Wedding cake and bombs.
Two thoughts sped through FBI agent West Brand’s mind as he jogged along the main street leading out of Red Ridge. Chocolate rum cake with vanilla frosting and swirls of delicate pink flowers. And bombs made out of materials as easy to find as cake.
The cake, he didn’t care about, but he wanted to make Quinn Colton happy. She was a real foodie and, as a caterer, weddings were her specialty. He’d be happy to eat a cake made from sprouts when they got married.
When they could risk a wedding. Red Ridge had a serial killer lurking, a psycho killing grooms right before their weddings. The MO was always the same: bullet through the heart, black cummerbund stuffed in the victim’s mouth. Several men had been murdered. And with the Groom Killer still out there, he and Quinn had decided to keep their newly engaged status quiet, along with their relationship.
For now, he had to focus on bombs. His cop instinct tingled, warning things were too damn quiet and the tension in the city was about to explode.
High-powered explosives were West’s specialty. He preferred to work alone and being on loan to the Red Ridge Police Department’s K-9 unit hadn’t changed his mind. West’s partner of choice ran on four legs.
Cool air washed over him as he ran, the darkness pierced by the green glow of his sport-utility watch. Rex, his black Labrador retriever, kept pace alongside him. West always took him on his daily jogs.
Breath fogging the air, he let his thoughts drift to the missing fifty-five-gallon drum of highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide from a chemical warehouse in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The owner had reported it missing two days ago.
Even though there had been no other bombings reported in the area, all West’s instincts had gone full red flag.
Peroxide-based explosives presented a deadlier threat than ordinary C-4, which was much harder to obtain. Unstable chemical compounds brought the risk of blowing yourself up as you mixed and packed the ingredients, and quite possibly blowing up your unsuspecting neighbors, as well. Terrorists preferred the risk because they could easily purchase the ingredients without raising eyebrows or alerting the feds. Gone were the days when materials had to be smuggled past the eyes of authorities. These days, a kid could waltz into a grocery store and make a bomb with soda pop and nail polish remover.
The bad guys made it harder to do his job and keep people safe. So he kept learning and listening and reading, because long ago, he determined no one would ever die on his watch.
Not again, like when he was seventeen...
Don’t go there. Focus. Did a daydreaming clerk misplace the drum or did someone steal it to make a bomb?
Red Ridge wasn’t the type of town that saw the same kind of terrorist bombings as big cities. He’d bet that Dean Landon, the canine explosives specialist who was out on medical leave, had seldom seen many bombings in town. He was replacing Landon until the officer recovered from an injury and then it would be back to the city for him.
Maybe. Something else he had to discuss with his future wife.
He and Rex turned a corner down a dirt road toward the boarded-up building that once served as a hardware store. The store marked his three-mile turning point. As West started past the building and prepared to turn, Rex stopped.
The dog stared at the building.
“Whoa.” He jogged in place, frowning as he squinted at the building in the inky darkness. Dim light from the nearly full moon showed ghostly shadows, thick weeds and brush, and a rotting wood storefront with a few two-by-fours hammered over the windows.
The abandoned building sat on the edge of town, a scrubby cousin to the sleeker Main Street buildings with their shiny windows, trim doors and flower boxes. It fitted in with Rusty Colton’s nearby dive bar that reeked of stale beer, tobacco and dark thoughts.
West clenched his gut. Rex had found something. Specially trained to sniff out bombs, the dog sat when he smelled suspicious odors.
Though he’d worked with Rex for three months and spent each day training with him, he still remained wary. Maybe Rex saw something interesting. Or he smelled something fascinating, like a dead rodent.
“What is it?” he asked Rex.
The dog kept staring at the building.
Could be anything. Hell, even a ghost. Sure was eerie enough on this end of town, the sad, lonely building desolate and abandoned. Maybe a homeless person decided to camp there for the night and Rex sensed that.
The watch he wore on his right wrist insisted he had to get his butt back now into town in order to leave Quinn’s place before the nosy townspeople started opening their shops. Last thing he needed was a gossip prattling on about how the FBI canine agent on loan to the RRPD was seen sneaking out of Good Eats, Quinn Colton’s catering shop.
Still sitting. Still alert.
That was it. West reached for his gun tucked into a leather holster at his side and prepared to go closer.
A flash of movement in the darkness. He tensed as something rattled inside the building.
Still, it was best to check it out. West did a quick patrol around the building, saw and heard nothing. He glanced down at Rex, who whined, his tail beating the dirt.
“A cat.” West shook his head. “All that drama for a stray feline? C’mon, buddy. You disappoint me.”
Tongue lolling out, Rex grinned at him.
They jogged back to the main road as a cool wind blew, rattling the shutters of the abandoned building.
When he reached Quinn’s apartment above her store, he let himself in with his key. West poured Rex a bowl of fresh water and grabbed a bottle from the fridge, drinking deeply. The clock on the range read 5 a.m. If he hurried and showered here, he could make it to his truck, parked discreetly down the street, and drive out of town before Quinn’s assistant showed up to open shop.
Leaving Rex in the kitchen on the pillow Quinn placed there for him, West headed into the bathroom.
Steam misted the air as he emerged minutes later, a white towel wrapped around his waist. He padded to the bedside and stared down at a slumbering Quinn.
He was one lucky bastard. After thirty years, thinking he’d remain a bachelor for the rest of his life, he’d found the woman of his dreams. Last night he’d asked her to marry him, and she’d readily accepted.
West removed a single red rose from the crystal vase by the bedside. Last night he’d given her two dozen red roses to proclaim his feelings.
It was all so new and marvelous. And uncertain and out of character. He wasn’t impulsive. All he knew was that he adored Quinn, wanted to make her happy for the rest of her life and needed her like he’d never admit to needing anyone.
Not since his entire family had been killed had he allowed himself to be this open, this intimate with another person. He’d proposed because he was getting older and so was Quinn. He couldn’t bear for her to get snatched up by another man. He’d already lost too much in life, and wanted to spend each precious moment with her.
He only wished she didn’t want children so badly. Getting married to the woman of his dreams was one thing. Having kids was another. Being responsible to protect one life—Quinn’s—yeah, he could handle that. But making sure nothing bad would ever happen to children? After what had happened to his sisters, he had quietly vowed to avoid having children and risking that kind of heartache ever again.
He sat on the bed’s edge, gazing at his new fiancée, his heart racing with anticipation. Damn, she was so pretty when she slept. Even prettier when she awakened and gave him that sexy smile filled with promise, her brown eyes smudged with sleep and hard loving. West bent over and inhaled the smell of her: apple shampoo, delicate jasmine and the musk of sex.
Life was filled with the ugliness and violence of his job. Quinn made the brutality bearable, and eased the stress he bore. Coming home to her each day was definitely something he anticipated. Quinn made him laugh, lit up his life with her cheerful smile and saucy attitude. She was an eternal optimist who didn’t let anything get her down.
Not even me.
West stroked the rose petals over her freckled cheek and she stirred. He set the rose upon the pillow next to her.
“Good morning, sleeping beauty,” he whispered as she slowly opened her eyes and smiled up at him. She ran a hand through her rumpled curls.
“You deserve a dozen fresh roses every day.” He took the flower and tapped her forehead with it. And more. Everything I could give you. I only wish I could give you the one thing we can’t have now—no more secrets.
As he replaced the rose in the vase, she sat up.
“You up to kissing speed yet?” he teased.
Quinn smiled. “Anytime with you, I am.”
She cupped his face, her fingers stroking his cheek. “You shaved off your beard.”
West rubbed his cheek against her playful caresses. “Makes it easier to get close to you, in all the right places.”
A delicate flush ignited her round cheeks at the intimate hint in his voice. “I like it. Did you have a good run?”
“What were you thinking about?” She yawned and stretched.
He admired how the motion lifted her breasts beneath the flannel T-shirt. “You.” West reached out and tugged one of her corkscrew curls. It bounced back. “And triacetone triperoxide.”
Quinn’s forehead wrinkled. “What? It sounds like something my father would take for a hangover.”
He laughed. “It’s a bomb, sweetheart. TATP. Favored by terrorists. They call it Mother of Satan because it’s so volatile to make and you risk blowing yourself up.”
“I can give you something much nicer to think about.” Her smile widened as she crooked a finger at him.
Forget the Mother of Satan. Here was pure heaven. Guilt flickered through him. Quinn didn’t know his real purpose in coming to Red Ridge—to find Demi Colton, the main suspect in the Groom Killer case, who’d fled town months ago right after being initially questioned. Or that he’d been assigned to investigate Quinn and her half brothers to see if they knew where their half sister, Demi, was hiding.
And then her mouth met his and he forgot about all else.
* * *
Food costs and sex.
Quinn Colton tried hard, and failed, to keep the smile off her face as she bounced down the stairs leading to Good Eats, her catering shop. Sex with West was always fantastic, but this morning added a special, delicious urgency to their lovemaking. Certainly the sex was better than the inventory waiting for her downstairs, along with the stacks of bills for the latest restaurant order.
Thirty years old and in love. Never thought this would happen. Certainly not a whirlwind romance and a lifelong pledge in only three weeks. But her heart knew that West was the one meant for her. They were made for each other.
It hadn’t been love at first sight. More like love at first fight, she thought as she reached the bottom of the stairs. Quinn unlocked the door—her private entrance into the shop—and then locked it behind her. The door opened to her storage area. She skirted two heavy sacks of whole-grain flour and frowned at the mess on the floor. Last week she’d reluctantly laid off Jeb Plimpton, the teenager who swept up and kept her store tidy. More things on her to-do list, when right now all she could think about was adding West to the list, permanently.
West was a muscular, intimidating guy who scowled. Except around her. From the moment the tall, black-haired man with the chocolate-brown eyes had first walked into her shop, sparks had jumped between them. In his low, gravelly voice West had told her he wanted to order a meal to go. Something resembling red meat that isn’t that green sprouts froufrou food I heard you’re known for. Fresh roadkill will suffice. Don’t take it personally, sweetheart.
Instead of sneering, West had laughed.
Her smile grew broader as she recalled that deep, grudging laugh. It had sent a tingle down her spine and a curious desire to coax more from him. She headed into the shop.
Austin Jones was already in the kitchen, lighting the gas range. Tall and wiry, he had been her best friend for ten years, ever since they met while taking cooking classes at the local college. They’d partnered in business together when she’d opened Good Eats, but Quinn remained the principal owner.
“Morning, sunshine,” he greeted her as he straightened and headed over to the counter, where a batch of fresh arugula waited. Austin began chopping and dicing, and snapped his chewing gum.
Austin patted his flat stomach. “Have to watch the waistline. This may not be dessert, but tastes as good. Apple gum. Besides, I need the wrappers.”
Right. Quinn picked up the foil swan her friend had made. “Future Christmas gift?”
As she scanned the kitchen, her smile wilted like the greens she’d had to toss yesterday. “What happened to the Bernstein order? Shouldn’t you get that ready?”
“Canceled. They called this morning and said they were headed home early.”
“There will be other summer parties.” Quinn hoped she sounded more buoyant than she felt.
Yesterday they’d had to throw out nearly a case of fruit that had spoiled. Their main business came from healthy fruit and veggie smoothies, but she couldn’t keep paying bills for long on over-the-counter items. The catering end of her business had slid into the red with the Groom Killer on the loose. The news that someone was still murdering grooms before their weddings hadn’t been good for her wedding catering business, either.
Bracing her hands on the counter, she stared at the slim list of catered orders for the week. Quinn had counted on the Bernstein order to make payroll and pay for next week’s wholesale shipment of vegetables.
“How are we going to survive like this?” Austin gave a deep sigh, putting his hand to his chest.
Quinn gave him a playful poke. “If you want dramatics, try out for summer stock. We’ll get by.”
“Such an optimist. Did you pay the rent yet?”
Although the apartment rent was due later than the store rent, Quinn got a discount paying both all at once. “I will.”
If necessary, she’d dip into her savings account.
Austin set down the knife. “Quinn, do you want me to take care of it? I’d hate to see Larson start eviction procedures.”
Noel Larson wouldn’t evict. Not right away. He’d gloat over the fact she owed him, and then squeeze harder, putting pressure on her and humiliating her. Noel and his twin brother were real estate tycoons in Red Ridge. Their reach and their power made them nearly invincible. You didn’t want to mess with them.
“No. Stay away from him. I have the money, Austin, and I don’t want Larson thinking I’m dead broke.” She softened her tone. “I appreciate your offer of help, but you know me. I refuse to hand Larson that kind of power.”
“Pride goeth before homelessness,” he quipped.
Quinn felt warm inside as her thoughts drifted to West. By winter, perhaps she’d be married. Maybe even on her way to starting a family. Humming, she bustled around the kitchen.
Austin’s blue eyes twinkled behind the thick glasses. “You look so...glowing this morning. New boyfriend?”
“I’m glad someone’s happy,” he muttered morosely as he set down the knife and scooped the greens into a bowl. “I can’t seem to get a date with everything going on in this town. At this rate, I’ll be more celibate than a monk on Mars.”
They’d been so eager, so tired from their jobs and so careful to make sure no one saw them together, they’d forgotten to be careful that way.
Anxiety arrowed through her. She checked the calendar on her Android phone. Too close to call. Pregnancy wasn’t on her to-do list. No Bullet Journal for that, she thought as she tucked her phone back into the pocket of her apron. Never mind the fact that West stated he didn’t want children, and she did. She longed to have two children, a real family with a mother and father who stuck around, unlike her shiftless dad, Rusty.
Maybe she could change West’s mind about having a family.
I need breakfast if I’m going to deal with this. Quinn opened the stainless steel refrigerator and gathered the ingredients for a blueberry-peach smoothie. When it was finished, she took it outside in the cool morning air.
Up and down Main Street, shopkeepers were opening their stores and starting business for the day. Summer business bustled in August with tourists who wanted some late-season fishing or hiking, taking kids to see Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills before shuttling them off to school. But not this year. Maybe the visitors heard about the Groom Killer and decided to stay elsewhere.
The brick facade of her little shop was aged, and gave Good Eats a small-town charm, along with the flower boxes lining the big windows overlooking Main Street. Her store, at the very edge of town, backed onto a wide-open field where there had been talk of developing a shopping center.
Those plans had been abandoned by the developer after business started going south in town.
Quinn had dug into her slim savings and purchased wrought iron bistro tables and chairs where customers could sit outside and enjoy a hot cappuccino or a cold smoothie in the warm weather. Once, the drinks were icing on her store’s financial cake; now they were the entire cake and frosting.
If she didn’t get a big order soon, she and Austin would be in financial trouble.
Never. Austin was her bestie. She needed him in her life as much as she needed West. And her brothers and sister.
Where was Demi?
She had constantly wrestled with worry over her kid sister. A bounty hunter, Demi was tough as nails, fierce, and Quinn couldn’t help wondering if her half sister really had snapped and killed her ex-fiancé and the other grooms. Her ex had been the first victim. There had since been many more. According to the RRPD—many of whom were related to Demi and Quinn in some way—Demi was guilty. Others said she was being framed. All Quinn knew was that Demi was alone out there, supposedly trying to prove her innocence. At least, she’d texted as much to their brother Shane a couple months back.
Since then: radio silence.
What Quinn couldn’t stop thinking about was that when Demi had fled town, she’d been pregnant. She must have had the baby already. Or was about to.
Quinn sipped the shake and set it down on the table. Her phone buzzed and she reached into her apron to pull it out when a tremendous KA-POW split the air, startling her into dropping the cell phone and spilling her drink.
Shaken, she stood up, staring in the direction of the explosion. Her father’s bar was down that way...
In the direction West had taken when he’d kissed her goodbye and then headed for work.