Harper bent down to examine the box. It was old and rusted, or at least it appeared that way. Looking closer, she saw that the rust was mostly on the surface. Superficial. Whoever had left the box in the woods hadn’t left it there for long.
And she knew it was planted because this was the fifth box she’d found so far, all scattered around the woods and just waiting for someone curious enough to open them up and discover the secrets inside.
Namely, secrets about a particular murder that took place in a small town years and years ago. A murder she happened to be intimately involved in.
She had to admit that part of her had been skeptical when Wade had claimed someone was trying to bring up the past, but she couldn’t deny it now. Someone really was trying to make sure Wade went down for the death of his father. Of course, Harper knew that nobody should go down for the death of that man. If anything, he deserved every bit of torture he was getting down in hell.
Unfortunately, a judge probably wouldn’t see it that way.
She tucked the box under her arm and looked at her watch. Just past seven o’clock. Sunset wouldn’t be far behind. She could look in the woods again tomorrow. For tonight, she’d have to call it.
Harper made her way out of the woods to where she had parked her motorcycle. After the long ride here from New York City, the bike could use a good washing, but she hadn’t had a chance. As soon as she’d gotten into town, she had to help Wade and his new girlfriend with their little problem of his crazy ex-girlfriend. The one who had gotten involved with some crazy actor with a massive gambling debt and then tried to force Wade to pay off those debts.
Harper still wasn’t convinced that Wade’s psycho ex wasn’t the one who’d been planting all these little mystery boxes around, but Wade insisted that she had never known anything about his past with his father.
Which left the list of suspects rather small. The only people who had been involved in the cover-up were Wade, Shane, her, and then eventually Wade’s sister, Sarah, had been told.
Of course, Leo had known.
But no one on that list actually had a reason to want to frame Wade. After all, if Wade went down, all of them could possibly end up serving jail time. Accessory to murder after the fact was still a crime. Leo was the only one of that group who had any problems with Wade, but.... Harper shook her head to clear her mind. She didn’t want to think about it.
Harper opened one of the storage bags on the back of the bike. Because she had packed all of her belongings in these bags, there was very little space, but she managed to fit the box—just barely. After that, she zipped up her summer riding jacket, pulled on her helmet, and then secured her riding gloves. She wasn’t going to be able to figure out any of this tonight, and she definitely wouldn’t do it on an empty stomach. She didn’t want her family to know she was in town, so the best option for food was the Town Pub.
It might sound cute and quaint, but it was basically a biker bar that was trying to get a better reputation. A few of the younger families in town were happy enough to have lunch and early dinner there, but the evenings were occupied by a rowdier crowd.
The new owner, Jacob, was trying his best to get rid of that image, and she bet that in a few years he would succeed. But the past had a way of sticking around, even when you scrubbed at it with the best soap money could buy.
Luckily, she’d grown pretty used to a little bit of dirt in her life.
She threw a leg over the sports bike and leaned forward as she started the engine.
Every fiber in her wanted to go fast. Fast enough to take her away from this place and all the memories that were held within. But she willed her self-control to be front and center. If the road was empty enough, normally she wasn’t opposed to speeding, but these weren’t just any roads. This was Birdsville, Ohio. The place she’d been born and raised and first began reckoning with her rebellious streak. She was going to guess that the local police station still had a warning picture of her up in the main building. If they thought they could give her a speeding ticket, they would in a heartbeat. She was sure she’d cost them thousands of dollars during her hell-raising days.
So she kept it slow and steady as she wound through the back roads and then suburbs and then the main road that led to downtown. She kept her eyes on the concrete in front of her, not letting herself be distracted by the memories flashing by either side of her. Soon enough she was rolling into the Town Pub. There were a few bikes parked out front, a sign of the night getting underway.
She left her helmet on the seat, confident that no one would be stupid enough to try to steal from someone here. Then she gave her storage bag one strong tug to make sure it was locked. That box she found was more valuable than the helmet. Once she was satisfied everything was good, she headed into the bar. The friendly hostess, a girl who didn’t look any older than seventeen, smiled in the sweet, vacant way that let Harper know she wasn’t recognized.
She was usually able to slip around unnoticed. It was a small town, but she’d never been as famous as Wade Maxium or his sister, Sarah. Sure, when she forced the school to allow her on the football team when she was fifteen years old, she got her fair bit of time in the local papers, but that was almost twenty years ago now. People had moved on with their lives, and she left as soon as she could to get away from all of this. To wash the blood off her hands.
It would’ve worked a lot better if she hadn’t gone and replaced it with more.
She was able to get a table in the back corner, and as soon as the waiter came to ask for her drink order, she asked for a water and a basic cheeseburger. She wasn’t here for a good time or to enjoy the atmosphere. She just wanted a burger that would keep her full enough to make it to the next town to get a hotel. She didn’t even want to sleep here for the night.
She was well aware how unhealthy her feelings were about this place. For the most part, her childhood had been great. Especially compared to what some of her friends had to go through. But that last year here had been like a stain that she hadn’t been able to wash off. Maybe someday she’d be a healthy, functioning adult who could handle her past, but today wasn’t that day.
She heard someone approaching, and her mouth started to water. She hadn’t realized how thirsty she was. She was about to look up and reach out for her water, but it wasn’t her waiter standing at the edge of the table.
“How you doing?” said the man in front of her.
“Not interested,” she said dryly.
“All right,” said the man as he had the audacity to sit down in the booth across from her. “What exactly aren’t you interested in?”
She rolled her eyes. She really didn’t have time for this. Well, she supposed she had no plans for the night so time wasn’t a factor. But she was definitely short on patience. She took a deep breath and looked across the table, right to the man’s dark-brown eyes. “Look, I get it. You’re attractive.” He raised his eyebrows in surprise, but she didn’t give him a chance to speak. “You won the genetic lottery, didn’t you? What are you, six foot two? You’ve got a good full head of hair, shoulders like you hit the gym more than most ever have time to. I’m sure that a large percentage of the time when you start hitting on a woman, she’s more than ready to powder her crotch and bat her eyelashes for you, but I’ve had a long day and I’m not in the mood. So please trust me when I say I’m not interested.”
He tilted his head. “Well, that’s pretty presumptuous of you. What if I just wanted to sit down and have a friendly chat?”
She shook her head. “You don’t get to bullshit me. Not today, not in the time of the #MeToo era. You’re not just walking up to some woman alone in a bar, looking for friendship. There are two reasons why you’d be at this table. One is if someone is trying to sue me and you’re some super-secret process server ready to give me papers, or you’re trying to get into my pants. No other options. No in-between. Now look me in the eye and tell me that I’m wrong.”
The man leaned forward on his elbows and took her up on her offer, staring deeply into her eyes so long that she was tempted to look away. “You’re wrong,” he whispered. The hint of a smile tugged at his lips.
Harper looked away first, cursing herself as she did. She had done so well up until that moment. “All right, I’ll bite. Why are you here then?”
“Your friend Wade hired me. I’ve been looking for you all day.”
She blinked a few times in shock. His words were both possible and impossible at the same time. “Wade wouldn’t hire anybody to deal with this.” He couldn’t have. This was so personal. How could he trust anybody else with the information? She narrowed her eyes and studied him carefully. “You’re lying.”
“What reason do I have to lie to you?”
“Well, you’re male and you’re breathing. For all I know, this is still all some ploy to get into my pants.”
He let out a little whistle. “You have a really high opinion of yourself, don’t you?”
Harper was quiet. If only this stranger knew the truth. “Or a low opinion of you.”
“Hey, I don’t have to lie to get a woman interested in me.” He reached into his pocket and dropped his cell phone on the table. “Go ahead and scroll through the list of girls messaging me on the daily.”
She raised an eyebrow at the gesture. “My opinion just got lower. You’re not even smart enough to add a pass code to your phone.”
He gave her a terse smile. “You’re a fun one, aren’t you?”
“No. I can honestly say that I’m not considered fun.”
His eyes scanned her up and down, and she didn’t even want to consider the thoughts going through his head. “Shame.”
Her shoulders tensed. “All right, assuming you’re telling the truth and Wade did send you”—which she still didn’t believe for a second—“I’m officially letting you go from the investigation.”
“While that’s adorable, you don’t have the authority to do that.”
“And yet I’m doing it anyway. There’s a lesson about authority for you. You can’t just wait until somebody gives it to you. Sometimes you have to take it.”
A muscle in his jaw ticked, and she could tell he was just itching to have a chance to prove exactly how much authority he had. “All right, I get it,” he said tersely. “You’re threatened by me coming into your territory, messing around with your job. But I am a professional, and I can help you. Your buddy offered me good money for this, and I’m not going to back off that just because you recommend it. What’s it gonna take for you to let me help you on this?”
“Do you know who I am?”
“Is that another threat?”
“Not at all. It’s a little question. You asked what it would take for me to allow you to help on this. Well, if you can come back here and tell me about my own back story, I’ll let you help.”
He frowned and studied her. “I don’t get it. What’s the catch?”
“The catch is that I spent a lot of my life trying to make sure there is no trace of me that’s left. If you can find out a few juicy details, then I’ll believe that you are actually useful for something. Until then, I don’t see it.”
He smiled, a wicked glint flickering in his eyes. “Well then, challenge accepted.”
The man raised his glass as if to toast, even though she still didn’t have anything to drink.
She just smiled at him. He was out of his mind if he thought he could find anything on her.