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Excerpt - On Deadly Ground by Lauren Nichols

On Deadly Ground
Lauren Nichols

Danger in the darkness

The prowler on the construction site of her new camp didn't frighten Rachel Patterson…at first. Fear comes when her home is torched—and worsens when a body is unearthed on the campgrounds. Someone's trying to cover up a murder, and if Rachel can identify the intruder, she might be the only witness. Her neighbor, Wildlife Conservation Officer Jake Campbell, is determined to keep the lovely widow safe. But when a misunderstanding separates the pair, their distance risks more than the growing feelings between them. It leaves Rachel alone and unguarded, which could be just the chance the killer needs…

Excerpt of chapter one:

Sighing, Rachel Patterson squinted at the clock on her nightstand, saw that it was only 2:00 a.m., then groaned, flipped over and burrowed groggily into her pillow again. Outside, the coyotes were up to their old tricks, howling and yipping at the moon, even though there was barely a moon to yip at. She flipped onto her back again and stared in frustration at the ceiling. Wondered if going totally decaf was the solution to her constantly interrupted sleep.

She'd been a light sleeper since David died, and it had been two years now. Two years of listening to the wind in the trees and the coyotes on the hill. Two years of making dinner for one.

Two years of running their campground business on her own.

She felt the emptiness of missing him again. Losing him had been so terrible at first. If it hadn't been for her faith in God and the comfort she found in prayer, she might have packed her bags and joined her family in Virginia. But the business had been David's dream, and he'd awakened every morning, eager to embrace it again. She couldn't walk away from something that had been so important to him.

A strange, metallic sound broke her thoughts, and Rachel stilled. Cocked an ear…listened for a moment.

There it was again. And again.

Throwing back her floral comforter, she strode to the long window facing the strip of land she'd recently acquired. The skimpy moon and woods were swimming in fog making it difficult to see, but—

A jolt of adrenaline hit her as Rachel spotted the moving beam of a flashlight in the misty darkness. Someone was out there! And so was the expensive ground-moving machinery the Decker brothers had parked there late yesterday afternoon.

Grabbing her robe from the foot of the bed and pulling it over her dorm shirt, she hurried across the hardwood to the hall, then through the living room to her kitchen. The light below the over-the-range microwave shone dimly, but it was enough illumination to locate the heavy-duty flashlight under the sink. Snagging it, she unlocked the patio door to her elevated deck and strode, barefooted, to the redwood railing.

The intruder's light went out.

Rachel shone her beam down through the darkness and fog—flicked it over tree limbs that were almost fully leafed—found the mist-shrouded bulldozer, rock crusher and dump truck fifty yards away.

A new rush of adrenaline hit her when the beam revealed a hooded figure crouched near the dump truck. "Hey!" she shouted. "What are you doing out there?"

The figure bolted—clicked his light back on and crashed down through the thick hemlocks and oaks toward the creek below. But not before Rachel caught another glimpse of him.

Rushing inside, she flipped through the phone book, found the number for Charity, Pennsylvania's tiny police force and punched it in. Chirpy night dispatcher and church organist, Emma Lucille Bridger, answered. Rachel and Emma Lu were kindred spirits of sorts. They were both avid readers and borderline insomniacs. Even though it was common knowledge that the sixty-seven-year-old dispatcher napped during her shift, no one on the force minded. Her only job was to answer the phone.

"Emma Lu, it's Rachel Patterson at the campground. I'm trying not to be an alarmist, but someone's prowling around outside my house."

Emma Lucille's sweet soprano rose, and her grandmotherly instincts kicked in. "Are you okay, Rachel?"

"Yes, I'm fine. I'm just worried about— Emma Lu, Decker Construction parked some equipment here yesterday. I'm afraid it might have been vandalized."

Emma Lu spoke quickly. "Okay, honey, I'll radio Fish and tell him to get down to your place right away. He's on patrol, so it might take him a few minutes. You sit tight now. Don't you go outside."

"I won't," Rachel agreed, meaning it. She'd already done that, and going outside to check on someone who obviously didn't want to be seen wasn't the smartest thing she'd ever done. "Thanks, Emma Lu."

"You're welcome. Just stay safe."

She'd just finished pulling on jeans, sneakers and a navy sweatshirt, when she heard the not-too-distant rumble of a vehicle. Her pulse picked up speed. It was after 2:00 a.m., and her campground was five miles from Charity. It was too soon for Patrolman Larry "Fish" Troutman's arrival.

Striding to the window facing her driveway, Rachel cupped her hands against the glass. Headlights poked through the blanket of fog, then followed the winding lane past her camp store and tourist cabins. From Memorial Day weekend through Pennsylvania's deer hunting season, light poles lit the way, but the holiday was still almost three weeks off—and the breaker for the lights was in the camp store.

The motion lights at the corners of her wood-sided ranch house clicked on. And Rachel's anxiety dissolved when a green truck with a Pennsylvania Game Commission emblem on the door swung in beside her red Explorer and parked.

Startled to see him at this hour, but unable to stop the happy quickening of her pulse, Rachel tossed her fingertips through her straight sable bangs and shaggy cap cut—then went stone-still with guilt. Guilt and another emotion it shamed her to acknowledge.

Gathering her composure, she stepped outside to greet her unexpected visitor.

The early-May temperatures had been cool until yesterday when they reached the low seventies. Now, according to the round outdoor thermometer wired to the deck railing, it had dipped twenty degrees. A faint breeze ruffled the trees, carrying with it the fog-damp fragrances of earth, pine and fallen leaves.

"Jake?" she said when he'd exited his vehicle. "What are you doing here?"

He kept his voice low, but she could hear the concern in it. "I was driving back from a callout when your call came over the radio. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," she returned, warmed by his concern despite her feelings of disloyalty. "Just a little on edge."

Wildlife conservation officer Jake Campbell started up the flight of six steps, his dark brown hair attractively mussed. For a big man, he had a loose, confident way of moving and chiseled good looks that were a little grim until he smiled. He had good eyes, too, Rachel thought. Perceptive brown eyes that missed nothing. The dark green uniform jacket hanging open over his black T-shirt and jeans nearly concealed the sidearm on his hip.

"So what happened here tonight?" he asked when he'd reached her. "The dispatcher said something about a prowler and vandalism."

She nodded. "The prowler part's correct. Vandalism's only a possibility right now." She backtracked to bring him up to speed. "When we spoke last, I think I mentioned putting in a mini golf course on the strip of land I acquired a few months ago. A little putt-putt for the kids."

"Yeah, you did."

She indicated the foggy clearing beyond the trees. "Yesterday, Tim Decker dropped off his equipment because he'll be leveling the land in the morning. He said it would be fine sitting there. Then a few minutes ago, I heard noises and went outside. Someone with a flashlight was messing around near Tim's truck." She paused. "When I yelled, he took off into the woods."

Jake's features lined and he sighed. "Rachel, you're alone here. You should have stayed inside and called the police immediately."

"I know. I thought of that after the fact." But the past two years had forced her to become independent—and part of her liked it. "If David had been here, he would have handled it. But he isn't, so it's my job."

Jake didn't comment, but the troubled look in his eyes sent a clear message: He didn't like that it was her job. "Did you get a good look at him?"

"Not really, considering the fog. But I know he was white, and he was wearing a dark hooded jacket with a light-colored emblem on the back of it." She stilled as her mind recreated that split-second happening, then spoke hesitantly. "He was carrying something. Something light-colored that flapped when he ran. A bag, maybe."

"If it was a bag, that says he expected to carry something away. Do you know if Decker left tools or anything portable behind? "

"I'm not sure. I hope not."

Another set of headlights pierced the darkness and fog. This time, the vehicle was a black-and-white police cruiser, and the patrolman who got out was a tall, lanky young man in his mid-twenties with fire-red hair and a mouth full of silver braces. Fish was the youngest member of the department, and the one with the least experience. The thud of the cruiser's door closing sounded hollow in the stillness.

"Hey, Rachel," he said solemnly as he ascended the steps. "Emma Lu said you had some uninvited company tonight. You okay?"

"Yes, I'm fine," she assured him as he reached her. "Fish, have you met Jake Campbell? Jake's—"

"The new W.C.O.," Fish said cordially, clasping the hand Jake extended. "Our paths cross from time to time. Nice to see you again, Jake."

"Same here, Fish."

"You live around here?"

Rachel nearly smiled. It was a casual inquiry, but Fish obviously wondered why Jake was here at two-thirty in the morning. The amusement in Jake's eyes told her he'd caught that unspoken question, too.

"About a mile up the road," he replied. "I was coming home from a callout when I heard your dispatcher on the radio. Thought I'd see if my neighbor needed some help."

Apparently satisfied with the answer, he smiled his approval and pulled out a notebook and pen. "Okay, Rachel, let's take it from the top. First, can you give me a description of the guy? If it was a guy."

Rachel told him everything she could remember, glad that Fish was on duty. With the Charity P.D. being small, there was a chance the new police chief would have responded. She'd only spoken to Lon Perris once since he'd pinned on the badge—the night of his welcoming dinner sponsored by the chamber of commerce. But she hadn't come away from that conversation feeling warm and fuzzy. Chief Perris was… She searched for a word Reverend Landers would approve of. "Condescending" was the best she could do.

When she'd finished detailing what had happened, Fish made a final note, then tucked his pen and pad away. "Okay, I'll take a look at the site and drive around the loops before I leave—make sure this guy isn't coming back for a vehicle. You're pretty far off the beaten path, so I doubt he got here on foot." He chewed his lip. "You didn't hear any engine sounds before Jake got here, right?"


"Jake? See any vehicles on the road tonight?" Jake wandered closer, his boots quiet on the plank floor. And Rachel felt another stir of attraction as she looked up at him. "No, and I was watching for them. But I came in from the other direction, not from town. Since the guy cut through the woods, he might have parked on one of the logging roads."

"Yeah, he probably did." Fish pulled a flashlight from a loop on his belt, then shone it in a wide arc over the construction site and campground. "Could have been a kid looking to siphon gas or steal tools. It's a little early in the season for that stuff, but it happens."

He tucked the light away and turned back to Rachel. "Like I said, I'll check out the sites and loops, but it's kind of hard to see now. I'll be back in the morning for a better look, okay?"

"That'd be great," she returned. "Thanks for coming. I know I should have told Emma to hold off sending you down here until daybreak, but I wanted to report the incident right away in case there are damages."

"No problem," he said, heading for the steps. He stopped then and glanced back. "One more thing. That logo or whatever it was on the back of the jacket? Can you describe it?"

Rachel hesitated. As descriptions went, it wasn't the best. "It looked like a round head with rabbit ears. That's probably not very helpful, but I only saw it for a second."

"It's a start," Fish replied. He started down the steps, his lanky body still half-turned toward her. "I'll stop back if I find anything out of the ordinary. Otherwise, I'll see you in the morning."

"Thanks, Fish."

"Yep. Night, Jake."

"Night, Fish."

And in short order, the cruiser's red taillights had

disappeared, leaving her alone with Jake again. Rachel looked up at him. She was more attuned to his presence now that they were alone, more attuned to their woodsy isolation.

"I should get moving, too," he said with some hesitance. "Will you be okay? Do you want to call someone to stay with you?"

"I'll be all right," she replied. "I'm a lot tougher than I look."

A faint smile tipped his lips. "So I've noticed. You paint, you plow snow, you run a successful business and you even make a decent cup of coffee. I'm impressed."

"Don't be," she said, smiling. "It's all smoke and mirrors."

"No, it isn't," he returned. "It's all you." Then out of the blue, the night seemed to shrink around them, his gaze softened and he looked at her in a way no man had looked at her since David. "You're an extraordinary woman, Rachel."

For a few seconds, she didn't even breathe—and she wasn't alone. Jake seemed just as stunned by his words as she was. Then he quickly rebounded and spoke again, his tone a little gruff.

"Well, I'm out of here. Maggie's probably wondering why she's still in her pen." He drew a breath. "If there's another problem, and you're not sure it's serious enough to call Fish, I'm only a phone call away."

Rachel found a smile somewhere, but her heart was still racing. "Thanks. And thank you for checking up on me."

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