Here’s this week’s excerpt of BIG HORN, leading up to its 6/1 release. Did you miss the first few excerpts? Get them here:
Chapter One: https://pamelafaganhutchins.com/2022/04/26/sneak-peek-big-horn-chapter-one/
Chapter Two: https://pamelafaganhutchins.com/2022/05/04/17917/
Chapter Three: https://pamelafaganhutchins.com/2022/05/12/sneak-peek-big-horn-chapter-three/
Chapter Four: https://pamelafaganhutchins.com/2022/05/20/sneak-peek-big-horn-chapter-four/
Chapter Five: https://pamelafaganhutchins.com/2022/05/28/sneak-peek-big-horn-chapter-five/
For anyone that pre-orders the BIG HORN Kindle ebook, you’ll get BUCKLE BUNNY, a Wyoming suspense novella. Free. Included with your ebook. You can do that here: https://amzn.to/3KSKe5q.
With no further ado, here’s your last excerpt: Chapter Six of BIG HORN:
Big Horn, Wyoming
A dusty wind blasted Jennifer as she hurried onto the back deck-combo-bathroom. She lifted a hand in front of her face, thinking about all of the unread and unlistened-to messages from yesterday. Sure, she’d browsed social media at dinner when she was trying to get Maggie to leave her alone, but she hadn’t checked in with work. She didn’t usually unplug for this long. Now, according to her Caller ID, Quentin Jackson was calling. The Quentin Jackson, political party chairman for Harris County. She barely knew the guy. Above my pay grade. Why’s he calling me? And his call request was for a Facetime. Ugh.
She wiped under her eyes with her shirt, smoothed and refluffed her hair, then pressed accept. “Quentin. This is a surprise.”
The screen filled with a distinguished, craggy face dominated by a dapper white mustache. The man was a power broker, old enough to be her father, and he’d hit on her every time she’d come within ten feet of him. His voice was so vibrato that she felt it through the speaker. “Jennifer. You look lovely as always. How are you, dear?”
If he’d been her grandfather, she wouldn’t have minded his lead-in, but as head of the Homicide Division of the Harris County DA’s office, being called “dear” rankled her. “I’m fine. I’m on a jaunt to Wyoming, so I apologize for,” she gestured around her, “the great outdoors.”
“I’ll make this quick since you’re on vacation. Two words: district attorney. You in?”
Jennifer felt her forehead furrow and tried to smooth it. She wished she’d slept last night. And hadn’t had so much to drink. Maybe then this call would make sense. “I’m sorry?”
“How would you like to be the youngest female district attorney in the history of Harris County? The party wants you on the ballot next year.”
Her brain froze. Literally, blue screen and static. DA was a big leap from being lovely and a “dear.”
“Jennifer? Are you alive?” He laughed. “Do you need a bucket of cold water? A defibrillator?”
“Yes. I’m sorry. I’m just . . . shocked. And flattered, of course.”
He pulled the end of his mustache. “The party has had its eye on you. You’ve got the best win rate of any ADA in the office. You’re the hardest worker. You have experience across all the major divisions. Your win this week was extremely high profile. And people like you, for the most part. We think you’d be a unifying candidate. All you need to do is say yes.”
People liked her for the most part?!? She didn’t pursue it, but she wondered which bastards had been bad mouthing her. Evan, probably. He’d joined the office a few years before her and headed up the Sex Crimes Division. When she’d been put in charge of Homicide, he’d been her most vocal critic. Take that, Evan, she thought. It was her getting the call to run for DA, not him. Everything in her wanted to say yes, but she couldn’t commit to something this big without thinking about it. And talking to Aaron, of course. Besides, if she just blurted out “YES!!!” she’d come off as desperate.
She smiled. “Um, maybe?”
His exaggerated frown was a little patronizing. “Probably is better than maybe.”
“Probably. But it’s a big ask, and I need to discuss it with my husband.”
“Fair enough. We need you both all in. I don’t have to have an answer today. Can you get back to me by the end of this week, darlin’?”
She couldn’t wait to tell Aaron. He would be thrilled for her. “Yes.”
“There’s that word I was looking for.”
She laughed. It was tinny and sounded slightly manic. Was this really happening? She’d dreamed of running for district attorney. Someday. Like, in ten years. She looked around her at the camp potty and shower pail. Remembered the dead body in the hole only yards away. Yes, this is real. She couldn’t have dreamed up anything this strange. “Thank you, again. I appreciate the party’s confidence in me.”
“Have a nice break.” His picture disappeared.
She did a happy jog in place, pumping her arms and punching the air as she lifted her knees. Her moves segued into a hip swiveling victory dance, one she’d been doing since her high school cheerleading days. “I’m gonna be the DA, I’m gonna be the DA.”
She wheeled, mid-dance, to find her husband and Liam. The dog flopped down on the mat outside the back door.
Aaron crossed his arms. “Do you have sun stroke?”
She threw her head back and laughed. “No. I have news. Big news.”
That surprised her. They’d only been apart for five minutes. Aaron had been doctoring Liam and babysitting George. “You go first.”
“Okay.” Aaron wiped his hands on his hips. “Well, here goes nothing. George said if we want to take this place off his hands, he’d throw in Jeremiah.”
Jennifer stared at him, waiting for the punchline. When none came, she said, “This place—the one where a murder happened last night? The one in Wyoming?”
Aaron sucked in a deep breath and started talking faster. His eyes were doing that gleaming thing again, like topaz on fire. “We could have the life we always dreamed of. I could be a country vet.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “The cottage would be a perfect office for you after we fixed it up. You could write murder mysteries. We’d have pets and—”
She held up her hand and interrupted him. “Talk about sun stroke. Are you out of your mind? We can’t buy this place.”
“Sure, we can. We have more money than we know what to do with.”
“I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about our life. Your vet practice. Coaching kids. My job. Which, by the way, just got a lot more interesting. Brace yourself for my news.” She savored saying the words aloud for the first time. “The party chairman just asked me to run for district attorney. Me—district attorney. I’ll be the youngest female DA in Harris County history if I’m elected.”
A strange expression came over Aaron’s face, one she’d only seen a few times before. Once, before his senior year in college, when a doctor had told him he should give up football because of his head injuries. The other, when one of his partners had suggested they start doing plastic surgery on pets for their wealthy clients. “I’m not putting an animal through anesthesia, pain, and recovery, endangering their life in the process, for cosmetic surgery to please an owner,” he’d said, outraged.
Both times, Aaron had held his ground. Like he would this time. She felt it in the pit of her stomach.
“Congratulations, Jennifer. Is that what you really want, though?”
“To be DA?”
“The political infighting. The stress. The long hours. The lack of privacy.”
“Then I’m happy for you. But it’s not what I want.”
Her jaw dropped. This was not the reaction she’d been expecting. “What do you mean?”
“I moved to Houston for your career fifteen years ago. You wanted to put off kids? Fine. We put off having kids. You wanted to live in a high-rise, so we didn’t have to take care of a house? Fine. That’s what we did. You didn’t want pets, because of the responsibility and your long work hours? I gave in. You’ve been the quarterback calling the plays this whole time, and, honestly, I’m tired of blocking for you. This time, I’m the one calling an audible.”
What is he saying? He can’t mean what it sounds like. Jennifer’s throat constricted. She choked out a few words. “You’d compare our life decisions to changing a play on the line of scrimmage—us, really?”
He chuckled softly, but in a way that told her he didn’t think anything about this was funny. “What us? I used to be in love with a girl named Jenny who left me notes every day about all the reasons she was grateful for me. I haven’t seen her—or a note—in years.”
Her eyes burned. “I am grateful for you. I always have been. I can write you a note right now if it makes you feel better.”
He shook his head. “It wouldn’t. Because it would feel forced and insincere. Like a frown wearing a big, stupid smiley face mask.”
“Come on. We have a great life together in Houston, Aaron.”
“Not really. I have a roommate in Houston named Jennifer. We don’t spend much time together, but I hear she’s really good at her job.”
Her face flushed with so much heat, she wouldn’t have been surprised if her hair went up in flames. “Oh my gosh, how can you, what the, Aaron Herrington, I . . .” She tapered off, staring at him.
His voice turned icy. “You don’t touch me. You don’t look at me. Jennifer doesn’t love me. If Jenny shows up, tell her I will always love her. But Jennifer? I don’t really even know her.”
“I do love you.”
“Yeah. That’s what you call last night. Love.”
The heat and blood drained from Jennifer’s face. She’d had too much to drink. What did I do? If she admitted she had no memory of what happened, would that make it better or worse?
Aaron started nodding and kept going as he talked. “You do you, Jennifer. Like always. This time, I’m going to start doing me.” He walked off the deck and toward the barn without another word.
Fear, hurt, and humiliation raised her defenses. They triggered her long-held, secret fear that Aaron didn’t love her anymore. They short circuited the rational Jennifer and rendered her a raw, reactionary nerve ending. After a few seconds staring after him, she whirled and ran back to the lodge. She had to get out of there. Away from Aaron and this feeling, to . . . somewhere else. Anywhere else.
For goodness sakes, there’d been a murder right outside their window last night. That would have been reason to leave in and of itself. She punched up her Uber app to order a ride. But after a few fruitless minutes, she realized Uber apparently didn’t exist in Big Horn, Wyoming. Or Sheridan. Or most of the state. She stormed into the kitchen, startling George, who was talking to some deputies. He dropped a glass. Water splashed in all directions, but the glass must have been made of plastic, because it bounced. He grabbed a rag off the faucet and scrambled to clean the mess. Katya hightailed it to her perch on the desk. Jeremiah jumped on the table and started pacing nervously. The deputies stared at Jennifer.
Jennifer said, “I need a taxi or something. Is there anything like that around here?”
George stood, rag in one hand, glass in the other. “There’s WYO Rides. I have their number taped to the refrigerator.”
“WYO Rides. Thanks.” She walked over to the refrigerator. There was a crude WYO Rides flyer on it. She entered the number in her phone.
“Whoa, miss. Who are you?” the female deputy asked.
“Jennifer Herrington. I’m a guest here.”
“Are you the one who found the body?”
“No. That was Black Bear Betty.”
“I’m going to need a statement.”
Jennifer crossed her arms. Of course she does. “I have a plane to catch, deputy, so if you’re going to get a statement from me, I’d appreciate you doing it soon. And since I didn’t see or hear anything, it should go pretty fast.” She didn’t know exactly when her flight would be, but she’d figure that out when she got to the airport. Whichever one was next would do.
“Can you wait for me here, Mr. Nichols?” the female deputy said.
“Yes,” George said.
She walked Jennifer into the living room. The male deputy followed. Their questioning didn’t last five minutes, including the time it took for Jennifer to write down her account of the events on a piece of notebook paper.
“If that will be all?” Jennifer said.
“Did you include your phone number?” the male deputy said.
“You can go, then. George, we’re not done with you.”
As Jennifer stomped to her room, an image of the deputies and George stayed in her mind. They seemed to be treating him like a suspect. And why not? She’d wondered herself if he’d done it when she’d found him covered in blood. He’d certainly hated Hadley. But Aaron was right. No man tender enough to bottle feed an orphaned baby skunk could ram a knife into another man’s temple. Or into his own dog. Not in her world. The deputies would redirect their investigation quickly. If they had a good county attorney to work with, anyway, they would. She pushed her worry about George to the background and pressed Call.
A gruff voice answered. “WYO Rides, Rory speaking. Why-oh-why-oh-why would you ride with anyone else?”
The odd greeting left her speechless, but only for a second. “I need to get to the airport from The Big Horn Lodge.”
“That place up off Red Grade Road? On the mountain?”
“Okey dokey. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
The line went dead. Fifteen minutes. She hurried, brushing her teeth, washing her face, changing clothes, then throwing all her stuff in her suitcase. By the time she made it to the front porch, a truck was parked with its back end toward the lodge, right between the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Department truck and the blue rental Fusion. A brown and gold magnet on the rear gate said WYO Rides. A sticker in the rearview mirror warned the world, “Don’t tread on me,” complete with a coiled snake. For some reason, that one gave her a weird feeling, but she brushed it off. She eyed the unpaved ground, then her footwear. Heels. She’d forgotten about the terrain. Fine. She pulled her suitcase down the steps. It bumped and wobbled over the rough ground, as did she.
The driver saw her and jumped out. He was a slim, older man in pressed indigo jeans, a loose-fitting paisley buttoned shirt, a cowboy hat, and a big silver belt buckle. “Good day, ma’am.” How strange to be called ma’am by a man old enough to be her father. He took her suitcase and tossed it in the truck bed. “I’m Rory.”
She tried not to stress about the probable scratches to her expensive luggage. “Jennifer. Nice to meet you.” I think.
He opened the door to the passenger side, brushing dog hair off the seat and stashing a stack of newspapers in the center console. There was no second row of seats.
Unreal. She climbed in and shut the door, careful not to step on the extension cord coiled up in the floorboard. A pinecone scented, pine tree shaped air freshener hung from the mirror, doing its job, and then some. She breathed through her mouth. There was no bottled water, mints, or hand sanitizer in the truck either, which was de minimis with Houston Uber drivers. Wyoming was truly another planet.
Rory got behind the wheel. “Lawmen out here for something?”
“Yes.” She didn’t elaborate, but once again she thought of George and hoped the deputies weren’t blinded to other possible suspects.
She’d told him on the phone. “Airport.”
He nodded and set his hat on the console, crown down. He wasted a few minutes trying to get his navigation system to work, muttering to himself as he fiddled with it. She couldn’t help noticing the bright red low gas light was on. The nearest gas station was over ten miles away, and the airport was twenty, if she recalled correctly. I hope I don’t end up walking. Or pushing.
“I’m just going to the airport,” she repeated, in case he’d gotten her destination confused in the last few minutes.
“Huh. You in a hurry, ma’am?”
“Okey dokey.” Rory tore away from the lodge and up the driveway, turning on the left blinker at the road. After he made the turn, it stayed on. He didn’t seem to notice.
As he picked up speed, he started to talk. And talk. And talk and talk and talk. He’d worked the oil fields, which is where he met his partner, and they’d moved to Sheridan because it was more gay-friendly. He liked it here. He liked driving people around. He liked to talk. And, oh, by the way, where was he taking her again?
Jennifer was lost in her own thoughts and emotions and, besides reminding him she was heading to the airport, only interjected a lackluster you don’t say and oh my occasionally when he took a breath. But he didn’t seem to need much encouragement. She kept her eye on the red gas light and mouthed a prayer that he wouldn’t run out of gas before he dropped her off. On the outskirts of Sheridan, the gas warning tone started dinging in chorus with the ticking of the turn signal. Jennifer’s fingernails bit into her palms.
They reached the airport in only half an hour, but it felt like a decade. She jumped out at the curb with her little purse and laptop bag. She took two steps toward the tail gate and nearly collapsed. She caught herself on the side of the bed. It felt like she was dissolving into the sidewalk. What’s wrong with me? Rory set her suitcase at her feet and waited. It took her a moment, but then she realized he wanted to be paid. How long had it been since she’d paid for a ride with cash? She fished three twenties out of her purse and handed them to him, still hanging on to the side of his pickup.
“Thanks for the ride, Rory. Keep the change.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
She didn’t respond. She couldn’t. Her lips were numb and no longer working.
“Are you okay, ma’am?”
She nodded. But she wasn’t.
He saluted her. “Take care.” Then he settled into his truck but stayed parked at the curb, messing with something on his dash again.
She stared at the road leading into the airport, searching for Aaron in the obnoxious blue Fusion. Her mouth tasted bitter, like disappointment. A puff of air escaped her lips. How very Scarlett O’Hara of her, pushing Aaron away and then wanting him to come after her. What would she even do if he did show up?
Why, let him change her mind, of course.
She waited for almost a minute, giving him time to catch up with her, but to no avail and no Aaron. She almost asked Rory for a ride back to the lodge since he was still at the curb.
But she didn’t. Instead, she hauled herself, her suitcase, and her battered, confused heart into the tiny airport, and changed her reservation to an earlier one back to Houston.
This is your last day to lock in your pre-order Kindle ebook and bonus novella, order BIG HORN + BUCKLE BUNNY, here: https://amzn.to/3KSKe5q.
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