Locked, Loaded, & Lying
He might be innocent.
Or he might be very, very guilty…
Olympic skier Lock Roane was on top of the world: smashing world records, collecting medals, and basking in the love of a nation and his beautiful heiress girlfriend. It all comes crashing down after Lock discovers his girlfriend had an affair – then wakes from a drunken bender to find himself covered in her blood. Disgraced and dethroned, Lock awaits his murder trial with dread, not knowing if his girlfriend died at his own hands.
Journalist Jordan Sinclair is out of options. To satisfy her blackmailer, she must get the inside scoop (and its cash reward) on Lock Roane. An attraction to the arrogant athlete was not part of the plan. Neither is trying to find out what really happened that night. Now Jordan risks everything – including her life – to help the man she’s falling for. A man who just might be a cold-blooded killer…
Locked, Loaded, & Lying
Locked, Loaded, & Lying
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Locklen Roane absorbed his girlfriend’s lethal scowl from across the crowded barroom. Her attempt to flip him off knocked over the empty martini glass in front of her. Great. She was pissed off and plastered. Tonight was not gonna end well. He should turn on his heel and walk the hell back out.
Instead he let the Avalanche’s door swing closed, determined to plow through the apology he owed her. And judging by the mascara streaking her cheeks and how she swayed in her seat for balance, he needed to get her outta here real quick.
Bracing inwardly, he pushed through the sea of happy hour bodies, fist-bumping friends and fans, and nodding at shouts of greeting until he reached Tiffany van der Kellen’s booth. He leaned in, purposely ignoring Wolf, his U.S. Ski teammate, lounging cozily beside her. Tiffany got off on jealousy, and Lock wasn’t up for that kind of manipulation tonight.
“Go da hell,” Tiff muttered, her bleary gaze lighting on a brimming, pink Cosmopolitan near her.
“Look, I’m sorry. I swear I didn’t blow you off. I’d punked the newbies, and somehow Coach found out and lectured me ’til my ears bled. I couldn’t even text you.” He caught her fingers. “Let me take you home.”
She tugged her hand free and slapped him. “Touch me again, and I’ll schream.”
He winced, not because the uncoordinated smack hurt, but combining it with her loud slurring guaranteed a YouTube frenzy. He glanced around the bar. Yep. Patrons had begun aiming cell-phone cameras in rabid interest. One thick-necked guy stood only feet away; even in this noise, his phone would pick up their words. Christ, hadn’t the public seen enough sordid scenes between the two of them?
He transferred his attention to Wolf. “We need to have a serious talk.”
His teammate raised his hands in mock surrender. “Dude, she Tweeted about her shitty day and what a shit you are. I came as the consoling friend.”
Yeah. That sounded like something Tiff would Tweet. Lock leaned a knee on the booth cushion. “Come on, Tiff. Just once, can we leave without making a scene?”
“You don’ get to waltsh in here and tell me what t’ do!”
More heads swung their way. Drunken Tiffany, the Mrs. Hyde who could pick a fight faster than he could shred the Grand Slalom. Impatience flooded through him. These scenes were so routine he knew he was seconds away from taking the bait. He counted to ten, unclenched his teeth, and started over. “I said I was sorr—”
“You’re not sorry!” she shrieked, which made the slurred words sound all the more obscene. “I’m not goin’ anywhere with you. Ever. Where’s Marshy?”
Where was Marcy? She manipulated his plastered girlfriend way better than he could. He glanced around for Tiff’s usually inseparable cousin, but Marcy wasn’t among the happy hour gawkers.
Inspired, he turned back. “She’s outside waiting for you.” He held out his hand again, but she folded her arms, settling deeper in the booth.
What the hell was he going to do? She was working up to throwing a real fit. The kind that made the evening news. Heiress and Olympic champion duke it out in a bar. The van der Kellen charity thing was a huge deal in Aspen every spring. He’d been an ass to stand her up, but now wasn’t the time to let her go off on him.
Biting back his irritation, he slid another glance at Cell Phone Guy, who actually smirked in return, eyes hostile and challenging. As much as Lock despised his privacy being so blatantly violated, he was clearheaded enough not to go over for a throw down. The dude looked like he crushed beer cans between his biceps for sport.
Wolf, however, waved to the cell camera, looking mighty entertained. Lock sucked in a breath. He had to get her out of here. “Tiff—”
“What’s going on?”
He twisted around and sighed with relief. “Marcy.” Thank God! “Help me get her out of here.”
Marcy frowned, her gaze sweeping over the empty glasses, mugs, and beer bottles scattered across the table. “I’ve got it handled, Lock. No need to help us now.”
Okay. So that made two furious van der Kellens. That damn bachelor auction! “There’s a guy over my shoulder filming every move Tiff makes. Your grandmother’s going to shit when this goes viral.”
No change in her glaring scowl. He couldn’t believe it. She was a Mama Bear when it came to protecting Tiff from her drunken self. The plug should’ve been pulled here four drinks ago.
“She’s fine,” Marcy spat out.
“Seriously? You’re going to let your anger at me stand in the way of taking care of—this?” He jerked a thumb at his girlfriend who was blathering about a seat in New York and how important it was while Wolf nodded gravely, his eyes never leaving her cleavage.
Lock shoved his hands in his pockets and fisted them tight. “You hear that?” He cocked an eyebrow at the frumpy, freckled cousin glaring back at him. “She’s talking about how important chairs are in New York. Drunk enough for you?”
“Shut up, Tiffany,” she snapped, without taking her accusing eyes off him.
“Yeah, that’ll do the trick.” Lock turned and slid Tiffany’s untouched Cosmo away. “Let’s go, babe. Now.”
“I haven’t finished that!”
He grabbed the dainty glass and swigged the pink liquid like a shot, hearing both cousins gasp. Thunking the empty glass in front of Tiff, he fought the urge to pucker at the god-awful sour taste. “You have now.”
Tiff blinked, open-mouthed.
“What the hell are you doing?” Marcy snarled. “I told you I have everything under control.”
“No, Marcy, you don’t. I get that you want me to go fuck myself, but don’t take your passive-aggressive crap for me out on her. She needs to go home and sober up.” Clamping a hand around Tiff’s wrist, he forcibly began sliding her out of the booth.
Marcy slapped his bicep. “Leave her alone, pigbeast.”
Pigbeast. Lock shook his head. Cell Phone Guy should charge money for this train wreck.
Tiff struggled, but at last she was out and standing. Twenty feet to the door.
“Everything all right here, Lock?”
“Butt out, slick,” Tiff slurred.
“Hey, Ronny, sorry about all this.” He fist-bumped the bartender. “I’m taking her home.” He jerked his head in Wolf’s direction. “He’ll pick up the tab.”
“No tab. She came in like this, so we cut her off early. But her admirers kept smuggling over drinks.”
God damn it! He fought back the black cloud of jealousy. Nodding good-bye, he focused on the success of hauling her a few feet closer to the entrance.
“Yo,” Wolf called, “wanna catch the ballgame tomorrow?”
Lock shrugged, still pissed off at his teammate and Marcy, who stood beside the table watching their departure with a scary-looking scowl.
“Wait—” Tiff weaved to the right, still trying to yank her wrist from his grasp. “I gotta go…”
“We’re leaving, honey.”
“No. Lemme go. I shee shomeone.” She wrenched one more time, but finding her wrist still trapped, she whirled clumsily and struck him in the chest. “Let go, asshole, you’re hurting me!”
The high-pitched shriek resulted in deafening silence around them. He impulsively let go, raising his hands in antagonized surrender. “All right, damn it, go.”
The crowd murmured collectively as she spun off balance in her newfound freedom, almost collapsing into a crowded booth before she caught herself. Without a backward glance, she staggered toward the entrance, no small feat given those neon-pink stilettos.
He closed his eyes briefly, choking back bitterness. This relationship was so out of control it gave him an ulcer. He regretted the impulse that had led him in here tonight. If he’d known she was here and this toasted, he’d have headed to his condo and apologized tomorrow. Maybe he should cut his losses right now and split, because the honest-to-God truth? Anything was better than being with her right now. But at least she was leaving the damn bar.
Aw, hell. He should go after her.
Marcy brushed by, calling him something a lot harsher than pigbeast under her breath.
“Yo, Marcy, wait up,” Wolf called, sliding out of the booth. “You owe me money.”
Tiff reached the door, and a guy in a dark-purple polo opened it for her. As she stepped into the May sunset, she swayed into him, and the man threw an arm around her. His swagger seemed familiar, and alarm bells rang.
“Who the hell is that?” Lock snarled.
Wolf followed his gaze just as the door closed on the pair.
“You oughta know. You two almost came to blows in Wengen last year.” Wolf snorted with laughter. “Coach had to apologize to the whole Italian team.”
Roberto Vannini! The World Championships.
The raucous bar noise faded as shock rippled through him. He stared at the closed door. What was Vannini doing here? In America? At this particular bar in Aspen? Walking with an arm around Tiffany, who’d just come back from a week of couture shopping in Milan?
Yeah sure, when she left last week, their battered relationship stood on shaky ground. And yeah, he shouldn’t be surprised that she’d gotten hit on in Italy. But Vannini? Of all the goddamn men in this world, she’d chosen that bastard? Knowing exactly what screwing Vannini would mean to him?
The black cloud he’d fought so hard to control enveloped him, suffocating and toxic. Squeezing his fists, he stormed toward the entrance.
“Lock—think twice, man,” Wolf warned.
“Shut the fuck up.” He passed by Marcy, still glaring, and completely ignored the now silent crowd, rubbernecking like they were witnessing a ten-car pileup. “I’m gonna fucking kill her.” He banged out the door.
Ten months later
“Any recollection yet, Lock?”
Lock turned from the onslaught of stinging flakes and hurricane-force wind. He flicked his jacket sleeve and squinted at his watch. Almost midnight. Three hours ago when he’d slipped into Sam’s Bait and Tackle Shop, lit only by purring beverage refrigerators, the flakes had been sparse. Now that the hellish clandestine meeting with Parker had wrapped up, snow pummeled down. This would probably turn into a blizzard before he reached the top of the hill.
“Any recollection yet, Lock?”
He continued his dispirited trek up the dense forest to the cabin, desperately searching the black hole of his memory for the trillionth time. Had he killed Tiff? Why couldn’t he remember something? He swallowed down the ever-present sense of horror. Christ, he should’ve grabbed a couple of beers before he left the bait shop. He sure needed them after his lawyer’s lecture.
When jury selection started Monday and this insane hiding ended, he vowed he’d pay to renovate Old Sam’s decrepit shack. He owed Old Sam for all the times he’d jimmied the lock with a credit card to meet Parker after the place closed down. Lock was pretty sure the old man knew about the “break-ins,” given the peculiar absence of a six-pack once in a while and the twenty-dollar bills Lock left on the counter. But even when he wasn’t swiping beer, he owed Sam for his company. For keeping his identity a secret these last ten months. Sure, the old man talked way too much about being a cook aboard the Princeton aircraft carrier, but it sure beat hanging with Leo hour after hour, day after day.
Out of the corner of his eye, headlights barreled around the bend of Highway 145 far below. Has to be a tourist—who else would drive like a lunatic in this mess?
As if on cue, the car skidded sideways on the highway. He stiffened, squinting through the swirling snow and dense mist of his breath.
The car swerved the other way, then in an ominous pirouette, sliding across the second lane. Either the wheels had just locked up or the driver stupidly fought the slide instead of turning into it.
Another 360. Christ! Lock stared helplessly at the unstoppable disaster hundreds of yards away. Time stretched out. The car now faced backward but skated forward, gathering momentum as it slid straight for the guardrail and the San Miguel River beyond. Oh shit! It’s gonna—
A grinding screech echoed uphill as the rear fender smashed through the guardrail. The car sailed in the air and disappeared into the dark abyss below.
“Shit! Hold on, just—I’m coming!” His voice sounded tight in the eerie silence, and his knees shook as he stumbled downward, the horrific grinding sound still echoing sickly in his head. Damn it to hell for not having a cell phone! This was gonna be bad.
The thick forest would have made this descent treacherous on any given night, but combined with the stinging snow and thin, bobbing beam of his flashlight, his journey became one of survival. Flakes blinded him and clogged his breathing. Slashes of frigid wind whipped him until he staggered. He pushed on, slipping and sliding, and twice collided with cottonwood branches, the second one clocking him so hard it sheared off his knit cap.
Uttering an oath, he continued on, his breath now ragged. He reached the highway and half-ran, half-skated across. He halted at the guardrail’s serrated hole and swept the flashlight in an arc. A Honda Civic lay upside down on the embankment. The headlights shone with morbid stillness into the swirling river three feet away.
“Hang on,” he hollered, sidestepping carefully down the embankment. A blanket of innocent-looking snow hid jagged rock and loose stones. One misstep and he’d pitch right into the howling river.
When he reached the upside-down driver’s side door, he shone the light through the shattered glass. A figure in a red sweater was still belted in and slumped away from the door. A dark ponytail cascaded to the car ceiling, and a crimson gash on the woman’s temple glistened in his beam.
“Come on, honey, please be alive,” he whispered, his teeth chattering from bitter wind and sweat-soaked clothes. What if she had a broken neck? In trying to save her, he’d kill her. Fear clawed at him, so raw he thought he might vomit.
He straightened and gazed up the embankment to the silent, snow-covered highway beyond. This was the boonies. There’d be no snowplows or cars passing through for a long, long time.
He turned back and yanked the door handle with all his strength. The dented metal groaned as it yawned open, and shards of glass showered around his boots, glittering under his flashlight’s beam. He hunched down, shining the light on the woman. A thin rivulet of blood ran from her temple into her hairline before dripping rhythmically onto the ceiling in a growing pool.
“Hey. Can you hear me?”
An eyelid fluttered, and he released a harsh breath, jamming the flashlight into a mound of snow, the beam directed on her face. He braced her torso, released the seatbelt, and lowered her body an inch at a time until he had her half out of the car. He kicked a small portion of snow and glass away and tugged off a glove, gently resting her head on it.
In the dim light, her face was horror-movie pale, lips bluish and puckered. The only sign of consciousness was that one eyelid flutter. Blood stained his jacket sleeves, and he was seized with dread. He pressed two fingers to her carotid, trying to steady their shaking as he concentrated on feeling even the faintest of beats. Nothing. She was dead.
He staggered over to a formation of large, flat rocks by the swollen river’s edge, fell to his knees on the closest one, and vomited into the black, swirling water.
Shit. What was he going to do? He could already see the headlines: Olympic Champion found with SECOND dead body.
The paparazzi would find him and finish him if he stayed with the corpse or even just reported his rescue attempt. He’d worked so damn hard on disappearing. Coach Black’s threat of expulsion rang in his ears, chilling him to the core.
Lock stayed on his knees, shivering, staring dully into the water as it churned and howled and raced downstream. If only he hadn’t seen the accident. If only he could climb up that damn hill and shut himself back in the cabin. Let someone else find the body.
He cupped some freezing river water and rinsed out his mouth. When he sat back, he studied the Civic with its shining lights, wheels in the air; almost like a giant, overturned bug. How about if he made an anonymous phone call once he got to the cabin? Or—
He squinted harder through the pelting snowfall. Did her head just move?
Stumbling back over the treacherous riverbank, he skidded to his knees beside her, slivers of glass immediately grinding into his kneecaps. He winced, grunting as he grabbed the flashlight and focused the beam fully on her face. Snowflakes accumulated on pale pink cheeks, and tiny vapor puffs streamed from her lips. His heart lurched in relief.
“Hey. Wake up.” He blew on his fingers to warm them, then stroked her cheek, gently brushing it free of snow.“Are you okay?”
With reluctant effort, the woman’s eyes fluttered open. They were enormous eyes, dark liquid in the weak light. His fingers stilled as he stared into them. She squinted at the flashlight beam, clearly bewildered.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said, as calmly and quietly as he could over the howling river and shrieking wind. He bent closer to the flashlight so she could see him and worked up a comforting smile. “You’re gonna be okay.”
She glanced from the light to him and attempted a smile back. “Jesus?” she whispered. “Is that you?”
Despite the urgency, he grinned at the irony. “I’m definitely not Jesus. And you aren’t dead. You’ve got a bitchin’ gash in your head, though. Can you move anything? Your arms? Neck?”
The woman closed her eyes, and he held his breath. When nothing happened, he exhaled in frustration. Damn it, she’s lost consciousness again. Just as he shook his head, she moved hers to the right a fraction. Then left. She winced in pain.
“Everything hurts,” she whispered. The word everything sounded more like evarythang, but she was whispering, and the wind shrieked.
“I’m sure you’re hurting,” he said. “Your car’s totaled.”
“My car? Where am I?” Definitely a southern twang.
“You were on Highway One Forty-five, outside Hidden River, Colorado. Now you’re on a riverbank.”
She raised her head a millimeter and peered down her body into the wreckage of the interior. “I gotta get out of here.” Her voice sounded stronger, slightly panicked. “Help me stand up.”
“Sounds like a plan.” He cupped her head for support. “Listen, I’m gonna pull you the rest of the way out. If you feel any sharp pain, I’ll stop. Okay?”
“Wait, let me brush away more of this glass first.”
He stood, muscles stiff and cramped now. Spots of blood oozed through his wet jeans where the glass cut into him, but he didn’t feel the pain anymore. Using his boot, he plowed a drag path, then ran the flashlight over the area. With a grunt of satisfaction, he crouched down beside her, mesmerized all over again when he met those startling, watchful eyes. “On three—ready?”
She took a deep breath and nodded. “Lock and load.”
Lock jerked back from the flashlight beam. Holy shit, did she just recognize me? The phrase was synonymous with his public image. Bad boy skier with the outrageous name and even more outrageous behavior. A phrase Coach always shouted at him as he slammed through the starting gate. Renditions in newspaper headlines: “Lock Spotted Loaded at Aspen Nightclub.”
He stared hard at her, fighting the wild urge to up and run, just leave her for a team of snow plows to find. All he saw were tears welling as she winced again.
“My right ankle,” she said through gritted teeth. “I think it’s broken.”
His shoulders sagged. Ten months hiding from the paparazzi had turned him into a paranoid ass. “All right. Here we go.”
He slid his arms under her, braced her back and neck, and pulled. She made a few mewing sounds, but on the whole was quiet and still.
“Where were you going in such a hurry?” he asked, mostly to keep her mind off the pain.
“I…I don’t remember.” She sounded surprised, and her brow furrowed. “I know…it was somewhere important. Critical.”
“Must have been, for you to be out in this.” He thought about sharing his opinion of her horrendous driving skills, but steeled himself and continued to pull until he could see her feet. Although there was no outward appearance of a broken ankle, he slowed his rescue, instructing her to lift her leg so it didn’t bang anything on the way out. She complied, but gasped and whimpered.
A blast of wind slammed into him, and he clenched his teeth, thinking about the warmth of Leo’s cabin. How it’d never felt homey until just now. His brother would have a fire blazing, and there was that half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the pantry. Lock could almost feel the burn of a couple of whiskey shooters. More than a couple.
The woman lay supine on the snow now. He stood and arched his back, squinting through the raging snow across the highway at the black nothingness that hid a steep incline to help and heat. His only choice was to carry her up to the cabin; nothing else was nearby. Old Sam’s shop was half a mile down the road. Too far. No, the cabin was it—besides, what with Leo’s medical training, he’d know what to do.
Lock glanced down. The blood from her temple trickled slower, and her breath came in steady little puffs.
“Your knees are bleeding,” she murmured.
“Just a few souvenirs from your window.” He crouched beside her. “I’m going to carry you to a cabin at the top of that hill where we can patch you up. Let me know if anything hurts, okay?”
“I can hobble.” She winced and seemed out of breath. “Just help me stand.”
“You’d never make it. It’s a hike.”
“I’m feeling much better. Do not carry me.”
He couldn’t believe they were wasting time arguing about this. Brushing his freezing palm across his lips, he blew harshly, hiding his impatience. “Look, if you weren’t sporting a head wound and maybe a broken ankle, and this wasn’t turning into a full-fledged blizzard, we could sit around and have ourselves a merry debate. Now button it, sweetheart, you’re getting carried.”
“Great,” she breathed. “Rescued by a caveman.”
“Great,” he mimicked with a smile. “Saving an obstinate feminist.”
A trace of a grin appeared, and she stayed silent, so he chalked that up to a win.
He swept the beam around the car interior but saw no purse and didn’t want to spend time rummaging. Instead, he unzipped his jacket and placed it around her, stuck her hands into his gloves, and held out the flashlight. “Do you think you can hold this steady?”
“Yeah, and I have the Brownie badge to prove it.”
He ignored the sarcasm, handed the flashlight off, and gathered her up. She felt almost emaciated beneath his jacket, and her violent shivering took him by surprise. She hadn’t been doing that earlier. Was she going into shock? Even if he ran, he wouldn’t get her to Leo fast enough. Dread crawled through him.
The beam swung wildly before she gripped it with both hands and pointed it straight ahead, emitting a little moan.
“You’re doing great,” he muttered, stepping cautiously toward the guardrail. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Just a little dizzy.” Her voice sounded weak, and in the dim light, her expression seemed dazed, her skin bluish-white again.
He tried to keep a smooth stride up the embankment, but her soft whimper made him pause and adjust her trembling body closer. He crossed the icy highway like a geriatric to avoid slipping and dropping her.
“What’s your name?” he asked. Maybe talking would keep her mind off the pain and his mind off all the disastrous things that could go wrong during this climb.
“Jesselynn Claire. Wait…not right…” the rest of her answer was too soft for him to catch over the shrieking gale. The beam skewed left, then dropped at his feet as her eyes rolled back in her head.
Shit. “Hold on, baby, just hold on.” He plowed into the forest, fighting his way upward through the violent storm.