She'd bring down a criminal
With or without his lawyer’s help.
Deputy Lori Cabrera is shocked to discover that a powerful local businessman is a front for a drug-trafficking ring tucked away in her own rural Georgia community. It figures his defense attorney is none other than the distractingly handsome Simon Wingate. Can Lori convince Simon his client is guilty as sin? If she can, the big-city attorney could be putting more than his heart on the line to see that justice is served.
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: Trial in the Backwoods
Release date: August 24, 2021
Print pages: 256
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For the Defense
“Interview with Deputy Lourdes Cabrera, Masters County Sheriff’s Department. Deputy Cabrera, would you please tell us what you witnessed in the early-morning hours of September 28?”
Lori had to refrain from rolling her eyes while Danielle Anderson spoke into her cell like it was a microphone. She understood the need for an official statement, but the assistant district attorney sounded like she was reading from a television script. They may not have been besties, but they worked in separate wings of the same building. Heck, they’d been at the same Chic Chef housewares party the previous weekend. But for the sake of the teenage girl she’d picked up walking Highway 19 alone at two in the morning, Lori tamped down the urge to snark and spoke directly into the microphone on the proffered device.
“I was returning from a call when I saw a young girl—uh, a female who appeared to be underage—walking along the side of the road.”
“You’d had a call so late?” Danielle interrupted.
This time, Lori did smirk, and she shot a look at the sheriff seated at his desk at the back of the room. Sheriff Ben Kinsella wore a bemused half smile. They complained all the time about how civilians didn’t actually understand their jobs, and their own assistant district attorney had proved them right. Calls in the wee hours were not at all out of the ordinary in their line of work, even in small rural communities.
“Yes. There’d been a report of a domestic disturbance at a home on Highway 19 west of the county line. I took the call through direct dispatch. I was already out on patrol and requested backup from Prescott County since many of the lots in the area straddle the county line. We often provide backup for one another in those situations,” she explained.
“You were heading back toward Pine Bluff when you noticed the young woman walking alone so late?”
“Yes.” Lori shifted closer to the edge of the chair.
“Can you tell me what made you stop?”
Lori blinked. Sometimes she forgot not everyone would have pulled over for a stranger walking along the road at such a dangerous hour. Cop or not. “I stopped because it’s dangerous for people to walk along unlit county roads in the dark of night,” she replied evenly.
“The person you picked up, was she known to you?”
Lori had to force herself to remember they were having this pedantic discussion for a reason. Leaning closer to the phone, she looked up at the ADA and spoke directly into the phone. “No, ma’am. I had never met her.” She moved back, carefully maintaining eye contact with the lawyer. “I pulled to the side of the road and approached her from behind, identifying myself as a sheriff’s deputy.”
“Did she try to run?”
The question made Lori frown. “No.” She paused, trying to figure out the attorney’s angle. “Well, I guess technically she did, but she ran toward me,” she said, enunciating each word for the sake of eventual transcription.
“She ran toward you and said what?” Danielle prompted.
“She said, ‘Thank God. Can you help me? I want to go home.’” A shiver raced down Lori’s spine when she recalled the edgy desperation in the girl’s voice.
“What happened then?”
“I took her name and address. Bella Nunes. She gave me a street address in Jennings, Florida. When I found her, she was dressed in a pair of bathing suit bottoms, a tank top and a pair of cheap rubber flip-flops. No purse, no ID.”
She stopped there, thinking back over the information she’d been able to glean from the trembling girl between sobs.
“She told me she was fifteen. She said she’d been staying with a friend who moved up here, but that she wanted to go home. When I pressed her about the friend’s identity, she clammed up.”
“Ms. Nunes offered no other information? Where this friend lived? A name?”
Lori shook her head. “No. She refused to tell me where she was coming from or who she’d been with.”
“Did you have some suspicions based on where she’d been walking and knowledge of the residents in the area?” Danielle probed.
Lori glanced over at her boss, needing the reassurance she hadn’t gone off half-cocked when drawing her conclusions. The sheriff inclined his head, urging her to continue.
“There are only three residences within a two-mile radius of where I found Ms. Nunes. I didn’t see her on my way out there, and when I found her, she wasn’t walking at a brisk pace. One of the straps on her sandals had broken. The edges of the road are crumbling. She told me she was scared to walk in the grass because of snakes.”
“Said she’d seen enough snakes to last a lifetime,” Lori answered flatly.
“And she wouldn’t say where she was coming from?” Danielle repeated.
“No.” Lori leaned forward, her gaze locked on the other woman as she spoke. “There are only three residences in the radius. One was the residence I was called to for the domestic disturbance. One is owned by a widow named Hazel Johnson and is located closer to town. When we passed, I checked, and all of the lights at Mrs. Johnson’s place were out.”
“And the property belonging to Samuel Coulter was the only one left?” Danielle asked.
“What type of business does Mr. Coulter run on his property?”
Lori was about to answer when the door to the sheriff’s department swung open and the district attorney, Harrison Hayes, strode in. “Hold up,” he said, lifting a hand to back up his order.
Danielle jabbed at the screen to stop the recording. The familiar squeak and roll of Ben’s desk chair told her the sheriff had come to his feet. The grim resignation on the DA’s face made a knot of ice form in her stomach. Obviously, the DA’s meeting with Samuel Coulter and his attorney hadn’t gone as expected.
Rising to her feet, Lori peered through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls into the reception area separating the county’s legal offices from the law enforcement branch. She spotted them by the empty mosaic-tiled fountain. Two men, one nearly as handsome as the other, but both equally repugnant to her.
Coulter and his attorney, Simon Wingate, stood with their heads bent close to one another. Lori’s lip curled. There’d been few sightings of the eccentric millionaire since he’d bought the massive acreage out on Highway 19. She’d heard rumors about the man being good-looking, but... Lori narrowed her eyes. He wasn’t just handsome; he was gorgeous.
Disgusted with the thought, she shifted her attention to the man’s clothes. What did a man suspected of endangering young women wear to be questioned by the local prosecutors? Loose linen pants and a finely woven white shirt. And flip-flops. Not the cheap dollar-store shower shoes Bella’d been wearing. No, his had wide straps fashioned from supple leather. He looked like a guy on vacation.
The sandals were a sharp contrast to the impeccably shined wing tips the man standing next to him wore.
Simon Wingate looked every inch the prep-school-educated politician’s son.
Lori clenched her back teeth and focused on the man in the expertly tailored suit. He was the light to his client’s dark. The perfect foil. All warm, gold-tipped curls, crinkly blue eyes and sun-kissed skin. Lori was woman enough to admit her mouth sometimes watered when she saw Simon Wingate. Not today, though.
Masters County’s newest resident had lawyered up and come to head them off at the pass. No doubt Coulter waved a wad of cash, and city slicker Simon had come a-runnin’. Judging by Coulter’s unperturbed expression and the district attorney’s abrupt halt to Lori’s statement, whatever they said had worked. He was about to slither out the doors of Masters County Municipal Center a free man.
“Snakes,” Lori said, her gaze following the two men exiting the building. The outer door closed behind them, and she refocused her indignation on the DA. “The man buys, sells and breeds exotic snakes.”
“Which is not illegal,” Hayes replied calmly.
“Bella Nunes said he threatened her with his damn snakes,” Lori blurted, losing her cool at last.
Hayes held up a placating hand. “I am aware of Ms. Nunes’s accusations. I am also aware she is not fifteen. She is actually eighteen years old, a three-time runaway prior to her eighteenth birthday, and has a history of embellishing stories when she gets caught in a difficult spot. Or so her parents say.”
Sheriff Kinsella approached. “You’re not pressing charges?”
Hayes shrugged. “Would if I thought I could get something to stick. All I have is a complaint filed by a young woman who claimed to be fifteen, when in fact she is eighteen. She is an adult who admits she came here of her own free will, whether she regrets that decision now or not. She said herself no one was around when Coulter allegedly—”
Offended on Bella’s behalf, Lori bristled. “He locked her in a cage with a boa constrictor!”
“So she says,” the district attorney retorted, his expression grave. “He says he didn’t and has offered to provide witnesses to refute Ms. Nunes’s claims. She has no witnesses to say she was mistreated. Our hands are tied.”
The man’s mouth flattened into a grim line, and Lori could see he didn’t care for the outcome of his interview with Coulter any more than she did. Exhaling with a whoosh, she dropped back into her chair and made a concerted effort not to appear sulky.
“Right. I get you,” she conceded.
The prosecutor inclined his head, the corners of his mouth pulled tight. “Mr. Coulter has generously offered to pay for her bus ticket back to Florida.”
“What a guy.” Danielle pocketed her phone and headed for the door.
The rhetorical statement caused the sheriff to snort. Harrison Hayes’s expression, on the other hand, remained somber while he watched his associate approach.
At last, the DA cracked. A smirk twisting his lips, he held the lobby door open for Danielle. After making sure the door was closed again, he pivoted, a hand raised in helpless surrender. “For what it’s worth, I don’t disagree with your instincts, Deputy. There is something off about the guy, and I’m not only talking about the snake eyes.”
“Snake eyes?” Ben asked.
“So he does have creepy eyes?” Lori asked, swiping Bella Nunes’s choice of descriptors.
Hayes gestured to his own left eye. “Elongated pupil,” he explained. “I’m man enough to admit it’s disconcerting, given the guy’s obsession with reptiles.”
Lori nodded, her lips quirking at Hayes’s barely concealed shudder. “You think he’s some sort of cult leader?”
“He may be, but I can tell you this,” the DA said, opening the office door again. “I wouldn’t follow the guy across the street.”
When they were gone, Lori swiveled her chair to face her boss. “Well, damn.”
Ben nodded and moved back to his own desk. “She’s spent the morning at Reverend Mitchell’s house. I’ll go by and let them know what’s happening. I’m sure I can work something out with him on the bus ticket. Maybe there’s some kind of charity fund. If not, I’ll talk to Marlee. I don’t want Ms. Nunes to feel beholden to Coulter in any way.”
Lori hid her smile. When Ben’s girlfriend, Marlee Masters, had come home to Pine Bluff, most of the townspeople had been poised to write her off as nothing more than the small-town princess she’d been once upon a time—pretty and petted and cooed over by everyone. Marlee had changed since the loss of her only brother. Her father had suffered a debilitating stroke a few months prior, and Marlee had not only taken over the reins of the family business, but she’d also stepped straight into the role of civic leader.
Marlee was a Masters of Masters County, Georgia. If she wanted there to be a charity doling out bus tickets home to wayward young women with questionable taste in men, by God, there’d be one set up by morning.
“Thank you.” Lori sighed and closed the spiral notebook she had open on the desk. She’d had her notes all ready in case she needed to refer to them while making her statement, but she might as well ball them up and toss them in the trash.
“We’ll maintain a closer watch on things happening out along Highway 19,” Ben said, keeping the order casual and open. “Tourists have started coming to visit Cottonmouth Coulter’s Reptile Rendezvous. From what I hear, it’s all the kids in town can talk about. We should be on guard for an uptick in activity.”
Lori bit her lip. She knew she was too personally invested in Bella Nunes’s drama. She used to be better at compartmentalizing stuff like this, but lately... Lately Lori was having a harder time keeping a tight lid on her emotions. She sensed Ben was aware of her struggle, was throwing her a bone. Lori appreciated his concern but at the same time wished she could just suck it up.
Thankfully, Ben believed in her hunch about Coulter. They were experienced, intuitive cops who put stock in niggling suspicion. Suspicion often turned into hard evidence. They were both the sorts who weren’t afraid to pick and pull at the flimsiest of threads to see what unraveled and what they could learn from the results.
“I’ll talk to Mike about it when he comes on shift. Give him some pointers on what to look out for.” She dropped her notes on the Nunes incident into the shredder near the desk she shared with Deputy Mike Schaeffer.
Mike’s seniority irked her. He’d only been at the sheriff’s department two weeks longer than her and had less experience. She’d finished her initial entry training at Fort Leonard Wood and stayed on for military police school. She finished her stint in the corrections brigade at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Mike, a homegrown boy who’d graduated a year behind her, had partied at the University of Georgia for a couple of semesters. After he failed to make the grade there, he landed at Georgia Piedmont Tech’s law enforcement academy, and he was hired two weeks after his twenty-first birthday.
Loyal and almost too eager to please, Mike was a nice guy. Which made it even harder for her to resent him. Most of the time. Though it irked her that she seemed destined to train men who outranked her.
“How about a milkshake?” Ben asked, jolting her from her thoughts. “I sure could use something cold and sweet to wash this sour taste out of my mouth.”
Lori saw him wriggling his wallet from his back pocket. “You buying?
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