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Missing in the Glades
Marshland Justice Series (Book#1)
He was looking for a missing person. What he found was a beautiful stranger.
Looking for a fresh start, detective Jake Young headed south on a case that could help launch his PI business. He knew no amount of work would make him forget his tortured past, but maybe Faye Star could help. Caught up in Jake's missing persons case, the distracting Faye was hiding a secret he was begging to find out. Expertly guiding him through the swamps, Jake's job grew more complicated when someone started taking shots at the free-spirited beauty. As much as she protested she could take care of herself, Jake stepped in, refusing to admit how desperately he needed someone to save. Especially since he'd never be able to save himself…
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"Diaz gets high marks for character and relationship development. Top-notch suspense, action and close-call, edge-of-your-seat moments earn this well-written story a Top Pick.” – Susannah Balch, RT Book Reviews 4 1/2 STARS, TOP PICK
Jake aimed his pistol and flashlight through the chain-link wildlife fencing that marked where civilization ended and the Florida Everglades began. Behind him, his black Dodge Charger sat on the shoulder of a remote section of Interstate 75 that Floridians affectionately called Alligator Alley. With good reason. Alligators infested the swampy areas along this east-west corridor connecting Naples to Hialeah.
He swept his flashlight up and down the ditch behind him. Did alligator eyes reflect in the light? He sure hoped so. That might be the only way he’d see the hungry reptiles creeping up on him looking for a late-night Jake-snack.
Not for the first time, he questioned his sanity in searching this dangerous area at night. But when a rare black panther had darted across the road in front of him and he’d skidded sideways to avoid it, he’d noticed a reflection in the beam of his headlights through the wildlife fence—a reflection that just might be the car Calvin Gillette was driving when he went missing three days ago.
In theory, if Gillette had crashed, the cable barrier system should have kept his car from sliding under the fence into the woods. And hitting one of the cables would have triggered strobe lights and an automatic notification to the Department of Transportation. But the system wasn’t foolproof. A few months earlier a minivan hit a pole and went airborne, flipping over the cable without touching it and sliding under the fence into a canal. Jake figured if it happened once, it could happen again. And the few clues he had about Gillette’s disappearance all led him to this same area.
A few minutes later, his search paid off. He found deep tire tracks in the wet grass. He hopped the ditch and pressed against the chain links—loose and floppy as they’d be if a car had hit the fence. Excitement sizzled through him. He stepped over the cable and slid through to the other side.
Grateful he’d worn boots for this search, he trudged across the damp ground to a thick stand of pine trees and palmetto bushes. Not anxious to go much farther in the dark, he braced his shoulder on one of the trees and used his flashlight to search for that elusive reflection of metal he thought he’d seen from the road. And suddenly, there it was, behind some bushes, too big and shiny to not be man-made. But without knowing for sure that it was a car, he didn’t want to raise an alarm. Which meant he would have to go into the swamp.
It was times like this when he seriously wondered if he should move forward with his planned career change from police officer to private investigator. He was on leave from his police job to give the private sector a try, which was why he’d recently moved south to this unpredictable, dangerous, land-that-time-forgot section of his home state.
Tightening his hold on his pistol, he stepped past the line of pine and oak trees and—for the first time in his life—officially entered the Everglades. The difference in temperature struck him first. It was much cooler here, the musty, woodsy scent a welcome change from the thick humid air by the road. He’d expected the ground to be wet, slippery like the ditch by the fence. Instead, it was dry and springy beneath his boots, not all that different from the woods behind the house in Saint Augustine where he’d grown up, just a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. But where he’d come from he’d hear waves breaking against the sand, seagulls crying overhead. Here, the night was filled with the deep-throated bass of frogs, and a hissing noise that could have been either insects or cranky reptiles warning him to get out of their territory.
Keeping an eye out for panthers and gators and whatever else thrived in this foreign but starkly beautiful section of Collier County, he continued forward. When he rounded the clump of bushes where he’d seen the reflection, he discovered what he’d both expected and dreaded to find—a car, its dented roof, crumpled hood and crushed front bumper broadcasting the wild ride its driver had endured before the car slammed against an unforgiving tree.
The paint was scratched all to hell, but there was no mistaking the color or the make and model—a maroon Ford Taurus. A glance at the license plate confirmed it was Gillette’s. The day he’d gone missing, it had been raining off and on for hours, which explained the driedmud caked on the half-buried tires. The ground must have been like wet cement when he’d crashed his car in here.
Fully expecting to see a body slumped over the wheel, Jake moved to the driver’s door. But when he shined his light inside, he didn’t see Calvin Gillette or anyone else. The car was empty. The now-deflated air bags must have saved the driver’s life. If there’d been any footprints on the ground beside the car, they’d been scrubbed away by the rain and encroaching swamp before the heat of the past few days had wrestled the water back to its normal boundaries. So where was the driver? Had he gone looking for help and got lost?
He shoved his pistol into the holster on his belt to free his hands. In lieu of the gloves he’d have had if he were on active duty as a police officer, he yanked his shirt out of the waistband of his jeans. Keeping the cloth over his fingers, he opened the driver’s door and grabbed the keys from the ignition. A moment later he popped the trunk. Except for a useless flat tire and some crumpled beer cans, it was empty.
Time to get the local police out here. He pulled out his cell phone as he peered through the driver’s side window, hoping to see some receipts or a map, anything to indicate where Gillette was headed before the crash.
Bam! The window exploded in a tinkling rain of glass. Jake dropped to the ground. A second bullet slammed into the door.
He cursed and scrambled around the front of the car, taking cover behind the wheel. He drew his gun again, aiming at the dark scrub brush and live oak trees where he’d seen the muzzle flash from the second shot. The moonlight cast deep shadows across the clearing, but he didn’t try to grab his flashlight that had fallen on the ground. He wanted to draw the shooter out, but not by giving him a well-lit target.
He used a lie instead.
“Police!” he yelled. “I can see you hiding behind that bush. Come out, hands up, or I’ll shoot.” He waited, crouched down, both hands gripping the gun. No sound. No movement. Half a minute went by.
Time to give his prey some incentive.
He aimed his pistol well above where the gunman had to be hiding and squeezed off a shot. It boomed through the clearing, hitting a small tree branch, sending a shower of leaves down to the forest floor.
“The next shot will be lower. And there are sixteen more rounds where that one came from.”
Silence. Even the croaking frogs and hissing insects had gone quiet.
“Threatening to shoot me is a lousy way of thanking me,” a voice called out, a distinctly feminine voice with a velvety Southern accent that had Jake raising his brows in surprise.
Had he stumbled across a beauty pageant queen in these woods? Or a debutante? He could easily picture the owner of that silky voice wearing a floor-length gown, sitting on a wraparound porch in the Carolinas, sipping a mint julep.
When the woman stepped out from behind the bushes, reality sucked the air from Jake’s lungs. If there was such a thing as an anti-Southern belle, this astonishing creature was the physical embodiment of it.
Her curve-hugging blouse was Pepto-Bismol pink and was tucked into an equally pink collection of veils, or scarves, forming a semblance of a skirt that hung past her knees. Below the skirt was the only part of her outfit that wasn’t pink—a pair of green camouflage combat boots. She was probably somewhere in her midtwenties, and at least a foot shorter than Jake. Her waterfall of blond curls hung to her hips, sparkling like burnished gold in the moonlight filtering through the trees. A stray warm breeze lifted one of the gold locks and fluttered it against the muzzle of her rifle, which was pointed up at the dark sky overhead.
Jake pocketed his cell phone that had fallen by the tire before grabbing his flashlight and shining it on her. If she hadn’t just tried to shoot him, he’d have been hard-pressed not to smile at the utterly adorable picture she presented.
He forced himself to focus on the fact that she’d just shot at him. Twice. She was dangerous, at least while she was holding that rifle.
“Toss the weapon,” he ordered.
“That’s not a good idea. There are all kinds of dangers in these woods, especially at night.”
She let out a dramatic sigh and pitched the rifle onto the ground.
“Kick it away from you.”
“Seriously? Do you know how expensive that gun is?”
He didn’t bother to respond to that ridiculous statement.
She pursed her lips, not at all happy about his dictate. But she must have realized she didn’t have a choice because she gave the gun a healthy kick. It slid across the pine needle-strewn forest floor and slammed against the car’s rear tire.
Jake hopped to his feet and quickly closed the distance between them. “Who are you? Why did you shoot at me?”
She squinted and waved toward his flashlight. “Mind pointing that thing somewhere else?”
He relented and turned it just enough so it wasn’t directly on her face.
She cocked her head, studying him. Her emerald green eyes were startlingly similar to the panther’s eyes he’d seen reflected in his car’s headlights earlier. Her outfit reminded him of the carnival gypsies he’d seen at local fairs, except for all the pink. Anyone else might have looked ridiculous in the flamboyant clothes. But, somehow, on her they looked…enchanting. If he’d seen her in a bar he’d be begging for her number and hoping to wind up sharing breakfast with her the next morning.
“Who are you?” he repeated, lowering his weapon. The little sprite certainly wasn’t a threat to a man his size.
She braced her hands on her hips and tilted her head back to meet his gaze. “A local, which you obviously are not.”
“That syrupy accent of yours doesn’t make you sound like a local either.” He cocked his head, mirroring the same look she’d just given him. “But what makes you think I’m not a local?”
She snorted in a completely unladylike manner. It was hard for Jake not to grin and to maintain his serious look.
“Oh, please,” she said. “You’re oblivious to the dangers around here. You might as well wear a neon sign that says ‘city slicker.’”
Her delightful accent was as intoxicating as her curvy figure. His fingers itched to slide around her tiny waist and pull her against him just to see how the two of them would fit. He gave himself a mental shake. Now was not the time to let his attention wander. He needed to focus. Finding this woman near Gillette’s car couldn’t be a coincidence. She must know something about what had happened. Maybe she’d even been a passenger in his car. That thought had Jake glancing around the clearing, his shoulders tensing. Was Gillette hiding in the trees, watching?
“Were you in that car when it crashed?” he asked. “Do you know the driver?”
She smiled as if she had a secret. “You said you were a cop. Show me your badge.”
“My name is Jake Young. I don’t have a badge because I’m not—”
She whirled around, kicking his feet out from under him so fast that he didn’t have time to react. He landed on his backside, blinking up at the dark sky in shock. His flashlight rolled a few feet away, shining its light in a crazy arc. Before he could move, the little firebrand was on top of him holding the tip of a very large knife to his throat.
The last time anyone had gotten the drop on him had been…well, never. When the knife pricked his skin, his earlier amusement and distraction vanished in a flood of adrenaline and anger.
The hell with this.
He knocked the knife to the ground and rolled over in one swift movement, trapping her beneath him. Shackling both of her wrists in one of his hands, he forced her arms above her head, using his body to pin her to the ground. But as soon as he felt her soft curves pressed to his and breathed in the flowery, feminine scent of her, he knew he’d made a tactical mistake. Especially when the breeze blew one of her silky curls against his face. She wasn’t the one who was trapped. He was, trapped in a sensual hell of his own making. He silently cursed himself a dozen ways to Sunday.
She just tried to shoot you. She’s not your potential next girlfriend. Get a grip.
“Let’s start the introductions over,” he growled, more angry with himself than her. “I’m Jake Young, from Lassiter and Young Private Investigations. And what I was trying to say earlier is that I don’t have a badge with me because I’m on leave from my police detective job in Saint Augustine. I don’t have jurisdiction around here. But that doesn’t change who you are: the woman who’s about to be arrested for murder when I call the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.”
Her soft pink lips curved in an amused smile. “Oh, you think so, huh?”
“I know so.”
In answer, she wiggled beneath him and tugged her arms, trying to free them.
A cold sweat broke out on his brow at his body’s instant, unwelcome response to her sensual movements. He swore and shifted his weight, hoping she wouldn’t notice her effect on him.
“Who are you?” he repeated between clenched teeth.
“Let me go and I’ll tell you.”
“So you can shoot at me again, or kick my feet out from under me, or stab me? I don’t think so.”
She huffed out a breath. “You’re looking at this all wrong. I didn’t shoot at you. And the only reason I knocked you down and pulled my knife was because I thought that you’d tricked me when you yelled ‘police’ and then said you didn’t have a badge. What’s a girl to think? I’m vulnerable, in a secluded area, with a stranger I believed was pretending to be a police officer. I have a right, a duty, to do whatever I can to protect myself.”
He laughed without humor. “It’s a little late to pull the helpless female act. Now that’s a lie if I’ve ever heard one.”
She beamed up at him as if he’d given her a compliment.
“Your name,” he demanded.
“Like it really matters. My name is Faye Star.”
Faye Star? He let the name sink in as he studied her more closely. “Miss or Mrs.?”
Her sinfully luscious lips curved in a suggestive smile. But her eyes were like a road sign flashing a warning, danger ahead.
“For you, it’s definitely Miss,” she purred.
He ruthlessly tamped down the inappropriate tingle of awareness that shot straight to his groin.
“Miss Star, for the last time, why did you try to shoot me?”
Her brows drew down as if he’d insulted her. “If I was trying to shoot you, you’d be dead right now. Like I said, I wasn’t aiming at you.”
“Right. How stupid of me to think you were aiming at me since you shot out the window and hit the side of the car where I was standing just seconds before.”
“I shot exactly what I wanted to shoot.”
“The car?” He didn’t bother to mask the sarcasm in his tone.
“No, silly. The snake.” She rolled her head to the side, angling her chin in an effort to point. “Over there.”
He followed the direction she’d indicated. Lying under the driver’s door of the car was the longest, fattest snake Jake had ever seen. Its head had been blown clean off. And its enormous body was sliced in half.
The breath hitched in his throat. He blinked in shock, again.
“That’s a boa constrictor,” she said, “in case you don’t recognize it. It’s not native to these parts but there are plenty of the buggers around. People dump them in the swamp after their harmless pets grow too big and eat the family dog. It was hanging on a branch above the car and dropped down when you were looking through the window. I saved your life. This is the part where you’re supposed to apologize. And let go of my wrists. And get off me.”
He shook his head, grudgingly admiring her skill with a gun. He’d have been hard-pressed to make those two shots himself if the snake really had been falling as she’d said. He climbed to his feet, pulling her up with him.
“You could have shouted a warning instead of almost shooting me.”
“I told you, I always—”
“Hit what you aim at, yeah, got it. You still could have missed.”
Her eyes flashed green fire.
“I’m going to release you,” he said. “But be warned. If you go for your knife it won’t end well.”
She glanced longingly at the thick, six-inch blade lying on the ground a few feet away. Where she’d hidden the thing he didn’t even want to know.
She shrugged. “I’ll get it later.”
“Don’t count on it.” He let go of her wrists.
She frowned and tossed her long mane of hair out of her way, before crossing her arms beneath her generous breasts. “What are you doing out here?” she asked.
“Investigating the disappearance of the man who owns that car. And I’m the one asking questions. What are you doing out here? Since I don’t see any cuts or bruises, I’m going to assume you weren’t in that car when it crashed. But I didn’t notice any other vehicles parked beside the highway either.”
“I live around here.”
“For some reason that doesn’t even surprise me. Where? In a tree house?”
Her eyes narrowed dangerously. “As a matter of fact, no.” She fluttered her fingers over her shoulder, the moonlight glinting on the half-dozen rings she wore. “A few miles that way.”
“Uh-huh. And you just happened to be wandering through the Everglades at ten o’clock at night.”
She shrugged. “I couldn’t sleep, so I went for a walk.”
At his skeptical look she added, “A long walk.”
“Of course you did.” He retrieved his gun from where it had fallen when she’d kicked his legs out from under him and pulled his cell phone out again.
“What are you doing?” Her voice sharpened as if in alarm.
He gave her a curious glance. “Calling the police. Is that a problem?” He shoved his gun in the holster at his waist.
“It is if you’re trying to have me arrested. I told you I wasn’t shooting at you.”
“Call me an idiot, but I believe you about that. I’m calling to report that I found Calvin Gillette’s car. They’ll need to process the scene and get some men out here to search for the driver.”
Some kind of emotion flickered across her face, so quickly he couldn’t identify it. Anger? Fear? Or something else?
“Did you see the man who drove that car?” he asked again.
A low rumble sounded from the direction of the bushes where Faye had emerged a few moments earlier.
Jake yanked out his gun and shoved Faye behind his back as he whirled around. Was the panther still out here, stalking them? Or was that more of a curse than a growl? Was Gillette hiding in the trees, armed, ready to make sure Jake didn’t make that call?
A full minute passed in silence. No more growls or curses. No rustling of leaves to indicate anything, or anyone, was there. He cautiously straightened and turned back to Faye.
She was gone.
So were her knife and her rifle.
He clenched his hand around his pistol. The one potential witness to whatever had happened to Calvin Gillette had just disappeared. She’d probably orchestrated that growl to distract him. Maybe she was a ventriloquist and a gypsy fairy all rolled into one.
The growl sounded again, closer, vibrating with malevolence.
Jake sprinted to the car, yanked the door open and jumped inside.