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Imperfect Lies (Book 4 of the Imperfect Series)

By Elizabeth Noyes

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IMPERFECT LIES

CHAPTER ONE

“Yes!”
Mallory clapped a hand over her mouth, startled by how loud her shout sounded in the empty house. She wanted to giggle, jump up and down, and shout to the world. The New York Times had seen her article! They knew her name. Chicago and Seattle, too. They wanted her to come for job interviews. All of them. Her, Mallory Cameron, from Hastings Bluff, Idaho.
A dozen twirls around the kitchen left her a little breathless, but did nothing to slow the adrenalin rush. She flopped onto one of the tall barstools, jumped up again, and paced the kitchen. Of all the times for her family to disappear on her. Here she’d just received the biggest news of her life and had no one to share it with.
She could talk to TJ, but her brand-new sister-in-law wouldn’t be free until late in the afternoon. The principal of the elementary school in Challis where TJ taught frowned on cell phone use during class hours.
Jonas was an option. Mallory considered a run over to the big barn, but decided against it. The youngest of her brothers had left out before dawn that morning, concerned about one of the mares due to foal. If he took the time to listen to her, all he would offer was a caveman grunt, and then they’d both feel weird.
Her thoughts turned outside the family to her friend, Shea, who worked at the diner, but a quick glance at her wristwatch nixed that idea. By the time Mallory finished her chores, got cleaned up, and drove into town, the lunch rush would be in full swing there. Shea wouldn’t have time to breathe between orders, much less sit down and chat.
Mallory tapped her lips with an index finger and smiled. Hazel eyes came to mind. “James, it is,” she said aloud. “Even sheriffs have to eat sometimes, right?”
Her oldest brother, Garrett, had brought him home more than two years ago to recuperate from an injury. A shudder went through her at the memory of the ragged gunshot wound in his side. He’d been grumpy at his helplessness, but also grateful for help in his vulnerable state. She’d fallen a little in love with him that day, and sank deeper with every day that passed.
Regardless of whether he reciprocated her feelings, James was a friend. She tapped out a quick text and hit send.
FREE FOR LUNCH?
His reply came back seconds later.
SURE. COME BY OFFICE.
Her stomach lurched. Would it upset him to know she might move away, or would he wish her well and say goodbye? She’d find out soon enough.
BE THERE AT 11.
Chores first. Rascal, their foreman and her dad’s oldest friend, had asked her to feed and water the animals in the small barn adjacent to the house this morning. She didn’t mind, but it worried her a little. Rascal never asked for help. The foaling mare must have a problem.
In the mud room off the kitchen, Mallory slipped her cell phone in her jeans pocket and donned a heavy jacket. She stomped her feet into well-worn boots and stepped outside into the brisk morning air.
A flock of birds drew her attention as she walked to the barn. The black mass swooped and wheeled in complete synchronization, until they lit among the treetops behind the barn. Bare limbs swayed in the light breeze. Denuded branches coated with hoarfrost glistened in the weak sunlight and framed the dark clump against the gray sky.
A moment later, the birds erupted from the branches in a furious cloud, and disappeared beyond the forest.
Uneasiness made her skin crawl. Ravens had long been considered harbingers of bad luck, probably because of their glossy black plumage.
She shoved the superstitious thoughts away. Anything could startle a flock of birds—rustles in the underbrush, a glint of sunlight on metal, a sudden wind … or perhaps the primal instinct all animals possessed when danger loomed.
The same intuition that made the hair on her arms stand on end.
Unnerved by where her imagination led, she ended that train of thought and entered the heated barn through the small door on the side. The big sliding doors stayed closed in the winter months, opened only when the horses were taken out for riding or exercise.
Soft whinnies greeted her. The horses knew breakfast was late.
Mallory chattered, aware of how her voice soothed the animals. “I know, I know. I’m late. Bet you guys are hungry, huh? Well, hold your horses.” A laugh burst out at the pun Rascal always used.
Using the scoop in the barrel, she measured oats into one pail and fortified feed into another, enough for all seven horses. Let the feeding frenzy begin. Thank goodness, one of the hands would come over and muck the stalls later.
When she reached the empty stall at the end, her throat tightened. Buffy’s loss had hit her sister, Cassie, hard. All of them, really. Such a senseless waste.
Mallory blinked away unexpected tears and headed outside to tend to Edwina, the ornery old billy goat she and Cassie had rescued once upon a time. With everything stored away again, it was time for a much-needed shower.
Three steps outside the barn, the stillness made itself known. The wind had died down, but everyday sounds should still remain—bird titters, rustling branches, small animals in the underbrush, whinnies from the pastured horses.
That same awareness she’d felt on her way out here returned, a sense that if she turned at just the right moment …
Wow, her imagination had a mind of its own this morning. She put a clamp on the wayward thoughts, but did a slow, three-sixty sweep of the surroundings anyway.
All of nature seemed to hold its breath.
Unnerved again, she hurried for the safety of the house.
Inside, the deadbolt on the kitchen door complained from lack of use. The family seldom locked up given the distance of the ranch from town. They’d even given up on the state-of-the-art security system that her middle brother, Wade, installed two years past. No one came this way unless they had a reason to. And when they did, the locked gate at the property’s entrance announced their presence.
Mallory considered rearming the security system as she shrugged out of her coat. Garrett always said you should trust your gut. She pulled off her boots, patted her pocket to make sure she had her phone, and started toward the front of the house. Whether imagined or real, she would feel better with locked doors and windows between her and whatever lurked out there.
The quiet snick of the front door lock and chain fed her uneasiness. She finished a sweep of the first-floor entry points, windows included, and decided to rearmed the security system.
Jonas would probably set the alarm off when he came home. He’d get mad, and then make fun of her.
Tough.
She headed upstairs.
The grandfather clock in the foyer struck a double four-count of Westminster quarter chimes. Half past ten. Feeding the horses had taken longer than she expected.
She made short work of checking all the upstairs windows and hurried through her shower. Time for her battle gear. The black skinny jeans should get the job done, the ones Dad called ‘vacuum-sealed.’ Paired with her new Lively boots and the sapphire turtleneck that made her eyes pop, James wouldn’t stand a chance. He was, after all, a man.
Fifteen minutes later, Mallory pulled on her new Shearling jacket and a pair of leather gloves, and started for the barn again. Alert and wary, her eyes strayed from side to side, in constant motion.
She covered the distance between house and barn in record time, surprised when her anxiety didn’t return. What also surprised her was the big F-150 Super Crew Raptor in all its shiny black and chrome Ford beauty parked next to her sister’s little Ranger.
Jonas must have come back while she showered.
Mallory changed directions and stepped inside the barn. “Jo?”
No answer.
“Jonas?”
Her footsteps slowed. Diablo’s stall stood empty. Jonas had taken his horse and ridden into the mountains again. Which meant something bad must have happened.
Wade claimed Jonas had nightmares and sometimes just needed time alone, to find peace and quiet. Curious how her two oldest brothers had seen a ton of deadly action in the Middle East, but didn’t feel the same need for solitude that Jonas did.
These solitary jaunts of his had increased in frequency. Lately, his jokester nature made fewer and fewer appearances. How long would he stay away this time? Two days? Three? That thought made her worry grow. Jonas knew how much she hated staying alone in the house.
She whipped her cell phone out and pressed #5, the speed dial number for Jonas.
The call went straight to voice mail.
Of course, it did. She dialed #8 next.
Rascal answered on the first ring. “H’lo.”
“Why is Jonas’s truck parked at the house?”
A long silence. “We lost them both, the dam and the foal.”
Both? The news crushed her. How much worse for her brother. Jonas put his heart and soul into the Triple C breeding program. “He took Diablo.”
“Figured he would. Let him be, honey. If he’s not back in a couple of days, I’ll go check on him.”
“Thanks, Rascal. I’m so sorry.”
“Me, too, little girl.”
The thrill of the phone calls she’d received that morning disappeared. Her eagerness to see James receded. She almost sent him a text to cancel, but then wondered why. Not seeing James wouldn’t bring the mare or the foal back. And she still wanted to share her good news.
She climbed in her sister’s truck. After Cassie lost her driver’s license and Mallory totaled her Honda, there didn’t seem to be any urgency in replacing her car. A quick twist of the key and ... nothing. Not even a click. A second attempt yielded the same result.
“Are you kidding?” Dad took it in for the 60,000-mile service last month. It should work fine. She pounded the steering wheel. “Aaaagh.”
Okay, now what?
Had the weather not turned bitter cold, she’d consider riding one of the horses into town. But that would take too long, plus she’d end up smelling like Eau de Horse Sweat. Ugh.
She could call James. He would come get her, but she wanted her own way home if things turned awkward between them.
She turned her head and stared at Jonas’s truck.
These jaunts of his typically lasted one or two days, sometimes more. He’d kill her if he found out. Jonas had named the darned thing, for Pete’s sake. He didn’t let anyone, not even Dad, drive Darcie.
But he wouldn’t know.
With a silent promise to be uber-careful, Mallory entered the small office inside the barn and twisted the combination on the lock box. An array of keychains hung on hooks inside, one for each of the family vehicles—a horsehead for Dad, a tiny BMW logo for Mom, and giant letters for the rest of them. She grabbed the “J” and hurried back outside. One click and … beepbeep. The doors unlocked. Lights flashed.
It took her several minutes to readjust the seat and mirrors to fit her more diminutive five-feet-five height. Jonas took after their dad and the other brothers. At well over six feet, they all had legs that stretched into tomorrow. “Please, Lord, help me remember all the settings so I can put everything back the way it was.”
Darcie’s roar made her little Ranger sound like a sewing machine. Mallory reached for the gearshift. She hesitated. What if Jonas did come back?
An old gas receipt nestled in the cup holder between the seats. A pen that had teeth marks on it lay on the floor. She scribbled a quick message and made a mad dash to secure the note under the Ranger’s windshield wiper.
Guilt assuaged, she climbed back inside and shoved truck into gear. Time to go.
The drive from the house to the main road spanned not quite two miles. She slowed as the double-entry neared, and punched every button on the visor until one triggered the opening.
The left gate jerked, out of sync with the other one.
She made a mental note to tell Rascal, and then drove through in the middle of the lane.
A thump and a crunch sent a shockwave through the truck.
“No, no, no.” Mallory glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the faulty gate rebound off the rear of Jonas’s truck.
Once clear of the entry, she hopped out to check the damage. The glass bulb of the taillight remained intact, thank goodness, but a pile of red plastic shards lay on the ground, all that remained of the cover.
“Agggh!” She threw her hands up in the air. “Jonas will kill me.”
Her mind jumped into problem-solving mode. Toby, down at Wrangler’s Auto Parts and Service, could order a replacement. She’d pay to have it overnighted. Maybe he would deliver and install taillight cover, and take a look at Cassie’s truck while he was there.
Behind her the defective gate closed flush with the other one, but then it drifted ajar a good two-feet. A swift kick wouldn’t accomplish anything, except maybe bruise her foot. She squatted and gathered up the plastic fragments instead. Now, she was late, and Mr. Punctual, a.k.a., Sheriff James Evers, would give her grief about it.

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