Read an Excerpt
Sweat poured from Lance Morgan's hairline, despite the rising wind, as he continued to dig deep into the loamy earth in the woods outside of Bordelaise, Louisiana. Austin Ball's rental car, the car he'd used to get here, was just a few feet away. Lance wouldn't look at the body, rolled up in the rug behind him, which he intended to bury, or think about the fact that his great-great-great-grandmother had saved that very rug from the Yankees during the War of Northern Aggression. What he'd done, he couldn't take back, which was a metaphor for his life. It was what he'd done to begin with that had gotten him into this mess.
He stabbed the shovel back into the Louisiana loam, scooped out yet another shovelful of dirt and threw it on top of the growing pile as he thought back over the mistake he'd made that had brought him to this end.
Borrowing money from a Chicago loan shark like Dominic Martinelli and using the family estate, Morgan's Reach, as collateral had been risky. It had been in the Morgan family for over two hundred years, and being responsible for losing it was simply not a possibility. He couldn't be known as the Morgan who'd squandered the family estate.
At first he'd had no trouble meeting his payments, and then weather and bad crop prices had combined, and he'd started falling behind on payments. He'd made excuses, sent e-mails promising money that never arrived. Before he knew it, he was six months in arrears.
Yesterday, when he'd received a phone call from Austin Ball, of Meacham and Ball, Esquire, who represented Martinelli, informing Lance that he was bringing some papers for him to sign, Lance had just assumed it was an extension on his outstanding loan.
He had prepared a lunch for two of Caesar salad, lobster rolls and some of his favorite brownies from a bakery in town. He'd even brought up a bottle of wine from the old wine cellar, and pulled out his mother's best china and crystal on which to serve the meal.
Ball had arrived on time, driving a black rental car, and sweating profusely beneath his gray worsted suit. Lance had taken some satisfaction in the lawyer's discomfort. Any fool worth his salt would have known not to wear wool in Louisiana during the month of September.
It wasn't until after the meal that Ball had announced Martinelli's intentions to foreclose and produced papers to that effect, instead of the ones Lance had expected.
Lance's disbelief had been palpable. Heart-thumping. Hand-sweating. Gut-wrenching. He'd presented a logical solution: more time. It had been rejected, with the failing economy as an excuse. That was when Lance begged. When that failed, he lost his mind.
The moment Ball turned his back to pick up his briefcase, Lance grabbed a baseball bat that had been hanging on the library wall since his high school days and hit the lawyer in the back of the head with the same fervor as when he'd hit the ball over the fence and sealed the county championship during his senior year of high school. That swing had ended the game. This one ended Ball's life. Austin Ball dropped without uttering a sound. Even though he was down, and very obviously dead, Lance continued to swing. By the time he got himself together, nearly every bone in Ball's body was broken, and blood was everywhere.
That was when panic hit.
He dropped the bat beside the body, rolled them up together into the rug on which Ball had dropped and dragged it out of the house and into the rental car Ball had driven out to his property.
Still in a state of hysteria, and fearing someone would drive up at any minute and catch him in such a bloody mess, he ran back inside and began cleaning up all the blood splatter. With one eye on the clock, he tore off all his clothing and threw it into the washing machine, then raced through the house to his bedroom naked and dressed again. Minutes later he was in the rental car, driving on a narrow, single-lane road that led into the woods behind the family home. He needed to hide the body, and though he'd never dug anything deeper than a hole to plant flower bulbs, he was about to dig his first grave.
Now here he was, almost an hour later, battling panic and regret. The palms of his hands were burning. He would definitely have blisters. His back was aching, and his heart was pounding so hard he feared he might have a heart attack and die in the grave he was digging for Austin Ball.
As a gust of wind swirled the loose leaves into an eddy, then sent them flying across the forest floor toward where he was digging, he glanced up at the sky. A storm predicted earlier in the day was almost upon him.
"Son of a bitch," he muttered, and dug a little harder.
It was getting darker. The hurricane in the Gulf was going to miss them, but it had obviously stirred up some rough weather. He had to get Ball's body buried before it started to rain or, with Louisiana's loamy soil and an elevation barely above sea level, the damn thing was likely to float out. He jabbed the point of the shovel back into the earth. Just as he was about to throw out another scoop, he heard what sounded like a gasp, then a scream. The sound was so unexpected that he nearly died on the spot. He pivoted in panic, then stared in disbelief.
The hair rose on the back of Carolina North's neck as she rubbed her finger and thumb together, smearing the droplet that she'd found on the leaves of the forest floor. Her morning walk had just taken a startling turn.
It was blood!
She'd been seeing the small red spots for some time but thought them nothing more than autumn's natural colors. Now the bright red hue had taken on a more sinister meaning.
The next question had to be, was it animal or human?
At twenty-nine and a successful author, the mystery writer in her wanted to know the answer, and the only way she would find out was to follow the trail. She glanced up at the gathering clouds. From the look of the sky, they were in for some bad weather. The side winds from a hurricane were forecast to brush the Louisiana coast sometime today, although the brunt of the storm was predicted to go farther south and west, and hit Galveston, Texas. She was sorry for Galveston, but sincerely happy this one was going to miss them. Still, all kinds of storms could erupt from such turbulent weather. The smart thing to do would be to turn around and head for home before she got soaked, but her conscience wouldn't let her. It could be something as innocent as a hiker like herself who'd been injured and was now wandering the Louisiana woods and bayous in search of help. What kind of a person would she be if she ignored the possibility of helping someone?
She paused long enough to get her bearings, although she wasn't far from the home she shared with her aging parents. If she walked up on an injured animal, which could prove dangerous, she needed to know which way to run to safety.
With a touch of anxiety, Cari moved forward, although the wind from the storm front was getting stronger and the blood trail was almost gone. She was on the verge of turning around and making a run for home when she stumbled into a small clearing. It was a familiar place—a clearing in which she had played countless times as a child.
At first, all she saw was an unfamiliar black car. Then she took a couple of steps to the right and realized there was a man standing in a very deep hole and shoveling out dirt. Within seconds she recognized Lance. He was someone she'd grown up with—a man she'd once been engaged to until she'd caught him in bed with a stripper from Baton Rouge. She watched for a moment, noticing the frantic manner in which he was digging.
What on earth…?
Before she could call out and announce her presence, the wind gusted sharply, blowing back the corner of what she'd first taken to be a pile of rags. When she saw the face and shoulder of a man's bloody body suddenly revealed, she realized she'd found the source of the blood.
And then it hit her.
The man was dead. And the hole Lance was digging was a grave.
Before she thought, she screamed, and for a few, life-altering seconds, Cari had an out-of-body experience as she found herself staring into the eyes of a killer. That it was Lance Morgan, her closest neighbor and childhood friend, seemed impossible.
She heard him shout out her name, and when he started to climb out of the hole, instinct told her to run.
So she did.
Within the space of a heartbeat, she was gone—running toward home as fast as she could go, without looking back. The wind was at her heels now, pushing at her, urging her faster and faster. Leaves were being torn from the trees and swirling around her head in a blizzard of reds and yellows. The wind was rattling the limbs overhead so sharply she kept thinking she was being shot at. Once she stumbled and fell to her knees, but she quickly caught herself and sprang up. With one frantic look over her shoulder to make sure Lance wasn't on her heels, she bolted.
Desperate to notify the authorities before Lance caught her, she pulled out her cell phone as she ran, intent on calling 911, but she couldn't get a signal. Blaming the lowlands and the oncoming storm, she kept on running, praying for a miracle.
With each passing second, she imagined she could hear Lance's footsteps coming up behind her and feared that—at any moment—she would be caught and overpowered. When a strong gust of wind suddenly sent a dead limb flying from overhead to land on her heels, she pitched forward, certain that she'd been caught. Screaming and kicking, she rolled over on her back, unwilling to die without a fight, only to find herself doing battle with the limb, which had been caught in the hem of her jeans.
"God, help me," Cari muttered, and quickly kicked herself free.
She scrambled to her feet, desperate to get home, never thinking to check for her cell phone, which had slipped from her pocket as she fell.
Lance screamed Cari's name as he leaped out of the half-dug grave, then stumbled and fell over the body in the rug. Once again, Austin Ball had thrown a major kink in his plans. By the time he got up, Cari was out of sight. He dashed into the woods with the shovel in his hand, racing through the thickets and brambles without care or caution for his bare skin. He had to stop her. His life and Morgan's Reach depended on it. But it was with growing horror that he realized she had eluded him, and that she knew these woods as well as he did—maybe better.
Now he was faced with a dilemma. She would get the parish police, of that he was certain. He only had one chance out of this mess and that was to deny everything she said. Which meant he couldn't bury Ball's body here now because she would certainly bring back the authorities to look for it.
Cursing at the top of his lungs, he began running back to where he'd been digging. The wind was tearing at his clothing as he dashed into the clearing. To his horror, the rug had completely blown away from around Ball's body, and the sight of the man lying flat on his back in the middle of a blood-soaked family heirloom was horrifying.
In a panic, he began filling in the hole he'd just dug. The rain would wash away any loose soil and pack the dirt back down, so even if Cari brought the authorities here and dug again, there wouldn't be anything to find.
The first drops of rain were beginning to fall as he threw in the last of the dirt, then propped the shovel against the black rental car. Now that the hole was refilled, he still had to do something with the body. With shaking hands, he rolled the rug back around Ball's corpse, then hefted it over his shoulder and grabbed the shovel. He needed to find another place to hide what he'd done, but that meant going deeper into the forest—farther from his house—closer to the bayous. He didn't have time to get to the swamplands and use the gators as a method of getting rid of the body. He had to bury it.
But if he went farther, the car was going to be of no use.
With a muttered curse, he gritted his teeth and headed deeper into the woods, walking with his head down, sometimes staggering against the dead weight of Austin Ball's body and the prevailing winds.
But where to hide it so Cari and the cops couldn't find it? Where could he dig another grave that wouldn't be found? The answer didn't come until he passed a familiar landmark—an ancient cypress stump. His granddad used to tell stories of how the bayou had once come up this far, until they'd built levees and dikes around Bordelaise. The moment he saw the stump, he remembered what lay beyond. The fact that he suddenly had an answer to his problem made his load lighter and his steps easier.
Cari's legs were shaking from exertion and there was a pain in her side, but she couldn't stop. She had no way of knowing how close Lance was behind her, but she kept telling herself that it would all be okay as soon as she got home.