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Excerpt - Dead Ringer by Sharon Dunn

Dead Ringer
Sharon Dunn

Facts about the Mountain Springs Serial Killer:

* He targets women with long dark hair and blue eyes.

* He finds his victims through an online dating service.

* He's about to strike again.

When a distress call sends Detective Eli Hawkins to Lucy Kimbol, he senses danger straightaway. With her long dark hair and beautiful blue eyes, Lucy's a dead ringer for the local killer's other victims. And she is a member of the online dating service the killer frequents. But with her painful past, Lucy is reluctant to believe Eli's warnings. Winning her trust is the only way to keep her safe…if Eli is not already too late.

Excerpt of chapter one:

Someone was in the house.

Lucy Kimbol pushed her chair back from her work-table. The noise had come from downstairs.

Tuning in the sounds around her, she held her breath. Outside, the rain tapped the roof in a muffled whisper. The view through the window was black. A fan whirred about four feet from her. She leaned forward in her chair. Downstairs, it was silent.

Yet her skin tingled. Her stomach clenched. The same physical responses she had when she was camping and a wild animal was close. Even if she couldn't see or hear the animal, she could sense it. And now she sensed…something in her house. She released a slow stream of air and remained as still as possible.

A sudden thud from downstairs caused her to jump up from her chair and dart to the edge of her loft. She gripped the wooden railing, scanning the living room and kitchen below. No sign of movement. She had definitely heard something this time, though. Her heart rate accelerated as adrenaline shot through her muscles.

Her house was not that big; most of it was visible from the loft. That meant something or someone had to be downstairs in her bedroom.

Lucy tiptoed down the spiral staircase and crept toward the bedroom door. Another sound, like the brush of a broom or gust of wind came from within the bedroom. She froze. Her hands curled into fists. She locked her knees.

Maybe she should just call the police. No, the last thing she wanted to do was talk to anyone on the Mountain Springs police force. Past experience told her that the police did more harm than good. She could handle this herself.

She took a step forward; her bare feet brushed across polished wood. Her hand grazed the bedroom door. No light penetrated the slit between door and frame.

This could be nothing. A raccoon had probably snuck in through the open window again.

After a deep breath, she pushed hard on the door, burst into the room and flipped on the light in one smooth movement. Something was crawling out of the window, but it wasn't a wild animal.

"Hey, what are you doing?" Her words came out in a staccato burst, like gunfire.

The man in a hoodie slipped through the window and disappeared. Lucy raced to the window. Sheets of rain made the glowing circle of a flashlight murky as it bobbed across the field. He was headed toward the forest and beyond that the road. A quick survey of the room revealed open drawers and boxes pulled out of the closet. Lucy put a palm on her hammering heart. The man had been holding something as he'd escaped. She'd been robbed!

Outrage fueled by adrenaline caused her to dash out of the bedroom and into the kitchen. She yanked open the back door, covering the length of the porch in two huge steps. Focused on the light, her bare feet pounded across hard dirt and rocks. Rain soaked through her shirt and yoga pants before the pain in her feet registered.

She stopped, gasping for air. What had she been thinking? Even if she caught the thief, she couldn't subdue him. Anger over the theft had pushed her off the porch, but rationality made her quit the pursuit.

Along the edge of the forest, the bobbing light became a distant pinhole before winking out altogether.

Lucy bent over, resting her palms on her knees. Rain slashed against her skin and dripped from her long hair.

Now she was going to have to call the police whether she liked it or not. Her hand was shaking when she picked up the phone. Would this time be different from every other time she had gone to the police for help? As she changed out of her wet clothing, a sense of dread filled her. She doubted that the police would be able to find the thief, if they would even make the effort.

Detective Eli Hawkins saw only a partial view of the woman who had called in a robbery, but he liked what he saw—mainly long dark hair and a slender build. She had opened the door but left the chain lock on. Even with such a narrow view of her, heat flashed across his face. Very attractive.

"Ma'am, did you report a robbery? I'm Officer Eli Hawkins."

She lifted her chin. "I know all the cops on the force. You don't look familiar."

"I'm new." He'd only been in town for six hours.

Now he wondered why all the other officers had been so eager to send him out on a call right away. None of the Mountain Springs officers had said anything directly, but the implication was that no one wanted to handle a call from Lucy Kimbol. Maybe she was one of those people who constantly called the police.

She rubbed her shirt collar. "Can I see your badge?"

Her voice had a soft melodic quality that quickened his heartbeat. He pulled his ID from his back pocket and held it up so she could look at it.

Her blue eyes narrowed. "Spokane police?"

"I'm a transfer." She didn't need to know that he was a temporary transfer for a special investigation, which had to remain under the radar. Four years ago, he had put a serial killer behind bars in Spokane. The conviction had made him the serial killer expert in the Northwest. And Mountain Springs needed that expertise.

She undid the chain lock and opened the door. "I tried to catch him myself, but he got away."

That explained her wet hair. The jeans and white shirt were dry. She must have changed after she'd called in the robbery. The lack of makeup made her pale skin seem almost translucent and her blue eyes even more noticeable. A pile of crime-scene photos flashed through his head. Lucy had the same features, dark hair and blue eyes, as the five known victims of the serial killer. Could she be a potential target for the killer? Would keeping tabs on her lead him to the murderer?

"You should leave catching thieves to the police." Part of keeping the investigation under wraps involved him playing the small-town cop. Answering this robbery call might win points with the local police department, too, and go a long way toward them learning to work as team.

"Calling the police is always a last resort for me."

He picked up on just a tinge of bitterness in her voice. Something must have transpired between Lucy and the Mountain Springs police. "Why is that?"

The question seemed to stun her. Emotion flashed across her features before she regained composure. Was it fear or pain?

"Let's just say that it has been my experience that most cops don't always do their job," Lucy said.

He had a feeling there was way more to the story, but now was not the time to dredge it up. He'd just have to tread lightly and go by the book. Whatever her beef was, maybe being professional would be enough to convince her that all cops were not the same.

"If I'd had shoes on, I might have been able to catch him." She raised a scratched, bare foot.

"Pretty impressive." That blew his first theory of why no officer wanted to come out here. Any woman who would run after an intruder was not the type to be calling the police all the time.

"Actually, I had a moment of lucidity and realized I wouldn't know what to do once I caught the guy." She forced a laugh.

He detected the strain of fear beneath the laughter. "Why don't you tell me what happened? You think it was a man?"

"He had a man's build. I couldn't see his face." She spoke in a firm, even tone. Only the trembling of her hands as she brushed her forehead gave away that the break-in had rattled her. "I…I was upstairs tying flies." She tilted her head toward a loft. "I teach fly fishing. I'm a river guide."

Eli knew enough not to interrupt. People usually had to back up and talk about safe things before they were able to deal with the actual crime.

Her lips pressed together. She stared at the ceiling.

He glanced around the living room, which consisted of rough pine furniture and a leather couch and matching chair. "Would you like to sit down, Mrs. Kimbol?"

"Miss, it's Miss Kimbol." She looked directly at him. "And no, thank you, I can stand."

Her voice held a little jab of aggression toward him. Her demeanor communicated that she did not trust him. It wasn't personal. He'd seen it before with people who had had a bad experience with the police. Best to back the conversation up. "I hear fly fishing is big in this part of Wyoming."

"It brings in a lot of tourists." The stiffness faded from her posture. "I know I love it."

He spoke gently. "Can you tell me what was stolen?"

She stared at him for moment as though she didn't comprehend the question. "I didn't think to look." She shook her head. "My dresser drawers were all open. He went through my closet." Her speech became rapid and clipped. "He was holding something…like a bag or pillowcase." Her hand fluttered to her mouth as her eyes rimmed with tears.

That she had managed to hold it together as long as she had impressed him. She was a strong woman. The sense of violation from a robbery usually rose to the surface slowly, not like with an assault or violent crime, when the victim acted immediately. All the same, a home invasion was still enough to upset anyone.

She collapsed into a chair and let out a heavy sigh. "I guess I do need to sit." She stared at the floor, shaking her head.

He had to do something. "How about a drink of water?" As he skirted around the back of the chair, he reached a hand out to touch her shoulder but pulled back. He desperately wanted to comfort her, but he wasn't about to feed into her ill feelings toward police. She might misinterpret his motives.

Water would have to do. Eli walked into the kitchen, found a glass and flipped on the faucet. When he glanced at her through the pass-through, she was slumped over, resting her elbows on her knees, her hair falling over her face.

Eli walked back into the living room and sat on the couch opposite her. He placed the glass of water on the coffee table between them. No need to push her. She'd start talking when she was ready.

Lucy took a sip of water and nodded a thank-you. He noticed the coffee table when she set the glass back down. Underneath the glass was a three-dimensional wooden underwater scene. Trout swam through the wooden stream complete with carved plant life.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" She touched the Plexiglas. "My brother made it. He used to fish quite a bit. He was going to help me with the guide business." A twinge of pain threaded through her words. She crossed her arms over her body and leaned forward. "I'm not sure what was stolen. I suppose I should check the bedroom."

A department as small as Mountain Springs probably didn't have a forensics unit. He could call in for instructions, but he suspected there was a processing kit in the car, and that he would be the one doing the processing. "I need to go over the crime scene first."

The glazing over her eyes cleared. "But it must be one o'clock in the morning."

"Your house is a duplex. Is there someone next door you could stay with?"

"It's for rent. I've been running an ad, but so far, no response." She lifted her head, regaining her composure.

On his drive here, he had noticed that the houses were pretty far apart. The subdivision was on the outskirts of town. He had seen signs that indicated directions to a lake and hiking trails. Given the state she was in, it wouldn't be good for her to be alone tonight. "Is there a friend you can call?"

"Nobody I want to wake up at one in the morning." Her gaze rested on him for a moment, long enough to make him wiggle in his chair. "I appreciate your concern about me, but I can take care of myself."

Lucy Kimbol had an independent streak a mile long. "Suit yourself. I do need to process the scene." It wouldn't take any time at all to gather evidence from the crime scene, but he could stretch it out. Even though she would never admit it, he saw that she was on edge emotionally. Since he couldn't talk her into calling a friend, he'd feel better leaving her alone once she'd stabilized. "I'll get my kit out of the car." He stood up and looked at Lucy again. A chill ran down his spine. Lucy looked so much like the other victims. He had more than one reason for stretching out his time. "If you don't mind, I'll check the perimeter of your house while I'm out there. Sometimes thieves come back or maybe he dropped something."

Illumination from the porch light spilled over Lucy's backyard as Detective Hawkins circled around her house. Lucy stood at the kitchen window, gripping the glass of water he had gotten for her. She shook her head. He wasn't going to catch anyone. He was doing this to make her feel safer. The gesture touched her.

She had breathed a sigh of relief when she'd seen this stranger at her door. It had been an answer to prayer that he was compassionate and not part of the Mountain Springs Police Department she knew. Maybe he would actually catch the thief.

Her emotional meltdown had surprised her. She did not think of herself as someone who needed a fainting couch. She took a sip of the water and set the glass on the counter.

Outside, Detective Hawkins stepped away from the house and out of the light, where all she could discern was his silhouette. He wasn't a muscular man—more lean and tall. Probably the kind of officer who used persuasion and intelligence instead of brawn. He ambled back into the light and she caught a flash of his brown hair and a focused look on his face, a handsome face at that.

Even though he'd said he needed to process the scene first, she wanted to know what had been taken. She shrank back from the window and headed toward the bedroom. The door creaked when she pushed it open. She scanned the room. Why was her heart racing? The thief was gone. All she had to do was figure out what had been stolen. This shouldn't be that hard.

She knew enough about police work to not touch anything. She could go through the drawers and closet later to see if anything was missing. A glance at two empty hooks on the wall caused a jab to her heart. Her favorite and most expensive fly fishing rod, broken down and stored in a case, had been taken.

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