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Colton's Deadly Engagement
Addison Fox

Which seemed to have no impact on Penny. None whatsoever. Nor had it stopped striking Darby with that strange combination of surprise and sadness.

Bo was really gone. And the manner of his death...

She still shuddered when she thought about how he’d been discovered, shot and left for dead, a tuxedo cummerbund shoved into his mouth. It was dark and macabre. She’d tried to avoid thinking about it, but that was difficult when you considered how the Red Ridge Gazette had run with a new story every day, each one more lurid than the last. Everything from Groom Killer on the Loose to Is the Groom Killer One of Red Ridge’s Own? had graced the paper’s headlines. More than that, it was as if a fever had gripped the town and no one could stop talking about it.

Was it a local like Demi Colton? The press had picked up on her as their favorite suspect and had been writing story after story on her background and her brief engagement to Bo before he’d dumped her for his new intended bride, Hayley Patton. Although she supposed anything was possible, as Bo’s former wife Darby could hardly understand a woman committing a crime of passion over the man.

He was good-looking in his own way, but she’d learned too quickly that he’d also used those good looks to coast by in life. He’d carried little responsibility, preferring to dump his troubles on others. And other than his dogs, there was little he’d seemed to truly care about.

In the end, it had been his cheating that had killed their marriage. She’d come to realize that even had he been faithful, theirs wasn’t a union that would have lasted. It had taken a while, but Darby had finally reached the point where she could accept that without the immense guilt that had initially accompanied the thought.

Which made her current circumstances all the more puzzling.

While she and Bo had ended things amicably enough two years ago, why had her ex seen fit to leave her his German shepherd breeding business? She knew and loved dogs—and she spent more than a few hours of each work week at the K-9 training center making a few extra dollars—but that didn’t make her a fit breeder. Neither had her fourteen-month marriage to Bo. He was a responsible breeder—he loved his dogs and he took good care of them—but she hadn’t involved herself in the business during their marriage.

Yet here she was. The new owner of Red Ridge’s premier breeding business for the town and the county’s K-9 units. They sold to assorted others besides the RRPD, but had a reputation to uphold with one of the state’s primary K-9 departments.

The PD down in Spearfish had attempted a K-9 unit of their own a few years back and had trained a few of Penny’s puppies. The cost of keeping the program had grown too much and they’d ultimately sold the dogs to a good security firm known for its excellent treatment and handling of their dogs.

Bo’s other customers, the Larson brothers, were also good for a few puppies in each litter. A fact that settled uncomfortably on her shoulders. It was unfair of her—they doted on their dogs and treated them well—yet something creeped her out about the way the twins, Noel and Evan Larson, strutted around Red Ridge like they owned the town and everyone in it. They’d been raised by their kindly grandmother, Mae, after losing their parents, and Darby knew she should cut them a break.

But she never liked when the Larson boys came around.

Penny’s light yip startled her and pulled Darby from her thoughts. The pretty German shepherd had dropped down to her belly, head on her front paws, and was even now staring at Darby.

“You don’t like the Larsons, either, do you?”

Penny’s dark eyes seemed to bore into hers. Even as she knew it was a silly thought, Darby could have sworn the dog agreed with her.

“You really can sit next to me. I won’t bite and I’d like to get to know you better.”

Penny’s gaze never wavered as she considered her from her spot across the rug. The couch wasn’t that comfortable, but Darby had to believe the threadbare carpet was even less so. She was still adjusting to her surroundings. She’d moved her few possessions in from the one-bedroom apartment she’d rented in town and the addition barely made a dent in Bo’s small house.

It was so odd to be back in the house. Their marriage had been brief but she’d made some improvements when she’d lived here with Bo. She’d freshened up the curtains and had insisted they paint the living room and kitchen to brighten things up. Now those improvements simply looked garish, like the rest of the house had aged around them, an old woman wearing her years despite the heavy makeup she used to try to hide the lines.

Since the house was hers, she’d like to make a few changes, but the inheritance hadn’t come without its challenges. One of which was a stifling mortgage that Bo had overextended himself on and a mountain of debt for the breeding business. She’d spent the past two weeks trying to get her arms wrapped around it all and was still puzzled by just how far into debt her ex-husband had gone. She didn’t think he was in that deep when they were married, but in the end, who really knew.

All she knew now was that she had a hill of debt and very few options.

She was also worried about Penny. The dog had kept her distance but Darby wasn’t blind to Penny’s increasing age. She was the conduit to more puppies though Darby had real reservations about attempting to breed her again.

Which only made the problems she had since the reading of Bo’s will grow even bigger.

Why had he chosen her? Was it punishment for a marriage gone bad instead of a gift?

Or was there something else at play?

Hayley Patton was his fiancée, yet she’d gotten nothing of his except the car they’d leased together and the rings they’d purchased in preparation for the wedding. She was flashing a mighty large rock on her left hand but Darby had no idea how Bo had paid for it. She could only be grateful the bill hadn’t showed up on her list of debts on the property.

Whatever else he was, Bo Gage hadn’t been a saver or a money manager. And now it was up to her to clean up his mess.

Lost in her thoughts, she was surprised to feel the heavy sway of the couch frame when Penny leaped up. The dog still kept her distance, curling at the opposite end of the three-cushion couch, but Darby smiled anyway.

Maybe they might figure their way out of this, after all.

* * *

Finn dropped into his desk chair and glanced at his watch: 4:00 a.m. It had taken them that long to secure the scene, interview the witnesses and take as much detail from the Circle T’s property as they could. Only after they’d done that had they been able to move Michael Hayden’s body.

The guy had snuck out the back of the kitchen to grab a smoke, his fiancée’s legendary distaste for the practice sending him skulking out a rear exit to escape the rehearsal dinner festivities unnoticed.

Only someone had noticed.

They’d shot him.

Finn reviewed his notes, typing them into his report to ensure his thoughts were as fresh as possible. What he avoided including was the observation that sneaking cigarettes at your rehearsal dinner because your soon-to-be wife hated the practice likely wasn’t the most auspicious start to happily-ever-after.

Not that he was exactly an expert.

His own marriage had crashed and burned in a fiery pile of ash after his ex-wife had grown fed up with his hours and the danger of his job. Mary was a good woman and he’d heard through the grapevine that she was remarrying. She’d left Red Ridge after their divorce, picking up work in Spearfish, about thirty miles away, as a digital designer for a local firm. He was happy that she had moved on with her life and wanted nothing but good things for her.

The fact that he’d felt nothing—not even the slightest tug—when he’d heard the news bothered him more than he could say. Wasn’t a man supposed to be jealous if his ex moved on? Even a little bit? Yet here he was, content and maybe even a little relieved that she’d picked up her life and found someone new. He’d never worried much about his reputation as a cold, work-focused leader, but maybe it was time he started.

After, he promised himself. He’d worry about it all after he got through these reports and the inquiries and found out just who was killing men in his town.

The report practically wrote itself. The men and women on his team were well trained and good at their jobs. Between their notes and work, as well as his own, he was able to paint a quick, succinct picture of the crime and Michael Hayden’s unpleasant death.

Shutting down his laptop, he caught sight of a note scribbled by Carson Gage and left in the small wooden box he kept on the corner of his desk.

Carson was one of his best detectives on the force and the brother of the first victim, Bo Gage. Finn picked up the note, curious to see what, if any, details Carson had added to his already-robust case file.

Unsuccessful visit to Darby Gage. Persists in saying she had no idea why Bo left her the business and the house. Has alibi for Bo’s murder but could have someone covering for her?

Despite the personal connection with his brother, Carson had been invaluable on the case. But that last question didn’t sit well with Finn. He knew Carson had worked long and hard to find justice for his brother, but it wasn’t like him—or anyone on Finn’s team—to question a person’s alibi simply for the sake of wrapping up a case and pinning a crime on a convenient suspect.

Was there something behind Carson’s concern? Or was he so frustrated by the lack of leads that he’d begun grasping at straws?

Yes, it was suspicious that Bo had left his business to his ex-wife. But Finn had known Bo Gage and the man hadn’t been the most responsible soul. It could be as simple as the fact that Bo had never had his will changed after his divorce.

Or there could be something else there.

He made a quick note to himself to go talk to Darby Gage. He’d spoken with her a few weeks before when suspicion had first landed on Bo Gage’s ex-wife and hadn’t come to any conclusions. Nevertheless, if something about the woman was nagging at Carson, then Finn would talk to her again.

His detective had a lot on his plate, including his own conflicted feelings about his brother’s passing. Perhaps this case needed a bit more objectivity.

Up until their last meeting, Finn had known Darby Gage as he knew most of his constituents, by sight and a vague recollection of a conversation a time or two. She was pretty, with shoulder-length dark hair and vivid blue eyes, her figure petite and waifish. If he hadn’t seen her at the K-9 training center a time or two, carrying pails of water to scrub out the dog facilities, he’d not have believed her capable of the work. The slender lines of her body belied a strong, capable woman.

One capable of murder?
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