Private Investigator Ava Worthington and her partners head to the mountains to solve the death of a farmer’s son. Without local cowboy Cory Mortel's protection, Ava won’t get the chance to follow leads as the killer tries to stop her investigation. But Cory seems reluctant to get involved.
Cory Mortel has retreated to the seclusion of the mountains after a personal disaster. The last thing he needs is to babysit a beautiful amateur detective and her friends. But Ava seems to attract danger, so Cory has choice but to step in and protect her.
One suspect after another is cleared from Ava’s list until she’s sure she has the real killer targeted in her sights, but he’s hunting her, too--a dangerous fact when she's distracted by her growing feelings for the handsome cowboy who's there every time she needs him.
How will Ava and Cory find the killer and admit their love before they are buried under a mountain of secrets?
Series: Worthington Investigations Romantic Suspense
Worthington Detective Agency might die before it really had a chance to breathe if I got trampled by deer or eaten by a bear out in the middle of nowhere on my first real murder case. By nowhere, I mean deep country—mountains straight ahead. They touched the rolling hills where I stood. Why had I ever let one of my best friends and business partners take charge of this trip?
My stomach soured as the dream of working our first big case in a comfy lodge also crumbled. At least I could appreciate the fluttering orange foliage of the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains in contrast to the purple of the dying sky above.
Once the awe of the awful moment dissipated, I found my voice but clenched my teeth in an effort to control my tone. “What. Is. That?”
Shauna strutted in front of me and my other business partner, Jillian Rory. She tossed her glossy black hair over her shoulder as her brown eyes twinkled. “It’s a yurt, you know? A round tent. Semi-permanent. Bigger than a hotel room. See, I thought we’d be able to stay under cover better out here.”
The yurt’s ripped screen door hung ajar. The corner of my eye started to twitch. “So you changed our accommodations to this?”
Jillian touched my arm with light fingers. “Umm, she might be right. This is a little secluded. Might make things easier.”
How was I supposed to relax when not working the case? I’d been dreaming of my own suite since we’d gotten the job.
I never was good at keeping my opinions to myself. “I can’t imagine this thing has indoor plumbing,” my words torpedoed out. “And the walls look awfully thin. How do you propose keeping wildlife out of it?” Shauna expected me to walk across the mountain to use the restroom, where wild animals could snack on me? In the middle of the night? I didn’t manage to stop a groan. “How far away is the bathhouse?”
Shauna ducked her head. “Umm, it’s over that hill but…there’s an outhouse real close.” Her last words rushed out. “I get first dibs.” She headed past me and winked. “But we could share if it’s a two-seater like my grandmas.”
“A what? Are you kidding me? Eww.”
She lifted her hands. “Just joking.”
Shauna’s military background made her less shy than most women, but still. That was way gross—no matter how bad I had to go. I spun in a circle and squinted into the distance. No building in sight. No real bathroom. Ugh. The outhouse it was.
As I sprinted up to her, my boots crunched on the withering yellow and orange leaves covering most of the ground. A long ride coupled with a ginormous sweet tea was doing its work on my bladder. “Not if I get there first.”
I scanned the rising hill then jogged past Shauna. Except for the thought of sleeping in the wild, it was perfect up here, cool breezes and all. But perfect wouldn’t fix my problems. Not now. Not after… No use rehashing the past.
Shauna used to be a runner in high school. My chances of doing the potty dance while I waited for her to finish were highly in my favor.
A low growl rumbled nearby. Wincing, I stopped in my tracks as my heart rate jumped to ninety miles an hour. Oh, it couldn’t be. Not my worst fear. “Did you hear that?”
Jillian and Shauna took a step back.
Shauna yelped. “Yeah. Bear?”
Hands tingling, I skipped back a few steps. Maybe the damaged yurt door wasn’t simply poor maintenance. The SUV seemed miles away, too far to jump into fast enough.
A high-pitched snarl emanated from the yurt. Yep, the bear was in my temporary home probably eating my bed right now. Racing back, heart pounding, I grabbed Jillian’s arm and whispered, “Come on, you two.”
“Let me get a look. It might not be as bad as you think.” Shauna switched directions and headed to the yurt door.
Curse her for being so outdoorsy and fearless. “Let’s get out of here.” In retreat, I pulled Jillian along. “Please, God, let us get back to the SUV before that animal comes out of the tent thingy.”
The yurt shifted, and something wooden splintered inside. I couldn’t hold in the girly scream as it blew past my lips. I broke into a full run, Jillian at my side. “Shauna, run. Jillian, take out the keys. Unlock. Unlock. Now.”
We hurtled against the trunk door of the SUV.
The door locks were still down.
“Jillian, hit unlock,” I screeched.
The growls no longer sounded muffled. They seemed to ricochet off the mountains.
Another unauthorized squeal broke free from me before the door handle yielded in my white-knuckled grip. I threw myself into the backseat.
Jillian landed against my thigh. “Move. I can’t close the door.”
Shauna smacked into the front passenger door but then managed to climb in and slam it. She turned in her seat and weaved like a cobra as she tried to see past me and Jillian to the back window. “That bear isn’t as big as I imagined.”
Even if her voice hadn’t been trembling, she couldn’t have sold that idea. I grabbed my thundering chest. “Someone better be driving this thing out of here, like now. Who cares if it’s the smallest bear in these mountains?”
“Shauna’s not touching my baby.” Jillian pushed herself out of the backseat and braced her feet, one in front and one behind the middle console. Her hands shook as her knobby elbows caught the two front seats and she propelled her thin body into the driver seat. Fire-red-dyed hair clung to her face as she swiped at it with minimal success.
I swung around and watched as the bear loped out the door. “He’s leaving?” Yeah, it came out more as a question. “Wait.”
The bear turned in our direction and parked itself on the dirt path in front of us. Dirt clung to the locks of its shaggy black coat. It roared and swatted at a piece of material and some feathers wrapped over one shoulder. Was that what was left of a down comforter?
I held in a shudder as the SUV engine turned over. Jillian jettisoned down the drive. “I don’t know where I’m going. GPS lost signal.”
Shauna ran her hands through her hair. “Yeah, and we have no phone service out here either. But I studied the map of this place. Stay on this road. The lodge should be on the left, past the river, where the main reception area is.”
I looked over my shoulder. No bear following.
No way was I going back. I squeezed my eyes closed. “You better hope Mr. Connell has our original rooms available, Shauna. You know they’re pretty much booked this whole week. If we’d gone to check in first, maybe we wouldn’t have been face to face with a killer.”
Shauna frowned. “Well, I thought it’d be nice to see our accommodations before we got immersed in the case, so shoot me.”
Don’t tempt me. “Right.”
“Well, why’d you pick the festival weekend to investigate?”
“I. Need. The. Money. You know that.” I worked the tightness out of my jaw. Arguing wasn’t fixing anything. Right now, I needed to focus on the case and prepare myself for our initial visit with Mr. Connell, father of the murder victim.
“Sorry.” Shauna pulled down the visor and stared at me through the built-in mini mirror. “I didn’t think. It was…well, you know I like roughing it.” She averted her eyes a moment. “But if you hadn’t quit—”
I put up my hand. “Let’s not talk about it now.”
As the silence stretched between us, Jillian glanced back at me in the rearview mirror but said nothing. She had to be thinking about the monumental mess I’d made with my father last week, but I just wanted to forget about it and work my case.
I looked out the driver side window. The trees opened to a wide field that angled up the mountain. A few lampposts illuminated a rocky river and swinging footbridge that swayed in the wind. A timbered lodge sat stark and beautiful against the steep incline. Now that was my idea of a good vacation. Shauna was more than welcome to stay out in the wild if she wanted.
After Jillian parked, I jumped out and pushed the door closed a little too hard. A quick peek at Jillian’s flying hands said it all. “Sorry. I’ll go let them know about the bear.”
I didn’t wait for Shauna. At the front desk, I fought the urge to drum my fingers on the hardwood desktop as the reception guy turned away to finish a conversation on the phone—one I was sure involved some hot college girl and not a customer needing fresh linens.
Shauna was only doing what she thought was best. I better lay off her.
When he set down the phone and faced me, his expression shifted from a smirking smile to straight-faced business. What a professional look he wore for such a young guy, all pressed and perfect in his polo and khaki pants. “Hello. Welcome to Stone Ridge Lodge and Farms.”
“Hello, we,” I pulled back. “—umm, we just had a bear attack—”
“What?” He almost came over the counter, dislocating the hard-center folds of his pants. “How bad?”
I stopped short. “What I mean is…there was a bear in our yurt. He tore it up. We’re fine. But what’s a bear doing out here?” Dumb question. They were in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the middle of the fall. “I mean, how safe can it be with those things roaming everywhere?”
Reception guy blew out his cheeks. “You can expect that this time of year. See this poster here? It says danger, bears—”
“Right.” Sarcasm. Now I felt better. Not.
He continued, with an accusatory tone, “Well, bears don’t usually tear things up unless someone leaves out food.”
I sucked in a stream of air through my nostrils. The rich odor of burning logs tickled my nose. “We stopped to see our lodgings before check-in. We didn’t have any food out, I can assure you.”
He looked past my shoulder and straightened, his voice becoming as sweet as the tea I’d sucked down all afternoon. “Of course, ma’am.”
A thick, baritone voice slid over me like sweet molasses. “Is there a problem, Parker?”
“Apparently,” he couldn’t have raised his nose any higher, “there’s a bear in the yurt on lot…?”
It took a second to realize he was waiting for me to answer. I turned and stared at the man striding toward us but managed to throw an answer over my shoulder, even though my guts were suddenly flip-flopping at the sight of him. “Oh, thirty-seven.”
Short chestnut hair. Deep brown eyes. White cowboy hat. Yep, I had the perfect view, and it didn’t involve the peak of the outside fall foliage.
I shook myself. Work—and nothing else—was happening here. But yikes. If anyone had lost a cowboy off the cover of their romance novel, they could find him here.
Question 1: 1. Ava Worthington struggled in her relationship with her father because of his lack of trust. Do you think she did the right thing to quit working for him?
Answer 1: Yes, but she shouldn't have left without giving him notice.
Question 2: 2. Ava felt that her father didn’t trust her work or her decisions. What verses could help her deal with the view that God had of her worth?
Answer 2: Psalms 145:20, 1 John 3:1, Ecclesiastes 9:1, Jeremiah 29:11
Question 3: 3. Read 1 Corinthians 15:58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord. If Ava had seen the work she did for her father as work for the Lord, do you think she could’ve overcome her disillusionment of him quicker?
Answer 3: Yes
Question 4: 4. Cory wanted nothing more than to hide from the world because of the allegations brought against him in his professional life. Do you think hiding helped him to heal from the ordeal? Why or why not?
Answer 4: No, he needed to face what had happened and trust God from the start.
Question 5: 5. With the detective agency, Ava worked by the book, no shortcuts or questionable ways of getting information. How did the Lord reward her willingness to do it the right way?
Answer 5: Even when she thought she’d lost the job with Mr. Connell, her integrity won out and he kept her on despite pressure to fire her.
Question 6: 6. Cory wanted to protect Ava’s reputation as much as her person. How did he accomplish it?
Answer 6: He tried not to be alone with her in secluded places as much as possible.
Question 7: 7. Mrs. Connell held deep-rooted prejudices that started as a child. How does John Connell show his inheritance of her beliefs?
Answer 7: He too was prejudice against the one sheriff’s deputy who was Jewish and he never hired Jewish workers.
Question 8: 8. Ava and Cory need to create a foundation on Christ for their relationship. How important is it to make Him the foundation of any relationship?
Answer 8: It is of the utmost importance.
Question 9: 9. Why should Ava forgive her father before starting a relationship with Cory?
Answer 9 Forgiveness is a key element to any relationship.
Question 10: 10. How can it heal us to see our worth in the eyes of God as Ava had to do?
Answer 10: When we realize our worth is only found in our Savior, and it’s not dependent on what others think of us, we can concentrate on what God has for us and not what others expect of us.