Griffin Powell envied his old friend. Judd Walker had been to hell and back. Now, thanks to the love of a good woman, he had survived and had a wonderful life. A life that he appreciated in a way only a man who had come close to self-destructing could. Seeing the happiness in Judd’s eyes every time he looked at his wife and infant daughter, Griff knew how much Judd valued the priceless second chance he had been given.
If anyone knew about second chances, Griff did.
Judd slapped Griff on the back. “Come on outside and help me put these steaks on the grill.” He held up the tray of marinated meat in his other hand. “Cam’s got it all fired up and ready to go.”
“Just how many chefs do you need manning the grill?” Griff asked before upending his beer bottle to finish off the last drops.
Judd shrugged. “Suit yourself, but I thought you might want to get away from the ladies for a few minutes. That is unless you’re dying to listen once again to all the details of how we decorated the nursery, went through childbirth classes together, and how I nearly fainted during Emily’s delivery.”
Griff smiled as he glanced across room to where the ladies --- Rachel Carter, Cam’s latest girlfriend, and Griff’s date, Lisa Kay Smithe --- sat at the kitchen table chatting with Lindsay Walker. Little Miss Emily Chisholm Walker slept soundly in her mother’s arms. Lindsay McAllister, now Lindsay Walker, had traded her P.I. license and 9mm for a bucolic life out in the country with her husband and baby.
He’d never seen her happier.
Lindsay deserved to be happy. She’d earned it.
He loved her like a little sister and wanted only the best for her.
“I think I’ll leave all the baby talk to the ladies,” Griff said as he followed Judd outside and onto the patio. Judd had added the patio to the old Walker family hunting lodge that he and Lindsay had renovated shortly after their marriage last year.
Griff wasn’t much for family get-togethers and backyard barbecues. Not that he wasn’t enjoying himself today. Not that there was anywhere else he’d rather be. He could count true friends on his fingers, a short list, with Judd and Lindsay among the chosen few. Griff and Judd went back quite a few years, pre-Lindsay years.
“How do you like your steak, Griff?” Cam asked as he took the tray from Judd and placed it on the side table by the state-of-the-art built-in grill.
Realizing that through all the years they’d known each other, this barbeque was a first for them, Griff eyed Cam with a raised eyebrow. The All-American blue-eyed, sandy-haired, trial lawyer was casually dressed, wearing a white apron over his UT tee shirt and cut off jeans. “Medium,” Griff replied to the question.
Cam grinned. “Really? I’d have pegged you for a rare kind of guy.”
“Don’t like it raw, huh?” Cam chuckled as he nodded toward the backdoor. “Wonder if Ms. Smithe would prefer a guy who does take it raw?”
Griff’s good natured smile never wavered. “You’re more than welcome to ask her. But what about the lady you brought to the dance? Won’t she expect you to dance that last dance with her?”
“We could swap partners,” Cam suggested.
“Will you two stop that.” Judd glanced at the screened door that led from the patio to the screened porch. “I’m an old married man and if my wife heard such talk out of you two, she might forbid me to ever invite y’all back.”
Cam and Griff laughed out loud.
Griff knew that if any man on earth was devoted to his wife, Judd was. And he didn’t blame him. If a woman ever loved him the way Lindsay loved Judd…
There had been a time when they had exchanged girlfriends, had passed them around, and none of the women had objected in the least. As a matter of fact Judd, Cam and he had speculated that the ladies they dated were probably keeping score, comparing each man to the other two and sharing their preferences with one another. When Jennifer Mobley entered their lives, they had vied for her affection, each of them dating her in turn. Judd had won that particular prize. He’d fallen head over heels for Jenny. They were still newlyweds when Jenny had become one of the Beauty Queen Killer’s victims. That had been more than five years ago.
And lucky son of a bitch that he was, Judd had found the right woman for a second time.
Griff figured that sooner or later, Cam would succumb to love. When he least expected it, the right woman would come along and knock his socks off.
But Griff didn’t expect to ever marry or father a child. He had far too much baggage to bring into any relationship. A past that no woman would understand. Demons plagued him. Soul-deep demons, from which he could never escape.
Nicole Baxter sprawled leisurely on the rustic wooden chaise lounge with thickly padded cushions in a hideous floral print. The day was hot, the breeze slightly humid, the air heavy. She lifted the large glass from the deck floor up to her lips and sipped the sweet tea. As she glanced high overhead and saw an eagle in flight, she rubbed the cool glass across one cheek and then the other. Nearby the soft trickle of a small stream drummed melodically in her ears and the rustle of the moist air through the towering treetops reminded her that the weather forecasters had mentioned an afternoon rainstorm.
If it rained, she’d go inside the rental cabin, choose one of the half dozen paperbacks she had brought, then curl up on the sofa and read. If it didn’t rain, she’d probably change clothes and go hiking.
Glancing down at her seen-better-days shorts, oversize cotton tee shirt, and bare feet, she sighed. Maybe she wouldn’t go anywhere. Maybe she’d sit right here for the next four or five hours, drinking tea, napping, trying her best to get the R&R her boss had told her she needed.
Besides that, she hadn’t taken a vacation in years, not since Greg died and she’d thrown herself into her work. Work had saved her sanity when she lost her husband. Work had become her passion, her only passion.
Hell, who was she kidding? From the day she’d been recruited by the FBI, a green kid fresh out of college, she’d been consumed with proving herself, showing everyone that a woman could be the best. The very best.
Six months of grief counseling had done more than help her deal with Greg’s death—it had made her open up to a therapist about her life in general, especially the formative years that had created Nicole Baxter, the real woman, the woman few people ever truly knew. To be honest, there were times when she wasn’t sure even she knew who she was.
So, here she was in a rental cabin in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains. She had arrived last night. Slept like the dead. Ate a big breakfast she’d cooked herself. Soaked in the hot tub for twenty minutes, then showered and thrown on some old, comfy clothes.
Pudge exited off Interstate 49, took a right turn at the end of the ramp and went in search of Catfish Haven which was advertised on the Food and Lodging sign. There it was, up ahead on the left. The restaurant was housed in a new building, constructed of old lumber to give it that aged quality, and possessed a rustic metal roof, a sprawling front porch, and a large parking lot half-filled with vehicles.
Before he went inside and dined on the local cuisine, he had two phone calls to make. Thinking about a solution to his problem as he’d been driving, he had come up with a brilliant idea. Just the thought of it excited him.
He didn’t need a partner in crime in order to have a competitor. All he needed was an adversary. Someone with whom he could share certain aspects of his planning, execution, and subsequent triumph. Someone intelligent. Someone who would have no choice but to play the game with him. What fun it would be to outsmart them, to stay one step ahead of them.
Leaving the motor running so that the air conditioner would keep him cool—Pudge hated to be uncomfortable—he opened the glove compartment and removed one of the four pre-paid phones he had placed there before leaving for Arkansas three days ago.
Griff’s instincts told him that this caller was the second BQ Killer, the one who had gotten away because no one knew he existed. Only Griff and Special Agent Nic Baxter believed Maygarden had had a partner. And try as she might, Nic had been unable to convince her superiors to reopen the BQK case because she had no substantial evidence, no way to prove there had been a second killer.
Excerpted from THE MURDER GAME © Copyright 2011 by Beverly Barton. Reprinted with permission by Zebra. All rights reserved.
The Murder Game