MURDER UNDER THE MISTLETOE
Northern Border Patrol Series, Book 3
DEA agent Tyler Griffin must stop a drug cartel that's using an Idaho Christmas tree farm to smuggle narcotics across the Canadian border. But to do his job, Tyler needs the cooperation of farm owner and widowed mother Heather Larson-Randall—whose informant brother died on Tyler's watch. Tyler knows a crucial piece of evidence is hidden somewhere on the property. But getting the protective mother to trust him is the hardest part of his mission. As threats against Heather mount, he vows to keep her and her child safe…and clear the farm of danger before Christmas.
Northern Border Patrol: Keeping the US-Canadian border safe...
ISBN-10: 0373447035 | ISBN-13: 978-0373447039
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REVIEWS"DEA agent Tyler Griffin is trying to stop a drug cartel that appears to be smuggling drugs into Canada by way of Heather Larson-Randall’s Christmas tree farm. She blames Tyler for her brother’s death. It appears her brother was also trying to flush out the cartel and may have been keeping a journal that could blow the case wide open. Will they be able to find it in time? Is a trusted friend or employee involved? This is the third book in the Northern Border Patrol series, and it starts off strong and doesn’t let up. Fast-paced action keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Heather’s self-doubt and trust issues will, unfortunately, be easy for many to identify with. The mes- sage of not letting circumstances impact one’s faith is moving." —Reviewed by Leslie McKee from Romantic Times Magazine
"Good night, sweet boy." Heather Larson-Randall leaned in to kiss her six-year-old son's forehead.
"Night, Mommy." Colin snuggled deeper beneath the thick comforter. He lay in the twin-size bed in the room that once had been Heather's.
Gone were the decorations of her adolescence—posters of the latest celebrity heartthrob and her 4-H ribbons and trophies. It had taken the past three days to transform the room in a superhero motif that would have made Ken, her late husband, proud.
A cold draft skated across the back of her neck. The late November night had grown chilly, but at least the northern Idaho rain had abated for now. The weatherman had predicted a drop in temperature over the next few days. Fitting for this year's Thanksgiving. She just needed to get through the day for Colin's sake. Then she could concentrate on Christmas.
Hopefully celebrating the birth of Jesus would take her mind off her brother's tragic death.
She also hoped they had snow by Christmas morning. Colin loved the snow. And, as always, her life's priority was Colin.
She moved to the bedroom door. The creak of the old farmhouse's hardwood floor beneath her feet followed each of her steps, echoing the hollow, lonely beat of her heart. "Mommy?"
Pausing in the doorway with her hand hovering over the light switch, she smiled patiently at her son. Colin looked so much like Ken with his dark brown hair falling over one eye and his dimpled chin. She ached with love for her son and regret that he'd never know his father. "Yes, sweetie?"
Her late parents had taught her that replacing the word what with the more positive yes when talking to children created a strong, effective bond. The proof was in how close her family had been.
Colin's big blue-green eyes stared at her intently. "Do you think Uncle Seth is with Daddy and Grandma and Grandpa?"
The innocent question speared through her like a hot poker. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep the tears of grief at bay. Five years ago, just before Colin's first birthday, her husband had been killed while serving his country in Afghanistan, leaving Heather to raise their son alone. She'd made sure every day that Colin knew his father had loved him. Adding to her grief, her parents had been killed in a freak car accident when Colin was four.
Now, two years later and five days ago, she'd lost her younger brother, Seth, to what appeared to be a cocaine overdose.
She struggled to comprehend how Seth had fallen back into using drugs after being clean the past couple of years. He'd had so much going for him. A fiancée he adored, half the tree farm and a bright future. She didn't know what had sent him running back to the abyss.
Placing one hand on her chest, she leaned against the doorjamb, needing the strength of her childhood home to keep her upright when the grief pressing down on her threatened to send her to the floor in a heap. "Yes, dear. I'm sure they are all together."
A familiar tide of anger washed over her. Anger at God for allowing the tragedies that had left her and Colin alone in the world. On the heels of the anger came a flood of guilt for blaming God. Sometimes it was hard to cling to her faith when the world tried to knock her down.
The cell phone in the pocket of her plush robe buzzed.
"I'll come back to check on you in a bit," she told Colin, then flipped off the light and stepped into the dimly lit hallway to answer the phone.
"Your brother's death isn't what it seems," a rough, low voice said into her ear, sending a chill down her spine. "Leave the farm. It's not safe."
Her breath hitched; her mind reeled. "What? Who is this?"
The line beeped, then went silent.
A tremor from deep inside worked its way out of her.
Leave the farm. It's not safe.
She put a hand on the wall to steady herself, feeling the familiar fuzzy velvet texture of the flock wallpaper. This couldn't be happening, not now with Seth's death hanging over her like a cloud of doom.
His death had been ruled an accidental overdose.
Even if she wanted to leave the farm, she and Colin had nowhere to go. The day she had learned of Seth's death, she'd given up her job and the apartment in Washington State to move back to Idaho.
Now the Christmas tree farm was her and Colin's only home. Their livelihood. Without the farm she wasn't sure what would happen to them.
Seeds of fear burrowed in her chest and took root. She quickly made her way downstairs, checking that the doors were securely locked. She peered out the front picture window. The full moon, big and round and shining brightly, bathed the sea of Douglas fir, grand fir and noble fir trees stretching over forty acres of land on the tree farm that had been in her family for three generations.
Long shadows obscured the front drive. The other work buildings on the farm were dark, as well. The small cabins that provided lodging for the seasonal employees couldn't be seen through the thick grove of trees, creating a sense of isolation that had never bothered her when she was growing up here.
But she'd never had a menacing phone call before now.
Suddenly movement on the fringe between the trees and the wide expanse of lawn caught her eye. Then the shadow shifted and disappeared. Had she really seen something out there? Or was fear making her paranoid?
She yanked the curtains closed. Surely she was imagining things. Satisfied the house was locked up tight, she hurried back upstairs to the master bedroom that had once belonged to her parents and her grandparents before them. Though she'd replaced her parents' belongings with her own, she still considered the room theirs.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, she called the local sheriff's office and told the answering sergeant about the disturbing call. She couldn't be sure she'd seen anything in the shadows of the trees, so she kept that to herself. Because there was no immediate threat, the sergeant promised to send a deputy over in the morning.
Not at all reassured, she hung up and crawled into bed. She held her phone to her chest. Right now she wished she'd given in to Colin's pleas for a dog. Tomorrow she would go to the local animal shelter and find a nice big canine with a loud bark.
She leaned back against the pillows, her gaze landing on the picture of her parents hanging on the opposite wall. Her mother had been so beautiful and her father so handsome. But more important, they'd been great parents to her and Seth, providing a stable home and love. Lots of love.
The very things she wanted to give Colin.
Somehow none of that had been enough to keep Seth from turning to drugs. She didn't know what had driven him to seek the high of narcotics when he was younger. Or more recently. The not knowing ate at her. He'd refused to talk about the dark days of his addiction. Heather had hoped one day he'd realize she loved him no matter what.
Maybe if she'd stayed closer to home rather than leaving for college, Seth wouldn't have turned into a junkie. Maybe if she'd begged, Ken would have left the army. Maybe if she'd been with her parents that night, they wouldn't have died in that accident. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
She turned off the light and lay in the dark. She wanted to pray for God to protect them and lessen the burden of guilt she carried. But her prayers for Ken's safety had gone unanswered. Why would God listen to her now?
Her eyelids grew heavy. Her head bobbed as sleep's greedy hands pulled her into slumber.
A soft thud jolted her fully awake. Her heart nearly exploded with fright. She bolted from the bed and strained to listen.
Maybe it had been Colin getting up to use the bathroom. Yes, that had to be it. She sucked in air and slowly released her breath, working to calm her frantic pulse. She glanced at the clock. She'd slept for three hours.
After pulling on her robe, she padded quietly down the hall to check on her son. The bathroom was dark and empty. She moved on to his room. The moon's glow streamed through the open curtains, revealing Colin fast asleep. She closed the door and waited. The house was silent now, yet the hairs on her nape rose and chills prickled her skin.
Cautiously, she moved to the top of the stairs and stared into darkness.
Was someone in the house?
Another noise jolted through her, making her tremble. She needed to call for help. As quietly as she could, she raced back to her bedroom and swiped the phone off the bed, then hurried into the hall and stood guard in front of Colin's door. She dialed and when the sergeant answered, she whispered, "This is Heather Randall again. There's someone in my house!"
"Are you sure?" the man asked. "Have you seen an intruder?"
"No, I heard a noise."
He sighed. "Sit tight. I'll send one of the deputies out."
Sit tight? It would take at least thirty minutes for a deputy to reach the farm from Bonners Ferry, the nearest town. Was she supposed to wait and see if the intruder decided to come upstairs? Then what? She had no weapon, no way to defend herself or Colin. She thanked the deputy anyway and hung up.
She couldn't sit there like some insipid victim. She crept slowly down the staircase, careful to avoid the spots that would creak. She knew every inch of this house, knew every board that would betray her presence, every piece of furniture to navigate around in the inky blackness. She made her way to the kitchen.
She glanced at the knife block with the razor-sharp knife set. As tempting as it was to grab a knife to use as a weapon, she knew that wasn't a good choice. A knife could be too easily taken away and used against her. Instead, she moved to the stove.
Careful not to jostle the pans hanging over the range, she grabbed the largest cast-iron skillet. Her mother's favorite. Hefting the heavy pan in her hands like a baseball bat, she crept back to the stairs.
At the bottom step, she waited, listening.
All was quiet. She was being paranoid. The noises she'd heard had been the house settling for the night. All the doors and windows were locked up tight. The phone call had been a mean hoax, meant to frighten her.
Well, it had worked. Her hands tightened around the cold handle of the skillet. She placed one foot on the first step.
A soft knock at the back door echoed in the stillness of the house.
Abandoning the stairs, she pressed her back to the wall. Adjusting her grip more firmly on the skillet's sturdy handle, she inched toward the kitchen. She peered around the corner. The outline of a man shone through the curtained window on the back door.
She had seen someone creeping around outside. And now they wanted inside.
Who would come to the farmhouse in the middle of the night? Caution had her refrain from turning on the lights. If she didn't answer the door, would the person go away?
She hoped so.
The person knocked again, louder this time.
Maybe it was the sheriff's deputy. Right, one just happened to be close enough?
It was possible, she supposed. Wary, she approached the door and flipped on the outside porch light. But nothing happened. Great timing to have a burned-out lightbulb at the exact moment she needed the glow.
As indecision on what to do warred within her, the man outside turned the doorknob. She jumped back, prepared to use the skillet to defend herself.
She should retreat and wait upstairs as the sergeant had said. That would be the smart thing to do. But what if the intruder decided to break in? What if he got to her son before the police could arrive?
A surge of protectiveness coursed through her veins. Adrenaline shoved back the fear. She was alone. It was up to her to defend her house, her son. She stood her ground.
The unmistakable sound of a key sliding into the lock and the lock's tumblers turning ratcheted her tension.
She moved swiftly to press her back against the wall next to the door seconds before the door opened and the intruder stepped inside. A small beam of light glowed in the darkness as the man moved forward. Holding her breath, she knew she had the element of surprise on her side and one shot at felling the trespasser. She had to make it count.
Stepping carefully behind the figure, she raised the iron fry pan and swung.
The swoosh of moving air alerted DEA agent Tyler Griffin to an impending attack. He spun around, the penlight dropping to the ground, and raised an arm to deflect the blow. He was too late. Something hard and solid glanced off his elbow and connected with his head, sending pain shooting in all directions through his body.
The crack to his noggin sent him staggering backward until his back hit the dining room table. He toppled sideways into a sprawling heap on the floor. His elbow throbbed all the way to his shoulder.
He shook his head, trying to regain his equilibrium. He could barely make out the dark form of a body standing a few feet away. He wrenched his sidearm from the holster attached to his belt. "Halt! DEA!"
His shout didn't quite have the normal amount of punch it usually held.
The figure retreated a few steps.
Tyler blinked back the spots and aimed. His finger hovered near the trigger, but he couldn't keep his assailant in focus long enough to fire.
The sudden glare of the overhead light blinded him. With a sinking feeling, he realized he made an easy target if his assailant decided to finish him off. This wasn't the way he'd pictured his life ending.
But, then again, he wasn't in control of life's happenings. He'd learned that long ago. The best he could do was pray that if God wanted to take him now, that it was quick and painless.
"You're a cop?"
The distinctly female voice had him blinking rapidly to adjust to the light. He lowered his sidearm. His gaze fixed on the woman standing by the back door he'd just come through. She held a large black cast-iron skillet in her hands, looking as if she were ready to take another swing at his head.
He nearly laughed out loud. He'd allowed an assailant to get the drop on him. A woman with a frying pan, at that. Man, he must be suffering burnout.
He could only imagine the ribbing he'd suffer when his fellow agents found out he'd been clocked by a raven-haired beauty in a fuzzy yellow robe and… Were those toe socks?
Her tangle of thick ebony curls cascaded about her shoulders like a cloud, and the most amazing hazel eyes regarded him with stark fear. Her gaze moved to the gun in his hand, then back to meet his scrutiny.
Forcing himself to a sitting position, he reholstered his weapon and let his head sink into his hands with a groan. "You hit me."
"I'll do it again if you don't tell me who you are and what you're doing here and how you have a key to my house," she growled.
Feisty, considering he'd had her at gunpoint. Lifting his head, he started at the sight of his hands covered with blood. Apparently the knock over the head with the pan had broken the skin on his scalp. Hopefully, that was the only thing she'd broken.
He reached for his ID wallet and held it up for her to see. "Agent Tyler Griffin, DEA. You must be Heather."
One lip curled up. "Obviously." Her dark winged brows dipped as she took a step closer to inspect his credentials. She danced back and frowned. "How do I know that's real, and how do you know my name?"
"It's real. You can check it out if you'd like." He held the leather case out for her to take. "There's a number on the card you can call."
"Throw it over."
Smart, too. He liked that. He tossed it so it landed at her feet. Keeping her focus on him, she picked the wallet up. Her straight white teeth tugged on her bottom lip. "You didn't answer me. How did you get a key, and how do you know who I am?"