The Detective’s Undoing
Copyright © 2000 by Jill Shalvis
To Megan, warrior princess
At six years old, Delia Scanlon knew everything she needed to about control.
Having it was the only way to survive.
As she hung upside down from a low branch on the tree outside the group home where she lived, her long blond hair swept the grass. Next to her hung her two foster sisters, Zoe and Maddie.
Actually, Maddie wasn’t hanging; the quiet, sweet little girl was too timid for that. She sat, gripping the branch for all she was worth, very carefully watching the ground beneath her.
Zoe, who was not quiet or sweet, hung by one leg, calmly inspecting the torn knees of her jeans. Upside down, she popped a huge bubble and casually said, “I’ve got three lollipops under my pillow.”
Delia’s mouth watered and she went all warm and fuzzy inside. She knew Zoe would share-that’s how it was between them. Maddie and Zoe were more than her foster sisters; they were her life.
It wasn’t easy being in the group home with too many kids and too few caretakers, but they were fed and clothed and safe. And they had each other. It was enough for Delia, who just wanted to be with Zoe and Maddie. They were family, no matter what everyone told them.
“When I marry a prince,” she announced, “he’ll take us away on his white horse. We’ll live in a beautiful castle where we can eat all the macaroni and cheese we want.”
“Will you have horses?” Zoe asked, snapping her gum.
“Lots. You’ll come?”
Zoe smiled dreamily. “Yeah.”
“I go anywhere you go.”
Delia, with her natural maternal instinct, liked the thought of taking care of her sisters for the rest of her life. “The three of us together.”
Maddie nodded solemnly.
Zoe flipped down from the tree and tossed back her hair. “I get to be in charge of the horses.”
“Sure.” Delia thought horses were dirty and smelled funny, but she wanted Zoe with her, so she’d promise her anything. “What do you want, Maddie?”
“To be a family,” Maddie said softly, her eyes shining with the dream.
“Always,” Delia vowed, as if she had the power to make it so. “Always.”
Content with that, they sat on the grass in the hot Los Angeles sun, holding hands and thinking about their happily-ever-after.
A thousand miles away on a rugged isolated Idaho ranch, Constance Freeman was searching for her stolen granddaughter. Well not stolen exactly-the law didn’t consider it stealing when the baby’s own father, who had custody rights, had done the taking. But Constance didn’t fool herself; her son had no business with a baby, and her heart ached just thinking about what that poor child might have gone through in the past six long years.
Her vengeful son hadn’t so much as written, and Constance yearned to know the fate of her own flesh and blood.
She stared down at a map of the United States, her brow furrowed as she wondered for the thousandth time where they’d gone.
There was the Triple M ranch, her pride and joy, to run but, in Constance ’s mind it had taken a backseat to finding her granddaughter. Everything would take a backseat, until she had the child where she belonged.
On Triple Mountain.
Twenty years later
H e was stuck.
Stuck, while the powerful wanderlust within him tore him apart, driving him crazy with the need to roam far and free.
It wasn’t a physical sort of stuck. He couldn’t imagine anything as simple as that keeping him in one place.
No, it was a promise that held him, his own promises, no less.
The woman he’d made the promise to, Constance Freeman, was dead. But to Cade McKnight, a vow of any kind was as good as gold. He’d never broken one before, and he didn’t intend to start now.
But with all his heart and soul he wanted to be free of the promise.
It was past midnight, but he’d been unable to sleep. A long hard ride in the saddle hadn’t helped.
It took only a second to let himself in the huge ranch-style house that would serve as the main lodge when there were guests at the Triple M. There were no guests yet, but four people-three of them his friends and one a complete baffling mystery-owned and operated the place, and lived here.
They were sleeping now. Grateful for the silence and the time to think and yearn, Cade stood just inside the front door.
A sound drifted from the sleeping house, from the kitchen. Not a normal sound, but a choked nearly silent whisper.
Tense, Cade moved lithely through the large living room, coming to a stop just outside the double swinging doors to the kitchen.
No light was on.
The Triple M Guest Ranch was a fairly secure place, located in the vast wilds of western Idaho hundreds of miles from the nearest big city. But Cade, who was not a country boy but rather a certified city rat, never took chances.
Especially when he had friends sleeping upstairs. He cared about those three friends, Zoe, Maddie and Ty-and that one baffling mystery, too-far more than he wanted to.
Which reminded him of how much he wished he was clutching a one-way ticket out of here. He was chomping at the bit to get moving once more.
The sound came again.
Cade shoved his way through the double wooden doors and turned on the overhead light all in one movement.
Blinking in the sudden light was that one mystery-the cool calm Delia Scanlon.
She was stunningly, shockingly beautiful. Alabaster skin. Long thick luxurious pale blond hair that fell in waves past her shoulders. Full sensuous lips guaranteed to drive a man wild.
She stood in front of the opened refrigerator, bathed in the white light of the refrigerator bulb, her lush curves not entirely concealed by her surprisingly plain terry-cloth bathrobe.
Her eyes, the color of a brilliant mountain sky, seared through him.
They were tear-ravaged.
He swore, hating the way his heart twisted from just looking at her. He hated having his heart do anything, but to have it feel, and feel so passionately, suitably terrified him so that he stood rock still and offered no comfort. “What are you doing?”
“Me? Oh, just dancing with the moon.” Turning away, she wiped at the tears he had pretended not to see and she had pretended not to have shed.
The hunch of her usually ramrod-straight shoulders tore at him and, furious with himself, he turned his back on her. “Dammit, next time flip the light on or something. I thought you were-”
“What? A burglar out in the middle of nowhere? Get a grip, McKnight.” Her voice, with its low grainy sexy tone of a 1930s movie siren, sounded full of temper.
That was good, he told himself. Temper was far preferable to tears.
“Go away,” she said.
She still hadn’t looked at him, but then again, he wasn’t looking at her, either. He couldn’t.
If he did, he’d feel that strange inexplicable absolutely unacceptable tug. He didn’t want to believe it was attraction, didn’t want to believe it was anything, so he ignored it.
So did she.
It suited them both. Delia was no more country than he was, raised as she’d been in the Los Angeles child-welfare system. He knew this, not because they talked much-by tacit agreement they avoided each other-but because he was the private investigator who’d promised Constance Freeman he’d find her long-lost granddaughter, heir to the Triple M.
It should have been an easy open-and-shut case. But of course, given his luck of the past few years, it hadn’t been. He’d found an heir all right, three of them. Delia, Maddie and Zoe, all foster sisters, dumped into the system at approximately the same time and age.
It was his job to narrow the choices down to the correct woman, a feat that had so far escaped him.