Stone Cold Heart
The Tracers Series · Book thirteen
New York Times bestselling author Laura Griffin “delivers another top-notch thriller” (RT Book Reviews) in her beloved Tracers series, about a leading forensic anthropologist who uncovers eerie clues in a high-stakes case that threatens to deliver her to the doorstep of a cold-blooded murderer.
When local rock climbers stumble upon abandoned human bones in a remote Texas gorge, Sara Lockhart is the first to get the call. She has a reputation as one of the nation’s top forensic anthropologists, and police detective Nolan Hess knows she is just the expert he needs to help unravel this case. Although evidence is scarce, Nolan suspects the bones belong to a teenage climber who vanished last summer.
But as Sara unearths strange clues, she finds chilling similarities to a case from her past—a case that now threatens to rock Nolan’s community. While Sara digs deep for answers, the stakes rise higher as another young woman disappears without a trace. Investigators work against the clock as Sara races to discover the truth, even if her harrowing search brings her face to face with a stone-cold killer.
"A gripping, unputdownable page-turner and maybe the best yet in this absorbing series."
— The Reading Frenzy
“This fast-paced novel kept me up all night....Masterful storytelling, a tense mystery and two characters bent on finding justice make for a thrilling novel.”
— Bookaholics Book Club
"Griffin is a master of the romantic suspense genre and she proves it once again with STONE COLD HEART!"
— Fresh Fiction
Stone Cold Heart
The Tracers Series · Book thirteen
- Book 1: Untraceable
- Book 2: Unspeakable
- Book 2.5: Unstoppable
- Book 3: Unforgivable
- Book 4: Snapped
- Book 5: Twisted
- Book 6: Scorched
- Book 7: Exposed
- Book 8: Beyond Limits
- Book 9: Shadow Fall
- Book 10: Deep Dark
- Book 11: At Close Range
- Book 12: Touch of Red
- Book 13: Stone Cold Heart
- Bundle: A Tracers Trilogy
Stone Cold Heart
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Grace hurried to keep up, stumbling in her borrowed sandals. At least she managed not to fall on her face. Half a block ahead, her cousin’s veil fluttered behind her as she led the charge to the next bar.
Grace had liked the steampunk place, especially because they didn’t have a bouncer. But Bella had gotten bored and wanted to go somewhere with a band. It was Sixth Street, after all–the nightlife capital of Austin, the live music capital of the world, supposedly.
Grace’s thighs chaffed together as she race-walked to catch up with Bella’s friends, all blond and all sorority sisters, including a Sienna, a Sierra, and two Rileys. Grace had sat beside Sierra at dinner and learned that she was an intern at a B-to-B marketing firm in Dallas–whatever that meant. Grace hadn’t gotten much from the conversation. The woman had basically stopped talking once she figured out that Grace was not only underage but also a student at podunk community college.
They reached the bar, a warehouse-style building with a rooftop deck. A guitar chord ripped through the air above them as the band warmed up. Their entourage pressed close to Bella as she neared the door. She flirted with the bouncer, drawing his attention to the BRIDE sash draped over her breasts. He smiled and waved them in.
A man bumped into Grace, jostling her sideways.
“Hey, sorry,” he slurred.
Grace stepped around him just as the Rileys disappeared through the door. Grace rushed to follow, but the bouncer grabbed her arm.
She unzipped her wristlet and took it out. The bouncer plucked it from her hand, and Grace held her breath as he studied it. It wasn’t bad. Actually, it was good. It had a real Texas seal and a barcode on the back. The bouncer looked from the photo to Grace and shook his head.
“Sorry.” He handed it back.
“What do you mean?”
“Can’t let you in with that.”
“Step back.” He reached over her for another girl’s license. She looked sixteen, but she was thin and pretty. He barely glanced at her before waving her through.
Burning with humiliation, Grace stepped away from the door. She looked up at the rooftop deck and took out her phone.
Crap, what to write? She decided to go for lighthearted.
My ID didn’t work! Followed by three crying face emojis.
Grace tucked the ID away and stood in the sweltering heat, waiting for Bella’s response. Would she come down and sweet-talk the bouncer? Round everyone up to go to another bar? Yeah, right. Grace wasn’t betting on it.
A text bubble popped up as Bella started to respond. Then it disappeared.
Grace bit her lip. Sweat pooled in the cups of the tight strapless bra she’d worn with her off-the-shoulder blouse. She waited a minute. Two. Three. A bitter lump lodged in her throat. She should have known this would happen.
Grace took a deep breath and texted again: no worries see you back at the hotel later!
She waited another minute, but still no response. Clutching the strap of her wristlet, she set off down the street. She held her head high, as though there was nowhere she’d rather be right now than walking down Sixth Street all by herself. Grace blinked back tears. The hotel was eight blocks away, maybe nine, and the straps of her shoes cut into her skin.
She never should have come. She didn’t know these people, and she couldn’t afford it. She’d come for Bella, but her cousin had been too wrapped up in the wedding plans to even talk to her. Now Grace had wasted not only a weekend she could have worked, but thirty-dollars’ worth of gas, plus her share of the hotel room.
She stopped on the corner and looked around. Where the hell was the hotel? It had to be close. She took out her phone to check the map.
An SUV pulled over, its window rolling down.
“Hey, you call for a ride?” the driver asked. He wore a baseball cap and a blue button-down shirt that matched his eyes.
Grace noted the sticker on his windshield. “No, not me.”
He smiled. “Would you like one?”
“I don’t have the app, sorry.”
He looked her over. “Tell you what, I’ll make an exception. You can pay cash. Where you going?”
Grace hesitated. She should walk. It couldn’t be more than a handful of blocks away. But thinking of her raw feet, she reached for the door.
The backseat was clean and spacious. It smelled like pina coladas and faintly of vomit. She noticed the pineapple-shaped air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror.
Grace checked her messages as he pulled away from the curb.
“You here for the festival?”
She glanced up. “What?”
“The music festival?”
“No. A bachelorette party.”
“Where you from?”
“Houston,” she lied.
A text came in from Bella. Two frowny emojis and then, ok c u soon!!
Of course, she’d waited until now to respond, when there was no chance of Grace ruining their plans.
Grace should have listened to her mom. She’d always said Bella was selfish. Well, she’d never said those exact words. But she knew what her mom thought of her own sister, and she’d said the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree with that one.
They turned into an alley, and Grace glanced around, startled. “Um, the hotel’s on Brazos Street?”
His eyes met hers in the rearview mirror, and Grace’s skin went cold.
She pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. “Actually, just drop me off here, thanks.”
He turned into an even darker alley beside a parking garage. Grace’s throat went dry as he rolled to a stop.
She lunged for the door, but it wouldn’t open. Her heart hiccupped as he turned in his seat and reached back.
Pain blazed through her, and she reeled sideways. She couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. She tried to lift her head.
Another jolt fired through her body, this one bigger and brighter, like grabbing a live wire. White-hot pain seared her. She couldn’t move or hear, but she tasted blood and smelled her clothes burning.
And then there was nothing.
Nothing, nothing, nothing, only black.
It was a beautiful wedding, as weddings went. Quaint country church. Polished wooden pews. Antique stained glass, with thick beams of light shining through. But the best thing about it was its brevity. Barely an hour after the first organ notes, Sara Lockhart was standing under an oak tree at the Magnolia Bistro ordering a glass of wine.
“Buy you a drink?”
Sara glanced up as her lab assistant stepped over.
“Thanks, but it’s an open bar,” she said.
“I’m kidding.” Aaron turned to the bartender as Sara collected her wineglass. “Shiner Bock.”
The bartender popped the top off an icy bottle, and Sara stuffed a tip into his jar. Careful not to snag a heel, she led Aaron across the cobblestone patio to a patch of shade under an awning.
“So, where’s the happy couple?” Aaron swigged his beer.
“My guess? Still stuck at the church taking pictures.”
Sara sipped her wine and looked Aaron over. At six-two, he was a head taller than she was. His spiky hair had been tamed with gel today, and he wore a navy suit that hung loose on his lean frame.
Aaron was Sara’s assistant at the Delphi Center crime lab, where they worked in the forensic anthropology department, fondly referred to as the Crypt. Aaron typically wore jeans and T-shirts or dusty coveralls if they were out in the field.
“What?” he asked.
“You clean up nicely.”
“Not at all. I’m just not used to you in a suit.”
“You clean up pretty nice yourself,” he said. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a dress before.”
She looked down at her short black wrap-dress. She’d heard it was bad luck to wear black to a wedding. But it had been this or the gray suit she wore to court, and she couldn’t bring herself to show up to a party looking like an attorney.
She glanced up. Aaron was watching her steadily, and she reminded herself that they were co-workers. No flirting. Of course, that applied to every man she knew here, so she was in for a dull evening unless she wanted to mingle with the groom’s friends. Which she should. Definitely. The whole point of coming was to meet people.
The conversation lagged, and Sara eyed the door, wishing for the bride and groom to appear. The sooner they arrived, the sooner festivities could commence in earnest, and the sooner she could sneak out.
A buzz emanated from Aaron’s pocket. He looked relieved for the interruption as he pulled out his phone.
“Sorry. Mind if I…?”
He stepped away to take the call, and Sara turned her attention back to the courtyard filling in with guests. Even with the misters going, it was hot. Texas in July hot. Most of the men had already tossed their jackets over chairs and rolled up their sleeves.
From her meager slice of shade, Sara scanned the patio. Mason jars filled with red, white, and blue snapdragons dotted the tables. In a nod to the upcoming Fourth of July holiday, every centerpiece included glittery red-and-blue sparklers. Sighing, Sara wished again that she could leave soon. It wasn’t the heat or the standing alone part that made her uncomfortable; it was the wedding. The nuptials. The promise of wedded bliss, forever and ever, amen. After running out on her own wedding and dealing with the aftermath, she felt cynical about the entire ritual. Usually, she kept her feelings buried, but today’s festivities had brought everything bubbling to the surface. Subtly, she checked her watch. She wanted to chug her chardonnay and take off, but she forced herself to stay put and paste a smile on her face as she watched the crowd.
A man caught her eye from across the courtyard. Mark? Mitch? He worked in the DNA lab, but they’d never been introduced. And, crap, he was coming over.
Her phone chimed, and she whipped it from her purse. “Hello?”
“I’m–” Noise drowned out his voice as the bride and groom made their big entrance. Brooke looked radiant in her fitted ivory gown, and cheers went up from the crowd as Sean pulled her in for a kiss.
“Sorry,” Sara told the caller. “Just a sec.”
She ducked around the side of the restaurant and found a narrow walkway near a back door. Through a window she saw waiters and cooks rushing around the kitchen.
“I’m sorry, go ahead.”
“I’m Detective Nolan Hess, Springville PD.”
Sara’s pulse quickened at the tone of his voice, and she dug through her purse for a pen.
“I’m at White Falls Park,” he continued. “That’s on the outskirts of–”
“I know where it is. What can I do for you, Detective?”
“A couple of hikers discovered some bones this evening. The ME gave me your number. We could use your help out here.”
“Doc Froehler over at TCMEO. They handle our cases.”
“Okay. Are you sure they’re human bones? People often mistake–”
“There’s no mistake. How soon can you be here?”
“You mean tomorrow?”
She glanced at her watch again. “Well, we’ve only got two hours of daylight left.”
“I could probably make it in an hour if I left now.” No pen in her purse. Only a lipstick, damn it.
“Sounds good. What’s your vehicle?”
Sara gritted her teeth. She didn’t mind leaving the wedding, but his pushiness was another story. Then again, she had yet to meet a detective who wasn’t pushy when he wanted something. Which was pretty much always.
“I drive a black Explorer,” she said. “Why?”
“I’ll tell Tom, the park ranger. We shut the park down early. You know the way?”
“I can find it.”
“Come to the west entrance, off Route Twelve.”
“West entrance. Got it.”
“Oh, and Doc? Bring sturdy shoes. You’ll need them.”