Colton's Deadly Engagement
Groom Killer on the Loose.
The Red Ridge Groom Killer—Crime of Passion or Premeditated Murder?
Love or Revenge? Does the Groom Killer Want Both?
One after the next, the headlines had grown more and more lurid as each day went by without any leads. The reporters at the Gazette had been having a field day with the biggest thing to hit Red Ridge since a four-month gold rush helped establish the town in the late nineteenth century. Now that a second groom had been killed, the headlines would only get worse.
Because it was worse, she reminded herself. There was a groom killer on the loose.
“You think I’m doing this? First Bo. Then this poor Michael Hayden, a man I didn’t even know.”
“I’m asking a few questions.”
“No, Chief Colton. You’re not.”
When he said nothing, she continued. “Can you honestly sit there and tell me you think I murdered my ex-husband to get my hands on this?” She gestured to the kitchen at large, stopping when her gaze landed on Penny. “Other than Penny, the man has left me with less than nothing.”
He seemed to soften a bit at her mention of the dog, his hard gaze softening as it grew speculative. “I’m not sure his fiancée sees it the same way.”
The comment was enough to respike her ire and Darby let out a heavy exhale. “Don’t think Hayley hasn’t been by a few times to make that very point.”
“Miss Patton’s been here?”
“Sure. She came to get her things. Made a point to prance out of the bedroom flaunting a small red negligee like it was going to hurt my feelings.”
“You were married to Bo Gage,” Chief Colton pointed out. He didn’t even blink at the mention of a red slinky number. “Presumably she thought it would upset you?”
“Bo and I parted on amicable terms. The best thing I can say about the day I signed my divorce papers was the sense of relief.”
“You weren’t upset?”
“I spent the majority of my marriage upset. By the time I reached that day, I was just happy to be out, free to go about my life.”
As the words settled between them, hovering somewhere over the sugar bowl in the middle of the table, Darby couldn’t deny their truth. She’d had no desire to be a divorcée at the age of twenty-seven, but in the ensuing two years she’d come to accept the fact that ending her marriage to Bo had been the right thing to do.
She might not have found anyone to move on with, but she had moved on. There was strength in that, and a deep sense of pride that she’d been willing to make the tough decisions and stand up for herself.
It had also toughened her up and she knew she didn’t have to sit there and answer Chief Colton’s questions, no matter how attractive the questioner.
And darn her stupid feminine awareness for picking up on that fact.
Whatever she’d expected when he’d arrived, Finn Colton wasn’t there to help her any more than any other gawkers who’d been by over the past few weeks. She was on her own.
Just like always.
But it was his next words that proved it.
“Would you be able to tell me your whereabouts for yesterday between the hours of seven and nine?”
Chapter 3 (#u06784735-3657-5356-8ba1-233e402e88df)
Finn poured himself another cup of precinct coffee, well aware the caffeine wasn’t going to do any favors for the slick knot that still twisted his gut. His interview with Darby Gage hadn’t gone well and after securing her unprovable alibi for Hayden’s murder—an evening in with Penny—he’d left her in a fine pique.
Although he’d been hoping for confirmation that she’d been out with girlfriends or even on a date, her pronouncement that she’d spent the cold winter night in with her obstinate new roommate hadn’t gotten him any nearer to removing Darby Gage from his suspect list.
He headed back to his desk from the small kitchenette the RRPD secretary, Lorelei Wong, maintained with the same ruthless efficiency with which she manned the front entrance. He’d deliberately used the single-cup brewer instead of making a pot so she wouldn’t come in Monday morning and razz him for making a mess. She’d probably still find an infraction, but at least he wouldn’t risk leaving a coffeemaker full of coffee grounds or stale coffee gone cold in the pot.
The case bothered him. He knew himself well enough to know that not only would it require his full concentration, but that that same concentration would likely reduce a few brain cells for the next few days.
Who was killing grooms-to-be in his town?
What makes people do such horrible things?
Darby’s question haunted him, nagging at the back of his sleep-deprived mind. After his visit to Bo Gage’s old residence, he’d headed back to the Circle T to review the latest crime scene with fresh eyes. The visit hadn’t turned up much, other than the fact that the town was shaken. The restaurant had reported that nearly all their Saturday night reservations had been canceled before the owner was even able to make the calls that they would be closed that evening.
But it was the comments the proprietor, Gus Hanley, had fielded from those canceling guests that had Finn concerned.
“If someone’s killing men who are about to get married, can I risk even going out on a date?”
“Big-city crime has come to Red Ridge. Maybe I need to try staying in for a while.”
“Should we reconsider our spring wedding?”
Along with the canceled reservations, Gus had lost two events for early March—one for an engagement party and one for a rehearsal dinner.
No doubt about it, Red Ridge was in a panic. As a lifelong resident, Finn found that sad. As chief of police—it was unbearable. He’d become a cop because he’d wanted to make a difference. The fact that he was good at it was an added bonus that kept him focused, determined and dedicated. The added added bonus of working with Lotte had sealed the deal.
He hadn’t always been a K-9 cop. His first few years on the force had been focused on learning the ropes and endless hours of traffic detail. But he’d showed promise and the old chief, Clancy Macintyre, had taken him under his wing. Chief Macintyre had been a good influence, balancing his innate ability to teach with the patience and care Finn’s own father had never exhibited.
Judson Colton was a rancher and a damn fine one. But he’d never understood his oldest son, a quiet kid with an unerring eye for detail. That had always been true and, whether by choice or by habit, he and his father maintained a respectful distance. His father’s second wife, Joanelle, had made that even easier to accomplish with her cold ways and dismissal of Judson’s first child as a burden she was forced to carry.
But there was one thing ranch life had taught Finn and that was his love of animals. His opportunity to move in to the K-9 unit and work with a trained canine partner had taken his love of police work and made it his life’s calling.
He was good at his job and he was good to the men and women who worked for him. They all kept Red Ridge safe and took pride in their role as protectors. And someone had come to their town and violated all they’d built.
Suddenly tired of it all, including the need to question petite women with silky hair and what read as determined—but innocent—eyes, Finn headed for his desk. The case weighed on him and he’d be no good to anyone if he didn’t clear his head. It was time to wrap up the little paperwork he’d come in for, get his notes on the interview with Darby logged in and head home. Maybe he’d make a steak and a baked potato, the hearty meal a way to relax and recharge.
And then he’d eat it alone.
That thought hit harder than all the others that had bombarded him throughout the day.
He’d been alone since his divorce and had believed himself okay with it. He’d had dates from time to time. Had even progressed to something more like a relationship a few years back with a sweet teacher down in Black Hills City. But, ultimately, things hadn’t worked out. She’d had visions of the future and in the end he simply couldn’t get his head on the same page.
So why was he now imagining enjoying his steak and potato with a companion?
One who looked suspiciously like Darby Gage.
The squad room was quiet. His cousin Brayden, another K-9 cop on the team, was tapping away at his keyboard. He was nodding his head to whatever music pumped through his ears—classic rock, if Finn knew his cousin—but he did holler a “yo” as Finn passed.