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The Storm Roars Into Montana in Debra Webb’s Frozen Ground

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 5, 2019

 

 

The first STORMWATCH novel, FROZEN GROUND by Debra Webb, releases today.

The storm sweeps in like a thief in the night…Winter storm Holly is the worst in eighty years bringing high winds, subzero temperatures and snowfall better measured in feet than in inches. The weather paralyzes everything in its path, but in this storm, weather isn’t the only threat.

Abbey Gray, a NYT bestselling thriller author, needs time away from the madness of deadlines and personal appearances as well as her big city life in Manhattan. The timing seems perfect for her to return to her small hometown in Montana to finally put the family home on the market. Except the storm of the century is descending on Montana, sweeping in with more than just bad weather—her closest neighbor is murdered. The murder stirs painful memories from the past of another murder–Abbey’s mother. Can the eerily similar details of her neighbor’s murder be proof that she was wrong all those years ago? Did the older brother she worshipped actually kill their mother? Now that his prison sentence has been served, is he back for revenge? Abbey must find the truth about the past before she becomes the next victim!

Sheriff Garrett Gilmore has known Abbey and her family his entire life. In truth, he has been in love with her since they were kids. All those years he hoped that one day she would come back, knowing it likely wouldn’t happen. But he can’t worry about that at the moment, he has a homicide to solve and a murderer to catch, all with the storm of the century bearing down on his county. Keeping Abbey safe will test the boundaries of his defenses.

Read on for an excerpt of FROZEN GROUND…

Frozen Ground by Debra Webb

© 2019. By special agreement with the author. All rights reserved.

 

Frozen Ground Debra Webb, Montana

Sunday, December 15

Park County, Montana

Camille Dutton pulled the hood of her extreme cold weather puff coat a little closer around her face. The temperature was barely holding at twenty degrees and would be dropping as the day progressed. Winter storm Holly was gearing up to wreak havoc. Camille shivered. What in the world had possessed her to move here? Livingston, Montana—Park County. Nature. Beauty. Cowboys. She exhaled a breath that fogged around her face. She’d fallen for a cowboy all right. He was the sheriff of Park County and totally unavailable except for the occasional date and doing his duty as a lawman. Garrett Gilmore was a lost cause. Oh well. This stop was only a steppingstone to a larger media market. Who knew? By spring she could be in Denver or Vegas.

“You’re live in,” her cameraman warned, his voice a rough rumble against the wind whipping around them, “three, two, one.”

Camille fixed a grim expression on her face—not so difficult considering the worsening weather. “Brace for the worst, folks,” she warned. “Winter storm Holly is bearing down on Park County. Holly has dropped enough snow across Washington and Idaho to spread a few inches over half the country. Property damage estimates are rising and, worse, the number of lives lost are mounting. This is not—I repeat, not—your typical Montana winter storm. This is the deadliest storm in nearly a century. Authorities are predicting that the Bozeman airport will be closed by early afternoon. Yellowstone’s west gate as well as most other park gates on this side of Montana are being closed. Motorists are stranded all along the major interstates northwest of our viewing area. Please.” Camille poured as much worry into her practiced voice as possible. “Please be careful out there. You have a few hours to gather any supplies you need and then you should stay home. Believe me when I say, Holly will be on top of us before dark and she’s leaving a trail of devastation in her path. Be careful, folks. And stay tuned into Channel 31. I’ll be out here on the front lines keeping you advised of what’s happening. This is Camille Dutton, Channel 31 News. Back to the studio.”

CHAPTER 1

7:30 a.m.

Abbey Gray stopped at the bottom of the staircase and surveyed the living room of her childhood home. She inhaled deeply. It was almost as if she could smell her father’s aftershave.

She sighed. But that was impossible. Douglas Gray had died a year ago. 

Fourteen months ago, to be exact. It didn’t seem possible. She’d just hit thirty and she had no family left. The image of her brother, Steven, filtered through her mind, but he had turned his back on her and what was left of their family years ago after what happened.

The darkest day of their lives.

Her father had insisted on referring to her mother’s murder as that awful day. It was easier that way, he’d said. What he’d meant was that if they didn’t mention murder, they didn’t have to talk about the trial or the fact that the accused was Steven—Abbey’s brother, the son of the victim. There wasn’t even another suspect.

No matter that she and her father had struggled mightily to get past what happened and to hold together the shattered fragments of their family, her brother adamantly refused to communicate with them in any way after the trial ended. He’d been taken away and that was the last time Abbey had seen him. As hard as she and their father had fought to find some way to verify his insistence that he was innocent, the evidence—an eyewitness for God’s sake—had pointed to him. Still, Abbey and her father had stood by him, tried to talk to him, but Steven had refused. Year after year, their letters had been returned unopened. Eventually Abbey had stopped bothering; her father had as well.

Though she shouldn’t, she couldn’t help wondering how her brother was doing. Just before Thanksgiving last year the district attorney’s office had called and conveyed the news that Steven had been released to a halfway house of sorts. The judge had been very specific with his sentencing. After his prison sentence was served, Steven would spend twelve months under close supervision, working and going to counseling, then he could move on with his life in whatever manner he chose as long as it was legal and as long as he reported monthly to his probation officer for another year.

So many times Abbey had considered going to see him despite his past refusal to see her or to read her letters much less write back to her. In the end she had decided that if he could live without her, she could live without him in her life. Particularly after he hadn’t bothered coming to their father’s funeral. She’d made the necessary calls and felt certain he would have been allowed leeway to attend had he chosen to do so. It wasn’t like he was that far away. Hardly more than two hours.

But he hadn’t come or reached out in any manner—not even a sympathy card.

Frankly, until now, that was the last time she had thought about her brother.

Their father had left everything—which was the house and a hundred acres of land in the wilds of Montana—to her. His old truck, the tractor and various other personal property. She understood her father’s reasoning for the decision, but she had not agreed with it. Once the property sold, she intended to put half of the proceeds into an account for Steven. He could take it or leave it. The choice was his.

Abbey shook her head. How was it that such a happy childhood had turned into a stunning tragedy during their adolescent years?

“A dozen shrinks couldn’t figure that one out,” she muttered, pushing the disturbing thoughts aside.

She’d gotten in late last night. Too late to do anything but crawl into the bed she’d slept in the first eighteen years of her life. To make matters worse, she had promptly sunk into a dark, fitful sleep. She hadn’t come to the family home since her father’s funeral last October. He wasn’t here. She really didn’t want to be either. A maintenance service came once a month and took care of the place, inside and out. There was no reason for her to come…until now.

The insurance company had warned they would no longer carry a homeowner’s policy on the house if it continued to be vacant. She had ninety days to sell it or there would have to be changes to how she insured the property. Since she couldn’t imagine ever wanting to live here again now that her father was gone, selling was the better option.

Before she could put the place on the market, there was a good deal of work to be done. Going through a lifetime of what her parents had accumulated wouldn’t be an easy feat, or a pleasant one. She would choose what she wanted to keep, and an auction company would come in and sell the rest. Sounded easy enough until she’d walked through the rooms, checking the closets and drawers. She had never really noticed the enormity of stuff her father had kept. Simple was not a word that described in any way the task ahead.

Before diving in, she needed coffee. 

Unable to function without her caffeine fix, she had brought her coffeemaker and her favorite grounds. Thank goodness she had because the coffee in the cupboard was out of date—and instant.

The brew process had just finished as she walked into the kitchen. She poured a big cup and inhaled the amazing aroma. As she sipped the deliciously dark liquid, she gazed out the window over the sink. The sky had that look, the one her father always said meant snow was coming. She’d heard something on the radio those last few miles last night about a storm building up north, but she’d been too tired to pay attention. This was Montana, winter snowstorms were a part of life.

She would be stuck here for a few days in any event so a snowstorm wouldn’t be such a bad thing. There was a generator. Beyond the window over the sink, her gaze roved the backyard from the house to the shed. The reassuring stack of firewood beneath the eaves of the shed would keep her comfortable for several days. The propane tank was still full. As long the coffee held out, she would be perfectly fine.

Still, if there was a storm coming, she should likely have a look around outside now before the bad weather descended. A quick inventory of what her father kept in the shed and barn would be useful. She could take pics with her cell. Mr. Hansen, the closest neighbor, had sold the few horses and two cows her father still owned when he died. The conscientious neighbor had been so helpful, he and his wife both, over the past year. Calling Abbey and giving her updates. Mr. Hansen—Uncle Lionel, he insisted when she was a child—came over a couple of times a week on his daily walks to check on the house.

Her parents and the Hansens had been lifelong friends. 

Abbey didn’t really have any true lifelong friends. She’d left Montana to go to university to pursue her love of writing. After graduation she dove straight into the publishing world. She’d worked in the business for five years, first as an editorial assistant and then as a personal assistant to the publisher. When her first completed novel was contracted by a publisher, she crossed her fingers and hoped for the best. Incredibly, eighteen months later her debut book had become a New York Times bestseller and the release date for book two had been adjusted to take advantage of the buzz. The contract offer for books three and four had allowed her to give up her day job and focus on her writing full time. When book three came out this past July and raced straight up the list to the number two spot, she knew she’d made the right decision.

Looking back, she was so grateful she’d been able to share the incredible success of her first book with her father before he was gone. He’d been so proud of her.

Currently she was in the middle of her fourth novel. Her publisher was chomping at the bit to get the next Abbey Gray thriller into bookstores. Unfortunately, Abbey was behind already and with all this to handle her deadline was looking less and less doable.

She’d brought her laptop along and hopefully she would get at least a little work done during this emotionally draining process ahead of her.

After her second cup of coffee, she pulled on her pearl white coat—her good luck coat, she called it since she had been wearing it when she got the call that a publisher wanted to buy her book. The matching cap and gloves were next, then her boots before heading out the back door. The crisp morning air took her breath. New York winters could be brutal, but they didn’t come close to the cold in Montana. Snow from the last dumping lingered here and there. Against a shaded corner of the house and the base of trees. Beyond the yard, in the woods there would still be small drifts on the ground. Not once during her childhood could she ever recall wishing the snow away. She had loved it so much. She wasn’t a kid anymore and life had shown her that all the lovely white stuff could be a real pain when there was work to be done, errands to run, appointments to keep.

Last year while preparing for her father’s funeral she hadn’t really done anything but shower and sleep at her childhood home. She’d felt numb and in a fog. Garrett had been a huge help. She smiled. She’d been wrong before. She definitely had at least one lifelong friend. She and Garrett Gilmore had grown up together, gone to school together in the same grade—though he was six months older. Everything in her life until she graduated high school and drove away without looking back had included Garrett.

Her first kiss. A wave of heat flushed her cheeks despite the cold. They’d lost their virginity together. She laughed out loud at the memory. After weeks of thorough and logical consideration, the event had proven an awkward ten or so minutes. 

The funny thing was, they had never actually felt the urge to be boyfriend and girlfriend. Best friends was a far better description of their relationship. The kiss and the sex—both of which only happened once—were about preparing for what came next. They had mutually decided that if their first experiences were going to be embarrassing, they would rather get them over with together. No one else would ever have to know.

Thinking back to that summer before senior year, they’d spent every possible minute together. If she was completely honest with herself, she couldn’t deny there had been sparks. Feelings she hadn’t experienced before. But he was Garrett—her best friend. They both had big plans. He was joining the Marines right after graduation and she was off to NYC to become a famous author.

Her career had gone pretty much as planned, but Garrett’s had not. His father had nearly lost his life in a horse riding accident while moving cattle, forcing Garrett to stay home and help his mother run the ranch.

As Abbey made her way across the backyard to the barn, she realized she hadn’t talked to Garrett since her father’s funeral. He was the Park County sheriff now which meant he was very busy. During the past several months her life had been one frantic book tour after the other. With all the publicity events and the movie option, she had been overwhelmed. Not that she was complaining. What author wouldn’t love to have all this happen, particularly this early in her career?

She entered the combination for the lock on the barn door. Mr. Hansen had suggested the keypad locks to avoid issues with keeping up with keys. A really good idea under the circumstances. Like the house, the barn was reasonably well organized. Lots of tools and the tractor. Abbey turned on the lights and photographed the items for her own inventory. There was nothing here she needed. The auction company would, of course, do an independent inventory before moving forward. The shed was much the same. More stacks of firewood inside. Yard tools. The riding mower. 

She stared across the yard and into the woods that stretched beyond the cleared space around the house. Voices whispered through her mind. Her father yelling. Blood everywhere from the multiple stab wounds. Steven screaming that he didn’t do it. Her mother’s body lying on the frozen ground.

Abbey blocked the images and the sounds. Despite the horror of that awful day, this place was peaceful and beautiful. It was a gorgeous property. Finding a buyer shouldn’t be difficult. 

Before turning back to the house, she made a last minute decision to visit the family cemetery. The stroll in that direction took her alongside the year-round stream that rushed through the woods as if fleeing some unseen force. Not once in her life could she recall it ever drying up. The path turned away from the water’s edge and moved toward the small cemetery. Her father’s parents were buried there as were her parents. She’d never known her mother’s family. That set of grandparents had passed away when Abbey was very small. Her mother’s one sister lived in Europe. The two had never been close.

A picket fence in need of a coat of paint surrounded the small cemetery. Abbey sat down on the stone bench her father had added after her mother’s death. He would come here and sit for long minutes each evening. Life had been extremely difficult for him after her murder. He’d lost his wife and his only son. Abbey had felt as if she’d stepped into the twilight zone. Of course, she’d heard of a child murdering a parent, but those horrible things were events that happened someplace else to someone else.

But this had happened to them. To her and her father. To their world. 

She stared at the headstone her father had chosen for the two of them to share. The trees shaded the small plot of land reserved for burying their dead, ensuring that snow lingered against the headstones. As a child she remembered thinking of how cold the graves must have gotten beneath all that snow each winter. By the time her mother was buried here, she had been old enough to understand the cold no longer mattered to those who resided inside this picket fence.

What she had considered as the snow had fallen that first winter after her mother’s murder, was what her brother might be feeling and thinking as he sat in his prison cell. Had he been afraid? Lonely? Sad?

Abbey had sat through every hour of the trial. She’d listened to all the testimony, the expert witnesses—all of it. Some part of her had never really believed her brother was the killer. Perhaps believe wasn’t the right word. It was a sort of disconnect between what she was hearing and what her heart would allow her to absorb. Though he never said as much, she was certain her father had felt that same disconnect.

Steven could not have killed their mother.

Yet, the evidence and a single witness who had no reason to lie insisted that he had, and the jury concurred.

Enough with the trekking down memory lane. She stood and started back to the path. Another cup of coffee was in order and then she needed to get to work. The rasp of brush against brush had her stalling and turning toward the woods on her right. She listened for the crunch of footfalls on icy snow or frozen leaves. The whisper of bare limbs against bare limbs.

Nothing.

There were any number of wildlife species running around in these woods. Her scent had likely stirred one or more. The place had been vacant long enough for a sudden presence to prompt unrest. Nothing to worry about, she decided as she walked back to the house.

Inside, she peeled off the layers of protective outer wear and poured another cup of coffee, then checked her cell phone. 

Maybe she should give Garrett a call. They could have lunch. Catch up. At some point during the arrangements and her father’s funeral she had learned that he still wasn’t married. Nearly a year later now, he certainly could be. She’d never been in a serious relationship, much less married. Focused, that had been her watch word. Get through college. Find the dream job. Write the book.

There hadn’t been time for anything else. 

Was the real issue time or had she still been drifting along in that personal fog? The part of her life that included intimate relationships on permanent pause? Had she ignored those needs to avoid having to deal with that awful day? In truth, had she or her father ever really dealt with the ramifications of such a tragic loss and the stunning violence it had included? It was far easier to immerse herself in her studies and then her work.

Now here she was, thirty, alone and suddenly uncertain about too many things.

“Why the hell are you going there?” Abbey shook her head. Being in this house had her obsessing about the past.

She picked up her notepad and focused on what she should be doing. Making a list of the items she wanted to keep and of those she felt compelled to ship to Steven. So far there was nothing penciled in under either heading.

Upstairs, she went into her father’s bedroom and began sifting through decades of his and her mother’s lives. The scent of mothballs stirred in the closet. The clothes were all in good condition. Those could be donated. There wasn’t any jewelry other than a few inexpensive pieces that had belonged to her mother. There was a pearl necklace Abbey intended to keep. It was the one heirloom that had been handed down through her mother’s family. She made a note of the item on her list but didn’t find it in the jewelry box.

Considering her cramped apartment in Manhattan, she restrained her emotions and went for practical in her selections. She moved on to the en suite bath. A make-up table sat next to the pedestal sink. All these years, her father had left it exactly as it was the last time her mother had used it. The perfume she had worn, her few cosmetics, all sat exactly where she’d left them—except the lipstick she’d loved. Her father had never packed up any of her mother’s things, so the two items had to be around here somewhere. Abbey opened the small center drawer to see if the lipstick or the pearls were there, but they were not. There was only a brush and a handheld mirror.

She was certain she had seen the missing items when she picked out her father’s clothes for his funeral. The pearls had been lying atop the jewelry box. Had someone from the maintenance company put the necklace up somewhere?

Or taken it?

The lipstick wasn’t something she would expect to be taken by anyone. More likely it had been lost at some point. She probably hadn’t seen it the last time she was here. The mind sometimes filled in what one expected to see, particularly during a time of extreme stress—like her father’s unexpected death.

She shook off the painful memory. Focus, she reminded herself. There was a lot to be done.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this excerpt!

GET THE BOOKS

A new installment of STORMWATCH releases each Thursday starting December 5 through January 9. Each thrilling full length novel is a standalone story with no cliffhangers. Don’t miss a single one from half a dozen of the genre’s bestselling storytellers!

  1. December 5 – Frozen Ground by Debra Webb
  2. December 12 – Deep Freeze by Vicki Hinze
  3. December 19 – Wind Chill by Rita Herron
  4. December 26 – Black Ice by Regan Black
  5. January 2 – Snow Brides by Peggy Webb
  6. January 9 – Snow Blind by Cindy Gerard

 

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