Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Rachel After Midnight by Linda Wisdom



Sardonic homicide detective Jared Stryker didn’t believe in fairy tales or ghost stories. Only monsters of the human persuasion. Things change when he inherits an old ranch and surrounding land with less than law abiding neighbors – and a haunting link to his past …

Savagely murdered by her cruel husband a black magic curse doomed Rachel Bingham to be trapped within the house for eternity, but when the sexy streetwise cop came into her bleak world and showed her glimpses of the outside world, Rachel yearned to find a way to break the curse and become mortal again.

Jared never wanted to be tied down, yet he found himself captivated by the ghostly beauty. But to be together they had to break the curse that imprisoned her – and escape the deadly danger that threatened to take his life.




"You're doing it again, Stryker."

"I am not."

"Yes, you are!"   

"I'm just standing here having a drink!"

"Dammit, you've got your cop face on! What are you trying to do, put me out of business?"

Detective Jared Stryker pulled off the bar towel that had just been thrown at his face and dropped it on the bar. His expression was about as innocent as any bad boy's persona could be. Which meant there wasn’t one hint of innocence on his face. 

"Darlin, I can't help looking that way." He rested his forearms on the bar's scarred surface. A half-empty bottle of beer sat in front of him. Since it had been sitting there for the past hour, it was obvious he wasn't there to drink. No, he came here for the atmosphere.

He briefly looked over his shoulder when voices raised in one corner. A gray haze hovered over the pool tables, proof that no one obeyed the no-smoking laws in this place. Since it looked like no one was going to get into a physical fight any time soon, he returned his attention to the bartender.

Jared liked The Renegade. You didn’t walk into the longtime biker bar looking for frou-frou drinks unless you wanted to be tossed out onto your ass. No candles decorated the scarred wood tables. No plants hung overhead, no Happy Hour specials and no tiny tacos and meatballs on a toothpick were offered to the clientele. If you didn't drink beer or whiskey you didn't belong here. Peanuts or pretzels were considered the only appropriate snacks. And if you didn't ride in on a badass bike, or at least own a heavy-duty pickup truck, you might as well ride on past, because tourists weren't welcome.

The customers were also picky about their drinking partners. Jared Stryker might have a badge that declared him a cop-not one of their favorite types-but he owned one of the baddest of the bad Harleys made, and his pedigree hadn't allowed him to live the life of a good guy. He was grudgingly accepted.

Jared looked more bad boy than cop, just brushing the six­foot-two-inch mark, with sun-streaked brown hair that always looked a couple weeks past due a haircut and deep, golden-brown eyes that belonged on a wildcat. The comparison was appropriate, since he preferred to walk on the side of danger.

A small scar zigzagged across one eyebrow and his nose had been broken more than once, but the imperfections only added to his appeal. Men noted he was an admirable foe, while women viewed him as the kind of man they wanted to bring home to Mom and Dad-when Mom and Dad were out of town.

He didn't hassle anyone for the sheer pleasure of doing it, and he didn't abuse his authority. If you left him alone, he'd leave you alone. If you made trouble, he made sure to set you straight.

He was also a close friend of Lea Raines, The Renegade's owner. Rumor among the scruffy clientele had it anyone giving Jared trouble for no good reason would be banned from the bar for life. So far, no one had tested that theory, along with the one that Lea kept a loaded shotgun behind the bar alongside her trusty Louisville Slugger baseball bat. There was no doubt she would use either if anyone started trouble in her bar.  

Tonight was one of those nights where Jared wanted nothing more than to sit at the bar and enjoy his beer. A few women had broadly hinted he was more than welcome to come home with them, but he politely refused each invitation, much to their disappointment.

"So what really brings you out here if not the ambiance?"

Lea asked as she efficiently parted a bottle from its cap and slid it down the bar to a waiting customer.

Jared hesitated before he picked up his beer and finished it. "It's my birthday, Lea."

Her eyes widened in pretend shock at his muttered announcement. "Really? And to think I thought that watch I gave you was for my birthday."

"You think you're such a smart-ass." He flashed her his crooked grin.

"Now that's the pot calling the kettle black." She took his now empty bottle and set a new one in front of him. "You're cut off after this one, lover. So tell me what else is bothering you besides being a year older."

He looked off into the distance as he confided, 'Trust me, your watch was better received than the damn card my old man sent me."  

Lea winced. She was familiar with Jared's history of being raised by an abusive parent. The only good thing that could be said about his father was that the man spent more time in prison than out. "Don't tell me. He signed it 'Love, Dad.’"

Dark golden-brown eyes narrowed with emotion Jared normally kept tamped down. He had no fond memories of the man who donated half his DNA and he would have been happier if he never heard from the bastard again.

"Maybe he wants me to know he's still in one piece? I don't know. Maybe he's feeling his age or got religion or something. He thinks sending me a card will make it all better."

"We both know that won't happen. He's not getting out of there, babe," she gently reminded him.

Jared looked back toward the pool tables that were set along one end of the tavern behind the small dance floor. He studied one man with dirty blond hair who wore old, faded jeans ripped at the knee and a black T-shirt that strained over a massive chest and bulging biceps. Fancy steel tips decorated the toes of his boots. Jared swore he could have been looking at his father fifteen years ago. Damn. More memories he didn't need. Some nights his shoulder ached from injuries his old man had inflicted.

He should have stayed home.

He would have preferred to sit at the bar and get roaring drunk. But since he knew Lea wouldn't let him use alcohol as a balm as his father did it wasn't going to happen. Besides, he'd learned the hard way that alcohol only caused pain. Usually, his own.

Did his old man seriously think that Jared would forgive and forget his cruel treatment after all these years? The elder Stryker was in Pelican Bay for life because his temper had got out of hand and he'd beaten a man to death. It seemed after more than ten years in a cell he wanted to make amends with his only son. Jared didn't see it happening in this lifetime or any time after.

He considered it pure luck he wasn't sitting in the next cell.

"Jared'?" He felt cool fingertips on his arm. He looked up to see Lea's look of concern. He managed a brief smile.

"I'm okay, babe." He reached for his jacket, which lay on the stool next to him, and shrugged it on.

She didn't look convinced. "Maybe you should stay here tonight. It's raining pretty hard out there. Mud and Harleys don't always go well together."

He knew the invitation was for the guest room, not to share her bed. He also knew she never invited a man to stay over. He wasn't the only one with issues.

Jared took a quick glance around the room. "Any reason why you want me to stick around?" he asked in a low voice, wondering if something was going on he wasn't aware of.

Lea shook her head. "No one's gotten out of hand lately. And the only thing I've heard are some rumors there might be a new meth lab nearby, but I haven't heard anything concrete. They're usually pretty careful about saying anything around me." Her rules about no drugs sold or consumed on the property were as strict as the ones she held for no fighting.

He nodded. "I wouldn't be surprised. A couple of county deputies had shut down that one lab a couple months ago. It's about time for another one to start up. As for gettin' home, don't worry. It's not the first time I've ridden home in the rain. Since I moved into the house I don't have as far to ride than if I had to go all the way into Sierra Vista." He leaned over the bar and dropped a kiss on her cheek. "Thanks for the watch."

"So you're doing it? You're really moving into the house?"

 Jared nodded. "Tonight will be my first night staying there. I'm taking my vacation time to put the place into shape now that the plumbing and wiring is up to code. I'll just be up the road about five miles or so. We'll practically be neighbors," he joked.

"He's never coming back, you know," she repeated as he started to leave. "The judge put him in there for life, with no possibility of parole. He'll die in there."

Jared didn't show any reaction to her words. He'd walled himself off years ago when it came to the son of a bitch who'd fathered him.

He stepped outside of the building and stood for a moment, breathing in the clean night air that smelled of more rain coming.

It appeared to have stopped for the time being. He hoped it would hold off until he arrived home. Nothing worse than riding a motorcycle in the rain, where one slip on the road could do serious damage to a man's bike, not to mention his body. He sidestepped puddles as he headed for his wheels. "Whoever said it never rains in California never lived up this way," he muttered.

Jared was so deep in thought he didn't sense he wasn't alone until it was too late. Before he could react, something connected with the back of his head and he fell to his knees. Nothing more than sheer willpower kept him conscious.

"Keep him down," a rough voice ordered as a booted foot planted itself in the vicinity of his right kidney.

Jared swore out loud and lashed out at his attackers, grinning when he got one of them in the crotch. But his victory was short-lived when his retaliation earned him another blow to the skull.

His head was spinning when he was picked up and thrown into the back of a van, which took off the moment the door was slammed shut, tires spinning in the mud. After that, his existence was nothing more than punches and kicks from what felt like ten men, but was probably only two or three. He absently noted a familiar chemical smell in addition to the usual smell of unwashed male, beer and cigarette smoke.

These guys were definitely not leaders of the community.

What seemed like hours later the van stopped and he was carried into a building. He could barely see out one swollen eye, but he instantly recognized the surroundings.

Happy birthday to me, floated through his mind before blackness took over.


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