Dive into a web of intrigue and passion as Sara Claridge’s latest small town romantic suspense novel takes you on a heart-pounding journey through the wild landscapes of Dartmoor, England.
Wildlife photographer Grace Vaughan thought she could escape her past, but fate has other plans. Her father’s death forces her to return to the idyllic village of Huntersford Leigh. Her mission? To arrange his funeral, pack up her childhood memories, and flee before her long-buried shame is exposed. But there’s a formidable obstacle in her path—the enigmatic Devlin Judge.
Devlin, a former army intelligence officer with a rugged charm and a stubborn streak, is not only the executor of her father’s will but also a relentless enforcer of its outrageous conditions. Sparks fly as they clash over the small print, forcing Grace to choose between enduring the judgmental whispers of Huntersford’s gossips or leaving with just a handful of cherished mementos.
Yet, as the shadows of doubt begin to creep in, Grace can’t ignore the haunting suspicion that her father’s death was no accident. As the mysteries of the past slowly unravel, Grace and Devlin become entangled in a dangerous web of secrets, betrayal, and smouldering desires that refuse to stay buried.
Read the first chapter now…
The mist swirled around Grace’s feet as they pummelled the tarmac. She turned left off the village road and braced herself for the ache she was about to feel in her inner thighs as she jogged up the steep incline of the moor road.
She breathed deeply through the burn and welcomed the stretch of her muscles after the long flight halfway across the world. Already the heat of the Australian summer she’d left behind was a distant memory.
The mist grew thicker. Rising up in front of her as she left the warmth of the village behind her. She hadn’t bothered with a headlamp. It reflected too much light against the dense air, making it harder to see.
She’d missed this. Up on the moor, the mist dampened the night’s sounds to an eerie type of silence she’d never heard anywhere else in the world, but in Dartmoor. No other noise intruded on her thoughts, except for the metronomic pounding of her feet.
Not that she wanted to think at this moment.
She’d slept fitfully on the flight. Every time she closed her eyes she was transported to happier times. Her mother in the front garden, waiting for Grace to take the shortcut across the fields on her way home from school.
The garden had been her mother’s pride and joy. The scent of lavender flowing through the windows on warm evenings was still as vivid in Grace’s mind today as it had been when she was ten years old.
But then one day there was no one waiting for her. The cottage didn’t smell of herbs and home cooking, but of hospitals and morphine. Grace blinked back the tears, and used the ball of her hand to swipe away the one that escaped. She picked up the pace. Outrunning bad memories was what she did best.
A dark shape appeared in front of her and she cried out involuntarily as a solid wall of muscle stopped her dead. Warm hands clamped around her upper arms, and a frisson of fear shuddered down her spine.
She’d been so deep in thought running up the road she’d stopped being aware of her surroundings. A foolish mistake and one she’d only made because she was still imagining the safe village she left behind twelve years ago.
There was much to fear in Huntersford Leigh, but being attacked wasn’t one of them. Not in the dead of winter when all the tourists had gone, anyway. It hadn’t occurred to her to bring protection.
She lifted her knee, hoping to connect with something vital, but she was trapped hard against the man’s body.
“Grace? It’s me.”
The voice was low, soothing, possibly friendly. Her fear dropped a notch and she looked up from the hard chest she was currently pinned against, past the unyielding line of his jaw, until she focused on sharp eyes that missed nothing. The deep voice wasn’t familiar, but the intense gaze staring down at her was unmistakable.
“Jesus, Dev. You scared the living daylights out of me.”
His stance had an edge of menace that hadn’t been there when they were young. Instinctively, she took a step back, forcing him to release his grip.
“Sorry. I heard someone running up the road—”
“What? So you thought you’d jump out and surprise them?” She forced her words out in between gasping breaths. Running up the hill and his surprise entrance had taken a toll on her pulse rate.
Normally she’d have kept her annoyance in check, but her heart was still in her throat from the fight or flight instinct he’d aroused. It didn’t help that he looked like he’d barely be breaking into a sweat if their roles were reversed.
“I was concerned someone was in trouble. Who goes running on the moor in this weather?” His steely stare gave nothing away, but his sardonic tone made her see red.
“Clearly I was making my way back to the cottage.”
His expression softened. “I’m sorry. I can hardly believe it.”
No. Neither could she. She’d been reeling ever since the police had phoned a few days before. “Thanks.”
She drew in a deep breath and released it slowly. The mist had thinned a little and a large four by four parked to one side of the road came into view. It was only then she realised she was standing right beside the cottage.
A tightness settled in her shoulders. She’d been away too long. In the past, it had never mattered how thick the fog whirled around her, she’d always known the exact location of her house. “Shit. If you hadn’t had stopped me, I’d have continued up the road at least another quarter of a mile.”
His lips rose in a faint smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Can we go inside for a minute?”
Grace wavered between answering him honestly and being polite. Travelling for the last twenty-four hours had wiped her out. She’d only gone for a run in the hope that releasing some tension would help her sleep. Reminiscing over old times wasn’t high on her list of priorities.
For a moment she thought about denying his request, but Devlin would think it strange and only ask more questions. The quickest way to get rid of him would be to let him in and find out what he wanted.
“Sure.” Leading the way down the garden path to the front door, she unzipped her pocket and dug out the key.
“You found it okay?”
Grace grimaced. She’d forgotten what it was like to live in a small community where everyone knew each other’s business.
“It was right where Mrs Hargreaves said it would be.” Under a flowerpot beside the door, as if that wouldn’t be the first place even the worst burglar in the world would look. Still, she shouldn’t complain. Mrs Hargreaves always had an idealistic view of the tourists that flocked to Dartmoor in the summer.
Stepping over the threshold, Grace held the door open for Devlin to follow her inside. His vast framed filled the tiny hallway in a way it had never done when they were teenagers.
This afternoon, when she’d first come in, it was like walking into a time warp. Not much had changed since she left for university. Even the flowery wallpaper was just as her mother had hung it. Although now it was faded in places where the sun shone through the kitchen, and the edges a little frayed here and there. But the sight of it still filled her with the love and happiness she’d felt as a child.
The only new thing in the hallway was the luggage she hadn’t carried upstairs yet.
Devlin’s gaze alighted on it and he looked back at her, his eyebrows raised. “I guess travelling on commercial airlines is a lot rougher than I remember.”
“It’s my camera gear. I can never guarantee how it’s treated once it’s out of my sight. The strengthened cases protect the lenses from almost anything.”
She’d learnt that the hard way.
He made a move towards it. “Do you need a hand shifting it?”
He stopped and frowned. “It looks heavy.”
“It is, but I’m used to it.”
Those few boxes were her life. They’d been everywhere with her, from the rainforests of Suriname in search of a rare frog to the base camp of Everest where her photos of the elusive snow leopard ended up winning her a coveted award.
She wasn’t ready to take the equipment up to her old room just yet. At least here on the hallway floor it felt as if she could still flee at a moment’s notice. Before the truth escaped.
The grandfather clock ticked steadily behind her. The silence in their conversation stretched out uncomfortably. Did Dad still wind it on a Sunday? She’d have to remember to do so soon, before it stopped.
Devlin’s stance shifted as he switched his weight from one leg to the other. It didn’t strike her as an impatient move. But one to make himself more comfortable.
Well, he was the one hanging around. At this rate she was never going to get rid of him. “Why did you come, Dev? I don’t believe you’re the welcoming committee.”
The glint in his eyes confirmed he at least still had his sense of humour.
“Mum. She saw the light on and wanted me to check on my way home.”
“You still live with your parents?”
His brow drew down. “What? No. I haven’t lived at home since I was seventeen.”
Of course. She remembered the day he left. In the throng of people that had gathered to wish him well, he’d hugged her and said he’d miss their daily walks. She doubted he remembered them now.
“I’m the other side of the village.” He tipped his head to indicate across the river. “Dad has a cold and Mum didn’t want to send him out in this weather.”
Grace shook her head and let out a sigh. Mrs Judge had been looking out for her from the day her mum got sick.
“Besides, she knows I pass the moor road on my way back from Exeter, so it was no trouble.”
Maybe letting Devlin come in was a mistake. She wasn’t normally so ungrateful for people’s kindness. But she was cranky and out of sorts. The adrenalin that had been pumping round her body was fading and in its place was a bone-deep tiredness. Not from the jet lag. She was used to that. But from the heartache of coming home.
Giving herself a mental shake, Grace forced herself to smile. “Tell her thank you, and I’ll go up and see her tomorrow.”
She thought that would appease Devlin and he’d be on his way, but he seemed to be hovering by the door, with something on his mind. It wasn’t like him to be shy about saying what he thought. It was one of the things she’d admired most about him when her mum died.
Everyone else seemed to walk over eggshells unsure how to act or what to say. But Devlin treated her as if her world hadn’t just fallen apart. That day he’d shown up at the door on her first day at senior school insisting that she walk with him to the bus stop had been a turning point for her.
He probably did it under duress from his mother, but those walks, as brief as they were, rescued her from the grief that overshadowed every other part of her life.
The clock struck nine, and she yawned, hoping that Dev would get the hint. Not that she was likely to sleep for several hours yet, no matter how tired she felt.
Finally, he opened the door and made a move to leave. At the last moment he turned. The look of disappointment in his gaze stilled her heart.
“He missed you, you know. You should have come back sooner.”
Her throat constricted as the bitter lump of betrayal wedged itself in her chest. Sod being polite. Willing her hand not to shake with the anger that had spiked along with her blood pressure, she grabbed the handle out of his grasp, yanked the door open wider, and pushed him back outside.