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Colton's Deadly Engagement
Addison Fox

He shook off the thought, unwilling to take the same leap as Carson simply for the sake of having a suspect besides Demi Colton.

Fifteen minutes later he was still thinking of her when he stepped into his ground-floor condo and peeled off his gun before climbing into bed.

Was it even remotely possible Darby Gage was the Groom Killer? She had a potential motive for killing her ex-husband—he’d left her the house and business, after all. But Michael Hayden had been killed with the same MO as Bo. And why would Darby kill Hayden?

The thought of her as the perp didn’t sit well, but for some strange reason, just as he was fading off to sleep, he felt a shot of interest light up his nerve endings. There was something about her that caught a man’s notice.

Something that had caught his notice, even as he’d been forced to remain professional and disinterested.

He hadn’t given Darby Gage more than a passing thought over the past five years, but now that he had given her a passing thought, he couldn’t deny his interest in talking to her.

So he’d go see her for himself.

And try not to notice if she was as pretty as he remembered.

Chapter 2 (#u06784735-3657-5356-8ba1-233e402e88df)

The hope that had carried Darby through the prior evening when Penny had opted to join her on the couch met an untimely end about ten minutes into breakfast. It had started with Penny’s stubborn refusal to eat. Darby had tried to coax her with dry food and, when that hadn’t worked, some wet food Bo had kept in the pantry. When neither met with success, she’d even gone so far as to cook the dog some rice and heat up some plain chicken she’d cooked for her lunchtime salads all week. All to no avail.

Penny wouldn’t eat.

This had resulted in a call to the vet and a panicked round of “What did she eat the day before?” before the dog had shamed her into embarrassment by diving into her breakfast after fifteen shaky, fear-filled minutes. The only saving grace was that Darby hadn’t called the vet out to the house, only to have paid for an unnecessary visit.

What the call had turned up as the vet probed on Penny’s age and overall health was his concern that another litter would put Penny at serious risk. On some level, Darby had known it, but she’d told herself she needed a professional opinion.

And now she had it.

That dismal news and the breakfast battle of wills had been followed by the news of another murder in Red Ridge, this one eerily like Bo’s. While the RRPD hadn’t released all details of how Michael Hayden had been murdered, the fact that it was another groom-to-be—this one celebrating at his rehearsal dinner—was too coincidental for Darby’s comfort.

After fielding three calls from concerned friends in town, along with two more she’d sent to voice mail, unwilling to engage in the expected idle gossip that would have resulted, Darby headed out to the backyard and the property beyond.

The day was sharp and cold, but the winter sun was bright in a blue sky. Penny had reluctantly followed her outside and had skirted the property, seeming to take comfort in her perusal of the perimeter before settling on the rattan recliner on the porch, apparently content to watch her.

Darby shot the dog the gimlet eye but was pleased to see Penny’s reluctant interest in her activities. “Chalk it up to a silent victory that she’s interested enough to hang out here and move on,” Darby muttered to herself before heading toward a large shed.

She dug out a bucket and some disinfectant and went to work on the large cage she’d pulled out of the garage the day before. The roomy nest served as Penny’s private area when she was preparing for her litter and Darby wanted it clean and fresh.

Penny might not be able to use it any longer but the activity and the bracing air gave Darby purpose and something to do.

It also kept her mind away from the subject of just how far off the rails her life had traveled.

She’d believed her savings would be enough to carry her through the next litter of puppies. But the problems kept mounting and there was no way she could take care of the business, the house, the taxes and the need to purchase a new dog for the breeding program on the small amount she had in the bank.

Bo’s once-thriving business with quite a few quality dogs was now down to Penny. Darby knew how much Bo had loved the dog and he’d obviously kept her even after he had to sell all the other German shepherds to keep things afloat.

Bo’s father, Edson, had begged Darby to keep the business going in his son’s memory, and she’d promised she would. It was only after seeing the degree of Bo’s debt that she was fast coming to understand she shouldn’t have made that promise.

What a mess.

Settling the thick padding from the base of the cage and the disinfectant on the porch, Darby headed inside to retrieve the water she’d left heating on the stove to mix with the cleaner. She’d nearly wrestled the heavy pot off the stove when the doorbell rang. Resettling the pot and narrowly avoiding the slosh of hot water against the edges, she headed for the front door. The house wasn’t large, but she prayed with each footfall that one of the nosy voice mails still waiting on her phone hadn’t decided to drive across town to strike up a conversation.

Offering up one more silent prayer, Darby pulled open the front door.

Just when she thought her day couldn’t get any worse, she came face-to-face with Finn Colton, the Red Ridge chief of police.

* * *

Finn appreciated the authority that came with his position and he made it a point to behave in a way that earned him respect. He’d met a few cops over the years who’d forgotten that the trust the public imbued in them was as important as honoring that trust. He’d never wanted to behave in a manner that disregarded that bond.

His surprise visit to Darby Gage was both deliberate and purposeful. Respectful, but deliberate all the same. While not quite full-on disregard for her trust, he was doing a bit of bearding the lion in its den.

Aka surprising the pretty divorcée. On purpose.

“Mrs. Gage. I was hoping you could find a few minutes to speak with me.”

“Chief Colton.” She nodded but made no move to let him in. “What can I do for you?”

“I wanted to talk to you about Bo for a bit.”

Resignation settled in her blue-violet gaze before she nodded her head. “Of course. Come in, please.”

He followed her into the small house, surprised to see how run-down the place was. He’d grown up well aware of the long-standing Colton-Gage feud but had always believed the Gages lived well enough to afford the basics. Though he had little interest subscribing to something as antiquated—and decades old—as the town family feud, his reaction to the state of Bo Gage’s home only reinforced that he’d never been particularly close with any of the Gages.

Fortunately, working with several members of the family on the force had changed that and he was grateful for it. Carson had his full respect, as did Carson’s younger half sister, Elle. Although still a rookie on the K-9 team, Elle handled herself with poise beyond her years and had a keen ability to partner with her K-9 charge.

In Finn’s estimation, the Gages weren’t so bad, even if his uncles, Fenwick and Rusty, as well as his father, Judson, continued to perpetuate the ridiculous notion of a feud. He’d been called to more than one heated incident between members of the two families since joining the RRPD and knew it was only a matter of time before there’d be another.

Truth be told, he was surprised there hadn’t been a skirmish yet, especially with a Gage murdered and a Colton as one of the suspects.

Even with his better understanding of the Gage family—or maybe because of it—Bo Gage’s home was unexpected. He might have been a slacker, but Bo was still the son of one of Red Ridge’s wealthier individuals, Edson Gage. Somehow Finn had expected Bo’s fortunes to be a bit more robust than the shabby decor suggested. Even as his gaze roamed the place, Finn had to give Darby credit. The furniture might be worn and run-down, but it was clean. He didn’t see dust on the end table or the TV and he could still see the outline of sweeper marks on the carpet.

Were murderesses that clean?

A quick scent memory of the bleach from the crime scene filled his nose and he struggled against the thought. Bo had been dead long enough that there would have been some accumulation of dust and dirt by now. Yet here she was, cleaning up and making the place her own.

“What would you like to discuss, Chief Colton?”

Darby’s question pulled him from his musings, but Finn had to admit the angle wasn’t one he’d considered. Perhaps it was time he started.

“You seem to be settling in.”

“I didn’t have much to move in with me.”

“Clean, too.” He stated it as an observation and was surprised when she just smiled back, her grin bright and proud.

“My mother raised me to believe cleanliness was next to godliness. Add on the fact that I’m keeping up with a seventy-pound German shepherd and my OCD kicks in hard.”

“Does the dog hate the mess?”
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