta had him call. So, she must be okay, which left Daniel . . . A cold dread started in the pit of his stomach, and he raised himself out of his warm bed to pace the cool hardwood floor, the phone cord trailing after him. “Man, what are you saying?”

“Mr. Carson was in an accident, and Leta, I mean Mrs. Carson, was so upset that—”

“Hold on a minute. Where’s Daniel?” Unbelievable! Daniel had only left him a few hours ago, at eight, to go home. When the officer didn’t answer right away, he continued. “I mean what hospital? Is he okay?”

“Sir . . . ah . . . Mr. Carson didn’t survive. It appears he was killed instantly.”

The ensuing silence was deafening, lingered like a bad taste. Alan knew the caller expected a response, but the words remained trapped in his throat.

“Mr. Pearce? Are you there?”

Numbness permeated his body, as from a shot of Novocaine. The phone slipped from Alan’s hand and clattered to the floor. The officer’s words echoed over and over in his head. Didn’t survive? Killed instantly?

For a moment, he stared at the receiver lying by his feet, he wanted to stomp it into oblivion. But he needed to know more. How had the accident happened? It had to be a mistake; Daniel had an impeccable driving record.

Someone must be playing a cruel joke.

How had his existence been snuffed out so completely?

He picked up the phone to speak, but his throat constricted. Barely audible even to himself, he asked, “You say Leta is upset?” Knowing Daniel’s wife, what to wear to his funeral would upset her more than losing her husband. “Where is she?”

“She’s at her house. My ma is stayin’ there tonight lookin’ after her. The doc gave her a sedative.”

He started to wonder if this was just a bad dream; why on earth would the officer’s mother stay with her? Then he remembered the little town where he’d visited Daniel. Bears Hollow, the type of town where neighbor helped neighbor in times of need.

“Why didn’t Leta call me when this happened?” Even as he asked the question, he knew the answer. She would play the grieving widow to the hilt. Maybe that wasn’t being fair to her, but from everything Daniel had told him this weekend, how could he believe anything else?

“I can’t rightly answer that for sure, Mr. Pearce. But she was over-wrought, as you might well imagine. So, she asked me if I minded calling you for her, and I said I would. So, well, here we are.”

“Thank you, Mr., ah . . . officer. How’d . . .” Alan gulped more air. “How’d the accident happen?”

“I wish I could answer your questions, but I’m just callin’ because I promised Leta . . . I mean Mrs. Carson, that I would. It’s an ongoing investigation you see. The Chief and the Highway Patrol haven’t finished their inspection of the scene. Would you like someone to call you later?”

“I’m leaving immediately, and I should be in Bears Hollow around daybreak. At the latest, seven o’clock. I’ll want answers. Should I ask for you?”

“No, sir. My shift ended a couple of hours ago and there ain’t much I’ll be able to tell you anyway. I’m not the one who found the accident. And I’m not the investigating officer.”

“Who should I ask for then?”

“Chief Jessie Kendall.”

“Tell him, or better yet, leave him a note, saying I’ll be there first thing this morning. Goodbye, Officer.”

“But, sir—”

Alan slammed the phone onto its cradle before he realized the officer was still speaking. He didn’t have time to waste. Whatever it was, he’d find out when he arrived in Bears Hollow. He pulled on worn jeans and stumbled towards the kitchen.

He removed a box of instant coffee from the cupboard, dropped it and spilled the bags all over the floor. Hands shaking, he hastily retrieved them. He deposited one into his favorite mug, filled it with water, and placed it in the microwave. Punching in two minutes, he waited, the carousel turning in rhythm with his thoughts.

The mug was a Dale Earnhart souvenir, and watching the great man’s face revolve around in front of him reminded Alan of the final lap crash in the Daytona 500 where his life had ended. Suddenly everything became too present. He’d purchased tickets for the two of them for the upcoming Charlotte race, but now . . . Unable to endure the thought of never seeing Daniel again, his elbows hit the green-tiled counter with a bang, and Alan’s head dropped into his trembling hands. He squeezed his temples, warding off the pain.

Memories of Daniel ran through his thoughts. The high school where they shared some of their classes, and where they’d played baseball, basketball, and football. Daniel had been a quarterback, and he’d played wide receiver. They’d made good team mates.

There had been many double dates with the young women of the week. Neither of them had settled down or been the least bit romantically serious until after college. Daniel met Leta during the California trip, their last Spring break from College. She’d been an aspiring actress slash waitress, but they didn’t get together seriously until Daniel went back after graduation. Alan hadn’t gone with him the second time. Instead, he’d gone to New York to visit his mom and her newest meal ticket.

He suspected where he’d gotten his attitude toward women came from his gold-digging mother. He had never been able to truly trust any of the women he’d dated thus far, and so his relationships, like the one with Alexandra that had ended recently, never lasted all that long.

The microwave timer beeped, signaling the coffee was ready. Setting the steaming mug beside the sink, he turned on the faucet and splashed cold water onto his face.

As much as he wanted the coffee, the smell of it now made his stomach queasy, and he poured it down the drain.

Alan returned to the bedroom and pulled out clothes, throwing them all over his bed. No, it can’t be Daniel. It has to be a mistake. Maybe he’d get there and find out it wasn’t his friend after all. An hour later, after showering and packing enough clothes to last a week, he set off to find answers to the multitude of questions spinning through his mind.

First stop, the realty company he and Daniel co-owned. He checked messages and left Lois, his secretary, a note with instructions for the week, saying there was an emergency and he’d call her later with details. No reason to wake her and get into it over the phone at this hour. Then, he stuffed the contracts he needed to read into his briefcase and hurried out of the office.

They had hung the green-and-gold sign over the doorway in a state of jubilance. Carson and Pearce Realty had been started with Daniel’s cash inheritance, and Alan had bought his shares in monthly installments. They worked well together; one’s strengths balancing the other’s weaknesses.

A year after Daniel married Leta, the couple moved to Bears Hollow, North Carolina, where he opened a land development company, again bringing Alan in as co-owner.

Alan remembered the discussion like it was yesterday. ‘You don’t have to make me a partner. Anyway, I still don’t understand why you had to move?’

“You remember the great times we used to have vacationing there; it’s the perfect place to raise kids,” Daniel had told him. He’d wanted children so much, but Leta—the mere thought of her right now made him physically sick.

He slid behind the steering wheel of his black Camaro and headed toward Brookshire Freeway to join I-77. Although highway 74 would take him straight from Charlotte to Bears Hollow, he always made better time traveling the Interstate. Keeping his mind on his driving proved impossible as thoughts of Daniel clouded his subconscious. Tires hitting rock shards on the side of the road jostled him out of his reverie. He screeched his car to a stop, thankful he wasn’t on the Interstate yet. He pulled over until he could regain control of his shaking hands, get his heartbeat down to a manageable rate.

Getting going again, Alan was soon on the Interstate and tuned the radio to his favorite country music station, trying to drown out the thoughts threatening to drive him slowly insane.

His mom had named him after her favorite singer, Alan Jackson, and now his voice came on, singing If Tears Could Talk. As if brooding about Daniel wasn’t enough, the song reminded him of his ex and their recent breakup, so he clicked the scan button until it stopped on a good southern rock station.

Alan and Daniel had spent the previous weekend together. They’d left work a little early on Friday and stayed at one of their Lake Norman vacation rentals. The first night, they drank beer and talked on the back deck.

Daniel told him how Leta had kept him up night after night for the last few weeks, arguing about wanting to move back to California to restart her acting career. She’d landed one acting job her whole time in the business, two episodes playing “hot nurse” in a hospital soap. Even so, Alan had been scared Daniel might consider it, until his friend assured him of the unlikelihood. His exact words, “Nice place to visit, but I’d never want to live there. And as for Leta, why would any husband want to watch his wife put herself through all that again?”

According to Daniel, he’d tried to placate her with an offer to take her on a romantic cruise or a vacation to the west coast, but she would have none of it.

Alan had asked him, “Are you seriously thinking of separating or divorcing her?”

He’d said, “I don’t know yet. I don’t want to. I’m hoping we can work things out, but as much as I love Leta and our mountain home, I couldn’t take one more night in that house with her and her mouth. I had to get away. It’s why I’m here with you this weekend.”

Daniel loved the outdoors and the quiet life when not working. He’d come to hate Charlotte and its rapid growth, although because of it their wallets swelled. Another reason he’d moved to Bears Hollow—to get away from Charlotte’s traffic and fast life.

Unlike Alan, Daniel had grown up in a stable family with two loving parents, and he’d never had to deal with a lot of arguing and drama. He hated it, but he wouldn’t throw away his marriage without fighting to save it first.

Sunday night, Daniel had left for home to try and work things out.

Alan’s depression deepened with every song the radio played. There was no logic to it, but each seemed to remind him of times he and Daniel had spent together—a football game with friends or watching the pros on television. With a twist of his wrist, he silenced the emotion-laden tunes and slammed his hands to the steering wheel. How could Daniel suddenly be dead? It wasn’t possible. He refused to believe it.

The straight road offered nothing to distract him from his thoughts. The trees were ghosts in the headlights, and none of the colors that signaled autumn’s arrival, and winter close behind, were visible. Fall, Daniel’s favorite time of year. Before he’d left for home last night, Alan had promised to visit at the end of October, when the mountain’s trees reddened to their full glory.

In Statesville, the large green sign for Interstate 40 West loomed ahead. As he exited, his mind flipped again to Leta and the last time he’d seen Daniel.

When she’d called last night, around midnight, and asked him if Daniel was planning to stay another night in Charlotte, he’d assured her he’d long since left for home and was probably just stuck in traffic. Why hadn’t he sensed something was wrong then? How stupid can you be, Alan Pearce? He felt like kicking himself, but it wouldn’t be enough punishment for being a total blockhead.

Daniel was never that late—and that route didn’t get big delays: no more than an hour because of traffic, or an accident. Accident? The officer’s voice echoed in his mind, ‘There’s been an accident.’

Alan pulled off I-40 an hour later and took the back roads leading him straight into Bears Hollow. The closer he came to his destination, the more the highway curved and climbed like a copperhead. Large rocks dotted the countryside, with distant hills growing larger.

Along the way, he passed towns so small they didn’t even receive a place on a North Carolina map—some consisting of a general store and a post office, if they were lucky.

In the early morning light, the colors of fall became more pronounced at this higher elevation, sprinkling the leaves with yellow, orange, and red. When he saw a sign for Fairfield Resort, a grim anticipation surged through him. Almost there.

The sun peeped over the top of a tall mountain as he drove into the neighboring town of Lake Lure. Next, Chimney Rock, then Bears Hollow. The dark sky had gone and was now pink with a spray of blue mingled through it. A few more miles and he’d be at the police station.

As he passed through Lake Lure, his mind wandered again.

Recalling his last visit brought a slight smile to Alan’s lips. He and Daniel had been like school boys on a treasure hunt while they searched for a house Leta would like. They’d laughed and teased each other unmercifully all day.

How long ago had that trip been? Had it really been a year already?

‘The mountain air does that to you,’ Daniel had claimed. ‘It makes you feel young and alive. The sound of water splashing against the rocks in the creek relaxes the soul.’

Nature aside, other than the common, small-town police station, general store, library, and fire department, Bears Hollow’s main enticement was what the natives called the western town in the sky—Bears Junction, a part of Chimney Rock town limits. Long since closed down and awaiting a new owner to bring it back to life, it was set atop a secluded mountain, where tourist used to ride chairlifts to see reenactments of gunfights, cancan dancers in old-time saloons, and motels with antique furniture dating back to the early 1800s. Below the tourist attraction, a multitude of gift shops lined the streets.

The memory of the gift shops and their banality jarred with his reason for driving here today, and as he approached the station anger raged through Alan’s body at the senselessness of his friend’s death. “Why?” he yelled into the quietness, before pulling his Camaro into a space in front of a stone building. Wrapping his fingers around the steering wheel, he clutched it in a white-knuckled grip. Perspiration dotted his face and his hairline became damp.

Now, he’d get some answers.

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