When a cold case in Texas leads to a sinister string of disappearances, a newcomer to the small town helps the deputy sheriff to piece together the clues in this new romantic thriller from New York Times bestselling author Laura Griffin.
Corporate lawyer Ava Burch has had enough of the big city and the daily grind. She grew up with her father, who raised search-and-rescue dogs, in rural Texas, and has moved to the small town of Cuervo to spend time in the dry, rugged wilderness near Big Bend National Park. When she and her dog Huck discover an abandoned campsite on a volunteer search-and-rescue mission, she’s perplexed but she carefully photographs it all the same.
All Deputy Sheriff Grant Wycoff can see when he looks at Ava is a city slicker—with her designer jeans and expensive car— who has no business on a serious team made of seasoned outdoorsmen and retired cops. But when she tells him of her discovery on the trail, he sees there’s more to her than meets the eye.
Ava’s discovery reminds Grant of the unsolved case of a young woman who went missing two years ago. As they look into the campsite further, another woman disappears under odd circumstances. With time running out, Ava and Grant must work against the brutal heat from both the Texas sun and their own electric chemistry to solve the case.
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“Wow! Laura Griffin is quite simply one of the best romantic thriller writers out there. Tightly plotted, character-driven, VANISHING HOUR keeps the twists and turns coming all the way to the heart-stopping finale. I was on the edge of my seat until the very last page. Highly recommend!”
— New York Times bestselling author Karen Robards
“Cold cases, romance, and several search-and-rescue missions combine in a riveting novel."
— Library Journal STARRED review
"Yet another winner for Laura Griffin. VANISHING HOUR has everything I love in a book--a gripping mystery, sizzling chemistry, plenty of action--and a dog!"
— Melinda Leigh, #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling author
“This page-turning romantic thriller hooked me on page one and held me to the end. A must read.”
— New York Times bestselling author Mary Burton
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Ava followed the curve of the dirt road to the string of emergency vehicles. She checked her watch and cursed. She was later than she’d thought.
“Not good, Huck.”
The black Lab nudged her arm with his wet nose.
“We’re going to have to redeem ourselves.”
Ava passed a sheriff’s SUV and squeezed her little red car between a pair of dusty pickups from the parks department. Huck whimpered with impatience as she grabbed his lead off the seat and clipped it to his collar.
“Okay, let’s do this.”
Ava slid out. Huck hopped over the console and followed her. She felt dozens of eyes on her as she popped open the back hatch and retrieved her day pack. Hitching it onto her shoulder, Ava scanned the faces. None were familiar. All were skeptical. Several of the men wore the Henley County Sheriff’s Office backcountry uniform of HCSO ballcap, navy T-shirt, and desert-brown tactical pants.
Ava spied some park rangers in olive green milling near a blue tarp that looked like operation headquarters. Beneath the makeshift tent, two rangers studied a map that had been spread out across a pair of tables.
She turned around as a man sauntered over. Tall, fiftyish, paunchy. He wore a sheriff’s office cap and sweat-soaked golf shirt. He stopped in front of her.
Ava smiled. “Are you the incident commander?”
“I’m Sheriff Donovan.”
“Oh.” Crap. She thrust out her hand. “Ava Burch, WestTex S and R.”
He shook her hand and frowned down at Huck.
“We’re here to help with the search,” she added.
“They started five hours ago.”
“Yes, I know. I was unavoidably delayed.” She sensed a brush-off coming, and she glanced around. “Do you know who the IC is on this one?”
“That’d be Mel Tyndall,” he said, nodding in the direction of the blue tent.
“Oh, good. I’ll check in with him.”
She led Huck away before the sheriff could think of any objections. She zeroed in on the park ranger who seemed to be giving orders—a wiry man with wraparound sunglasses perched atop his shaved head. Ava stepped under the tarp, and he glanced up.
“I’m Ava with WestTex Search and Rescue. Chuck Crawford said you could use a hand today?”
Dropping the name of the chief ranger in nearby Big Bend seemed to do the trick. Tyndall stepped away from the table and looked her over.
“Are you trained up?” he asked.
He glanced at Huck, who wore his work vest. “Him too?”
“Yep. He’s logged more than a hundred wilderness searches.”
She didn’t mention that most of those had been with a different handler. But Tyndall seemed too distracted to nitpick her credentials. He checked his sports watch and returned his attention to the table.
“The first teams deployed at oh nine hundred,” he said. “We’re just getting started on sector D.”
Ava stepped closer to examine the map. It was a detailed topo of Silver Canyon State Park. A small red sticker near a campground marked what had to be the PLS, or point last seen. Sections bounded by natural barriers had been marked with letters.
“We just sent a team out to Lizard Creek Trail,” Tyndall said, tapping the map.
Ava stomach knotted as she studied the spot. Sector D was well outside of the high-probability search area. They were getting desperate.
“You up for it?” Tyndall asked.
He handed her a clipboard. “Sign in, and I’ll brief you on the way over.”
Ava quickly jotted her info on a card and followed the ranger to one of the dusty white pickups. She stowed her pack on the floor and hopped into the passenger seat, signaling Huck to sit on her lap.
Tyndall wasted no time pulling out and maneuvering onto the pitted dirt road that Ava had just navigated. Huck pressed his head against the glass, squirming with excitement as they passed all the police vehicles.
Tyndall slid on his shades and glanced over. “You’re new to the county?”
“Been here since October,” she told him.
“Done any ops yet?”
“Three this spring in Big Bend.”
They bumped along the narrow dirt road and hung a right onto an even narrower one. Ava visualized the state park in her head. She was familiar with it, but only from a few casual day hikes. She’d never been on a search team here.
“Silver Canyon is different,” Tyndall said. “This is rugged country.”
She turned to look at him. Big Bend wasn’t exactly a golf resort. The sprawling national park consisted of more than 800,000 untamed acres. But Ava understood what he was getting at. Silver Canyon was a new addition to state park system, and it lacked even basic amenities.
“We’ve only got one paved road,” the ranger continued. “It goes around the perimeter. The interior roads are dirt, and they tend to wash out when we get a flash flood. The only cell service is near the entrance, so everything’s by radio.”
“Did Chuck tell you about the op?”
“Just that it’s a child missing.”
Tyndall nodded. “A boy, three and a half.”
Ava’s heart sank.
“Noah Dumfries. He’s been missing since oh eight hundred. Wandered off from his family’s camp site after breakfast. His mom thinks he went down to the creek to brush his teeth.”
“We had a canine team there all morning. No sign of him.”
Ava looked out the window at the limestone canyon baking in the midday sun.
“He’s just over three feet tall, blond hair, brown eyes. He’s wearing a red Spider-Man T-shirt with blue shorts with white sneakers.”
She glanced at him. “What about the parents?”
“Mom is distraught, as you’d expect. She’s at the campsite with her other son, who’s five, in case Noah comes back. Dad is at the ranger station. He wanted to join the search, but we convinced him to stay back.”
It was standard procedure. When a child went missing there was always the depressing possibility that the parents could have something to do with it.
“Do they have any pets?” she asked.
“No idea. Why?”
“I want to understand if he’s afraid of dogs.”
“I don’t know. I can find out, though.”
He swung off the dirt road onto what looked to be a horse trail. He bumped across the feathergrass and headed for the base of a tall cliff. A wooden sign came into view.
Tyndall skidded to a halt.
“Lizard Creek Trail,” he said. “The other team deployed to the east about—” He checked his watch. “Fifteen minutes ago.”
“Do they have a dog with them?”
“No. It’s two of our seasonal rangers.”
Ava’s heart sank again as she looked out the window. “Seasonal” was code for summer interns. And she knew what Tyndall was doing here. Inexperienced volunteers were being banished to the low-probability areas while law enforcement veterans conducted the real search. Ava got it—Tyndall didn’t know her from anyone. And he didn’t know Huck. All he knew was that she’d shown up five hours late and he’d never worked with her before. But with the clock ticking and only one other dog in the search party, it was a waste to give her a crap assignment. Especially with a missing child case. Under normal circumstances, a lost kid would have pulled in resources from all the neighboring counties. But a helicopter crash in Big Bend this morning had gotten a jump on everyone’s attention, and the National Park Service had no one to spare right now.
Tyndall reached into the back of his truck cab and grabbed a radio. “How much water you have there?” He nodded at her pack.
“That for both of you?”
“Better take more.” He grabbed a bottle of water from the back and handed it to her.
“Thanks.” Huck squirmed on her lap, anxious to get started. He’d been trembling with excitement since she put on his vest.
“You and your dog are Team Six,” he said. “Check in every half hour, no exceptions.”
“And it’s hot out there. Don’t forget to drink.”
“Got it.” She pushed open the door.
“You’re headed west,” he continued. “Cover as much ground as you can and meet back here in four hours.” He checked his watch. “We’ll have someone here to pick you up.”
“If you see anything at all, call it in. Time is of the essence.”
He looked Huck over with a frown, and she knew what he was thinking. With his thick black fur, he was going to melt in this heat. But Huck was tougher than he looked. They both were.
“How old is he?” Tyndall asked.
“And the medal on him?” He nodded at the silver medallion on his collar.
“Saint Anthony, patron saint of the lost.” She gave a self-conscious shrug. “It brings him luck.”
“Luck, huh?” Tyndall squinted through the windshield at the sunbaked cliff. “Well, we’re going on hour six here, so we need it.”