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Buried by Brenda Rothert (1)

Chapter One

Eight hours earlier


I bring the pickup truck to a slow stop in front of a simple black iron gate blocking the path of the dirt road. There’s a sign by a small electronic box mounted on a post that instructs visitors to call security, so I hop out of the truck.

Obnoxious rich people, I think as I dial the number on the sign. I can’t wait to make this delivery and get the hell out of here.

“Name, please?” a male voice says on the other end of the line.

“Erin Morrison.”

After a moment’s pause, he asks, “Are you making a delivery?”

A bird caws from a nearby tree, then takes flight into the bright blue summer sky. Within an hour, I’ll be as free as that bird. At least, for the next two weeks.

“Yes, delivery from Morrison Farms,” I say.

He makes a humming sound of recognition. “Okay, you’re cleared to enter. I’ll open the gate. Someone will meet you about a mile down the road to fill out paperwork.”

“But I’m just—” I stop and sigh, realizing he’s already gone.

It’ll be easier to jump through their hoops than to argue, I decide as I get back into the truck and put it into drive. The iron gate slowly swings open, and I drive through, where I’m greeted by “No Trespassing” signs on either side of the fresh dirt path.

The newness of the road tells me this place was probably built by someone as a vacation home. An outsider. We northwestern Colorado natives get grouchy about wealthy people destroying the landscape to build their sprawling lodges. They should stick to Breckenridge and Vail and leave the unspoiled parts of the state alone.

Big trees form a canopy over the road, and as I drive farther, I see a black SUV angled to block my path. Like I’m gonna go rogue and deliver these groceries without authorization from this rich guy’s people. Ha.

I reach the SUV and put the truck into park again. When I step out, a woman gets out of the passenger side of the vehicle, clipboard in hand.

“Morrison Farms?” She gives me a casual glance.


I was expecting a big, burly security guy, but she looks more like a beauty queen. She’s younger than me, maybe twenty-five, wearing a dark purple suit and heels.

Heels that are sinking into the dirt road. I keep my eye roll to myself as she passes me the clipboard.

“I’m going to need you to sign this NDA before you enter the grounds.”

I furrow my brow in confusion. “Uh…I’m just here to deliver groceries.”

“I know.” She gives me a tight smile. “No one comes on the grounds without signing one of these.”

I sigh inwardly. Uncle Cal told me when he asked me to make this delivery for him that the place belongs to a famous football player. He said it’s a huge account for the store and he normally makes deliveries here himself, but he was tied up on the farm this afternoon.

Taking the pen and clipboard, I scan the document in front of me. I have to agree not to disclose anything I see or hear to anyone or I could be liable for damages of $100,000. Seems like overkill.

“What’s going on in there?” I ask the beauty queen. “It’s not a nudist colony or a puppy mill or something, right?”

She runs a hand over her long, dark ponytail and gives me an annoyed glare. “No. High-profile people just have to protect themselves. You need to sign and turn in your cell phone and any other devices that can take photos, audio, or video.”

“You want my phone?”

“You’ll get it back when you leave.” She shifts and one of her heels slides farther into the dirt road, making her unsteady on her feet.

“Careful, Kenna.” A burly man in dark pants and a white T-shirt gets out of the SUV’s driver’s seat and walks over to offer her an arm.

Kenna. She definitely looks like a Kenna, I think to myself as I scrawl my signature on three different lines. I feel her looking over my worn red tank top, jean shorts, work boots and Morrison Farms baseball cap, my blond ponytail pulled through the hole in the hat.

Working for the family business has its perks, and one of them is that my uncle doesn’t require me to dress up. No one does, actually, and he has more than seventy employees between the farm, the grocery store, and the winery.

“All done.” I hand over the clipboard and pen.

“Just the phone, then, and I’ll need to see your driver’s license.”

All this, just to drop off a bedload of groceries? I don’t protest, though, because I know this account is important to my uncle. He’s proud of the reputation Morrison Farms has, and I’d never jeopardize that. He means too much to me.

Once I’ve handed over my phone and finished all the paperwork, Kenna and her muscled escort get back into the SUV and lead the way down the rest of the dirt roadway.

After another quarter of a mile, I curve around a bend in the road, and a sprawling home comes into view. It’s made of log and has a rustic but luxurious style. It’s two stories, but each level has to be at least five thousand square feet.

Unless this guy’s last name is Duggar, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t need this much space. But to the rich guys who build homes and hunting lodges here, size matters. They claim to be outdoorsmen while razing forestland to build their palaces.

I follow the SUV as the driver takes a long, paved driveway past the side of the home. A giant garage with three double-sized doors sits adjacent to the house, but a long, covered walkway connects the two buildings.

I’m expecting the SUV to stop near the back of the house, but it leaves the driveway and enters the grass. My old pickup truck groans a bit as I keep following, my brow furrowed with confusion.

Something’s way off here. We’re heading into an open field, toward dense woods. A pickup truck and an ATV are parked near the tree line, but there’s nowhere in sight to deliver these groceries. My internal radar screams at me to turn the truck around. There’s probably a shallow grave waiting for me in those woods.

I slow the truck, on the verge of stopping it when the SUV’s brake lights come on at the edge of the clearing, near the other vehicles. The driver parks, and Kenna gets out, holding a hand over her eyes to glare my way as I ease closer.

I park near the SUV, turn off the truck, and step out, giving Kenna a wary look. The security guard is standing next to her now.

“I have to head out to make that pickup at the airport,” security guy says to Kenna. “You good here?”

She nods. “Thanks, John.”

As soon as he closes the driver’s side door to the SUV and starts it, I turn to Kenna.

“What am I supposed to do with this delivery?”

Her eyes widen with annoyance. “Um, deliver it?”

I throw my hands in the air. “Am I supposed to pack it and hike it out to a cabin, or what? I didn’t bring any gear.”

She sighs with annoyance and walks over to a dead, hollowed-out stump surrounded by leaves and sticks. When she reaches into the stump, takes hold of something, and starts pulling, I just stand and watch, mouth open in surprise.

It seems to be a heavy door of some kind. It takes all of Kenna’s strength to pull it all the way back. The stump and brush are still attached to the top of the open door. They’re not real. It’s some sort of camouflage.

“What…?” I mutter, stepping closer to the truck.

My heart is hammering at the wrongness of this. I glance back at the towering house not far away, wishing I were unloading my delivery there right now.

“This is where the delivery is going,” Kenna says, nodding at the open hole in the ground. “And remember the NDA you signed.”

I slowly shake my head. “I didn’t agree to this.”

She huffs with annoyance. “Actually, you did. And I paid a premium delivery fee.”

“You want me to throw a bedload of perfectly good groceries into…a hole in the ground.” I shake my head again.

“No, it’s a survival bunker. They’re going to the supply room.”

I arch my brows in surprise. A survival bunker? Apparently this rich football guy is also the eccentric type.

“Yeah, there’s no way I’m going down there,” I say, crossing my arms.

Kenna shrugs. “Fine. I’ll refuse the delivery. I expect a full refund.”

Uncle Cal’s words echo in my mind. “This is one of my biggest accounts. You’re the only one I trust to do the job like I’d do it myself.”

I close my eyes, my heart pounding so uncontrollably now that I’m starting to feel dizzy.

There’s no way I can go down there. Not after…

No. I can’t. I won’t. Uncle Cal never would have asked me to do this if he’d known it was going to an underground bunker.

The sound of a male voice floats out from the bunker. He’s laughing. How could anyone laugh while in there? They’re stuck underground, in the darkness. With the cold and the silence. It’s practically a tomb.

“Look, I’d normally do it,” I tell Kenna. “It’s just…the underground thing…”

She gives me a dirty look. “Well, I’m not doing it. And it’s not gonna deliver itself.” She looks down at the Apple watch on her wrist. “I’m already running behind. Let’s get the refusal paperwork done.” She points at me. “But the NDA still applies.”

I think of my uncle again. He’d understand my refusal. Uncle Cal knows better than anyone why the thought of going into an underground bunker makes me break out in a nervous sweat. He’s been there, through every nightmare, every setback, every breakthrough.

He’s everything to me. And Morrison Farms is his life’s work.

I close my eyes and exhale slowly. I think about the words of Terrie, my former therapist.

Facing your fears is like staring them down, Erin. It’s the same as standing up to a bully.

Rationally, I know I can do this. I’m in good physical shape, I’ll just haul ass and get that flatbed emptied in fifteen minutes flat. And after that, I’m off work for two weeks. I’ll be volunteering at the camp that’s my passion. I’m going to lead a group of teens on a rough terrain hiking and climbing expedition for the next ten days.

Fresh air, open sky, and the intoxicating smells of pine and earth. That’s my reward for making this delivery.

“Fine, I’ll do it,” I tell Kenna.

She smirks triumphantly. “I’ll take you to the supply room and show you where I want everything.”

I sigh softly, willing my heart to stop jackhammering in my chest, and walk over to the large, open steel door in the ground.

Kenna white-knuckles the black steel ladder that leads straight down, scrambling to get her heels situated. I wonder again why she’s wearing a business suit and heels out here.

“Do you work here?” I ask her.

She gives me a sharp look. “I’m Derek’s personal assistant.”

“Oh, got it. And he must be the football player who owns the place?”

Kenna gawks at me in disbelief. “You don’t know who Derek Heaton is?”

I shrug. “Isn’t he a football player?”

“He’s the best quarterback in the league. Also the highest-paid.”

“Huh. Well, good for him,” I say dismissively.

Kenna shrieks as one of her feet slips on the metal ladder.

“You okay?” I ask her.

“I’m fine.”

I peer down into the dark hole, trying to think about anything other than going down there. Even after years of therapy, the panic is so strong I want to run away.

Just make it about the groceries, I tell myself. Think about getting the delivery where it needs to go as quickly as possible. You can do this.

I take a deep breath and then follow Kenna down the ladder. I start sweating immediately as my self-preservation instincts kick in. But I ignore it, descending the ladder to a small landing and then taking a staircase the rest of the way down.

For a moment, my fear is forgotten. The bunker is nothing like I was expecting. It’s open and expansive, the kitchen appointed with stainless appliances and warm wood cabinets. The floors are also wood, and there’s a large leather sectional in a living area.

“This way,” Kenna says, motioning impatiently from in front of a doorway.

I tear myself away from looking at the rich, slightly rustic décor and join her in a large white room. Fluorescent lights glow overhead, illuminating walls lined with shelves. About half the shelves are filled with supplies ranging from toilet paper to giant containers of tapioca pudding.

“Right here,” Kenna says, grabbing a clipboard and glancing down at it.

She stands in front of an empty section of shelves. I wait a couple seconds as she reads something on her list, but then I can’t take it anymore. I refuse to be down here for one minute longer than I have to.

“I’ll go get my first load,” I say, turning.

“I need it shelved in groups,” she says as I depart the room. “Keep all the peanut butter together, all the trail mix together, and so on. And make sure you fill the entire shelf all the way to the back.”

“Okay,” I call over my shoulder.

I hear male voices from somewhere in the bunker, but I ignore them, practically sprinting to the stairs out of this deathtrap hole in the ground.

When I get to the truck, I stuff my backpack with as much of the supplies as it will hold, then grab another box to carry in my arms. Surveying the flatbed load, I realize it’s going to take at least twenty trips to get all this into the supply room.

Just great. I have to make myself go down that ladder over and over again.

As I reach the bottom of the stairs, I see three men in the living room area of the bunker. One is kneeling by the floor, looking at something. The other two are talking.

One of the two looks pretty young, maybe college-aged. His skin is deeply tanned, and his hair is hidden beneath a baseball hat. The other one looks like a young Russell Crowe, very tall and all muscles and chiseled jawline. He’s wearing shorts and a plain gray T-shirt.

He has to be the football player. He’s got arrogant pro athlete written all over him, from his biceps straining the sleeves of his shirt to his perfect smile.

“Hey, I’m Derek,” he says when he sees me.

He offers me his hand to shake. I shift the box to just one arm and comply halfheartedly.

“I’m just here to deliver groceries,” I say.

“Here, let me take that.” He reaches to relieve me of the box, but I turn so it’s out of his reach.

“I’ve got it,” I say, a little sharper than intended.

He looks confused. I’m sure Mr. Highest-Paid Football Player is used to women swooning when he offers help.

Not me. I don’t swoon. And I don’t accept help unless it’s absolutely my last resort.

I breeze past Derek, heading for the supply room. As I drop my load to the ground and start unpacking it, I move as quickly as I can.

Big jars of peanut butter Uncle Cal sells for a local farmer are lined up in neat rows on the shelves within a couple minutes. Then I shoulder my empty bag and return for the second load, looking straight ahead to avoid any small talk.

All I want is to get this over with and get the hell out of here.



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