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Conflicting Evidence -- Lena Diaz


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Conflicting Evidence
The Mighty McKenzies Series (Book#3)

A shocking act of violence tore them apart.
Now they must join forces to find answers…

Peyton Sterling’s brother has escaped prison, and she’s determined to prove his innocence. Despite her volatile past with US Marshal Colin McKenzie, she knows she needs his help to discover the truth. Colin’s ready to put his career and life on the line to protect her, but secrets in Peyton’s family could prove to be more dangerous than anything they’ve faced before.

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Fresh shoe prints in the dirt outside the abandoned Sterling homestead confirmed that Deputy US Marshal Colin McKenzie’s hunch was likely right—the arsonist who’d nearly destroyed Colin’s life a decade ago was back. And once again, Colin was going to put Brian Sterling right where he belonged—in prison.

But he had to catch him first.

He drew his Glock 22 and scanned the thick woods that surrounded this remote mountain property half an hour southwest of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Late afternoon sun slanted across the one-story craftsman-style house, casting shadows along the sagging porch. The once proud structure sported peeling yellowed paint that had started out white, railings missing most of their spindles and a cracked picture window that he remembered had an amazing view of the Smoky Mountains.

Back when the Sterling siblings and the McKenzie brothers had gone to Gatlinburg–Pittman High School together, a split three-rail fence had marked the line where a manicured lawn ended and wilderness began. Now, half the posts were tipping like drunks desperately trying to catch their balance. The rest littered the ground, having surrendered to the high winds and violent storms that often blew through the area. This decaying family home was a sad reminder of what the Sterlings had lost, all because of the selfish son who’d destroyed everyone’s plans for the future.

Including Colin’s.

He tightened his grip on his gun and crouched down to make himself less of a target as he crept from the gravel driveway to the house. Most of the windows didn’t have curtains or even blinds anymore, giving him a decent view of the rooms. They were surprisingly neat and tidy. Maybe the Sterlings paid someone to come up from town every few months to clean the place. Too bad they weren't paying equal attention to the outside.

After a full circuit around the structure, he was confident his nemesis wasn’t inside waiting to take a shot at him. A tour of the cobweb-filled shed and the sadly empty horse barn out back confirmed that no one had been in them for quite some time, probably years.

Cursing the summer heat, he wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead and returned to the front yard. All the while, he kept his pistol trained on the trees that surrounded the property. Was Brian out there right now, watching him? Or had someone else left that shoe print?

It wasn’t like a hiker would accidentally stumble across this place. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Appalachian Trail were several rugged miles east. And the steep winding road up here only led to the Sterling homestead and one other house, two miles farther up the mountain, Colin’s. But Brian didn’t know that. Colin had purchased the land and built his home several years after the Sterlings left Gatlinburg for Memphis.

From what Colin had heard, the move cost Brian’s father over half his client list. Had he been able to rehabilitate his once successful financial-advisor career in Memphis? Did his wife find a church community that she enjoyed as much as the one here? Was their daughter happy? Had she managed to forget everyone here she'd once loved, or who'd once loved her?

Colin tightened his grip on his pistol.

He didn’t have the answers to any of those questions. All he knew for sure was that the family had sacrificed everything to move six hours away so they could be closer to FCI, the Federal Correctional Institution, where Brian was serving his fifteen-year sentence.

Until he’d decided to give himself a get-out-of-jail-early card less than twenty-four hours ago.

Colin hadn’t seriously expected that the escaped convict would risk the long drive to Gatlinburg with his face plastered all over the news. But Brian wasn’t known for being a deep thinker. He wasn’t known for thinking much about his actions at all, or their impact on others. At nineteen he’d nearly burned two people alive. Now, at twenty-nine, while escaping a prison transport van that was taking him to the courthouse, he’d murdered a police officer. He’d made a wife a widow, a young son fatherless and put a target on his back for the entire Tennessee law-enforcement community.

Without noticing any movement near the tree line, and hearing only the sound of his own boots crunching on dry weeds and gravel, Colin eased back to his pickup. A few minutes later, he concealed his truck behind a stand of basswood trees about thirty feet from the roadway. Hoofing it from there, he selected a heavily canopied oak that would offer a clear view of the house while providing him with shade and concealment. After settling onto a thick branch a third of the way up the tree, he leaned back against the trunk and stretched out his long legs in front of him. Now, all he had to do was wait.

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