Undercover hunter, p.1

Undercover Hunter, page 1

 part  #22 of  Conard County: The Next Generation Series


Undercover Hunter

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Undercover Hunter

  In this story from New York Times bestselling author Rachel Lee, two investigators must learn to play nice before it’s too late

  Detective Cade Bankston never had any luck with female partners. So when he’s assigned to work with feisty, raven-haired DeeJay Dawkins, he isn’t pleased at all. Posing as a married couple, the investigators must team up to catch a killer. That is, if they don’t kill each other first.

  Putting their mission first proves tricky as mutual disdain evolves into mutual desire. But distraction is not an option. The killer who seemingly vanished five years prior has returned to Conard County, Wyoming, to finish what he started. And he just set his sights on two new victims.

  “Well, we know where it ended. The question is where did it begin?”

  “We aren’t going to figure that out now.” DeeJay turned, and as she did so, her boot caught on something, maybe a root, and she started to fall.

  Instantly, strong arms caught her and the next thing she knew she was pressed against Cade’s chest. Layers of down prevented it from being in any way intimate, but when she looked up into his eyes, no amount of down could prevent the hot arc of hunger that speared through her.

  A flare in his gaze seemed to answer her.

  “Cade?” she said breathlessly, the question almost lost as the treetops stirred in a sudden wind. It didn’t matter. She didn’t know what she was asking anyway.

  “Damn,” he said quietly. Apparently he knew the answer because he leaned in and kissed her.


  Be sure to check out the rest of the

  Conard County: The Next Generation miniseries!


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  Dear Reader,

  Falling in love is one of the biggest risks we take in life. It’s the emotional equivalent of jumping out of an airplane without a parachute and trusting your jump partner to catch you and carry you down. When we’re young, we leap into it with joy. When we get a little older, if we’ve had some bad experiences, we’re not as quick to take that leap. Maybe we refuse to take it again.

  But at the root of love is trust—trusting someone enough to be utterly vulnerable to them, because when we truly love we become emotionally naked. All the walls are down, all the defenses lowered. With a single word or act, we might be devastated.

  DeeJay and Cade both have reasons not to trust, DeeJay more than most. But when they are partnered to help catch a serial killer, those defenses must be breached. As partners they must rely on one another completely, and that reliance requires the first seeds of trust. Preoccupation with the case gets them through at the beginning, but in the end love saves them both.





  Rachel Lee

  Rachel Lee was hooked on writing by the age of twelve and practiced her craft as she moved from place to place all over the United States. This New York Times bestselling author now resides in Florida and has the joy of writing full-time.

  Books by Rachel Lee

  Harlequin Romantic Suspense

  Conard County: The Next Generation

  The Final Mission

  Just a Cowboy

  The Rescue Pilot

  Guardian in Disguise

  The Widow’s Protector

  Rancher’s Deadly Risk

  What She Saw

  Rocky Mountain Lawman

  Killer’s Prey

  Deadly Hunter

  Defending the Eyewitness

  Snowstorm Confessions

  Harlequin Special Edition

  The Widow of Conard County

  Thanksgiving Daddy

  Reuniting with the Rancher

  Visit the Author Profile page at

  Harlequin.com for more titles



  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15



  Calvin Sweet knew he was taking some big chances, but risks always invigorated him. Coming back to his home in Conard County was the first of the new risks. Five years ago he’d left for bigger cities because the law seemed to be closing in on him.

  Returning to the site where he had hung his trophies was a huge risk, too, although he could claim he was out for a hike in the autumn mountains before the first snows fell. There was nothing left, anyway. The law had taken it all away, and the sight filled him with both sorrow and bitterness. Anger, too. They had no right to take away his hard work, his triumphs, his mementos. His boys. He knew his mother would be proud of what he’d done, but the proof that he’d appeased her was gone.

  They’d taken it all away. After five years all that was left were some remnants of cargo netting rotting in the tree limbs, the remains of a few sawed-off ropes.

  But he could close his eyes and remember, and remembering filled him with joy and a sense of his own huge power, the power to purify them forever. Calvin had saved them.

  Unlike his boys, he was filled with great purpose, a purpose handed down to him by his mother.

  From earliest childhood he had been fascinated by spiders and their webs. He had spent hours watching as insect after insect fell victim to those silken strands, struggling mightily until they were stung and then wrapped up helplessly to await their fate. Each corpse on the web had been a trophy, marking the spider’s victory. No one ever escaped.

  No one had escaped him, either.

  But his boys were gone, carried away to a different fate on cold slabs and cold holes in the ground. Honored no more, at least not by him.

  He stood for a while, remembering, then turned to begin the trek back to the ranch. A small ranch, left to him after his mother’s death long ago, but it was isolated enough to pursue his calling, and without his mother around it would be even more private. He considered it a bonus that construction at the new ski resort had begun. An influx of people for the jobs made his return even less remarkable.

  These past years, moving from city to city before he could be found, he’d had to give up a lot of his boys, which had left him feeling incomplete and unsatisfied. Certainly there’d been no spiderwebs. Well, he could rebuild his triumphs here. Not in the woods, perhaps, since they’d found his first group, but maybe in the barn loft, out of sight? He needed to think about it.

  He really wanted his web again, his carefully preserved trophies. He wanted what every spider wanted, and he’d find a way. The need was growing stronger. He needed to act again, and he needed to honor those who sustained his soul. He also needed to carry out his mission of purification. Sometimes, though, he lost track of what mattered more: his mission or his need. In those moments, he felt a little confused, but eventually he righted himself.

  A cautious part of his mind warned him to wait a little longer, to make sure his plan would work. Soon that voice would give way to the compulsion that filled him, making the whole world seem luminescent, especially the chosen one.

  But for now he suppressed the need. He wasn’t stupid. In fact, he was quite smart, as proved by
the fact that no one had come for him yet. He knew he was committing crimes. He just didn’t care. His mission was bigger and more important than mere mortal laws.

  He was himself chosen, just like a spider, to be exactly what he was.

  Chosen. He liked that word. It fit both him and his boys. They were all chosen to perform the dance of death together, to reach the ultimate purity. To sacrifice the ordinary for the extraordinary.

  So he quashed his growing need to act and focused his attention on another part of his life. He had a job now, on the crisis hotline. Calvin had worked at them before, which had gotten him a job almost the instant he walked in the door. Five evenings a week for four hours he answered telephones and talked with distressed people: victims of rape, of domestic abuse, and the ones who interested him the most, the desperate boys.

  He was whistling now as he walked back down the mountain to his truck. A spiderweb was beginning to take shape in his mind, one for his barn loft that no one would see, ever. It was enough that he could admire it and savor the gifts there. That he could bask in the purity of his successful missions.

  The impulse to hunt eased, and soon he was in control again. He liked control. He liked controlling himself and others, even as he fulfilled his purpose. Self-control was everything, as his mother had often reminded him.

  Like the spider, he was not hasty to act. It would have to be the right person at the right time, and the time was not yet right. The right times were coming to him more often now as he grew in strength.

  But first he had to build his web.

  Chapter 1

  In January beneath a leaden sky, special agents Cade Bankston and DeeJay Dawkins rocketed down an empty state highway toward the town of Conard City, Wyoming. They had been summoned to find a serial killer.

  Cade had been to Conard City a few times years ago, very briefly, and had found it unremarkable but pleasant. DeeJay had never seen it. Given her background, he wondered how she would react. But then he couldn’t figure out what the hell a woman with her past was doing working as a criminal investigator for the state of Wyoming. As a former military cop for an elite MP unit, she should have had her pick of jobs.

  Maybe it was that prickly nature of hers that caused her problems. Certainly they’d had a few near-fights over the past three days, and they’d only just been made partners. If there was something, imagined or real, for DeeJay to object to, then she seemed to find it.

  The red car they were driving was kind of sporty for the country, but that was the idea. To look like outsiders rather than insiders. To act as cover for a couple of investigators pretending to be married travel writers.

  That “married” was still the biggest bone of contention between them. Not that it had been their decision. Nope. None of this had been their decision, and if they could just wrap their heads around that part, maybe the spats would ease up.

  He kept his attention on the road. Snow blanketed the open spaces around them, although it was still a thin blanket. Plenty of brush stuck up through it, and tumbleweeds tossed like agitated prisoners against the barbed wire that had snared them. If there was life out here that was mobile, it had found somewhere to hide. Even the ranch houses were invisible from the road, although occasionally a sign pointed the way or smoke from a woodstove signaled in the distance.

  He glanced at his companion. Well, okay, partner. He’d never wanted another female partner again, but that was a subject he wasn’t about to explore again, now or later. He just didn’t like it and didn’t want it, had learned it contained huge pitfalls. Now here he was with a woman stapled to his side for the duration.

  She’d have been pretty enough if he hadn’t already discovered she was a prickly pear cactus with enough sharp spines to leave a man in ribbons. Inky black hair, high, wide cheekbones that bespoke some Native American ancestry, a straight nose that was just right for her face and a mouth that, damn it, looked like it was begging for a kiss. Even when it was compressed in disapproval, which it often was as far as he could tell. And that inventory didn’t even get to her figure, a great figure for someone who was in the peak of physical conditioning, which she clearly was. He liked women who were fit.

  He clapped his eyes back on the empty road and schooled his thoughts to a safer area. The woman in the passenger seat was off-limits, no caveats, no exceptions. And she was probably still stewing because he was driving.

  That had been their first disagreement of the day. Just the opening salvo. The next battle had ensued over the choice of radio station. He liked country music while he was driving. Turned out she liked NPR. Now why would that surprise him? Thing was, when he was driving he preferred to escape into fantasies about losing the woman, the truck and the dog rather than listen to real-world discussions that usually riled him up because he mostly didn’t like the way the world was going these days.

  So no radio at all. Some compromise.

  Then there had been the disagreement about where to get coffee. Crap, that beat it all to hell. She wanted the expensive place; he’d have been happy with any roadside diner. So he took her to the chain coffee shop and then she’d ordered ordinary coffee. Not a fancy drink, just a gigantic cup of black and strong. Same as him. So why the argument?

  He hoped they found this serial killer soon, preferably before one of them killed the other in a shoot-out at high noon.

  “I need to eat,” she announced. Her first words in 250 miles.

  Not we need to eat. No, just announcing her own wishes. Of course, maybe she was used to that. He’d heard she’d been an officer, kind of way up there or something. Maybe she said jump and was used to having everyone do it. Well, he wasn’t used to jumping and wasn’t about to begin.

  “You see a place to stop?” he asked mildly enough. Not exactly a courteous response on his part, and even he knew it. But he figured if he gave DeeJay Dawkins an inch, she’d take a country mile.

  “Next place,” she replied.

  “Greasy spoons from here on out.” He hoped she’d object to that. After all, she was the type who went to specialty coffee shops to get ordinary coffee. Next he’d be hearing about organic food restaurants and how she lived on fresh salads.

  She shocked him by saying, “Fine.”

  Man, the conversation in this car was a real crowd-pleaser. The thought of having to share a house with her until they finished this investigation made him want to change jobs. Except he mostly liked his job, so he wasn’t going to let anyone, especially her, make him throw it away.

  Focus on the job, he reminded himself. Not the partner. They were after a serial killer, or at least the local sheriff thought so. One who was taking adolescent boys. No bodies yet, but apparently it had happened a few years ago, too, then abruptly stopped. They didn’t find the evidence until later. Much later. Now the sheriff feared it was starting again.

  Not unusual. Some serial killers were fairly smart. They often changed locales and evaded the law until they died. Or they went to prison for a while for some unrelated crime and their trail went cold. If the sheriff was right, they couldn’t hope for a stupid killer this time, because that would be a really idiotic assumption on their part.

  It had happened before; now it was happening again, and half a decade was a long time for a copycat to suddenly show up. Ergo, it had to be the same creep.

  Around a tight bend in the road, settled into a hollow almost out of sight, he spied a roadhouse. One of those places that somehow hung on in the middle of nowhere, serving people who lived too far from a town to want to make a lengthy trip for a drink, some socializing and a lousy sandwich or overcooked burger.

  Without a word, he flipped on the turn signal and nosed them in. Only a couple of dusty pickups sat in the gravel lot, but the open sign blinked red neon at them. Rusty, ancient-looking signs announced beer, food and cigarettes. Sort of an outdated convenience store
, except there’d be a bar. There was always a bar. He just hoped the place didn’t house any trouble right now. He and DeeJay, dressed in brand-new Western clothing and boots to fit their assumed roles, might as well be wearing neon signs of their own: dude alert.

  He climbed out and waited. DeeJay followed a moment later. He’d already learned not to open a car door for her, even though they were supposed to look married. He hadn’t fought that one much, though, except to annoy her.

  She came to the head of the car, and he watched her size up the place with experienced eyes. Then she glanced at him, and her dark gaze seemed to say, We can handle them.

  Yeah, they could. If it became necessary and it probably wouldn’t. He wondered how many times in her career as an MP she’d had to walk into places like these, probably a hell of a lot more crowded with drunks. Maybe not much, if she’d been an officer. How the hell would he know? She wasn’t talking, and he was damned if he would ask.

  When they reached the battered door, at least she didn’t argue about him opening it. He was on the left. He’d have let anyone on the left open it given the way it swung. He walked in behind her and took it all in, familiar from countless places in the past. Wood everywhere, darkened, stained and scratched by the years. A long bar, also scratched and stained, stools that had needed to be replaced forty years ago, the stench of stale alcohol, tobacco, sweat and other things he didn’t care to pick out. No scouring in the world would get rid of those odors now.

  The jukebox was wailing some bluegrass, the bartender, maybe owner, looked like a leftover from gold-rush days. A number of old men gathered at a corner table, watching them suspiciously.

  DeeJay took one look around, then strode up to the bar as if she owned the place. Cade stayed by the door. The Native ancestry stamped on her face could still cause problems in some parts. He waited to see how she’d be received.

  “Coffee,” she said to the bartender, “and a menu. Please.”

  The gray-bearded man hesitated only a moment, his old pale eyes darting to Cade, then he grabbed a ceramic cup from the stack on the counter and filled it from what looked like a fresh pot. He carried it to DeeJay, then slapped down a plastic-covered menu that was probably sticky. Weren’t they always?

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