Aroostine Higgins returns in a page-turning thriller from USA Today bestselling author Melissa F. Miller.
When a tourist reports an abandoned car at a remote trailhead at the Grand Canyon's North Rim, Aroostine Higgins is the logical choice to investigate the high-profile case. After all, it's her job. She's a consultant to the National Park Service Investigative Services Branch, and she specializes in tracking people.
But when a search of the car turns up a blood-soaked hat that's a match for a missing woman and a scrap of paper bearing the name "Rue Jackman," the case becomes personal. Under the alias of Rue Jackman, Aroostine helps find missing Native American women who've been forgotten by the system.
The only problem is the missing woman isn't Native, and Aroostine has no idea why her alias is on that piece of paper.
Release date: September 27, 2022
Publisher: Brown Street Books
Print pages: 300
Reader says this book is...: entertaining story (3) escapist/easy read (2) likable hero (2) realistic characters (3) action-packed (2) heartwarming (1) plot twists (2) terrific writing (1) unputdownable (2)
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Melissa F. Miller
Four nights ago
Julia Ward paused and took a final look around her bedroom. She smiled as her eyes fell on the familiar soft cornflower blue paint on her walls, which only two years ago had replaced the dusty rose she’d begged for on her eleventh birthday.
The rose shade had been a compromise. Her mother had objected to painting over the childish fairytale mural that danced across Julia’s walls since the room had been a nursery. Julia had spent her entire sixth grade year campaigning for a room makeover. Finally, just before her birthday, she’d either convinced her mom that she was entirely too old for princesses and Puss in Boots or, more likely, her mom had simply gotten sick of the conversation.
Whatever the reason, Julia had prevailed, and they’d gone all the way to the big home improvement store in St. George to pick out the perfect color for a tween. Julia had wanted a vivid orange; her mom pushed for bubble-gum pink. At last, tired of arguing in the paint aisle, they’d settled on the rose.
When Julia turned sixteen, she’d swapped the pink for blue without her mother’s consultation or involvement. She’d painted the entire room over a long weekend, thrilled to watch it transform under her roller. Now, just a few months after her eighteenth birthday, she was swapping the whole room for a bus ticket and a new life.
Her stomach fluttered, and she froze for a beat. Excitement or the baby kicking?
She wasn’t showing yet and hadn’t dared make an appointment with Dr. Block or one of the midwives. She knew how word traveled around here. Still, she estimated she was only ten weeks along, and she knew from her sister Hannah’s pregnancies that it would be a few more months before she could feel the baby move, especially since this was her first pregnancy.
Still, she rested her hand on her still-flat stomach and smiled. Maybe she’d paint a mural on her baby’s wall, so they’d have something to fight about in a decade or so. She laughed softly, but her eyes welled up.
You’re just hormonal, she told herself. But that wasn’t quite true. Hormones played a part, but the main reason she was emotional that she was leaving the only home she’d ever known and she understood she could never come back.
She brushed the tears away with the back of her hand, plucked the picture of her and Hannah that was tucked into the corner of the mirror over her dresser, and slipped it into her pocket. Then she hefted the oversized backpack at her feet, wriggled her arms inside the straps, settled the bag’s weight against the middle of her back.
She took a long, deep breath and raised the window. She popped out the screen and rested it against the exterior corner where her bedroom wall met the roof over the sitting room. She straddled the window frame, swung one leg out, and got her footing on the hip roof that covered the back porch. As she turned to swivel out onto the roof, she spotted her faded baseball cap hanging on the back of her closet door and reached through the open window to snatch it off the hook. She threaded her ponytail through the opening in the back and pulled the brim down low over her forehead.
Then she hopped out onto the roof, gingerly replaced the screen, and tightened the backpack straps to secure it before she slid to the edge of the overhang and wrapped her legs around a column and shimmied down to the plank floor of the porch. She knew every creaky board in the big old farmhouse, so she skirted the steps and jumped to the ground, landing softly in the herb garden right outside the kitchen.
All the lights were out on the first floor, but she lowered into a crouch just in case as she ran along the back of the house. When she passed under the last window, she stood up and sprinted on a diagonal to the tool shed. The night was clear, and the moon was bright, lighting her path to the shed. She pressed herself against the door to catch her breath.
The hard part was over. All she needed to do was get her old ten-speed bike out of the shed without making any noise and pedal as fast as she could to the overlook and rest stop five miles away. It was the wrong direction, away from the bus station, but that was where they’d agreed to meet. That way, neither of them would need to go through town. There would be less chance of being spotted. Or stopped.
She held her breath, praying that the hinges wouldn’t creak, and eased the door open to the hot, stuffy shed. Her luck held, and the door swung open soundlessly. She slipped inside and groped around in the dark until her hand connected with the bike’s handlebars. She pulled it away from the wall, and an awful clatter sounded as a rake and hoe fell to the floor. She winced at the noise.
Then she froze. She couldn’t have knocked over the tools. They were on the far wall, beside a tower of old tires. She’d seen them earlier when sneaked into the shed to confirm the bike tires didn’t need air.
But if she hadn’t knocked over the garden implements … who had?
Her heart thudded in her chest, and she yanked on the handlebars, no longer caring if she made noise. She kicked up the kickstand and rolled the bike forward toward the open door.
Suddenly, she jerked backward. The knapsack was pulling her back. No, someone was pulling the knapsack back. She filled her lungs with air to scream, and a rough, callused hand clamped over her mouth before she could make a sound. A strong forearm encircled her neck.
She tried to force her lips apart to bite her attacker but succeeded only in scraping her front teeth across his hand. She tasted the salt of sweat and the tang of dirt. She tried to move her head, but he was holding her tight.
She clawed at his arm with both hands. He squeezed her neck harder. Her pulse raced, her breath quickened, coming too fast and too shallow, and she began to panic.
He yanked her from the bicycle and dragged her toward the front of the shed. This was her chance. Once they got outside, she had to spot an opening and get away. She allowed herself to go limp in his arms in the hopes that he’d loosen his grip.
He didn’t. And as he pulled her forward, her lolling head bounced off the corner of a corrugated steel shelf full of small garden tools. Blood gushed out from under her hat and ran down her right ear and temple. The man holding her reared back and tried to clear the shelf a second time.
He smacked her head against the shelf again—this time, with enough force to send her mother’s canvas gardening bag tumbling to the ground. A wave of nausea washed over Julia. As the bag fell, Julia stretched out her hand and made contact with something metal. Metal and wood. She closed her hand around whatever it was and shoved it into her jacket pocket. Spade, fork, pruning shears—it didn’t matter. Whatever it was, she’d use it when she got the chance.
Her abductor stepped out into the cool night air and kicked the door closed with a grunt. Julia tried to lift her head and blood poured from the wound in her scalp into her right eye. She was dizzy. She moaned as her vision blurred, then faded to black.
Three days ago
Julia shifted on the hard wooden floor, trying and failing to find a more comfortable position. Her legs were cramped from kneeling and her arms ached. The man, whose face she hadn’t gotten a clear look at, had zip-tied her to the steel bars of the horse stall. But the stall had wood paneling around the lower half, and the bars began above her head. So she’d been kneeling with her arms raised for … however long she’d been here. It had been at least seven or eight hours, she knew that much.
When he’d brought her to the stable and secured her to the stall, she’d still believed he was just trying to scare her for some unknown reason. A prank, maybe? She was sure he’d come back and let her go. But as the minutes turned to hours, her confidence dissipated and the reality of her situation sank in. She’d called for help until her throat was raw and her voice was hoarse. Then she’d cried softly, drained of energy and hope, before finally dozing off just before morning. Only to be dragged from sleep less than an hour later by the familiar sound of a rooster crowing.
She studied the stall. It was modern. Prefabricated, with high-quality finishes like powder-coated steel and Brazilian hardwood panels. The floor was concrete covered with a thick black mat. There were six units total in the stable, four horse stalls, set two by two, and, at the far end of the stable, a tack room across from a grooming stall. She knew enough to recognize the stable as relatively new, unlike her family’s historic stables. And, despite the familiar scents of minty liniment and earthy alfalfa hay, the neat racks of bridles, saddles, and horse blankets, there were no horses in any of the stalls.
Her burning arms and the mystery of her location couldn’t distract her from the throbbing in her head. The caked-on dried blood on the right side of her face cracked as she scrunched up her forehead in response to the pain. She moaned. It was a low, pitiful mew. Her pulse ticked up at the thought of being trapped here indefinitely.
She was being held captive by a man whose intentions were unclear. This wasn’t a prank. Was it an abduction? Did he plan to hold her for ransom? Or were his plans darker than that? Her empty stomach fluttered, and she squeezed her eyes shut, trying to drive out the images of the torture and death that might await her.
The sound of boots crunching over gravel interrupted her terrified musings. Someone was coming. As the noise grew louder, and the person drew closer to the stable, her eyes flew open. She stared unblinkingly at the barn door.
A bolt scraped across the door with a metallic screech. The door flew open and early morning sunlight flooded the dim interior. Julia blinked furiously, trying to adjust to the sudden brightness. Her heart pounded.
The sun silhouetted the person in the doorway. She couldn’t make out any features. Based on the person’s height and spread-legged stance, she was certain it was a man. A thick-necked and broad-shouldered man.
“Hello?” she tried to shout, but her voice was barely a whisper. She wet her dry lips with her tongue and tried again. “Hello? Help me, please.”
In response, the person laughed. It was a rough, barking laugh. As if sandpaper lined his throat. Her heart beat faster as hope spread its wings in her chest. She knew that laugh.
“Cody? Oh, thank God.” Her prayers had been answered.
Cody Bell was her one of her father’s ranch hands. Her father must’ve sent him out to look for her when she didn’t turn up at breakfast. She’d always known her absence this morning would raise alarms. Her plan had been to pick up a prepaid cell phone and call her mother and let her know she was safe and happy without divulging her destination.
But now, sheer, overwhelming relief drove all thoughts of escaping to a new life from her mind. Cody had found her. She was getting out of here.
Cody’s boots struck the hard floor with a series of loud, sharp taps, and his spurs clicked as he strode toward her at a deliberate pace.
Hurry up, she silently urged him. Before someone comes.
Cody came to a stop in front of the stall and stared down at her with an amused expression. He studied her for a long moment, then raised the right half of his upper lift in a half-smile.
“Hiya, Julia,” he drawled in his gravelly voice. As if they were casually chatting and had all the time in the world.
She stared at him in disbelief. Then the words poured out in a rush, “Um, hi. Am I glad to see you. I need you to cut these zip ties and get me out here, fast.”
He cocked his head to one side and eyed her with curiosity.
Cody had never struck her as brilliant. Her father’s main criterion for ranch workers was brawn, not brains. But Cody wasn’t this dumb. Was he?
She worked to keep her rising panic out of her voice and tried again. “Cody, please hurry. I’m hurt and tired and scared. I need you to free me. Now, please.”
He studied her a moment longer, then twisted his lips and shook his head. “See, now. I can’t do that, Julia.”
Her throat closed. She forced out a cough and managed to speak. “Of course you can.” She smiled to encourage him. “Easy as pie. Just use your pocketknife to cut these plastic cuffs, and we can get back to the ranch.”
He clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Can’t.”
He ignored the question and leaned over the stall to peer at her. “I figure you might need to relieve yourself. Brought you a bucket and some grub.”
Her eyes drifted from his sun-leathered face to his hands. Sure enough, a metal bucket swung from his right hand. She spotted a few carrots and an apple sticking out of it. He wasn’t her savior. He was her captor. She used her anger to push down her fear.
“What … I’m not a horse! You can’t keep me here. My dad’s going to kill you,” she sputtered.
It wasn’t hyperbole. Thaddeus Ward would never win a Father of the Year for his loving treatment of his daughters, but he was wildly protective of his property. He would make Cody pay dearly for treating one of his offspring like an animal.
Cody seemed supremely unconcerned. He tossed the apples and carrots into the stall. They landed near Julia’s knees.
She looked down at them, and her treacherous stomach growled loudly. She brought her gaze back to Cody’s unyielding face. “How am I supposed to eat while I’m tied up like this?”
“Fair point,” he allowed. “Guess I’ll have to feed you. Like a horse.”
He unlatched the gate and stepped into the enclosure. He placed the bucket on the floor near the gate and approached her warily, keeping his eyes locked on hers and moving slowly, as if she really were a wild horse. He dropped into a crouch and grabbed a long carrot by the top. He extended it toward her mouth.
She wrinkled her brow. He wanted her to eat out of his hand? Anger bloomed deep in her belly, like hell she would. She’d rather starve. Her stomach rumbled in protest. She clamped her mouth shut like a toddler refusing a spoonful of pureed food.
Instead of trying to tempt her, Cody shrugged and tossed the vegetable back to the floor. “Suit yourself.”
She bit down hard on her lower lip to keep from begging.
He gestured toward the bucket. “Does nature call?”
She had to pee badly, but the thought of Cody pulling down her pants and underpants and watching her squat over a bucket made bile rise in her throat.
Another shrug from Cody. “You’re gonna have to lower your standards, princess.”
The word cut through her like a serrated knife, jagged and hot. Most of her dad’s ranch hands called her—called all the Ward girls—‘princess.’ When she’d been little, the endearment had filled her with glee. It made her feel special, treasured. As she’d matured, she’d grown to detest the cute title. It stripped her of her agency, her personhood. She’d insisted they stop, and her demand had been met with howls of laughter and, eventually, grudging acquiescence. Now, in Cody’s mouth, the term was laced with derision.
He barked out another sandpaper laugh and turned to leave the stall.
“Wait!” She hated the note of pleading desperation in her voice.
He turned and looked at her over his shoulder, one eyebrow raised. “Change your mind about the bucket?”
“Um, no. But I’m so thirsty. May I have some water? Please?” She widened her eyes and smoothed her anger from her face.
He narrowed his eyes, considering the request. After a moment, he grunted something that sounded promising. He stomped out of the stall and into the grooming stall at the other end of the stable. Metal banged, followed by the squeak of a rarely used faucet turning, then the rush of water. After a few beats, the water stopped, a door swung open and shut, and Cole’s boots clacked along the hallway.
When he came into view, he was clutching a metal trough. He eased open the gate and placed the vessel on the floor in front of Julia without a word.
“Thank you.” She smiled as sweetly as she could manage. The smile was fake, but her gratitude was real. She nearly wept with relief at the sight of the hose-warm water sloshing in the dusty tank.
He gave a curt nod.
“Can you please untie my arms? They really hurt, and I can’t reach the water like this.” She nodded at the bowl. It was clear he expected her to lap up the water like a horse, but she couldn’t stretch far enough to reach it.
He frowned. His eyes darted from side to side, unwilling to free her, but unsure how to manage the request.
“You could tie my arms behind my back?” she suggested.
She couldn’t believe she was coming up with ways to help him hold her captive, but if untied her from the rail, she could at least drink the water and pace around her small cell to stretch her legs.
He pursed his lips and didn’t answer for so long that her hope faded. Then he gave a curt nod.
“I suppose that’d be okay.”
He pulled a switchblade from his pocket and flicked the blade open. It glinted in the sunlight, and Julia suppressed a shiver. He strode toward her and started hacking at the ties around her wrists.
“Hold still,” he warned as he sawed across the plastic.
She froze, barely breathing, while he cut first the left cuff, then the second. The plastic ties fell to the floor. She lowered her quivering, aching arms and hot tears of relief filled her eyes.
“Thank you,” she whispered as she rubbed her raw wrists with her palms.
She nodded understanding, and he backed out of the stall again, taking care to re-engage the lock. She heard him rummaging through the tack room while she shook out her arms and hands to get the blood flowing.
Her body screamed at her to run, make a break for it now, while he was in the storage room. Her brain refused. You may only have once chance to get out of here. Make it count. Be patient, and make a plan. She wanted to ignore her intellect and follow the instinct to flee, but she forced herself to stay put.
Cody returned with a roll of silver duct tape and unlatched the gate.
“Face the wall and put your hands behind your back.”
She wanted to plead with him, but she didn’t. Instead, she complied wordlessly. Let him think you’re being obedient. That he’s breaking you, like a wild horse.
He hacked a length of tape off the roll with his knife and wrapped the tape snugly around her still-sore wrists. He gave a tug on the tape and made a satisfied sound. It was tight and it would hold.
She shuffled around on her knees to face him.
He grunted, reached for her hat, and yanked it down over her ponytail and off her head.
She whimpered in pain as the fabric scraped the wound on her right temple and fresh blood trickled down her face.
He let himself out of the stall. “I’ll be back tonight.”
As he walked away, she wondered whether that was a promise or a threat.
She twisted until she could reach her bound hands into her jacket pocket. Her fingers closed around the tool she’d slipped into her pocket—her mom’s pruning shears. Tears of relief flooded her eyes and mixed with the blood. She had no intention of being here when Cody returned.
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