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Smokies Special Agent -- Lena Diaz

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Smokies Special Agent
The Mighty McKenzies Series (Book#2)

She was on a mission to fix the past

And he was determined to help her…


For ten years, Remi Jordan has been hunting her twin sister’s kidnapper. When baiting a killer backfires, the FBI agent’s career and freedom are suddenly on the line. Joining forces with Smoky Mountains investigator Duncan McKenzie ups the ante, unleashing treacherous desire. Now, with another woman missing, Remi’s fighting a lot more than the ghosts of the past. Is she also ready to fight for her future?

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Frozen ground crunched behind her. Remi Jordan whirled around. The trail was empty. She whipped back the other way. Nothing except shadows met her searching gaze. The woods had gone as silent as a tomb. Even the icy wind had quit blowing, as if the entire mountain was holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen next.

Waiting to see if she would be next?

Remi drew a slow, deep breath, the chilly air prickling her lungs. Sound could carry for miles up here, or not at all, and seemed to bounce all over the place. Figuring out the direction it came from was nearly impossible. Someone was definitely stalking her. But figuring out where they were, and how far away, was beginning to feel like an impossibility.

Stepping to the side of the path, she listened intently and pretended to study the two-by-six white blaze painted on the bark of a spruce tree. Similar patches of paint in varying colors served as guideposts all up and down the Appalachian Trail. She’d seen dozens of them since she’d begun her daily AT hikes on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

She shoved both her hands into her jacket pockets. If the person following her was close enough to see her, he probably thought she looked vulnerable, oblivious to danger. But she was far from helpless. Her right hand caressed the butt of a loaded SIG Sauer 9mm hidden in her pocket.

The gun had been a gift from her father on her eighteenth birthday, the butt of the weapon engraved with her name. He’d been critically ill for months and knew he wouldn’t make it to her nineteenth. It was his fervent hope that the pistol would do what he no longer could—protect her, keep his remaining daughter safe.

Her throat tightened. If her father knew what she was doing, he’d feel hurt, betrayed. He’d berate her for taking unnecessary risks with her safety. But how could she sit and do nothing? Ten years ago she’d done nothing. Then her twin sister had disappeared, and was never seen again. That one, horrible mistake haunted her every single day. Having another woman’s death on her bruised and battered conscience was more than she could bear.

As if a switch had been flipped, the wind picked up again. The crisp pine-scented air was heavy with the promise of snow as it whipped the long blond strands of her hair back from her face. Evergreen branches clacked together, their needles brushing against bark with an unsettling shuh-shuh sound. And somewhere overhead, a bird twittered, as if everything was right with the world. As if nature itself denied the evil that had once taken place here, evil that was again poised to strike, to destroy another family, unless Remi could find a way to stop it.

Could she have imagined footfalls echoing her own? Could she be wrong in thinking that someone had been trying to match his steps to hers, to disguise his pursuit? She considered the idea, then discarded it. Her faults were many, but imagining things wasn’t one of them. There was no other reasonable explanation for the sounds she’d been hearing since starting out on this trail at sunup.

I’m close this time, Becca. So close. I can feel it.

She could almost see her stargazing, unicorn-loving twin sister rolling her eyes in reply. It was her signature trademark, especially when the two of them were together. When they were kids, it had made Remi furious. Now, she wished with all her heart that she could see her sister roll her eyes at her just one more time.

I miss you so much, Becca. So. Much.

Once again, she started down the well-worn path. It wasn’t long before another sound sent a fresh rush of goose bumps across her skin. This time, she didn’t stop. Instead, she scanned the woods from beneath her lashes, trying not to be too obvious as she searched the shadows surrounding her.

What had she heard? The whisper of fabric against a tree? A rattle of loose rocks across a part of the path sheltered by the tree canopy, where there wasn’t much snow to reveal anyone’s passage? Or was it simply a raccoon skittering through the underbrush searching for its next meal?

This feeling of unease outdoors was foreign to Remi. Normally, she was more at home outside than inside. She especially loved mountains—or at least, the mountains back home in Colorado. These lush, evergreen-choked Smokies were as different from her dramatic soaring Rockies as a black bear was from a polar bear. Both were beautiful and special in completely different ways. But this unfamiliar wilderness seemed to be closing in on her, thickening the air with a sense of menace and filling her with dread.

Was this how Allison Downs had felt when she’d hiked through the Shenandoah National Park and was never seen again?

Or Melanie Shepherd in the Dry Tortugas?

Or even her own sister, when their high school senior class trip had gone so horribly wrong?

“Stop being a spoilsport, Remi. That waterfall is supposed to be gorgeous by moonlight and I’m tired of being stuck here in this stupid tent. No one else’s parents make them go to bed at ten o’clock. It’s embarrassing.” Becca tried to push through the tent flap, but Remi blocked her way.

“It’s too dangerous,” Remi told her. “Daddy said it’s the wrong time of year to go up that trail. The water level is too high and the rocks are slippery with ice. Besides, since when do you care about nature, other than those stupid constellations you love to look at?” She studied her sister. “You’re meeting someone, aren’t you? Some boy.”

Becca rolled her eyes. “You’re just jealous because no one asked you to party.”

“I knew it. Who? Billy Hendricks?”

Another eye roll. “Oh, please. Billy’s like a lapdog, panting at my heels. What’s the challenge in that? I’ve hooked a much bigger fish than silly Billy.” She laughed and tried to move past Remi. But Remi grabbed the sleeve of her sister’s jacket and held on.

“Becca, stop. You’re going to ruin this whole trip. If Daddy finds out that you’re sneaking out, especially to meet a guy, he’ll take us back home early.”

Her sister’s mouth tightened. “If anyone is ruining this stupid trip, it’s Dad, not me. At least the other chaperones have the sense to leave their kids alone. No one else’s parents are in a tent right next to theirs. He’s smothering us.”

“He loves us. He wants to keep us safe.”

“From what? Last time I looked, cancer wasn’t lurking in the woods.”

Remi drew in a sharp breath. “That’s low, Becca. And completely unfair.”

Remorse flashed in Becca’s light brown eyes, which were a mirror of her own. For a moment, Remi thought her sister was going to give in, maybe even apologize for using their mother’s recent death from breast cancer as a barb in an argument. But Becca suddenly shoved her backward, forcing her to let go of the jacket.

Becca’s hands tightened into fists at her sides, a clear warning for Remi not to try to stop her again. “There are fifty kids out here in this stupid campground and ten chaperones. Ten! We can’t even skin a knee without stumbling over some anxious parent with a first aid kit. You’d think we were still in elementary school instead of planning which colleges to go to in the fall.”

“Becca—”

“This is your fault. Our entire trip has been a disaster, all because you told Dad the school needed another chaperone. You know how overprotective he is. You should have kept your mouth shut. And you’re going to keep it shut this time or I’ll make you regret it. You owe me this. Leave me alone. Let me have some fun.” She flung open the tent flap and disappeared into the night.

Remi swallowed hard at the memory of her sister’s long, wavy dark hair rippling out behind her. That was the last time she’d ever seen her.

A little farther down the trail, the trees and brush on her right thinned out and then disappeared altogether. A fifty-foot break revealed endless miles of dense, forest-covered peaks and the occasional bald where disease or insects had killed large swaths of trees and undergrowth. Charred earth and blackened trunks spoke of wildfires that had ravaged this area in recent years. And through it all, little white puffs of mist rose toward the sky like ancient smoke signals, adding to the blue-white haze that gave this section of the Appalachians their name.

She stopped, mesmerized. Not by the scenery. But by thoughts of her sister so long ago. A lifetime ago. Had Becca made it to this section of the AT the night she disappeared? Was this the spot her killer had chosen for his attack? Had she looked out over this beautiful vista underneath a bright full moon, completely unaware of the danger that crept up on her from behind?

If Remi was the killer, this was where she’d make her move. It was remote, isolated and empty. She hadn’t passed anyone since leaving the trail shelter this morning, miles from here. It was too cold to attract many hikers at this time of year. The crowds of northbound thru-hikers, NOBOs, with dreams of completing the two-thousand-mile trek in one year from Georgia to Maine wouldn’t clog the trail until spring. The lack of NOBOs to contend with was one of the reasons the ill-fated senior class trip had been planned for midwinter instead of closer to graduation.

Remi could easily imagine Becca standing here, memorizing the way moonlight spilled its light across the peaks and valleys, so she could tell her tree-hugging twin all about it when she returned to the tent. Or looking up at the stars, so much easier to see on the mountain, away from what Becca called the “light pollution” in the city. More likely, she could have been standing here waiting for whatever boy she’d gone off to meet. The identity of her secret admirer had never been discovered. It could have been Billy Hendricks, even though she’d denied it. Or the golden boy of their senior class, Garrett Weber, except that he already had a girlfriend at the time. Whoever it was, none of the boys at camp would admit to meeting her in the woods. Why would they? They would have made themselves suspects in her disappearance.

Remi studied the gap, a chill skittering up her spine. This was definitely a perfect place for a trap, an ambush. The steep drop would have blocked her sister’s escape to the west. Thick trees and brush to the east would make it difficult to get very far before being caught. If someone was behind her, she’d have to shove past them to run up or down the trail.

What happened to you, Becca?

Scuffling noises sounded behind her.

She whirled around, yanking her gun out of her pocket and bringing it up in one swift motion.

 

 

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