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Innocence Trilogy Book 3

The last woman Tanner Landis is ready for is the one he must save.

Who is shooting at Allison Northcutt? Detective Tanner Landis must find out before the next bullet reaches its target. And there’s nothing like a complicated history between the two of them to make that more challenging.

Ally has sustained more than her share of trauma. She and her two cousins lost their beloved aunt to murder when they were teens and have been bonded ever since. And, for the past four and a half years, she has carried the burden of her police officer husband being shot in the head outside their Maryland home. He has not recovered and now is near death. Is that the key to who is after Ally? But why now? And is the law enforcement-laden Northcutt family history at the center of this web?

Fairlington County, Virginia, detective Tanner Landis and his partner, Rutherford "Bel" Belichek, have worked many cases brought to trial by their colleague and friend, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Maggie Frye. In Proof of Innocence, Maggie is drawn back to a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains to find a possible serial killer -- one she might have failed to convict. In Price of Innocence, Bel risks everything – his friendships, his reputation, his career, his heart, and his life -- to solve a murder in Fairlington.

Premise of Innocence, by USA Today bestselling author Patricia McLinn, completes The Innocence Trilogy of stand-alone mysteries with romantic elements set in the Washington, D.C., metro area. If you love twists and turns, characters who stick with you, and mysteries and romance swirled together, you'll love Premise of Innocence … and the entire trilogy.

Available for preorder at many online bookstores. Ebook release is scheduled for Jan. 26, 2022; a print edition will follow this spring.

Excerpt:

PROLOGUE

Over. It was over.

The case finished. The news conference finished, the questions asked and answered.

Yes, a half dozen people with cameras walked backward in front of them, snapping and videoing, as her family crossed the plaza, leaving the Fairlington County, Virginia, Courthouse. But this counted as barely a trickle compared to the height of the attention.

In a while even this interest would wane. It always did. No matter how notorious. No matter how intriguing. No matter how dramatic. Wasn’t she the proof of that?

Ally Lindell Northcutt allowed herself a small smile. Something she never did in public.

It was all over.

She tightened her hold where she had her left arm hooked through Jamie’s right, as Maggie did on the other side with J.D. Carson. Jamie’s parents and their family lawyer were behind them.

By rights Ford Belichek should have been with Jamie.

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But by rights wouldn’t preserve his career. Jamie had been adamant about that.

Ally watched her sweet cousin overrule the detective and make it stick. Though she suspected the dozen officers split to either side of them well out of camera range had been Bel’s doing.

She and her two cousins paused in the May sunshine, just an instant, getting their rhythm for the three steps down to sidewalk level so they wouldn’t jostle each other in their locked-arm hold. Before that next step forward—

Sound.

A single sharp burst.

It swallowed the hearing in her right ear. Reverberated distantly in her left.

Before she could absorb that, she felt her hold on Jamie being torn away. She turned that way. Saw J.D. encompassing Maggie and Jamie in a flying tackle, his body between them and the street. From the corner of her eye, she saw Jamie’s parents huddle together, dropping low, even as they reached toward the three cousins.

They’d be okay.

With that thought, she released her hold on Jamie.

The same instant, she felt herself being brought down. Half turned toward her cousins, she couldn’t see by what.

“East. Shot came from the east.”

Somehow, she knew that was roared near her right ear by whoever had taken her to the ground, yet it came muffled to her.

“Are you hit? Ally. Are you hit?”

“No. I’m fine. Everyone else—?”

“She’s not hit. Anybody hit?” the same voice demanded.

From a great distance, she heard what sounded like Maggie, then Jamie’s father.

“Everyone’s okay. Stay down.” She’d started to try to rise, but felt herself firmly shoved down.

Then the covering body lifted before a new one draped over her.

How did she know it was a different body? She hadn’t seen—

“Stay there. All of you. Don’t move. Got them, Bel?”

“Got them.”

Jamie’s Detective Belichek was here. He gave orders equally muffled.

The officers who’d been along the sides, now stood between them and the street. They hustled the family backward to the courthouse doors, and inside.

They hugged each other and surreptitiously — or not so surreptitiously — checked for injuries.

Jamie’s dad said to the lawyer, “Thank you for protecting Ally. We couldn’t reach her.”

“It wasn’t—” Ally bit off her correction.

Smell.

She knew that first protector. And knew it wasn’t the lawyer.

But—

“That wasn’t me.” Behind her, the lawyer spoke at a speed powered by fear and adrenaline. “The guy came from the police line. Wasn’t in uniform. He— There he is. That guy.”

Ally turned, first glimpsing a pair of trousers marred by ground-in grit at the knee, a streak of something on the thigh. The streak continued up the front of a suit jacket to…

“Tanner.”

That first protector’s smell. She did know it.

Had known it.

But her brain rebelled at her senses. It wasn’t possible…

“Tanner Landis?”

—DAY 1—

TUESDAY

CHAPTER ONE

Detective Tanner Landis didn’t blame her for vocalizing her shock.

She hadn’t seen him in something like a decade. He’d made sure of that, though he’d seen her, even before today.

Maybe he shouldn’t have— The hell with that.

He wasn’t going to stand around with someone shooting at Allison Lindell Northcutt. At anyone. That was his job.

After the question she’d made of his name, Ally didn’t say more.

Landis hoped for maybe thirty seconds that amid the chaos and stress her using his name was missed.

Thirty seconds of delusion.

Absolute minimum, four people picked it up.

His partner, Ford Belichek, plus Ally’s cousins Jamie Chancellor and Maggie Frye, and Maggie’s significant other, J.D. Carson.

Any one of them would have been a major headache. Taken together, they were a nightmare.

Then throw in his boss, Chief of Detectives Wilson Palery, who’d taken charge in the lobby. Because Landis was seventy percent sure he’d picked it up, too.

“Landis. Get with Belichek. Stay on the family. Keep them from talking to each other until we can question them. Take somebody to help.”

Seventy percent went to one hundred percent. Otherwise, Palery would have split them.

He thought Landis had a connection and also would pick up inside info. But, while Belichek might keep it to himself because he was head over heels for Jamie, Landis would spill.

The case first. Always.

This situation, though, lined up like the opposite of inside info. Allison Lindell Northcutt wasn’t about to confide in him, no matter what.

“Yes, sir.”

His boss had already moved on to the next task. Palery was on the scene because today’s hearing wrapped up one of the county’s biggest cases, one of the most attention-grabbing in the Washington, D.C., metro area. He’d been with the Commonwealth’s Attorney, talking to the media when the shots were fired.

That was a piece of luck.

Most of the media gathered in one place let the police corral them on the spot, temporarily.

“Schmidt,” Landis said, both naming his choice of someone to Palery and calling over the young patrol officer. He’d done well on the investigation into who’d tried to kill Jamie, the case just wrapped up with a plea deal that would keep that nutjob in prison for the rest of his life.

Bel preferred a sentence of drawing and quartering, but Jamie worked her magic on him, persuading him this was a better way to move on with their lives.

“Sir?” the uniform asked.

“Find us an empty courtroom with deputies still on duty to man the doors.”

“Sir.”

“Landis,” Maggie started. “What the hell? You and Ally—?”

“Mags, you know the drill.” He raised his voice slightly to take in Jamie’s parents and the lawyer. “No talking. No questions. No answers. Not until each of you has been questioned individually. We don’t want anyone’s evidence influenced by anyone else.” Schmidt gestured from a courtroom door, third down the hallway. Good. Not too near the entrance. Just in case.

“If you’ll all come this way.”

*   *   *   *

Just inside the doorway of the courtroom, Maggie Frye took her cousin’s arm in a firm grip and addressed her, while watching Landis, “You know him?”

Maggie was his favorite Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney to work with. He considered her a friend. Right now, he wished she’d shut up.

Ally’s face went blank.

But he’d been preparing for this since Ally said his name. Maybe longer.

From when he’d brought her down to the ground and covered her body with his.

“Sure, she knows me.” He grinned. He knew how to produce the right grin. It had gotten him in places and out of situations. “How could she help it with Bel and me so wrapped up with the Maggie Frye family tree these past months?”

Maggie immediately shook her head.

That was bad enough. But he didn’t get help from anyone else, either. Including his partner.

Instead, Ford Belichek leveled a look at him, then swung his attention to Ally with a check-in on Jamie on the way. None of that was a good thing considering Bel not only was one hell of a detective but knew him better than was always comfortable. Or, in this case, safe.

Good thing Ally had withdrawn. Like trying to get a read on a turtle after its head disappeared inside the shell.

Wouldn’t stop Bel’s questions, but would hold the answers at bay for a while.

Ally licked her lips.

The motion drew his gaze immediately. Thank God, he wasn’t the only one. They all turned toward her.

“The academy.” That’s all she said.

They put it together.

“Tanner was at the police academy with Chad?” Jamie asked. “I never knew that.”

She made it sound so innocent.

Maggie wasn’t having it.

“You never knew it? I didn’t know it. Bel?” The other detective shook his head before Maggie turned her prosecuting attorney stare on Tanner. “Because you never told me — us. You knew Ally is my cousin and she’s married to Chad Northcutt. You’ve known that practically as long as I’ve known you, including the day Chad was shot, and the hell we went through getting there, and you never said a word about knowing her — them. Not a word.”

Even Bel, who’d kept his own share of secrets from both Maggie and him, had the gall to look accusing.

But what he said was, “Palery said we shouldn’t talk.”

“It’s not about what just happened,” Maggie argued, which was her profession.

“Too early to know connections. Even tangential can muddy witnesses. Not talking’s best.”

Unsatisfied, Maggie still conceded by sitting next to Carson. Their hands touched, held, and Maggie’s shoulders eased.

Jamie drew Ally to a first-row bench and clasped Ally’s hands in both of hers, apparently trying to warm Ally’s hands. Dana Chancellor sat beside her daughter, resting one hand on her arm without interfering with her connection to Ally. Wes Chancellor sat next, his arm across his wife’s shoulders and his hand touching Jamie’s closer shoulder.

The lawyer sat apart, his head down, his hands not steady.

Bel remained standing in the main aisle, between the others and the door.

Landis took a position in the side aisle, one hip hitched on the top corner of a bench back. He, too, would immediately see what came through the door, but without being in the direct line of sight of the others.

The greatest danger he faced would not come through that door.

It was already in the room.

He’d almost told Bel and Maggie of the connection the day four and a half years ago when news came of Chad Northcutt being shot in the head by an unknown assailant, in the driveway of the house where he and Ally lived.

Almost told Bel and Maggie, even though he’d only worked with them for a few months at that point.

The moment passed amid the rush of the immediate emergency. Fighting their way through heavy security to find out where Northcutt was taken, getting Maggie to her cousin’s side, learning what they could as outsiders about what happened.

And his additional mission — desperately digging to find out if Ally was a suspect, without ever appearing to be concerned.

It was clear early that nobody thought she was the shooter.

A neighbor four houses down saw it happen. Saw a car with heavily tinted windows pull sedately into Chad Northcutt’s next-door neighbor’s drive, then, at the last second, scream across the Northcutts’ front lawn to knock Northcutt down, giving the driver time to open his window and shoot twice to the head. The car then peeled out across the next yard’s lawn, bumped over the curb and sped in the opposite direction from the witness.

Still, she’d gotten a partial plate, as well as a good description of the car.

They knew within an hour that a car matching the description and the partial plate had been reported stolen thirty minutes before the shooting, from an owner with a doctor’s exception to have deeper tint than Maryland’s standard.

It took five days to find the burnt skeletal remains of the car in an isolated spot behind a deserted warehouse that backed up to a forested area.

The forlorn hope of forensics came to nothing. The fire destroyed what might have been there. If that shooter left any evidence to start with.

That shooter.

Now there was another one.

Who’d taken aim at Ally Northcutt.

Twice.

His brain wanted to wrestle with the issue of the immediate shooter, even as his sense and experience told him lack of information made it futile.

He belonged out there, gathering that information. Damn, Palery.

The void of information about what just happened sent him back to the shooting four and a half years ago.

The delay provided by getting Maggie to the hospital to be with Ally was what he’d needed for his habit of keeping things to himself to reassert itself.

In the days that followed, the habit solidified to rock.

He never told Bel and, having not told Bel, there was no chance he’d tell anyone else.

Especially as it eventually became clear Chad Northcutt wasn’t likely to die immediately. There was even a rumor he might wake up at any time.

But now, with someone shooting at Ally…

He stopped, considering that thought.

How sure was he of his instinctual reaction that the shot was aimed at Ally?

He played through the events in his mind.

Then again.

Midway through the third time, Palery entered, making brief eye contact with Bel, then him, recognizing their positioning and telling them to stand down. He kept a hold on the knob of the open door as two other Fairlington detectives passed him to enter the room.

“Detectives Belichek and Landis, come with me,” Palery said. “Detectives Terrington and Ewer will wait with the rest of you until you’re questioned individually. We’ll do this as expeditiously as we can,” he said to the family and the lawyer, “but thoroughness is vital. This isn’t going to be fast.”

For a moment, Belichek studied Terrington, not the brightest color in the department’s crayon box, then turned to Jamie. “Don’t talk. Not to anyone. Understand?” He widened it to the rest of her family and Carson. “At all.”

Satisfied by what he saw in the faces looking back at him, Bel pushed at Landis’ shoulder to get him started out of the room.

Maggie and Carson would make sure none of the rest said anything Terrington could misinterpret, which he surely would. Yet Landis’ gaze went to Ally.

Her gaze bounced away, as if she might have been looking at him. And didn’t want to make visual contact.

*   *   *   *

Tanner Landis.

Her brain couldn’t get past those two words.

She frequently found silence the safest realm over these past years and with the reinforcement of Bel’s instruction, she could remain there with impunity — for now — from the questions all of her family members wanted to ask and Maggie would.

What was he doing here?

She wanted to shake her head at the inanity of her mental question. She didn’t, because that would raise even more questions among those watching her. They all were, she knew, even though she kept her gaze straight ahead and unfocused.

He was Bel’s partner. That was clear from their few words and interactions, as well as those of Captain Palery. That made him a detective with the Fairlington County Police Department. On the Virginia side of the Potomac River now, when she’d known him in Maryland, when—

No, better not to stir the mud of memories into this water.

She needed her wits as clear and focused as possible.

Tanner Landis.

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