Project Description

Collecting Evidence

Kenner County Crime Unit Series

Collecting Evidence

The first thing FBI Agent Dylan Acevedo remembered when he saw Aspen Meadows again was their steamy week in a hotel room. Unfortunately, Aspen had no memory of him, the murder she’d witnessed, or that he could be the father of her infant son. So, as much as he wanted to hold her and demand answers, her safety came first. Collecting evidence and hunting down clues always kept him working long into the night. But now, reunited with one unforgettable woman and excited by the prospect of fatherhood, Dylan found he had a lot more reasons to come home. And a lot more to lose.

Aspen Meadows had been missing for nine weeks now. Nine weeks of wondering if she was dead or alive.

Nine weeks of wondering if he could have done something to save her.

Dylan stared at Aspen’s cousin, Emma Richardson, fearing the worst. He’d left Aspen last year to keep her safe, yet now she might be dead.

Possibly murdered by the same hit man who’d killed his fellow agent, Julie Granger. The FBI’s theory— Aspen had witnessed Boyd Perkins and Sherman Watts disposing of Julie’s body.

The case that had brought them to the Southern Ute reservation.

Emma pressed a hand to her head as if to clear her vision. “Aspen is alive.”

His chest tightened as hope speared him. He didn’t often trust a psychic, but Emma’s visions had proven right before, and his brother, Miguel, who’d obviously fallen for the woman, believed her wholeheartedly.

And he trusted his twin brother more than anyone in the world.

Still, he had to swallow to make his voice work. He’d prayed for this news ever since he’d heard Aspen’s car had been found crashed into a tree near the San Juan River.

But something about the tortured look on Emma’s face disturbed him. “Are you sure she’s alive?”

Emma nodded, although she swayed, her face pale, her eyes gaunt. Miguel rushed to help her to the sofa. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes with a shudder.

“What did you see?” Sweat beaded on the nape of Dylan’s neck. He was terrified that Aspen had died and that he’d lost her forever.

Just as he’d lost almost every woman he’d ever cared about. His little sister, Teresa. Then his friend Julie.

Miguel rubbed Emma’s arms, his voice low and worried, “Emma?”

“I? don’t know. The vision? I justknow she’s alive, but she’s scared.” She opened her eyes and looked up at Dylan, cold terror streaking her expression. “And she’s in danger.”

Dylan paced across the room, his heart pounding as Aspen’s son, Jack, cried out. The sound shattered the air as if he’d heard Emma and understood that his mother might be in trouble. Emma started to rise to go to the baby, but Dylan waved her off. She looked as if she might faint if she tried to stand.

He strode over to the bassinet and picked up the squirming baby. Jack flailed his tiny fists, his face red, his nose scrunched as he continued to bellow.

“Shh, little man,” Dylan said, jiggling him on his shoulder as he paced the room. The poor little fellow must miss his mother terribly. In the first few weeks of his life, he’d been in a car accident with Aspen, abandoned and left with Emma.

He patted the baby’s back, cradling him closer. The scent of baby powder and formula suffused him.

If Aspen was alive, why hadn’t she come back for her son?

The Aspen he’d known loved children more than anything. During their short affair—the best sex of his whole damn life—she’d told him her plans to return to the Ute reservation and teach.

Baby Jack kicked and screamed louder, a shrill sound that added to the tension thickening the room, his dark skin beet-red, contrasting to his thick black hair. He had Aspen’s high-sculpted cheekbones, her hair, her heritage. It made Dylan long to see her again, to reconnect and hold her. To see if they could pick up where they’d left off and possibly have more than just a week of mind-boggling sex.

But she had a son now.

Everything had changed.

He rocked Jack back and forth, lowering his voice again to calm him. “Shh, it’s all right. We’ll find your mommy. I promise, little man.”

Jack quieted to a soft whimper and Dylan turned him to his back, cradled him in his arms and gazed into his eyes. Eyes so blue that for a moment he felt as if he was looking in the mirror.

Suddenly a wave of emotion washed over him, sending his mind into a tailspin. He studied Jack’s features more closely while he mentally calculated the baby’s age, and the time lapse since he’d last seen Aspen. A little over a year ago, they’d met and fallen into bed. A week later he’d left and hadn’t heard from her again.

Aspen had been missing now for nine weeks.

Jack was fifteen weeks old.

Dear God, could Jack possibly be his son?

The baby suddenly cooed up at him, his chubby cheeks puffing up as he gripped one of Dylan’s fingers in his tiny fist.

Dylan’s chest swelled. “Is it true, Jack? Are you my little mijo?”

And if he was, why in the hell hadn’t Aspen told him?

The nightmares taunted her.

Every night they came like dark shadowy demons with claws reaching for her and trying to drown her in the madness.

If only she could remember her name, what had happened to her, how she had wound up near death and here in this women’s shelter in Mexican Hat.

But the past was like an empty vacuum sucking at her, imprisoning her in the darkness. Only at night in her dreams, memories plucked at the deepest recesses of her mind, trying to break through the barrier her subconscious had erected.

Terrifying memories that she wasn’t sure she wanted to recall.

She forced herself to look into the mirror, to probe her mind for bits of her past. She knew she was Ute— her high cheekbones, long black hair and brown eyes screamed Native American heritage.

But those eyes were haunted by something she’d seen, something that lay on the fringes of her conscience.

Her head throbbed, tension knotting her stomach. She rolled her shoulders to stretch out her achy muscles, but exhaustion was wearing on her. In the weeks since she’d come to the shelter, she’d recovered from her physical injuries, the hypothermia and bruises, but she still hadn’t regained her strength.

The other women and children had gathered after dinner for a support group session in the common room. Sometimes she gathered the children into a circle on the floor for storytime, but tonight one of the mothers was teaching them how to string Indian beads to make necklaces.

Grateful to have some time alone, she gave in to fatigue and crawled onto her cot by the far wall. Dusk was setting, the hot sun melting in the sky, gray streaks of night darkening the room. She closed her eyes, pulled the thin sheet over her legs and turned on her side. But a hollow emptiness settled inside her. She had felt it the moment she’d awakened in the shelter, freezing and delirious. She’d known then that she’d lost something. Something precious.

A loved one maybe.

Tears trickled down her cheek, but she angrily wiped them away. Remembering what had happened could help her return home. But what if she was right?

What if she’d blocked out the memory because someone she loved had died and she couldn’t bear it?

Finally, exhaustion claimed her, but the nightmares returned to dog her, dragging her under a rushing wave of darkness, smothering and terrifying.

Someone was chasing her across the unforgiving land, toward the deep pockets and boulders. She tried to run but her legs felt heavy, her body weighted, and she skidded on the embankment, rocks tumbling downward and pinging off the canyon below. She tumbled and rolled, the sharp edges of the stones jabbing her skin and scraping her flesh raw.

Then his hands were on her, fingernails piercing as they bit into her shoulders. She fought back, swinging her hands up to deflect his blow, but he hit her so hard her head snapped back and stars danced in front of her eyes. Another blow followed, slamming into her skull and pain knifed behind her eyes, her breath gushing out as she tasted blood. She tried desperately to focus, to crawl away, but he yanked her by the ankles and dragged her across the rugged ground, the stones and bristly shrubs tearing at her hands and knees and face as she struggled to grasp something to hold on to.

God help her—he was going to kill her?.

Somewhere close by, the river roared, water slashing over jagged rocks, icy cold water that would viciously suck her under and carry her away from everyone she loved.

No, she had to fight.

But the hands were on her again, this time around her throat, punishing fingers digging into her skin, gripping, squeezing, pressing into her larynx, cutting off her oxygen. She gulped and tried to fight back, swung her arms and kicked at him, but her body felt like putty, limp and helpless, as the world swirled into darkness.

Her heart pounding with terror, she jerked awake, disoriented and trembling. She’d only been dreaming; it had been the nightmares again?.

She was safe.

But as she exhaled and her breathing steadied, a deadly stillness engulfed the pitch-dark room, the kind of eerie quiet before a storm that sent a frisson of alarm through her.

Then a breath broke the quiet.

A wheezing, whispery low sound. Someone was in the room.

Praying it was one of the sisters coming to check on her, she clenched the sheets and glanced across the space. The tall silhouette of a man stood in front of the open window in the shadows, the scent of sweat and cigarette smoke rolling off of him in sickening waves.

Pure panic ripped through her. Was it the man who’d tried to kill her in her dreams? One of the male abusers the women in the shelter were running from?

His hand moved to his waistband and the shiny glint of metal caught her eye.

She froze, body humming with adrenaline-spiked fear. A knife was tucked into the leather pouch attached to his belt.

She had to run.

Slowly she slid off the bed to escape and yelled for help, but he moved at lightning speed and trapped her. His big hands covered her mouth to silence her screams. She bit his hand, then clawed at him and cried out, fighting with all her might to throw his weight off of her.

Suddenly hall lights flickered on and footsteps clattered toward the doorway, doors banging open. The man’s gaze shot sideways and he cursed, then lurched up, ran to the window and jumped out.

The sisters and three other women poured into the room, baseball bats in their hands, ready to attack.

The light flew on, throwing the room into a bright glare that nearly blinded her. Sister Margaret rushed to her, pulled her into her arms and soothed her. “He’s gone now. You’re safe, child.”

It took her precious seconds to stop trembling, then anger ballooned inside her. She was tired of running, of hiding, of not knowing. They’d all assumed that whoever had hurt her had been a violent boyfriend or husband she’d been running from.

But she couldn’t go on living like this. She had to know the truth. If her attacker was a boyfriend or husband, he’d found her. And she refused to be a coward.

Somewhere she had a life she’d left behind. And she wanted it back. Wanted the man who’d hurt her to pay.

And the person she’d lost—she had to face that truth, too.

“We should call the police,” she whispered. “Send them my picture, Sister. I want to find out who I am and who’s trying to kill me.”

Once the idea that Jack might possibly be his son entered Dylan’s mind, he couldn’t let it go. The baby shifted against him, finally falling back asleep, but Dylan didn’t want to put him down. If the child was his, he wanted to know.

Dammit, he deserved to know.

Memories of his father taking him camping and fishing rolled back, and he saw himself doing the same thing with his own son one day.

When he’d first heard Aspen’s baby had been found in her abandoned car, he’d assumed she’d moved on with her life, that she’d forgotten him, and had become involved with another man, someone on the reservation.

Because they’d been careful. And he’d trusted Aspen, trusted that she would have told him if she’d gotten pregnant with his baby.

But looking at Jack’s big blue eyes now, he didn’t know what to believe.

He settled into the rocking chair while Miguel made Emma herbal tea. Color returned to her cheeks as she sipped the hot brew, although distress still lined her face and her hand trembled slightly as she set the teacup back onto the saucer.

“Emma,” he said quietly. “I have to ask you something, and I want you to be honest.”

Her gaze met his, and she nodded, although she fidgeted with the afghan Miguel had draped around her shoulders. “I told you all I saw.”

“It’s not that,” he said gruffly.

Her eyes softened as she watched the baby, indicating how much she loved her nephew.

“Emma, who is Jack’s father?”

Emma bit down on her bottom lip and glanced away.

“The truth,” he said, knowing if Aspen had confided in anyone it would have been her cousin. When Emma was a teenager, her mother’s abusive boyfriend had set fire to the house, killing himself and Emma’s mother. Emma had moved in with Aspen and her mother, Rose. After that, the girls had been more like sisters than cousins.

“I don’t know,” she said in a low voice. “Aspen never told me.”

He arched a brow, a muscle ticking in his jaw. “Are you sure? You’re not keeping some secret?”

Miguel squared his shoulders and draped a protective arm around Emma. “If she says she doesn’t know, she doesn’t.”

“It’s important,” Dylan said, his throat thick. “Was she dating someone?”

Emma frowned. “Kurt Lightfoot, a builder from the reservation, was interested in her. They went out a few times. But? I’m not sure he fathered the baby.” She hesitated. “He certainly hasn’t claimed paternal rights.”

“Where are you going with this?” Miguel asked. “Are you thinking that Jack’s father might have been the one who attacked Aspen? That it wasn’t like we suspected, that Boyd Perkins and Sherman Watts tried to kill her because she saw them dump Julie’s body?”

Dylan hissed between clenched teeth. “I’m just considering every angle. And knowing Jack’s father is important.”

“Why is it so important to you?” Emma asked with odd twitch of her lips that made him wonder if she had a sixth sense about this, too.

He traced a finger over Jack’s cheek, then decided that Emma might confide more if he came clean. “Because I might be the father.”

Surprise flickered in Miguel’s eyes, although Emma gave him a sympathetic look. “I honestly don’t know,” she said gently. “Aspen simply said that the baby’s father wasn’t in the picture. I assumed that he didn’t want to be and didn’t push her on the subject. It seemed to upset her too much.”