Seeking an escape from her dark past, Carissa Taylor heads to Silver Creek to build a new life. For Cari, landing a job at a historic ranch just outside town is a dream come true, and a chance to put her beekeeping expertise to work. Not only does she feel at home in the ruggedly beautiful landscape, but she’s intensely drawn to rancher Chase Bishop, whose strong, steadfast nature quiets her unease. Maybe here she can finally be more than a hunted woman fleeing a vengeful killer—a man who’s been after her nearly all her life . . .
Chase didn’t dare open his heart again after losing his first love. Until Cari entered his life. Her gentle beauty and nurturing spirit call to him like no other. So when her enraged stepbrother breaks out of prison and comes prowling around Chase’s ranch, the former Marine goes into full protective mode, offering Cari the shelter of his home. But as the murderer’s deadly threats draw ever closer, suddenly Chase is calling on his own killer instincts, knowing he will stop at nothing to keep safe the woman who has captured his soul . . .
“Series fans will be thrilled.”
Release date: February 23, 2021
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 354
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Courage Under Fire: A Riveting Novel of Romantic Suspense
“No . . . no, don’t murder the bees!” Cari Taylor turned in her sleep, reliving a moment in her life when she was five years old. Moaning, she cried out, “Don’t hurt them! They won’t sting us!”
Mrs. Johnson, their day care teacher, was horrified. There, near the rear gate of their playground in back of the house, was a huge hive of honeybees, the size of a basketball, in the apple tree.
Frantic, Cari saw her teacher’s face go from shock to horror. Her own heart bounced in fear for the bees. Her father and uncle had beehives and she had grown up with the beekeepers and dearly loved her little friends. “No!” she cried. “They’re harmless, Mrs. Johnson!” she squeaked, putting herself between the twenty other children who surrounded the teacher, who were all staring at the ball of bees in the fruit tree, fear in their faces.
“All of you,” Mrs. Johnson said, her voice hoarse with near hysteria, “in the house! Get in the house! The bees will sting you!”
Tears jammed into Cari’s eyes as she stubbornly stood her ground between her teacher and the fruit tree. She could hear the soft, gentle buzzing of twenty thousand honeybees all in a ball, protecting the queen, in the center of it, who had flown from someone’s beehive to find a new home. The hive had become crowded with too many bees and the queen had taken half of her female worker bees and perhaps some of her drones who attended her, on a flight from the hive in order to find a less crowded place to start a new hive. Cari knew this, but it was obvious blond-haired Mrs. Johnson, who was only twenty-two years old, did not. She was frantically gathering all her five- and six-year-old charges to her, pushing them gently toward the rear door of the house.
“I’ll call the fire department,” she told the kids, continuing to herd them inside. “They’ll kill the bees and you’ll be safe. Then, you can go outside and play on the swings, slides, and monkey bars.”
Cari followed dejectedly, hearing the teacher’s words. Oh, no! She turned on her small heel, looking longingly at the ball of bees. They wouldn’t hurt anyone. How could she get the teacher to believe her?
“Cari! Get in here!” Mrs. Johnson ordered, gesturing frantically. “Hurry up! The bees could come and sting you to death! Run!”
Grudgingly, she came, a pout on her lips. She shook her head as she approached her teacher. “They won’t hurt anyone!” she cried out. “Don’t kill them! They’ll leave in a bit. They’re just resting. They’re trying to find a new home, is all!”
Frustration appeared on Lucy Johnson’s face. She grabbed Cari’s pink T-shirt by the shoulder, pulling her forward. “Get in the house! You must be kept safe!”
Cari entered the house. All the kids were in the large sleeping area where they took naps, looking at one another, some afraid, some upset, some curious, and others stressed. A few were crying. Mrs. Johnson had never been in such a dramatic and emotional state like this before and it scared all of them. She was afraid of bees. Dodging to the right, Cari ran out of the room, down the hall, and into another room that led to the rear door out to the backyard playground. As she quietly, like a shadow, edged toward that hallway, she saw Mrs. Johnson pick up the phone, dial 911, her voice cracking with fear as she told the dispatcher that the fire department had to get over here right now. They had to kill the bees in order to protect her children.
Cari slipped away when Mrs. Johnson turned her back on the nap room. On tiptoes, she ran to the rear exit. Heart pumping with terror for her bee friends, she leaped down the steps, ran across the yard to the fruit tree. Just above her, the group of bees were surrounding a fork in a large branch. Terror filled her as she looked back at the door, making sure Mrs. Johnson didn’t discover her out here. Would she find her missing?
Pursing her small mouth, Cari closed her eyes and sent a mental message to the queen bee she knew was at the center of this swarm of honeybees. She had been taught that she could “talk” to the bees with her mind. “Let me find you, queen. Guide me to you. I need to carry you out of here or they will come and murder all of you! I’ll take you down the alley. There’s a nice fruit tree orchard at the other end. I’ll find a safe place for you!”
She opened her eyes, struggled up the trunk, grabbing branches to hoist herself up to the mass of bees.
Without hesitation, Cari gently placed her small fingers into the mass. The bees were humming, but were not upset by her nearness. They felt like warm, living, soft velvet enclosing her as she eased her fingers down, down, down toward the center. The edge of the bee swarm was almost up to her armpit as she slowly, gently, felt around for the large queen. There! She’d found her!
The bees continued to hum, not at all perturbed by Cari’s arm stuck into their swarm ball.
Mentally, Cari told the queen that she would ease her into her palm, close her fingers carefully around her, and slowly draw her out of the center. She felt the queen, who had a much larger, longer body, and cupped her palm beneath her. In a moment, she had the queen and began to ease her hand back, bringing her out of the swarm.
The bees continued to hum, undisturbed by her human presence.
Once her hand drew free, Cari struggled down to the ground, carefully holding the queen, ensuring she would not accidentally squeeze her and kill her. Running for the gate, she unlatched it, moved outside of it, closed it, turned right, and dug her toes into the dirt of the alleyway, running as hard as she could. The wind tore past her, her mouth open, gasping for air as she passed the alleyway and headed into the huge stand of apple trees in the nearby farm orchard. Spotting an easy-to-climb fruit tree, Cari raced over to it, nearly tripping on a small rise of dirt in her path.
Climbing awkwardly, with one hand only, she wriggled up into the tree, spotting a low-hanging Y-shaped branch. Cari was sobbing for breath, tired and worried. What if Mrs. Johnson did a head count and found her missing? That would be very, very bad for Cari. But she had to rescue her bees! They couldn’t be murdered by the firefighters! And the fire department was not that far away from the day care house.
Gasping, her lungs burning with exertion from her run, she twisted a look over her shoulder. There, behind her, was a dark cloud of honeybees flying toward her, following the pheromone scent of their queen, heading directly to where Cari was standing.
She told the queen that she’d be safe here with her family, that no one would find or hurt them. Gently placing the queen on the fork of the branches, Cari pushed off and fell to the ground, landing on her hands and knees. Quickly leaping up, brushing off the knees of her jeans, she raced back toward the alley, opened the gate and slipped in, latching it behind her.
Once inside, Cari hurriedly tiptoed through the supply room, cracked the door to the hall and peered out. She could hear the teacher talking loudly to the firefighters who had just arrived. Her heart felt like it was going to burst out of her chest, and she walked quietly down the hall, edging silently toward the nap room. All the children were gathered together, frightened, some clinging to Mrs. Johnson’s slacks. There were three firefighters standing there, listening to her.
Cari tried to slow down her heart, still breathing through her mouth, trying to remain undetected and quiet. She pressed her back to the hall wall and listened intently.
“Well,” the lieutenant was saying, “we have foam, Mrs. Johnson. We can use that to get rid of the bees. We’ll go look at that fruit tree and assess the situation. We could also call a beekeeper to come and get them. That way, they wouldn’t be killed.”
“I want them killed!” Mrs. Johnson said, her voice high-pitched with fear. Her arms weren’t long enough to hold all the children who were now fully frightened and watching the firefighters with trepidation.
Cari knew the bees would be gone. They followed the queen, no matter where she flew. Leaning down, she made sure her knees weren’t dusty looking, or sharp-eyed Mrs. Johnson would see the patches on her jeans and ask a lot of questions that Cari didn’t want to answer. She straightened and saw the children dispersing from around the teacher, wandering about, not knowing what to do.
Mrs. Johnson had left them and went to the back door to watch the firefighters as they tramped through the house and out the rear door. It was then that Cari silently slipped back among them, no one having missed her presence under the circumstances.
Just as Cari got comfortable on her little bed in the corner of the nap room, she heard the door open and close, the clomping of heavy boots, the firefighters moving back near the front door and the nap room.
“Well?” Mrs. Johnson demanded. “Did you see them?”
“No, ma’am,” the lieutenant said. “They’re gone.”
“What? No! That’s impossible!” she said, hurrying past them, disappearing as she headed for the rear door.
Cari held her breath for a moment. The bees were gone! Relief made her sag, her small back against the corner of the two walls. She heard the click-clack of Mrs. Johnson’s low-heeled shoes echoing and coming closer and closer.
“They are gone!” she exclaimed to the firefighters. “Where did they go? Are they hanging around? Will they come back?”
“No, ma’am, they’re gone and we don’t know where they flew. That’s a swarm. In the spring, honeybees will swarm if their hive is too crowded. They’re harmless, really. When they’re swarming, they don’t sting anyone. They’re following their queen to a new home, is all.”
“So? They won’t return to harm the children?”
“They would never harm anyone,” the lieutenant said. “Now, it’s safe to let the kids out into the playground.”
“Heck,” one of the other firefighters said, “you might even use this as a teachable moment for the kids, ma’am. Let the children learn about bee swarms and why they happen?”
Mrs. Johnson curled her lip, glaring at the younger man. “Never! This was a dangerous situation to my children! I’m charged with their safety and welfare. I hate insects!”
The lieutenant shrugged and lifted his hand. “Come on,” he told his team, “we’re done here. You and your children are safe now, Mrs. Johnson.”
And so were her bees, Cari thought, staying silent, remaining the shadow that she was. When she got home this afternoon? She’d tell her parents what happened. They’d be proud of her for helping the queen and her worker bees to safety. But she could never tell the teacher what really happened. Not ever. Mrs. Johnson would not be happy, and Cari knew she’d get five minutes of detention staring at a corner if she was found out. Secrets were good.
When the dream ended, Cari opened her eyes, awake in the darkness of her bedroom in her San Francisco loft. Looking at a digital clock, the red numbers said 3:13 a.m. Ugh. Why did she have such a rich dream life? Most nights, she had happy dreams. Flights of fancy. But tonight? This one was different.
Sitting up in bed, she rubbed her face, pushing back strands of her black hair away from her face. At twenty-nine years old, her life was like a dream come true. She was a beekeeping consultant with an MBA and worked with countries around the world, showing them how to make beekeeping and the honey they made in their hives a commercial venture.
Because the bee populations around the world were nosediving thanks to pesticides, hive collapses, and loss of rural land for the bees to gather pollen from local flowers, they were in a crisis. A global one.
Cari worked for the state of California as their bee expert and was always busy with the farmers from the Imperial Valley, where so many crops grew. The many almond orchards thrived and all were dependent upon bee pollinators. That was where she came in, giving them sound, healthy advice on what beehives need in order to pollinate the crops successfully. No cutting corners, no use of bee-killing pesticides, she tried to get farmers to work with more organic and sustainable ways to grow their crops, as well as to protect the sagging honeybee population.
She saw herself as a Don Quixote tilting at windmills at times, because agriculture wanted to use pesticides. Now there was a global clash on using them, and billions of bees were dying off at such a swift rate, it would take a toll on how many crops would not be pollinated. No pollination? No food. Starvation could occur. Combine that with a horrifying loss of birds—another pollinator—every year, Mother Earth was in a real crisis, thanks to man.
She felt like a frontline warrior trying to help both types to not only survive, but thrive. There were many raptor rehabilitator activists and bird sanctuaries around the world fighting right alongside of her to protect all bird species, just as she was fighting to save bees.
Sighing, she got up, knowing that she’d never go back to sleep.
The phone rang. Frowning, she picked it up.
“Hello?” Who would be calling at this time in the morning?
“This is the sheriff, ma’am. Am I speaking to Ms. Cari Taylor?”
“Yes?” A frown creased her brow as she sat down on the edge of her bed. “Why are you calling me? What’s wrong?”
“Ma’am, your stepbrother, Dirk Bannock, just escaped from the prison. The officials from that prison called us about it. We’ve already contacted your parents, and now we’re letting you know.”
Gasping, Cari shot to her feet. “What? Dirk broke out? He’s on the loose?” Instantly her heart thundered in her chest, and she felt suddenly dizzy, abruptly sitting down, her one hand wrapping into the quilt cover across her bed. Was she still dreaming? This was a nightmare! It couldn’t be true!
Oh, God, if it was?
Dirk had entered her life when her mother married Blake Bannock, a civil engineer. He had a son from his former marriage, Dirk, when he married her mother, Nalani,
Terror ripped through her. She suddenly felt faint from the shock. “B-but, he was in for twenty-five years for murder!”
“Yes, ma’am, we know. We have an all-points bulletin out to all law enforcement, and we’re working with the prison directly to find and apprehend him.”
Pressing her hand to her chest, feeling the pounding of her heart, adrenaline racing through her, she whispered frantically, “But he promised to come after me! He threatened me in open court. He’ll kill me!”
“Yes, ma’am, we’re very well aware of that. We are sending a police unit over to your home. They will be on watch twenty-four hours a day.”
Her throat ached, and she squeezed her eyes shut, hot tears streaming out of them. “H-he said he’d kill me. You have to find him!”
“We’re doing our best.”
“What about my parents?” Dirk hated her mother and her. He was competitive and wanted all the attention of his father, who now shared it with his second wife and Cari, a product of Nalani’s first marriage. Dirk had hated her the moment he met her. He saw her as direct competition.
“They also have police protection.”
“But for how long?” Though Dirk had threatened her mother, the biggest part of his hatred was reserved for Cari. She’d seen him fire the handgun at his girlfriend, Denise, and murder her. He was a cold-blooded killer. In court, a psychiatrist had labeled him as sociopathic. His world consisted of his rules and regulations. He defied the laws of society at every turn.
By age twelve, he was selling drugs at his school. And that was when he became an addict. By age fifteen, Dirk had amassed a group of boys who sold the drugs over an even larger area where they had lived. And by the time she was sixteen years old, and saw him murder Denise, he was a regional drug lord. And as much as law enforcement tried to indict him for drug running, Dirk was incredibly intelligent and was able to avoid being caught.
Until Denise. She felt sorry for the girl then, as she did now. Dirk was a law unto himself. Cari wondered during the trial if he’d murdered other kids. If so, it had never been found out. But her intuition, which was very strong, told her that Denise had not been his first victim. Or his last.
“How long can you give us protection?” she demanded.
“Ma’am, we can’t do it forever, but we will make sure while we try and hunt him down, that you are protected twenty-four hours a day.”
That wasn’t much consolation because Cari knew how smart Dirk was. He hadn’t graduated high school, disappearing into the massive suburbs around their home with his gang. She’d seen it all happen with her own eyes, never interested in taking drugs or selling them, which he’d wanted her to do. She’d told her parents about his illegal activities, and they had talked with law enforcement, spent tons of money with psychiatrists and social workers, to try and “save” Dirk.
But none of that type of support had worked. Dirk was out of control with a fierce, focused need to have his own “army,” as he’d referred to his drug gang. And, he hated women. Especially her. Dirk had created a tattoo when he was twelve to make the boys around him feel like they were part of something special. Anyone wearing the Nazi swastika on their left forearm, with the word WARRIOR below it, indicated that he was one of Dirk’s followers.
Too often, Cari had seen him in school with his gang, bullying other boys and girls, as well as selling drugs anytime he could get away with it. He was always being sent to the principal’s office, always getting his hand slapped, but he wouldn’t stop. Adults didn’t scare him in the least. In fact, Cari wondered if anything scared him. She was sure as hell afraid of him.
She wondered about her parents. Were they still up? It was near four a.m. Should she call them now or wait until a decent hour? And what about herself? She usually took the bus into work, her car left in the garage beneath the townhouse. Was she safe to go out now or not? Was Dirk nearby? Watching where she lived? Waiting to jump her and put a bullet in her head like he had through Denise’s head?
A cold wash of terror, so deep and upsetting, flowed through her. Intuitively, Cari knew Dirk would go after her first. He hated her more than anyone else on earth.
Sitting on the bed, she heard herself say into the phone to the sheriff, “What if he jumps me on the way to work?”
“Ma’am, we don’t have those kinds of resources. The best we can do is to watch your townhouse.”
Her throat closed up with dread, her hand moving against her neck, her fingers tightening around the phone. “What can I do? How do I protect myself? Dirk hated me and he hates my mother. What if he goes to attack her?”
“We’ve already talked to your parents, ma’am. They know the realities of this. Maybe you should take a vacation and remove yourself from this area for a week or two? We hope to catch him by then.”
That was little comfort for something that was life-or-death to Cari. “A vacation?” There was derision in her tone. Disbelief. “That’s the best you can do to protect us?”
“We told your parents to hire a trained bodyguard who could provide around-the-clock protection. You could do the same.”
That blew her away. “I’m sure a personal bodyguard for hire would cost a fortune.”
“Yes, ma’am, it would be a lot of money.”
Anger wound through her. “Will you keep me and my parents informed on your search to find Dirk?”
“Yes, we will. Once he’s caught, you’ll be the first to know.”
“Did he escape alone or with others?”
“No. He was alone.”
“He had a huge drug ring. Wouldn’t it be logical that someone in that group helped him from the outside?”
“The prison is still trying to trace his steps to escape. I don’t have those answers yet, but once we do? We’ll be in touch with all of you.”
Her voice drained. “Okay, thanks for letting me know.” And she hung up, sitting there, staring at the window with the blind drawn. A bit of light leaked in around the edges of it. Living in the city meant she couldn’t see the stars at night, something she’d loved as a child. But now, having streetlights felt comforting, making her feel less unsafe.
What was she going to do? What? Her mind was a clash of questions and no answers. What if they didn’t catch Dirk? Prisoners had escaped before and disappeared. Why couldn’t he? And she knew he was like a chameleon. He was scarily intelligent, crafty, and strategic in his thinking.
She wiped her cheeks dry. Tears of fear.
The phone rang.
Cari jumped. Her heart took off in a wild staccato beat.
“Hello . . .” she whispered, afraid of who might be on the other end.
“Thank goodness you’re there.”
Relief plunged through her. It was her mother.
“Mom? Are you and Blake okay?”
“We’re fine, Cari. I just wanted to call you to see if you’d heard from the sheriff yet.”
“I-I just got off the phone with them. What are we going to do?”
“Not much except wait,” Nalani said, sadness in her tone.
“How is Blake taking this?” After all, Dirk was his son.
“Not well at all. He’s torn between Dirk maybe getting killed if law enforcement corners him, to Dirk hunting you and me down like he promised he would once he got out.”
That cold, icy hand gripped her heart again. “Yes,” she whispered faintly, “I’ve never forgotten, Mom.”
“Neither of us have. He’s so smart,” she said wearily. “A brilliant genius gone astray.”
Cari snorted. “He’s a cold-blooded murderer, Mom. I don’t care how smart he is.”
“You’re right, of course. We need a plan, Cari. What if they don’t capture him? I know in my soul he’s going after you first, and I’m tied in knots worrying about it.”
Her hand tightened on the phone. “Yes . . . he will. I feel so helpless. What can I do? I hate guns with a passion. I don’t want to learn how to carry or shoot one. I couldn’t kill anything, you know that. God, I’ve had such a wonderful life since graduating. I have a dream job, something I love. Everything was going so well . . .”
Nalani sighed loudly. “Blake and I were talking about that just now. If Dirk isn’t caught in two weeks, we both think you need to leave the state, get another job where Dirk won’t find you. That way, you can at least have some peace. I know how much this is going to affect you daily, Cari. You’re not the kind of person to deal with this type of situation long term. If they don’t apprehend Dirk, we don’t have a hundred thousand dollars a year to pay for one bodyguard, much less two of them, to protect you and me.”
“Is that how much it costs?”
“Actually, most bodyguards get around a hundred and fifty thousand dollars and upward, a year. We don’t have that kind of money.”
“And I don’t either,” she whispered wearily.
“His hatred is aimed at you, darling girl, and we’re sick over this. We’ll be fine. Blake is a hunter and we have guns in the house. He also can get both of us a concealed carry permit to have a weapon on us, which would make me feel much safer. I know you would not go that route.”
“No, never . . . I saw him fire his gun at Denise . . . it’s something I’ll never forget, Mom. I-I just can’t . . .”
“Which is why we think you should look for another job, Cari. My sense tells me Dirk isn’t going to be recaptured very soon, and we need to keep you safe. We need a long-range plan in case he isn’t in custody in the next two weeks. Also? We’d like you to vacate your townhouse for now. Blake would like to see you go on vacation. Dirk could wait for you when you leave to go to work, too.”
“I’ve already thought of that . . .”
“Would you do that for us? We don’t trust the authorities to know your whereabouts. Computer information gets hacked out of sheriffs’ departments, too. We want to wipe your footprints clear of your job and where you live.”
“To tell you the truth, I hadn’t thought of these things. Yes, I think what I’ll do is take my car and go to Muir Woods and the redwoods. I can get an extended motel room rental in nearby Mill Valley. I would feel safe there because I know the area well. I can do a lot of hiking. The redwoods always give me a profound sense of peace, and it’s so calming and healing an area for me.”
“Plus, you didn’t start going there until after Dirk was in prison. He doesn’t know your haunts, wher. . .
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