Missing Evidence

The Crown Ranch Series #3
May 4, 2023

Available in: 1

When Garrett Crown’s friend is murdered on his watch, he’s devastated. Running from his demons, he leaves the city and returns to his family homestead in Kentucky, hopeful that small-town life and tranquility will once again be his companion.

Riley Murphy, aka Skeeter, spent ten years in the Army only to be ousted when she claimed that her commanding officer had beat her, and left her for dead. Soon after, her career Army brother commits suicide. Skeeter finds evidence of foul play, but her accusations fall on deaf ears when she names her commanding officer.

Fearing for her life, she takes refuge at the Crown Ranch under the protection of two of her brother’s former military friends, one being Garrett’s brother.

When reminders related to her past with her commanding officer show up at her doorstep, she again fears death.

Garrett feels a powerful attraction to Skeeter and vows to protect her, no matter the cost. He failed his friend, but he will NOT fail Skeeter.

Chapter One

Garrett Crown backed up his truck and small moving trailer to the front door of his father’s large, two-story house. The very house he’d called home for his first twenty-four years of life. For the past twelve years, he’d lived in Washington, DC, working as a software engineer for a firm that contracted with both large corporations and the military. His specialty was on the military side, and he loved it.

He climbed out of the truck, slid open the back door, and eyed his belongings. What he loved even more about his job was the fact he’d cut a deal to work from home, and home was now once again the Crown Ranch that had been in his family for generations.

At the age of thirty-six, he’d never imagined he’d be returning home, but here he stood, breathing in the fresh, spring Kentucky air. Clean, small-town air. Nice.

Part of him would miss the hustle and bustle of the city, no doubt. With his very next thought, his chest tightened and his heart seized. He perspired and fought for a breath. Kari. What he wouldn’t miss about the city was the crime and the reminders of the loss of his good friend who’d been murdered. He tamped down the obstruction in his throat and swallowed hard. If only he’d tried harder to help her, she’d still be alive.

He closed his eyes and drew in a long breath of the calming, fresh spring Kentucky country air and let it out. With all that had gone on, it was good to be home. The safe, secure, quiet confines of home were exactly what he desired at this stage in his life. Through the years, he’d visited plenty of times, but now he’d be staying.

“You’re here! Finally!”

He spun to face his sister. She practically leaped off the porch and threw her arms around him, pulling him into a bear hug.

“Jeez, Peyton, I was just home in December.”

She backed off and swiped tears from her cheeks. “I know, but now you are staying.” Her gaze floated to her swollen belly, and she placed her palm on it. “My little sweet pea here will get to see his uncle all the time.”

Garrett smiled. He was excited about that. His older brother Blaine and Blaine’s wife, Ashley, had a little girl, but they lived in Texas, and he got to see them only twice a year—every Christmas and every Kentucky Derby, an event his entire family never missed.

He swung his gaze around until it landed on the large wooden double doors leading into the home. It looked and sounded quiet.

“Where is everyone?” he asked. He had phoned Peyton with his estimated arrival time, so he’d expected them to greet him.

Peyton smiled warmly. “Storm and Coach are in the ranch office, and Dad is in Lexington for the day.”

She pointed to his brother Coach’s new home across the driveway. “Meredith is in her office working.”

Really? They’d all known he would arrive at this time today, and only Peyton could see her way to greet him. She had a job, too, yet she’d made the effort. Admittedly, he was sad about this. And who the heck would help him move the heavy stuff out of the trailer? His very pregnant sister? Though she was probably stubborn enough to think she could help.

“Aw, are you sad we didn’t throw you a big welcome-home party?”

Sarcasm dripped from her tone. That’s the sister he knew.

Yes, but he wouldn’t admit that to her. Were his dad, siblings, and their spouses not as excited as he was about his return home?

“Well, at least your old room is ready for you. The girls have finished moving their stuff into their new home. So, you have that going for you,” Peyton said.

He’d lost his room to Meredith’s nieces for the past couple of years. Coach and Meredith had married a year ago, a year after her sister was murdered, and she’d inherited her nieces, Frannie, now six, and Iris, now fifteen. An unnerving quiver raked through Garrett’s body as he thought about the horrible tragedy of the poor girls witnessing their father killing their mother.

Seeing as Coach ran the daily operations of the Crown Ranch, they’d all lived in the homestead until they’d built their own home on the property. Garrett glanced at the new home across the way. It resembled his father’s home, but was smaller. Just like his dad’s, Coach and Meredith’s home was two stories, painted white, and had grand windows. Two little cupolas rested on the roof.

“Wait until you see the inside. It’s beautiful. Meredith has stunning taste. In fact, let’s go say hi to her. She’s been working so much lately we’ll give her a break, and you can check it out.”

He shrugged and followed his sister. Without knocking, she pushed her way through the large entry door.

“Meredith?” Peyton called out.

“I’m in the kitchen.”

He followed his sister as he swung his gaze from side to side, noticing the massive stone fireplace and oversized leather furniture in the living room and then the office on the opposite side of the long hall that ran the length of the house to the back door.


His heart slammed in his chest, and his pulse ratcheted up a notch with a jolt of shock.

He smiled, excited to see his beaming family gathered around the kitchen island. His dad, Coach, Meredith, and Peyton’s husband, Storm. Iris and Frannie weren’t there, but he understood as it was a school day.

Meredith rose from her stool and welcomed him with open arms. Coach and Storm did the obligatory nod, and his dad shook his hand and gave him one of those half hugs that guys did.

“Welcome home, son.”

His gaze floated to a large sheet cake in the center of the island next to a colorful balloon bouquet.

“Sorry, you can’t have any yet,” Meredith said.

He looked at the tall, slim woman. Her dark eyes zoned in on him. From what his brother had told him, and from his limited time spent with her, he knew she was a woman not to be messed with. But he was starving and wanted some of that cake.

Purposefully, he narrowed his eyes. “I think it’s my cake.” He pointed to it. “It says Welcome Home, Garrett. I should be able to have some of my cake, don’t you think?”

A hint of a smile rose from her lips. “It’s a good argument, but I promised the girls we wouldn’t tap into it until they were home.” She glanced at her watch, then back to him. “They should be home any minute. They are excited to see you and hoped you would not get here before they got home. They wanted to be part of the surprise party.”

His heart warmed at the thought of how much he’d grown to love those girls. Meredith and Coach were an unlikely match, yet they appeared so much in love. Coach had gotten an instant family and had told him frequently that he couldn’t be happier.

“I could drive away and come back after they get off the bus,” he offered, willing to do anything to make the girls happy.

“Too late!” Iris said from the archway, drawing his attention.

Frannie ran toward him with her arms in the air. He yanked her from the floor, hugged her, and then spun her around. The little girl’s sweet giggle was music to his ears.

He set her down and then returned his gaze to Meredith. “So, we can have cake now?”

“Yay,” Frannie exclaimed and clapped. Her big brown eyes fixed on him as if he’d just granted her biggest wish.

Chuckles filled the room.

“I guess,” Meredith conceded.

After he wolfed down his cake, he zoned in on Coach and Storm. “Well, that trailer isn’t going to empty itself.”

“True,” Coach replied. “And make sure you’re done by six so you don’t hold up dinner.”

Storm laughed. “Yeah.”

“I’m making your favorite, so you won’t want to dillydally,” Peyton added.

Usually, he could garner support from her, but it appeared she was not on his side this time.


Frannie tugged on his shirt. “I’ll help you, Uncle Garrett.”

Chuckles filled the room.

The six-year-old was the only one willing to help.

Storm rose, yanked Frannie from the floor, and placed her on his shoulders. “Since Frannie’s helping, I’ll help, too.”

“Fine, I’m in,” Coach said as he rose from his seat. “Let’s get this done, and then we can have a couple of beers.”

“Super, but first I just want to take a minute to check on Pegasus.”

He, Coach, and Storm headed to the horse barn. Once they entered the building, his brother and brother-in-law peeled off to their office, and he continued on to Pegasus’ stall. He’d missed his horse as much as he’d missed his family.

Pegasus was not only an enormous horse, but he was big spirited, and it had taken a while for him and the horse to mesh, but once they had, the bond was unbreakable.

He flung open the stall gate. No horse. Glancing over his shoulder, he could see Gunner’s head over his gate. Moving his gaze to the left, he could see Handsome Jack in his pen. Where was Pegasus?

Pegasus’ distressed neigh bellowed from down the corridor. Garrett ran in that direction. He hadn’t taken six steps outside when he glimpsed a tiny woman struggling to climb up into the tall horse’s saddle. The spirited horse was not about to have it.

Garrett’s pulse pounded, and he ran in that direction. The horse bucked, but the small-framed woman held on. But for how long? What had provoked Pegasus to behave this way? Yes, he was spirited, but Garrett rode him with no issue. Coach did as well. Who in the hell was this stranger on his horse?

The last thing he needed was for this woman to get tossed off the excited horse. Even though he was unsure how he would get her off the horse safely, he still approached.

“Pegasus,” he called out, keeping his voice steady, though his nerves rattled.

The horse’s head snapped in his direction, and he stilled for a moment as his big brown eyes studied him. Slowly, Garrett reached for the reins as he used his relaxed tone to calm the horse.

He could feel the woman’s penetrating gaze on him, but he refused to break eye contact with Pegasus until he could get her to safety.

“I got this,” the rider said. Her sharp tone caused Pegasus to flinch and try to tug away from him, but he held firm, even though the horse nearly lifted him completely off the ground.

“It’s okay, Pegasus. And, lady, no, you don’t.” Garrett’s words were sharp, but he kept his voice neutral so as not to upset the horse any further.

The woman huffed, and Pegasus reacted with a quick twist of his body, tossing the rider off. She screamed, and slammed into his torso with full force. Instinctively, he wrapped his arms around her. Pegasus ran off to the corner of the fenced-in area and paced nervously.

“Let me go!” the rider yelled and pushed at him with her tiny hands as if her life depended on getting away from him.

“What’s going on?” Coach asked.

Garrett released the woman and fixed his gaze on his approaching brother and Storm.

“This…person was trying to ride Pegasus. She got bucked off, right into me.”

“I would have been fine if you hadn’t interfered,” she snapped.

He narrowed his gaze on her. “No, you wouldn’t have. And what were you doing on my horse?”

“Your horse? This is a Crown horse.”

“That’s right, I’m Garrett Crown, and you should really get permission to ride someone else’s horse. Especially a spirited horse like Pegasus. He requires an experienced rider.”

She planted her hands on her narrow hips. “I am an experienced rider.”

From what he’d seen of her in that saddle, she sure hadn’t looked skilled.

Her haughty attitude irritated him and caused him to react similarly.

“Really. How long have you been riding?” he asked with an arch of his brow.

Her gaze landed on Coach and Storm, who stood only a few feet away. Coach’s mouth opened as if he was going to answer the question. It surprised Garrett when his brother closed his mouth. Coach usually played a mediator role, hence the nickname he’d garnered while in the military. Jeremiah was his brother’s real name, but nobody called him that anymore.

The tiny woman ground the tip of her cowboy boot into the soil. “A couple of months.”

Garrett crossed his arms over his chest. “And that makes you experienced?”

Her jaw knotted. “I’ve been riding Sassy Girl ever since I got here.”

“For Chrissake, Sassy Girl is over twenty-five years old, and she’s the furthest thing from sassy. She’s the most docile horse I’ve ever ridden, and she’s the go-to for new riders.”

The second those words escaped his mouth, the woman shot her angry gaze to Coach and Storm. The two decorated Army heroes flinched at the intensity of it. They’d been busted. This mystery woman had had no clue they’d been using Sassy Girl on her for some reason. If horses were counselors, Sassy Girl would be the best of the best.

“Skeeter,” Coach said softly.

The woman kicked the dirt, spun, and huffed off.

“Skeeter?” Garrett repeated. Interesting nickname.

“It’s a long story,” his brother replied.

“I have time,” Garrett offered, wanting to know more about the feisty redhead who’d stormed off.

“Well, it’s her story to tell. But, for the safety of the family, we’ll give you some details once you’re settled in.”


“Unfortunately, yes. But let’s get out of her sight for now to let her calm down. Come on, we’ll get your trailer unloaded,” his brother said as he motioned for Garrett to follow him and Storm.

His feet moved in the direction they should, but his head spun to catch another glimpse of the flaming-haired beauty.

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JustJeri said: This is another hit for Ms Clarizio! This is an intense romantic suspense filled with drama, twists and turns, secrets, deception, emotional turmoil, and an abundance of tension. I was captivated from the first page. I highly recommend this book.

Full review from JustJeri: This is another hit for Ms Clarizio! This is an intense romantic suspense filled with drama, twists and turns, secrets, deception, emotional turmoil, and an abundance of tension. This is the third book in the Crown Ranch series, and it’s family members. I have not had the opportunity to read the first two books (though I plan too now!), but it was incredibly easy to jump right into the story, the family, and drama affecting one of the sons. This author did an excellent job in providing information and clarity about the family members, so that I never felt lost, or out of the loop. This story focuses on Garrett, who has come home to the ranch to conduct his techie job from home, while attempting to relieve his guilt and his responsibility in a tragic event. Skeeter, a veteran, is sheltering at Crown Ranch, trying to hide from the man who beat her and left her for dead. With the help of the Crown family, she is working through this tragedy, and hoping to investigate what really happened to her brother. When Skeeter and Garrett meet, it’s instant chemistry, neither knowing the others’ true reasons for living at Crown Ranch. Garrett is courageous, strong-willed and protective. Skeeter is forthright, determined, independent and resilient, all while trying to repair her fear and trust issues. Together, with the other family members, they team up to strategize plans in solving the two puzzles. I found the plot intriguing, the characters well developed and believable, and the twist, turns and clues in the story not only woven in perfectly, but tantalizing as well. I was captivated from the first page. I highly recommend this book. I read it in one day! I received a complimentary ARC, but I am voluntarily offering my personal opinion.

Katze said: I absolutely love Garrett & Skeeter's (Riley's) story, and so will you. It's a real eye opener, and a wonderful story.