Secrets Never Die

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In this Amazon Charts, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post bestseller, Morgan Dane and PI Lance Kruger fight for the innocence of a young murder suspect—if only they could find him.

When a retired sheriff’s deputy is shot to death in his home, his troubled teenage stepson, Evan, becomes the prime suspect. Even more incriminating, the boy disappeared from the scene of the crime.

Desperate to find her son, Evan’s mother begs PI Lance Kruger for help. She knows her son is innocent. Kruger and defense attorney Morgan Dane want to believe that too, but the evidence against the boy is damning. Just as the trail goes cold, another deputy vanishes. His shocking connection to Evan’s stepfather throws the investigation into chaos as Lance and Morgan fear the worst…that Evan is the killer’s new target.

With so many secrets to unravel, will Lance and Morgan find him before it’s too late?


Chapter One

Why was the house dark? Sitting in the passenger seat of his friend’s Honda Accord, Evan checked the time on his watch. Twelve thirty a.m. His mom’s car wasn’t in the driveway. She must still be at the urgent care where she worked as a nurse. Evan’s stepfather, Paul, always left a light on for her. But there weren’t any lights on tonight. Every window was black. Even the lamppost at the end of the front walk was out. Unease crept up the back of Evan’s neck. His pulse kicked up a notch.

A small punch of adrenaline countered his current overall state of exhaustion like a can of Red Bull. He hadn’t slept in days, not since the last court-ordered visitation with his real—no, biological—father. A real father would care about Evan, and Kirk never had. “Are you getting out?” Jake blew smoke out the driver’s side window. “Yeah.” Evan opened the car door. A gust of wind almost ripped it out of his hand. He caught it and held on as he climbed out. “Thanks for the ride.” Jake waved his cigarette. “See ya.” Evan shut the door. Jake backed his car out of the driveway, leaving Evan alone. He glanced up and down the suburban street. Past midnight, light from streetlamps pooled in shiny yellow circles on the blacktop. Overhead, thick clouds obscured the night sky.

A storm system was on its way across upstate New York, and the air seemed charged with electricity. The weather report had warned of high winds and heavy rains, maybe even hail and tornadoes. He hoped his mom’s shift had ended so she could get home before the storm started. A hot, humid wind lifted the hair on the back of his neck. He suddenly felt as if he were being watched. Despite the heat of the June night, a shiver shot through his bones. His gaze fell on the windshield of a dark-blue sedan parked across the street, but he saw no one behind the wheel.

Now he was being paranoid. Lack of sleep must be making him stupid. Maybe a fuse had blown. That would explain the lack of lights. Using his flashlight app to navigate the walkway and front steps, he slid his key into the dead bolt, but there was no resistance when he turned it. Had the door been unlocked? Nah. He must have imagined it. Paul would never leave the house open. Evan was making excuses. He just didn’t want to go inside the house and face his stepfather. Evan was two and a half hours past his curfew, he’d been a complete asshole to Paul that afternoon, and he’d ignored Paul’s concerned texts about his being late. Not that Paul would yell or anything. Paul was cool. But he’d want to talk about Evan’s shitty behavior and the root cause. Getting grounded wasn’t a big deal, but Paul’s disapproval hurt. Evan might as well get it over with. Better to do it now, before his mom got home. Unlike Paul, she would lose her shit, and Evan didn’t want to deal with her freak-out. He opened the front door and went inside. He heard voices that sounded like the TV coming from the back of the house.

Definitely a fuse. The den, aka the man cave, was on a different electrical circuit from the front lights. A couple of weeks ago, Paul had shown Evan how to reset the switches in the electrical box in the garage. Evan walked down the hall, his steps slowed by dread. Paul had waited up for him even though Evan had been a complete dick. Now Evan felt twice as bad. Why did he let Kirk get to him? Why was some fucking judge forcing Evan to spend his Sunday nights with the asshole? Anger curled Evan’s hands into fists. His father didn’t just bring out the worst in him. Kirk also cultivated anger and resentment. His father played him to get even with his mom. Kirk was a pro. He found a way to get to Evan every time.

Evan was an idiot. “I bet moving out to the sticks was his idea,” Kirk had said. “He was the one who made you move away from your friends. He probably had his eye on your mom while she was still married to me. She’s his meal ticket. He quit his job as soon as they were married, right? He’s set now.” But Kirk had twisted the facts. Paul had retired from his job as a sheriff’s deputy months before, and he did all the stuff around the house, even cleaning, something Kirk would never do. But Kirk had gone on and on, picking at all of Evan’s scabs until he’d found one that bled.

Then Evan turned around and took out his anger on Paul, just like Kirk had planned all along. Evan couldn’t wait until he turned eighteen, when he would be able to tell Kirk—and that asshole judge—to fuck off. “Everyone makes dumbass mistakes,” Paul had said last time. “But you have to own up and apologize.” Evan was going to make it right. He was not going to turn into his father. He walked toward the den and stopped just short of the doorway, bracing himself for the talk his apology would initiate. But a loud pop brought him up short. What was that? His instincts said gunshot, but at the same time, his brain told him that was crazy.

Still in the corridor, he peered through the doorway. Paul lay on the floor. Blood saturated his T-shirt and spread to the carpet around his body. So much blood. Evan couldn’t even register the horror. What he was seeing was beyond comprehension. He couldn’t move, and he couldn’t look away. His eyes were locked on Paul, the pain and fear on his stepfather’s face. Move! Do something! Help him! Shaking himself out of his paralysis, he started forward. Paul saw him. His eyes widened. His head shook, almost imperceptibly, and he mouthed, “Run.” But Evan couldn’t leave him there. His feet were rooted in place, as if the carpet had turned into ten inches of thick mud. He couldn’t do anything. Paul’s eyes shifted to the coffee table. Evan followed his line of sight to where Paul’s handgun lay next to gun-cleaning supplies set out on a newspaper. Paul’s fingers crawled along the carpet toward the table, but there was no way he’d be able to reach.

He tried to roll, but the movement sent blood gushing onto the carpet, and he fell back. Then a man walked into view and stood over Paul. He had a gun in his hand and wore a suit that didn’t seem to fit him very well. When he lifted the gun, his suit jacket opened, revealing a gold badge clipped to his belt. A cop? He pointed the gun at Paul’s face. The cop wore purple gloves that looked like the ones Evan’s mom used at work. Panic grabbed Evan by the balls as he realized what was going to happen. The man was going to shoot Paul again. And Paul was going to die.

Paul’s legs twitched, almost in a running motion. He knew what was coming too, but he was too badly wounded to move anything except his feet. And what did Evan do? Fucking stood there, frozen, staring and shaking like a coward. “What do you want from me?” Paul hissed, his voice weak as a breath. “I want you to die.” The man pulled the trigger. The gunshot blasted through the room. Evan jumped. His heart skipped a beat. Panic tightened his lungs until he couldn’t draw a breath. Paul’s legs went still, and Evan knew he was gone. Dead. Evan felt the choking gasp tear from his throat, yet he didn’t recognize the guttural animal sound as coming from his own mouth. His gaze was locked on the horror in the den.

Paul lay dead on the carpet, his body an island surrounded by a lake of blood. Evan inhaled. At the rush of oxygen, his heart stuttered and kicked back into rhythm. He took one step forward, toward Paul, on reflex, before his brain put on the brakes. But Paul was dead. Shot in the head by the man who now stood over him. No. Not shot. Executed.

The man turned, his eyes fixing on Evan, his gaze dumping pure terror into Evan’s bloodstream. It flowed into his veins like ice water. His bowels cramped. Gooseflesh rippled up his arms. He turned toward the back door, but the dead bolt was locked. Afraid of easy break-ins, Paul had had the turn lock replaced with a keyed dead bolt when they’d moved in. Where was the key? He turned and ran the way he’d come. Equal parts anger and terror fueled his steps and scattered his thoughts. Evan tore into the kitchen, his feet sliding on the tiles. He slammed into the sideboard.

A stack of dishes slid off and shattered. Framed wedding pictures fell from the wall, the glass breaking as they hit the floor. Evan went down on his ass. His tailbone rang with the impact on the tile, and his legs went numb for a few seconds. “Where are you?” a voice called. Scrambling to his feet, Evan ran toward the front door. He had to get out of the house. He was one of the fastest players on his hockey team, both on and off the ice. Once he was out in the open, he could outrun almost anybody. “You can’t get away.” The voice was in front of him.

While Evan had been picking himself up off the kitchen floor, the killer had circled around through the dining room, beating Evan to the front door. Evan stopped and tried to be silent. But his knees shook, and his breaths came fast and hard enough to echo in his ears. He fought to slow his breathing. The killer would be able to hear him. He was going to die. Shot in the head like Paul. His pulse sprinted in terror. “You might as well give up now. I’ll make it easy on you and kill you quickly.” He was closer. Evan backed through the kitchen. A piece of glass crunched under his foot. Sweat poured down his back. He was trapped. He needed the key to the back door. He’s going to get me. “Know this: no matter what you do, no matter where you go, I’m going to find you and kill you.” The sentence was delivered with the same cold-blooded calm that had been in the killer’s eyes when he’d shot Paul. The faint squeak of a floorboard in the hall nearly made Evan’s bladder give way. He concentrated for a second until it passed.

Then he stepped over the glass, easing his way back into the corridor that led to the den. He slipped into the room. Paul’s eyes stared blankly at the ceiling. Tears and snot ran down Evan’s face as he skirted the bloodstained carpet. Standing next to Paul, he searched his pockets. Keys. He pulled them out, wrapping his fingers around them to keep them from jingling. “Where are you?” the voice called, irritation clipping the words. “You’re just dragging this out.” Evan eased to the back door. He held Paul’s keys in his palm, his shaking fingers finding the right key.

He held the rest of Paul’s keys quiet as he unlocked the dead bolt. The hinges groaned as he began to open the door. “I’m going to kill you. You can’t get away from me.” The man was in the doorway between the kitchen and rear hall. He raised his gun. “You’re a dead man.” Evan flung open the door. The gunshot rang out. A lick of hot pain sliced through Evan’s arm. He grabbed his bicep, automatically feeling for the wound. His hand came away wet, but his arm had gone numb. He felt nothing. “Don’t think anyone can hide you,” the man called out the door. “I will find you. I will hunt you down.” Evan sprinted across the backyard, grabbing the top of the tall fence and swinging his legs up and over. He landed hard on the other side. Was the killer chasing him? Evan didn’t stop to find out. He bolted away from the house, crashing through the underbrush like a panicked deer. He couldn’t see the ground in front of him in the dark. Sticker bushes pulled at his feet and legs. His foot snagged, and he went down on his knees. He felt no pain as he shoved himself back onto his feet and kept moving. After a short sprint, he hit the game trail he and Paul had used to hike to the lake.

It was the same path that the deer and other wild animals used to access the water. The open trail let him turn on some speed, though the ground was uneven. He tripped twice but regained his footing without falling. He didn’t know how long he ran, but he didn’t slow until he thought his lungs would explode. The physical movement was a relief.

Like every coward, he was more comfortable with flight than fight. He stopped in the center of the trail. Darkness closed around him. Something rustled the branches. The wind? He scanned the woods, but the sky was overcast, emitting little natural light. He strained for additional sound but heard nothing. His hands patted his jeans pockets. His phone, which had been in his back pocket, was gone. Did it matter? Who would he call? The cops? Paul had been a former cop. He’d been trained and armed. And this man had killed him. Evan remembered the flash of a badge at the man’s belt. Evan couldn’t trust the police to keep him safe. The killer was a cop. And Evan could identify him. He couldn’t call his mom. She’d try to protect him, and she’d become a target too. There was no way he would endanger her.

He had to stay far away. The trail spilled onto the road. Evan came to a stop and stood still, lungs heaving, trying to listen for footsteps over the sound of his ragged breathing. He didn’t hear anyone behind him. Evan debated. If he crossed the road and continued on the trail, he would end up at an abandoned campground. He and Paul had hiked through it a few weeks back. There had been a few canoes and kayaks.

One of them might float. Evan could get away faster on the water. But where would he go? On the other hand, if he followed the road, he would eventually see a car. He could get help. His arm throbbed in rhythm with his pulse, the pain strong enough to nauseate him. His wound needed treatment. But who could he trust at this point?

The sound of an engine approached. But as the engine came closer, he backed into the shadow of the trees. Headlights appeared. The vehicle approached too slowly, as if the driver were looking for something. Or someone. He was afraid to move. He didn’t want to draw attention. The vehicle crawled by. It was a dark sedan.

Was it the same one that had been parked across the street from his house? Evan’s pulse kick-started. The sedan stopped. His heartbeat scrambled inside his chest like a fawn trying to gain traction on icy ground. Behind him, he heard the sound of a car door opening and closing. He’d been seen. As he turned to run, the killer’s words echoed in his head. I will hunt you down.


Chapter Two

Morgan Dane woke to the buzz of a cell phone. Raising her head, she glanced at the clock. One thirty-nine a.m. As a defense attorney, she occasionally received middle-of-the-night calls. People were arrested twenty-four hours a day. But a stomach virus had been making the rounds at the grammar school, and the two oldest of her three daughters had suffered through the bug. This was the first night in four that all her children were sleeping, and her head was as heavy as a bowling ball from lack of sleep. Her hand was halfway to the cell phone charging on her nightstand when a second vibration, clearly from the other side of the bed, told her the call was for her fiancé, private investigator Lance Kruger.

Nudging Lance, she let her head drop back to the pillow. He was already reaching for his own phone. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat on the edge of the mattress. “Lance Kruger.” His body stiffened. “Did you call 911? Do that now. I’ll be right there.” The alarm in his tone roused Morgan. She levered up on one elbow. Lance set the phone back on the nightstand, switched on the bedside lamp, and stood. Cotton pajama bottoms rode low on his hips. Morgan’s French bulldog, Snoozer, burrowed under the covers. Dog number two, a bulldog mix named Rocket, raised her head and pricked her ears at the activity. Morgan sat up. “Who was that?” “Evan Meade’s mother, Tina.” Lance rushed for the adjoining bathroom, grabbing a pair of pants from a chair on the way. “Do you have anything important on your calendar this morning?” “Nothing I can’t reschedule.” Morgan tossed back the covers. Lance coached a hockey team of at-risk youths, a role that had started when he’d been an officer with the Scarlet Falls PD. Even after a bullet had ended his career on the police force, Lance continued as coach. More importantly, he was a mentor to the troubled kids. Since she and Lance had started dating last fall, Morgan had handled most of the boys’ legal issues. “Is Evan in trouble?” Zipping his black cargo pants, Lance hustled out of the bathroom. His blond hair was short enough that brushing one hand across the top was enough to settle it into place. “What happened with Evan?” Assuming the boy had gotten himself arrested for something stupid, which was the usual reason one of the hockey parents called Lance, Morgan hurried past him and took a quick turn in the bathroom. Thirty seconds later, she opened her closet, grabbed a pair of black slacks, and stepped into them. Lance tugged a gray T-shirt over his head.

Tall, jacked, and grim-faced, he wore the tactical look well. “Tina came home from work. She found Paul shot to death and Evan missing.” “Paul is dead?” Shock froze Morgan’s fingers for a heartbeat, then she continued buckling her belt. She’d briefly spoken to Tina’s new husband a few times during hockey games or when he’d picked up Evan from the rink. Lance sat on the chair to put on his boots. “Yes. That’s all she said. When I told her to call 911, she hung up.” “She didn’t do that first?” Odd. Morgan put on a white cotton blouse and shoved her feet into a pair of black pumps. “No. She was upset.” Lance retrieved their handguns from the safe in the closet. If Morgan had found a dead body, her automatic reaction would have been to call the police. He holstered his gun at his hip and tucked it under his shirt. “I’ll start the Jeep.” Morgan took her Glock and did the same. She grabbed her black blazer from the closet and her giant tote bag from the dresser. “I’ll be out in one minute.” Her live-in nanny slept in the room down the hall, across from the bedroom that Morgan’s three little girls shared. She tapped on the door.

At Gianna’s sleepy “yes,” Morgan poked her head into the room and gave her the news. In an attempt to isolate the youngest from her contagious siblings, Morgan had put three-year-old Sophie in Gianna’s room. Morgan had made a bed on an inflatable mattress, but the little girl had climbed into bed with her nanny and stolen most of it. For a small and wiry child, she could take up a surprisingly large amount of space. Poor Gianna slept on her side in the remaining eight inches.

The dogs slipped through the open door, jumped onto Gianna’s bed, and curled up around Sophie’s sprawled limbs. Gianna responded to Morgan with a nod, rolled over, and tried to pull the edge of the blanket over her shoulders, but the child and dogs weighed it down and she gave up. Closing Gianna’s door, Morgan turned and went into the girls’ room. Five-year-old Mia slept in a pile of stuffed animals, her loyal zebra tucked under one arm. Ava, at age six, barely moved in her sleep.

Her covers were as tidy as when she’d gone to bed. Even her teddy bear was neatly tucked in. Morgan pressed a light kiss to each of their foreheads to check for fevers. Both were cool. A rush of love filled her chest and blurred her vision. She wiped a tear from her eye. She really needed some sleep. Satisfied that both children were well, Morgan strode past the clear plastic sheeting taped over the demolished kitchen, which was in the gutting phase of a major renovation project. She went outside, locked the door behind her, and pressed the button on the key fob to reset the security system. A hot gust whipped Morgan’s hair around her face as she rushed to the Jeep. The air felt heavy and damp. Thunder rolled, low and threatening in the distance. Lance was waiting for her in the driver’s seat.

She climbed into the SUV and fastened her seat belt as he backed out of the driveway. “Would you call Sharp and let him know what’s going on? He knew Paul too. He’s going to want to help.” Private investigator Lincoln Sharp, Lance’s boss, owned Sharp Investigations. Morgan called him and relayed the few facts they knew. Before he’d opened Sharp Investigations, Lincoln Sharp had served on the Scarlet Falls PD for twenty-five years, most of that time as a detective. Paul Knox had been a retired sheriff’s deputy. Limited staffing in rural jurisdictions often required law enforcement agencies to cooperate, and the two men had occasionally worked together. Sharp digested the information in a second.

“On my way.” Morgan lowered her phone to her lap. The country road leading out of the neighborhood was dark and empty. Lance rolled through a stop sign. “I can’t believe Paul is dead.” “It’s horrible.” As a mother, Morgan’s thoughts immediately shifted to worrying about the missing teenager. “Poor Evan.” “I don’t know how he’s going to react. He’s a good kid, but he’s already had his share of troubles. A few years ago, his father went to prison on an assault charge, and his parents divorced. Evan lashed out. He was arrested for underage drinking, vandalism, mostly stupid stuff.” Lance turned left. “He was becoming a frequent flier at the station, but he settled down over the next year. His grades started to recover.

I expected even more improvement when his mother married Paul Knox last fall. I thought Paul’s presence in Evan’s life would be a good thing.” But Morgan sensed the situation hadn’t panned out the way Lance had expected. “It wasn’t?” “I don’t know,” Lance said. “Evan has seemed extra moody the last couple of months, but he won’t talk to me.” Tina and Paul lived in the neighboring town of Grey’s Hollow, near the border with Scarlet Falls. At 1:53 a.m., Lance turned into a residential neighborhood of older homes built on large lots. “Looks like we beat the sheriff’s department.” Lance pulled to the curb a half block away from Tina’s house. No doubt he didn’t want the Jeep to block access to the street for first responder vehicles. He and Morgan climbed out of the SUV.

Morgan’s house was closer to the Knox residence than the Randolph County Sheriff’s Station was, so being the first to arrive wasn’t a surprise. But that left one major question wide open. Is the shooter still in the house? They jogged along the sidewalk. Morgan had a long stride, but she worked hard to keep up with Lance. They approached a quaint two-story home at the end of the street.

A white vinyl fence enclosed the backyard. The Knox residence was on the periphery of the development and abutted the woods. Lance drew his weapon. “If I asked you to wait in the Jeep until I cleared the house, would I be wasting my breath?” “Yes.” They turned and ran up the driveway. Morgan pulled her Glock and followed him to the front stoop. “You’re not going in there without someone to watch your back.”

The death of Morgan’s first husband had left her in a very dark place, one she’d climbed out of less than a year ago. Her daughters had already lost their father.

Now that she and the girls had been blessed with Lance in their lives, Morgan would not allow him to take an unnecessary risk. Her pulse accelerated as adrenaline surged through her. The door was closed but unlocked. She positioned herself at Lance’s left flank as they went into the house. It appeared as if every light in the house was on.

 

Author Melinda Leigh
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