He was an outsider
And the only man she could trust.
Attorney Marlee Masters’s brother was murdered. Proving it means working with Sheriff Ben Kinsella and facing down the nasty whispers in their rural Georgia town. Although the gossips accuse Marlee of being the real threat, there's a stalker vowing retribution if the two don’t end the investigation. Ben won’t abandon Marlee in her hour of need, but will she have to place herself in even more peril to catch the killer?
From Harlequin Intrigue: Seek thrills. Solve crimes. Justice served.
Discover more action-packed stories in the Raising the Bar Brief series. All books are stand-alone with uplifting endings but were published in the following order:
Book 1: An Absence of Motive
Book 2: For the Defense
Book 3: Bench Trial in the Backwoods
Release date: July 27, 2021
Print pages: 256
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An Absence of Motive
The only thing Ben Kinsella ever wanted to be when he grew up was nothing like his father. It was the truth, plain and simple. Some boys wanted to be firefighters or doctors or astronauts, but he honestly couldn’t remember ever giving those professions a second thought. Or any occupation in particular. He only wanted to be something more than “no damn good.”
So far, he’d succeeded.
Glancing down at the khaki uniform he wore, he grimaced and brushed away the evidence of the cruller he’d wolfed down. There were moments when he could not imagine why any young boy would ever think growing up to be a police officer would be a good idea.
“You all right, Sheriff?”
Julianne Shields, Masters County’s clerk/dispatcher/secretary, remained unruffled, as always. Unlike him, the woman was a fixture in the boxy building serving as both the town hall and county offices. He hadn’t had to call her to come in. She’d shown up minutes after dawn with a box of the tasty treats—still warm from the fryers at Brewster’s Bakery—and started running interference for him.
It hadn’t simply been a long night. Two days had rolled into one since Clint Young’s mother had called to say her son had never returned from his fishing trip. A quick drive out to the property on Sawtooth Lake later, one of Ben’s deputies discovered Clint’s lifeless body sprawled across a broken-down sofa in his family’s old cabin.
The Youngs’ place was little more than a shack, but there was a tricked-out Charger parked on the dirt lane leading straight to the door. And Clint’s clothes weren’t cheap either. From what Ben observed, they were blood-splattered but pricey. A fella didn’t grow up in Ben’s old neighborhood without knowing exactly what a trendy pair of kicks cost.
Deputy Schaeffer, a former classmate of the deceased, rambled on and on about Clint having “finally gotten himself together.” From what Ben could decipher, Mike believed the victim’s steady job as a foreman at Timber Masters, new car and nicer clothing meant the guy was really making it. He supposed he would have thought the same thing at Mike’s age. He made a mental note to give the car and clothes more thought in light of Clint’s financial circumstances but set those details aside in hopes of securing what was left of the alleged crime scene.
Unfortunately, his deputy hadn’t handled the discovery with as much professional detachment as Ben would have preferred, but he couldn’t blame the guy. The grisliest scene Mike Schaeffer had seen in his twenty-two years was a three-car accident out on Route 32. He’d never seen a person’s insides splattered around like a paintball shot. But Ben had.
Closing his gritty eyes, Ben inhaled deeply and said a prayer the coroner didn’t suspect foul play, because his deputy had compromised the crime scene beyond any hope of excavating clear evidence. Still, they’d done what they could.
Ben’s eyes popped open. His other deputy, Lourdes Cabrera, appeared in the doorway, and not for the first time, Ben wished Lori had been the one to discover Mr. Young’s body. Though she was roughly the same age as Mike and the deceased, Deputy Cabrera was calm and cool. Unflappable. She was former military police like Ben. Establishing order was the first point of business on any scene, and the scene the previous night had been chaos. Mostly because Mike was too young and too green. “Hey, Lori,” he said tiredly.
His deputy stood with her hands braced on her hips above her nylon utility belt, an old-fashioned glazed doughnut pinched between her fingers. For one groggy moment, he wondered if she planned to tase him awake.
“Why don’t you run home and grab an hour or two, maybe a shower?” The expression of concern she wore undercut the stridency of her suggestion.
Scrubbing a hand over his face, he nodded, grimacing as the stubble rasped his palm. Not only did he feel awful, he probably looked warmed-over. “Yeah, I, uh—”
He trailed off, patting various piles on his desk. He wanted there to be something useful in one of them. But there was nothing. And there wouldn’t be anything until Mel Schuler, the county’s coroner/funeral director, determined whether the body needed to be referred to the state medical examiner for further testing.
All too aware he was stuck until then, he pushed back from the desk. “Mel should be calling soon,” he said.
Lori nodded once. “I’ll call you the moment I hear from him.”
“Even if it’s only an hour or two from now,” he interjected sternly. “I need to know what he says more than I need sleep.”
Her lips twitched into a smirk as she toasted him with the doughnut in her hand. “Even if it’s thirty seconds after you walk out this door, I’ll call,” she promised, then she took an enormous bite.
“You’re only playing into the stereotype there,” he grumbled as he sidled past her into the outer office.
“Says the man who demolished two crullers before he even hit his desk chair,” Julianne said without looking up from the report she was typing.
“Hey, now, it’s not fair picking on me when Mike isn’t here to even up the sides.” He’d sent the shaken man home directly after he’d recorded his notes for Julianne to transcribe. Ben gave a tired chuckle as he reached for the ball cap emblazoned with the department logo from the coatrack by the door.
He’d just pulled the brim down low when the front door banged open and Henry Masters burst in. Ben blinked hard, willing himself into a more alert state as he rolled his shoulders back and plastered on a pleasant expression.
Henry Masters was the man who’d hired him. One of three men serving on the Pine Bluff town council, he was the owner of Timber Masters, the great-grandson of the man for whom the county was named and the self-appointed ruler of all he surveyed. A slender blonde followed in Henry’s wake. She was enough to make Ben blink twice.
The woman was a stunner. Smooth, fair skin that somehow managed to look sun-kissed though she wasn’t tanned. Laser-bright blue eyes framed by dark lashes and fierce slashes of eyebrows. She was young and long-limbed, with a spill of honey-blond hair so thick and wavy, it made him think of beauty pageant contestants. But this woman wasn’t wearing a sash and swimsuit. Or a smile. She wore a stiff navy blue pantsuit and a grimace.
Her posture was straight but rigid. Every inch of her bearing screamed resistance. Ben couldn’t help but wonder if it was him, the dingy municipal building or the man she was with she objected to the most. She shot Henry Masters an impatient glance, and Ben felt fairly confident in crossing himself and the building off the list.
“Mr. Masters,” he said with a cordial nod.
“Sheriff,” the older man said curtly and returned the nod. He placed a hand on the young woman’s arm and forced her to take a step forward. “This is my daughter, Marlee. She has recently finished up at Emory Law and will be working for Timber Masters as she awaits the results from her bar exam. Marlee, this is Ben Kinsella. He’s taken over for Bud Walker until the general election in November.”
Ms. Masters extended a hand, her expression making it clear she took no pleasure in meeting him. He shook her hand briefly, prepared to be no more impressed with her than she was with him. “A pleasure.”
“Sheriff,” she said, her voice surprisingly husky.
Ben gave his head a subtle shake as he withdrew his hand from her grasp. He supposed he expected her to have one of those high, whiny sorority-girl voices, the type to end every sentence with a question mark. But no. She’d infused the one-word greeting with enough smoke to make a man long for a glass of good bourbon.
“We’ve heard about Clint Young. Tell me what you know,” Henry Masters stated bluntly.
Surprised, Ben shifted his attention back to the older man and tried to get his sluggish mind to kick into gear. “What we know?” he repeated.
“Yes,” Masters clarified, impatient. “What has your investigation uncovered?”
Ben took a half step back, wary. Why would Henry Masters be so upset about Clint Young’s death? Sure, Clint worked for Timber Masters, but Henry could have called to express his concern. This early-morning office visit seemed a bit over-the-top. “We don’t have much at this juncture,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “Mr. Young’s body is being attended by the coroner at the moment.”
“Right, but the scene,” Masters pressed, his agitation rising. “What did you find at the scene?”
In the months since Ben had been hired by the Pine Bluff town council to be the interim sheriff of Masters County, he’d thought he had a good gauge on how to handle Henry Masters. Still, he was surprised the man flat-out posed such a question. He had no familial connection to the victim that Ben was aware of. And if being the man’s employer was justification enough, Henry might feel free to violate the privacy of three-quarters of the town’s residents.
“I’m afraid I can’t divulge any information on what is presently an ongoing investigation,” he said, repeating the line Julianne had used to dodge the reporters who’d called already. He made a move to stride past them toward the door. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be stepping out for a bit.”
Henry gaped at him, as did his daughter. Clearly they were both accustomed to getting what they wanted.
“Wait a minute,” the older man sputtered as he wrapped a hand around Ben’s arm to stall him.
Ben looked down at the hand, then raised his head, letting the brim of his hat shield his eyes until the last possible moment. Masters released him without another word, but this time, his daughter moved closer.
“Sheriff, we understand you can’t give us any of the particulars,” she cut in, her voice as mellow and sweet as raw honey dripping from the comb. “It’s only... Clint was a neighbor.” She let the statement sink in for a moment. “He was my late brother’s best friend growing up,” she added. Their eyes met, both of them all too aware she could keep dropping these factoids into the mix if she chose. She might not have lived in Pine Bluff for a while, but she knew the place and its people in a way he never would.
“His mother is...distraught.” Something about the way she seemed to settle on that adjective made her father stiffen and the back of Ben’s neck prickle. “Word has obviously gotten around town.” Her smile was small, sad and no doubt measured to the last millimeter for effectiveness. “People are worried they should lock their doors tonight.”
He diverted every ounce of energy he had left in his tank to keeping his expression as unreadable as possible and his pitch uninflected. “People should lock their doors every night. The world is a big, bad place, Ms. Masters.”
Her lips pursed slightly, and he would swear he caught a gleam of amusement in those startling blue eyes. “Pine Bluff isn’t,” she asserted. “Do people need to be worried about a murderer on the loose, Sheriff Kinsella?”
Violent crime was nearly nonexistent in Masters County, but other crimes had taken root. The only reason Ben was there was because Pine Bluff’s mayor and the entire county sheriff’s department had been swept up in a sting operation run by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, an operation Ben was familiar with from his time in the agency. His knowledge and experience on that front had been a key factor in securing the job as interim sheriff.
Something about Marlee Masters’s demeanor told him she wasn’t pleased to be questioning him. She was rigid and annoyed, but she tried to cover it. The blunt questions served up in a syrupy-sweet manner spoke of a woman who wanted to get what she came for and get out. Though it was no hardship to look at her, he found he wished he could give her some answers so she could shed her boring navy pantsuit and run off back to whatever she was doing when Daddy called her home.
Tipping the brim of his cap up so he could meet her frank stare directly, he said, “I wish I had an answer for you. We should have the preliminary report soon.”
He cleared his throat to command everyone’s full attention as he tore his gaze from hers. Waving a tired hand toward Lori, he directed his comments to Henry Masters when he spoke again. “Deputy Cabrera will call me as soon as the coroner gives us a preliminary.” He kept that same hand lifted to stave off any protest the older man might conjure. “I will contact Mrs. Young and you, Mr. Masters, as soon as I have any information, but for now... I’ve been on duty for nearly thirty-seven hours. Deputy Cabrera will be in charge until I get back.”
He pulled his cap down over his eyes again and carefully stepped past Marlee Masters. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Masters. I am sorry about the circumstances.” He inclined his head toward Henry. “Please give Mrs. Masters my best,” he said, then made his escape.
He hurried through the door and around the corner to the crumbling concrete parking lot adjacent to the building. The April-morning air was cool but already growing thick with humidity. He opened the door to the SUV marked with the county sheriff’s logo but took a moment before stepping in. By the third deep breath, he felt steady enough, awake enough, to haul himself into the driver’s seat and plug the key into the ignition.
He had a feeling something big was happening in his small town. Something big and bad. The kind of thing that wasn’t supposed to happen in towns where people didn’t lock their doors.
He liked this town. The small, quiet life he was carving out for himself suited him fine, even though it was so different from anywhere he’d ever lived. But when he closed his eyes, he saw the shoes Clint Young had been wearing. ...
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