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Mountain Darkness (Wild Mountain Men 1) Vanessa Vale 2022/7/22 14:36:40

I stuck my arm out from beneath the covers and slapped at the top of my alarm clock to shut it up. God, it was too early. Even though the sun was peeking beneath my blinds, I wanted to snuggle deeper for a few more hours. Groaning, I kicked my legs out and sat up. Last night’s wedding had gone smoothly; at least the bride and groom had thought so. Erin and I had been able to sober up the groom’s uncle with two cups of coffee in time for family photos. They never knew the veggie medley on the sit-down meals hadn’t been a medley at all, but solo broccoli.

While the couple had a wedding day, and most likely night, to remember, mine had been less exciting. For my wild Saturday night, I’d picked up the daily lottery ticket for my mother on the way home, kicked off my heels by the front door, then fell into bed like a tree being cut down and slept until… the annoying alarm.

We had a breakfast meeting with our new—and biggest—client, and all this work was why I’d returned to Cutthroat, but a few extra hours of sleep wouldn’t have hurt.

I didn’t smell any coffee brewing, which meant Erin was still asleep. She’d scheduled the early meeting, so the least she could have done was get up first and get the caffeine injection ready.

Already grouchy, I quickly made my bed, then padded out of my room and down the hall, tugging my sleep shirt down. I made it as far as the couch in the great room, then stopped. Stared. Blinked. I wasn’t quite awake, my mind not firing on all cylinders, but seeing Erin sprawled on the floor, I went fully alert between one heartbeat and the next.

“Erin!” I shouted, dropping to my knees before her. Her blonde hair was matted to her head with blood. So much of it was soaked into the carpet. Her blue eyes stared up at me, vacant and empty. “Oh my god, Erin. Wake up!”

Rationally, I knew she was dead. Her eyes weren’t moving. Her lips were gray. The side of her head… god, it was bad. Irrationally, I lifted it onto my lap, brushed her hair back, kept telling her to wake up. When I realized I was smearing the blood, I stopped. I started to shake, to look around to figure out how she’d ended up like this. Help. She needed help.

Carefully, I laid her back on the floor and ran to my room, grabbed my cell from the charger. With shaky fingers, I tried to swipe my screen for access. “Come on,” I whimpered, but my fingers were covered in blood and it wouldn’t work. I wiped them on my sleep shorts and tried again.

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

“I… my friend… she’s dead. Oh god. You have to send an ambulance.”

“Ma’am, what is your address?”

I told her, then answered all the questions she tossed at me in her efficient voice. I stayed on the line with her until I heard sirens, then hung up and ran outside. Erin’s house was a custom build with all wood and glass, with more rooms than one person needed. It sat in a high-end enclave of homes with large lots and great views that would make a big dent in most people’s bank accounts, but not Erin’s. She was a Mills. I ran down the front walk in my bare feet to meet the fire truck and ambulance that had pulled into the circular drive and pointed toward the house.

“Are you hurt?” one of the paramedics asked, looking me over as the others went inside.

I shook my head. “It’s… it’s not my blood. I found her.”

I followed him back into the house where the other paramedic and three firemen stood in the two-story great room in front of river rock fireplace, but weren’t doing anything to help Erin. One was speaking into a walkie talkie, although I wasn’t paying any attention to what he was saying.

I looked down at Erin by the couch, just as I’d left her. The responders weren’t doing anything because they knew she was dead. She looked dead, even wearing her familiar black yoga pants and white tank top, the shirt stained with blood on the right side.

“Ma’am, can you tell me what happened here?” a firefighter asked, taking in my appearance. “Did you get in a fight?”

My mouth dropped open. “What? No. I… I just woke up. I found her like that.” I pointed toward Erin.

“Why are you covered in blood?”

I spun about at the voice. It wasn’t any of the first responders, but someone else. Someone I knew, just by the deep tone of his words.

The man who’d starred in the bulk of my late-night fantasies stood before me in all his six feet plus glory. He wore jeans and a button-down shirt, a prized rodeo belt buckle about his waist. A service pistol was in a holster on his hip right next to the badge, and right next to that… his bulge.

I blinked, looked away. God, my roommate was dead, and I was ogling Nixon Knight’s package. But it was Nix. Everything about him was familiar, like coming home, even though I hadn’t seen him in over a year. Even though he was one of the reasons I’d left Cutthroat. Even though he had zero interest in me. That had me glancing away, my cheeks flushing. Not from being caught, but from the shame from last year. My wasted imaginings. My misplaced love.

“Kit,” he replied, reaching out and settling his hand on my shoulder and bending at the waist so his dark eyes met mine. “You’re not hurt?”

His gaze was shrewd, assessing, taking in every inch of me.