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The Rancher Wore Suits


The Rancher Wore Suits

Trading Places Series

The Rancher Wore Suits

Dr. Dex Montgomery was all business. And Ty Cooper had to remember that, if he wanted people to believe he was his identical twin brother. But when the rugged rancher met sophisticated Dr. Jessica Stovall, mixing business and pleasure seemed like the perfect plan! Unfortunately he wasn’t the man she thought he was….

Jessica usually needed a blowtorch to blast through Dex’s icy demeanor. But when his sexy gaze and charming smile suddenly focused on Jessica, she was the one feeling hot and bothered. Getting involved with the sinfully handsome and wealthy doctor would be all wrong—but why did it feel so right? And why did Dex act as if he had something to hide…?

Chapter One

O’Hare Airport

What else could go wrong?

As if his godawful trip to Chicago hadn’t been bad enough, Ty Cooper glanced at the overhead screen and noticed his flight back to Montana had been delayed. Two hours.

More time to think about the deal that had slipped through his fingers this week.

He might as well settle in, have a drink and try to come up with some ideas to expand his cattle business. The investor he’d met with in Chicago had promised big things for the Coopers’ shrinking cattle market, but all that fancy talk across conference tables hadn’t seemed practical to Ty. Ty and the five generations of Coopers who’d run the Circle C were men who lived off the land, not men who wore suits, talked stock options and thought about marketing strategies. His grandparents had done without the niceties in life, and Ty wanted to give them all the luxuries they had never had. After all, he owed them so much….

A pretty little waitress smiled at him, and he tipped his Stetson, then laid it on his knee as she approached. He might be in a foul mood but Ty Cooper’s grandma had raised him right – a man always behaved like a gentlemen in the presence of a lady.

“Can I get you a drink, sir?”

“A beer’ll be fine, sugar. Whatever you’ve goton tap.” He winked. “I’m not picky.”

She gave him that funny grin, the same one everyone in Chicago had given him for the past week every time he’d spoken. They probably didn’t see too many real-life cowboys in the windy city. A few seconds later, the waitress left him a full cold mug and he sipped the beer while he studied the report from the investor.

There was no way he could make this deal work, he realized seconds into the reading. He had to face the grim truth; there would be no upgrading at the Circle C this year. Disappointment ballooned in his chest. He’d wanted to hire an extra hand so his grandfather wouldn’t have to work so hard. Pa Cooper was getting on in years. Ty worried he’d wear himself out. He also wanted his grandfather and grandmother to be able to spend more time together, take a trip, enjoy the good life in their golden years. Do things they had never done.

Frustrated, he glanced up, wishing he had a cigarette, but he’d given them up years ago, so he searched for the waitress’s smile again, the only bright spot in a dismal day. Instead, his gaze landed on a man across the room and he froze, his mug lifted halfway to his mouth.

The man looked to be his height, and wore one of those expensive dark suits with a red power tie. The hair on the back of Ty’s neck stood on end. Something about the stranger seemed familiar.

Eerily familiar. Then the man turned and looked straight at Ty. Shock rode through Ty’s system, as it obviously did the other man. Ty could have been looking in a mirror. What the …? The man looked exactly like him. Same thick dark hair, only cropped a little shorter than Ty’s. Same dark eyes … same square jaw … same … everything.

The man suddenly pushed to his feet, his mouth gaping open momentarily before he snapped it closed. He strode toward Ty, his back ramrod straight. He stopped in front of Ty’s table, shifted his drink to his left hand and extended his right.

“Dex Montgomery.” His voice even sounded like Ty’s, although he had a slight Southern intonation. Not much though. Judging from the man’s expensive clothes, he came from too much money and education to allow himself a true Southern accent.

Ty closed his work-roughened hand over the man’s smooth one. “Ty Cooper.”

The contact was brief, but something passed between them – energy that felt strange yet oddly familiar. As if they had some connection.

Ridiculous. “Maybe you’d better sit down,” Ty said, grappling for an explanation.

The stranger tugged at his tie as if it was choking him and sat. “This isn’t possible. I mean …” He shook his head again. “I’m a doctor and even I’m at a loss for an explanation.”

Ty scrubbed his hand over his chin. He had no idea what to say, either. “You’re right, partner. It’s damned weird looking at your reflection in another man’s face. Maybe we’re related somehow?” A nervous laugh escaped Ty. “You know, distantly. Identical cousins or something.”

Dex Montgomery lifted one shoulder, then let it fall. “That’s possible, I suppose.” He hesitated, his eyebrows drawing together in thought. “Did you say Cooper?”

Ty nodded. “Of Rolling Bend, Montana. We have a cattle ranch called the -”

“Rolling Bend, Montana?” The man’s face paled.

“Yeah?” Ty’s stomach knotted. “You know the place?”

Dex’s gaze settled fully onto Ty. “My mother’s name was Tara Cooper. She was born in Rolling Bend.”

It couldn’t be. Ty signaled the passing waitress. “Ma’am, we’re gonna need another round here.”

She glanced at Dex, then started visibly when her gaze landed back on Ty. “Doubles for doubles,” she said with a giggle. “Are you guys twins or something?”

Dex glared at her and she scurried away. Ty almost told him to apologize, but he was too disturbed by this man’s statement. He leaned forward, unable to believe what he was about to say. “Tara Cooper was my mother.”

A choked sound, not quite a laugh, burst from Dex. “But my mother died when I was three months old.”

“My birthdate is May 21, 1970,” Ty countered. “My mother died in an accident with my father when I was three months old.”

“Oh yeah? Well, so did mine. But I don’t have any siblings,” Dex argued.

“Neither do I,” Ty retorted. “Well, except for two adopted brothers. Actually they’re my grandmother’s sister’s boys. She died when they were little and Gran took them in.”

And Ty had had a twin who had died at birth. At least he’d been told he had. What if … what if they’d lied to him? An empty hollowness clawed at him. But why?

Dex gestured vaguely. “Maybe there were two Tara Coopers in Rolling Bend.”

Ty moved his head slowly from side to side. “We’re the only Cooper clan in that neck of the woods.”

“I’m certain there’s some reasonable explanation,” Dex suggested.

Ty’s heart thundered. He had a sinking feeling he knew what had happened. But he didn’t like it. And judging from the shock on Dex Montgomery’s face, he wasn’t going to be happy about it, either.

“There is an explanation,” Ty said, his chest growing tight. “We’ve been had.”


Safe with Him


Safe With Him

Book 3 of the Manhunt Series

Safe With Him

All Kaylie Whittaker wanted for Christmas was to protect her daughter from the madman who killed her husband…

All five-year-old CeCe Whittaker wanted was to have a real home for the holidays…

All Texas Ranger Sergeant Mitch Manning wanted was to drown his sorrows in a bottle.

Then Kaylie and CeCe snuck into his abandoned ranch house, looking terrified and obviously on the run, and his detective instincts surged to life. But he’d lost one family because of his job, and he refused to make room for this woman and her little girl in his heart.

Still, he was a Texas Ranger and he would protect them or die trying…

Safe in His Arms


Safe in His Arms

Book 1 of the Manhunt Series

Safe in His Arms

She will do anything to escape her ex-husband…

He will do anything to find her…

And Texas Ranger Sgt. Alex Townsend will do anything to save her…

Even if it means giving up his life.

Ultimate Cowboy


Ultimate Cowboy

Book 3 of the Bucking Bronc Lodge Series

Ultimate Cowboy


Rancher Brody Bloodworth has spent years blaming himself for his brother’s disappearance. If he hadn’t snuck off to be with Julie Whitehead, everything would have been different-and he wouldn’t have pushed her away. Now Julie is back, as an FBI agent with a solid lead on his brother. Although the past makes Brody reluctant to fall for Julie again, he admires her for being unable to keep her hands off the case. Before long he finds himself unable to keep his hands off her. As he prepares for a showdown with the ruthless kidnappers, Brody knows what’s at stake if he wins. And just how much he’ll lose if he doesn’t….

Safe by His Side


Safe by His Side

Book 2 of the ManhuntSeries

Safe by His Side

Lenora Lockhart barely survived a dangerous killer five years ago…
But now he’s escaped prison and wants his revenge.

Can Texas Ranger Micah Hardin, the man who saved her once, protect her again?

Or will he die trying?

Her Dying Breath


Her Dying Breath

Book 2 of the Slaughter CreekSeries

Her Dying Breath

Journalist Brenda Banks is on the verge of the biggest story of her career—if she can stay alive long enough to finish it. A serial killer is targeting men in the small town of Slaughter Creek, leaving behind a twisted trail of clues meant only for Brenda. It’s a dangerous, deadly game, one she cannot master without the help of FBI Special Agent Nick Blackwood, the man she’s loved since high school—and whose tormented past could hold the key to catching a killer.

Nick Blackwood barely survived childhood at the hands of his father, a sadistic mastermind known as the Commander. Since he left town, he’s spent his life chasing criminals—and trying to forget the beauty he once loved. But when a murder investigation brings him face-to-face with Brenda Banks, Nick cannot ignore the smoldering fire she rekindles in his troubled soul. Allowing Brenda into his heart means letting down his guard—and that’s just what the killer is counting on…


A journal entry, March 2

The first time I died, I was only five years old.

I remember seeing rainbows and carousels and the golden wings of an angel dancing in the wind, ready to sweep me to the heavens and save me from the monster who chased me through the endless dark forest of child-eating trees.

But then he was there again, blotting out the angels, and the darkness came. The minutes that bled into hours. Hours where I fought for my life. Hours where the carousels turned into evil beings with dragon-like wings, with fangs and claws that reached for me and twisted my neck until it snapped.

I didn’t want to die.

But I had no control.

The Commander would kill me over and over again. All while the piano music played in the background, as if Mozart’s music could soothe me as I took my last breath.

It was a game, he said. A test of wills. A regiment to make me strong.

Even then, when I begged for him to send me to my grave, he didn’t.

Because he liked to listen to my dying breath rasp out. He said it brought him pleasure.

Voices rumbled in the common room, and I carried my journal with me, anxious to see what the commotion was about.

But there was no one except Six there. The TV was on — a newscast about the story in Slaughter Creek airing.

A picture of the Commander flashed on- screen, and I wanted to run. But my eyes were glued to his face in the same morbid way rubberneckers are drawn to the scene of a fatal accident. You can’t turn away.

“This is Brenda Banks coming to you from Slaughter Creek, Tennessee, where a shocking case has just been uncovered,” the dark-haired reporter said. “Arthur Blackwood, a commander in the armed forces and the former director of Slaughter Creek Sanitarium, who went missing ten years ago, is not only alive, but he has been arrested and charged with multiple counts of homicide.

“In a bizarre twist, Commander Blackwood, who is believed to have been working with the CIA, was arrested by his own sons, Sheriff Jake Blackwood and Special Agent Nick Blackwood, who discovered that the Commander had spearheaded a research project called the CHIMES at the local sanitarium.

“At this point, the CIA disavows any knowledge that Blackwood was working with them or that they sanctioned the project, which used unsuspecting children as experimental subjects. Commander Blackwood is now in custody, but word is that he is not cooperating with the police and refuses to reveal the names of his victims.”

I lifted my hand and stroked the tiny number that had been branded behind my ear.

The Commander wouldn’t release names because to him we had no names. Just numbers.

I am Seven.

My friend who sits beside me, Six.

The reporter continued to babble about the experiment and its horrific effect on the subjects they had identified.

The subjects, that’s what they called us. Guinea pigs. Freaks was more like it.

“If you have any knowledge or information pertaining to this case, please contact your local law enforcement agency or Special Agent Nick Blackwood.” The reporter smiled, stirring a faint memory in the back of my mind.

I had seen her before. Years ago at the sanitarium…would she remember me?

“Again, this is Brenda Banks coming to you from Slaughter Creek. We will bring you more information on this case as it becomes available.”

Six turned to me with an evil glint in his eyes as the broadcast finished airing. “Everyone must pay.”

I nodded and glanced at the keeper of the home we shared. Six pulled a pack of matches from his pocket and gestured toward the back, where our rooms were.

His devious mind already had a plan.

Five minutes later, a blaze erupted in the bathroom, and I grabbed my bag from my room and slipped out the back. Blood soaked Six’s pocket, but I didn’t ask what had happened. I didn’t want to know.

Flames shot into the air, smoke billowing in a thick cloud. I heard a scream from inside, and then Six appeared through the cloud of smoke, his eyes scanning the property.

I hooked a thumb toward the car on the corner, and we ran toward it, ducking our heads as a siren wailed and a fire engine roared past us, heading to the blaze.

Silence fell between us, deep and liberating, as we climbed into the car. I hotwired it in seconds and pulled away. With Six, there was no need to talk. We had bonded years ago in the sanitarium.

I could read his mind now.

We would go back to Slaughter Creek, to where it all began. Where the Commander started his reign of terror.

Where the townspeople had allowed it to happen and ignored our pleas for help.

Heat flooded my veins as I imagined him chained to some godforsaken table, where he became the pincushion for the doctors’ needles and drugs. Where the CHIMES drained his blood and watched the life flow from him, one breath at a time. While he screamed for help that would never come.

Prison was not good enough for the man who’d tortured and deceived me and the others.

The police, the federal agents — they thought they knew the Commander’s secrets.

But they knew nothing.

Red Rover, Red Rover, send Seven right over…

I would show him what he’d turned me into.

And then I would kill him, just as he’d killed me.

Over and over and over again—seven times, I’d take his life, until he begged me to extinguish the light and finally let him slip into peace.

Then I would kill again, just for the fun of watching him die.

Chapter 1

Special Agent Nick Blackwood hated his father.

The bastard had ruined the lives of dozens of young, innocent children in the name of his research.

He’d ruined the lives of his two sons as well.

Nick had his own stories to tell.

Stories that he’d never shared with a single living soul. Not even his brother Jake.

But they were his secrets to keep, and he wore them like a badge of honor. The painful memories had shaped him into the man he’d become.

A cold, ruthless killer for the government. And now a cold, ruthless federal agent who hunted down the most wanted, the sick and depraved.

Psychopaths like his father.

The scars on his back ached as he walked into the interrogation room where Arthur Blackwood sat, scars his father had inflicted from the time he was three, but he refused to massage the pain away. Seeing his discomfort would only bring the Commander pleasure, and he refused to give him that, just as he refused to react to his father’s pleas to get to know him again.

Instead, Nick wiped all emotion from his face and mind.

This man meant nothing to him. Nothing but but a means to an end. He had information Nick wanted.

The interrogation techniques Nick had learned in the military taunted him. He’d like to use those on the Commander. In fact he would enjoy using them, making his father suffer as he’d made others suffer.

Unfortunately the TBI didn’t allow torture as part of their tactics.

The downside of being a fed — he had to play by their rules.

He and several other agents had already questioned the Commander a half dozen times and gotten nowhere.

But they kept hoping he’d slip and reveal the names of other parties involved in the mind experiments they’d conducted at Slaughter Creek Sanitarium.

They also wanted a list of all the subjects.

If their theories proved correct, the Commander had created a slew of mentally unstable twenty-somethings who ranged from trained murderers to psychopaths to sadistic serial killers without a conscience.

Not only had the people of Slaughter Creek been affected by the loss of loved ones, but these psychopaths could strike anywhere, anytime.

Already they’d uncovered one who’d been a sniper.

Worse, a handful of the subjects and two doctors involved had been murdered in order to cover up the project, murders his father had ordered to save his own ass.

“Hello, Nick,” the Commander said in that eerily calm tone he’d adopted since his capture.

Did the bastard think he could hypnotize Nick like he had the children he’d used in his project?

Nick dropped into the chair facing him. His father was shackled and chained on the other side of the wooden table, the only furniture in the room.

“The guards said you asked to speak to me.”

The Commander gave a clipped nod, his gray eyes trained on Nick as they used to be when he forced an impossible physical test upon him. They flickered with contempt, just as they had when Nick failed.

And then that glint of challenge, just before he doled out whatever punishment or torture his evil mind had concocted in the name of catapulting his son into manhood.

A sick smile tilted the corner of his father’s mouth. “I always knew you’d grow up to be a killer.”

Nick ground his teeth. Of course, his father knew about his military background. According to his sources, the CIA had given him a new identity and helped him hide out for the past ten years.

Gray hair now dusted the tops of his father’s hands as he folded them on the table. “You are so much more like me than Jake is. That’s the reason I was harder on you. You had that killer instinct, that same intense ability to focus. To kill.”

Emotions Nick thought long buried rose to the surface, his temper flaring. But he had to remain calm. His father had been famous for pushing his buttons.

And then punishing him for reacting.

Men – soldiers — did not react.

“I’m nothing like you,” Nick said. “I fought for my country, yes. But I didn’t prey on innocent little children like Amelia Nettleton or Grace Granger.”

“They were casualties of the cause.”

Nick shook his head. “If you called me in for your same old song and dance, then I’m out of here.” The chair scraped the hard floor as Nick shoved it back and stood. Then he headed toward the door.

“Jake has his head buried in that Nettleton girl’s ass just like he did ten years ago.” Disgust laced his father’s cold voice. “But you, Nick. You’re a worthy adversary. You won’t give up. I know that. You have to know the truth. All of it.”

Nick turned and cut him a scathing look. “Does that mean you’re ready to talk?”

A cynical chuckle escaped his father. “Now what is the fun in that, son?”

“This is not a game, or one of your training exercises,” Nick said tersely. “If you have any shred of humanity left, you’ll give us a list of all the subjects, so we can investigate the effects of your project on them and get the victims psychological help. We might even be able to save lives.”

“What you’ve done is expose the subjects, which will make things worse for them. They may want revenge.”

“All the more reason for you to give me that list.”

“The list was destroyed,” his father said simply. “The names of the Slaughter Creek subjects are lost.”

The slight inflection in his father’s voice aroused Nick’s suspicions. Another lie, or was his father toying with him?

Nick walked back to the table, planted his hands on top of it, and leaned forward, eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, the Slaughter Creek subjects’ names are lost?”

“Just what I said. We destroyed records when the project was terminated to avoid leaving a paper trail.”

“CIA protocol?”

His father nodded.

But a knot formed in Nick’s belly, the same fear that had slithered through him when he’d been cornered behind enemy lines. “Are you saying that the project wasn’t contained to Slaughter Creek?”

The handcuffs clanged as his father shifted. “That’s for you to find out, Nick.”

Nick silently cursed. Of course, the project could have taken place in other cities. Why confine it to this small town? “I told you I’m not here to play games.” He started to walk away again, but his father cleared his throat.

“But you will play this one.”

The Commander opened his folded hand to reveal a slip of paper. Dammit. There was probably nothing on it.

But Nick couldn’t gamble that it wasn’t a clue of some kind. So he took the bait.

When he opened the paper, though, his heart began to hammer.

There once was a child with a mind

Till he stole it from her for all time

Then they played Red Rover

And he said, “Come over”

And she crossed the line to the dark side.

Nick raised his gaze to his father’s. “Did you write this?”

“No,” his father said simply. “It came in the mail, no return address.”

Nick wanted to punch something. The bureau was supposed to be checking his father’s mail. The son of a bitch had received hundreds of letters. Some hate mail. Some letters from individuals who claimed they were part of the experiment.

The bureau had to assign a special team to investigate those. So far none of them had panned out, though. They were all crackpots and attention seekers looking for their ten minutes of fame.

Then there were the love letters from depraved women who claimed they were in love with the Commander. Some twisted souls thought they could redeem him. Others offered conjugal visits. He’d even had two marriage proposals.

What kind of sick woman would want to marry his father, knowing what he’d done?

“I believe it’s a warning,” the Commander said.

A warning from one of the CHIMES, who knew what he’d done to her?

She’d crossed the line to the dark side…

What did that mean? That she was going to hurt herself?

Or somebody else?

Or was she coming after the Commander?

Hell, if that was what she wanted, Nick would leave the cell door open and let her have at his father.

Still, he had to find out who she was, because she might lead him to the others — the victims, who their minds warped by the experiments, might have become killers.


Brenda Banks straightened her skirt and jacket as she waited outside the prison for Special Agent Nick Blackwood to emerge.

She wished like hell she’d been a fly on the wall, so she could have eavesdropped on his conversation with his father.

The tall stone prison with its massive gate and barbed wire fencing housed almost a thousand inmates, including some of the worst criminals in Tennessee, on twenty-four-hour lockdown with no chance of parole, some on death row.

Would Arthur Blackwood receive the needle for his crimes?

Frustration coiled inside her. She wanted an exclusive interview with the mastermind behind the project, but the feds had refused to put her her on the list of approved visitors.

She wouldn’t give up, though. Because Brenda Banks was not the woman everyone thought she was.

Sure, she could don a pleasing face for the public, but that talent had been drilled into her as a child by William and Agnes Banks.

Much to their displeasure though, she refused to simply be a pretty face on a man’s arm, like her daddy wanted. Or the socialite entertainer her mother tried to mold her into being.

Maybe there was a reason — technically she wasn’t their child.

Of course, her father, now the mayor of Slaughter Creek, demanded that his dirty little secret be kept safe, so she had to keep her mouth shut. Be a Southern lady, Agnes insisted. Use your charm and support your man!

Brenda intended to support herself, and to have a man stand behind her. Or maybe they would stand side by side.

Finding out the harsh truth, that the Bankses had bought her as a baby, had changed her. Made her tougher.

Explained why she felt like a stranger in her own family’s house.

She liked digging into people’s lives, liked digging into their secrets, liked exposing what lay beneath their polished exterior.

This winter, she’d clearly landed the biggest story in Slaughter Creek’s history, maybe even in the history of the state of Tennessee.

There was more to the story, too.

More victims. More people involved in the project. More involved in the cover-up.

She wouldn’t quit until she exposed them all.

No matter what she had to do.

The wind swirled around her, and she folded her arms, rubbing off the chill. Her piece about the CHIMES had landed her a position at the local TV station as an investigative reporter. No more covering the annual dog pageant or the cornbread festival. Or the Labor Day festivities with the deep-fried Oreos and Twinkies.

The front doors of the prison suddenly whooshed open, and Nick Blackwood, stepped outside. Her heart stuttered.

Nick had grown even more handsome and masculine with age. He looked three inches taller, had developed muscles that hadn’t been there when he was a teen, massive broad shoulders, and a chiseled jaw that made her want to run her finger along it, to make him smile.

The intensity in his dark eyes implied that he was untouchable, though. That cold, angry look screamed that he’d seen the dark side of the world.

And he hated everyone in it.

She remembered when he’d joined the military and left town. Had heard he’d joined Special Forces. Even now he exuded that military aura — the steely eyes and focus, the harsh mouth, the cropped haircut, the posture that indicated he was always in control.

He paused on the steps, adjusted his sunglasses, then scanned the parking lot as if he were searching for someone. She had the uncanny sense that he was always on guard. Always suspicious.

Always braced for a bullet to come flying at him.

She took a deep breath and strode toward him, steeling herself for another brush-off.

“Nick,” she said as she stopped in front of him a second later.

He heaved an exasperated sigh before she could say anything. “I have no comment for the press, Brenda.”

She felt a sliver of unease as his gaze swept over her, condemning her to the ranks of lowly civilian.

Even worse, lowly female civilian.

“I know you and your brother think I’m the bad guy,” she said. “But really, Nick, I just want the story. People in town deserve to know how your father got away with what he did for so long.”

“Jake gave you the exclusive when we made the arrest,” he answered in a gruff voice.

“Yes, but I also know you’re looking for other victims, subjects of that experiment. I’d like to interview them, run a personal story on each of their lives and the effects the experiment had on them and their families. The series would garner sympathy for the families and victims.”

His only reaction was a fine tightening of his mouth. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.”

“But I can help you,” she said, determined to find some common ground.

He brushed past her, completely dismissing her, but she grabbed his arm.

A mistake.

He stiffened, removed his sunglasses with careful precision, then leveled his cold eyes at her.

A tingle of awareness she hadn’t expected shot up her spine.

Brenda instantly dropped her hand, disturbed by the feeling. She could not be attracted to Nick Blackwood.

“If you won’t talk to me, maybe your father will,” she said, desperate to remain professional. “Maybe he wants to tell his side of the story.”

Nick wrapped his big, long fingers around her wrist. “I don’t give a damn about his side of the story, Brenda. Lives may be at stake, so take your pretty little ass and go interview the women down at the country club.”

Rage volleyed through her. His snide archaic comment sounded exactly like something her father would say. “That’s not fair, Nick. I’ve earned my position as an investigative reporter.”

His gaze darkened. “This is serious business, Brenda.” His voice dropped a decibel. “You have no idea what you’re doing. Leave the police work to the real cops.”

“People have a right to know the truth,” she snapped. “Otherwise, how will the citizens know that you aren’t covering up what your father did, just like he covered it up for years?”

Anger blazed in Nick’s eyes, betraying him — this cold, harsh man did feel something, after all. In that brief moment, she sensed a well of pain beneath his steely veneer.

He had been hurt by his father’s actions, shamed by the horrible accusations against Arthur Blackwood.

Had Nick known or suspected his father was capable of the crimes he’d committed?

Did Nick have his own secrets from the past?

What had it been like growing up with the Commander for a father? He’d been cruel to the children in the experiment.

Had he been cruel to his sons, or abused them?

Her heart raced. Yes, there was an angle she hadn’t thought of before. One everyone in Slaughter Creek would be interested in.

“I’m not covering up for that bastard,” he said through clenched teeth. “I intend to find his victims, get treatment for them if necessary, and protect the public.”

“Then let me help,” she said. “Some of the victims might talk to me before they would a federal agent.”

Tension stretched between them as his gaze locked with hers. A police van pulled up and unloaded a string of prisoners, then led them through a series of gates. One of them shouted a lewd remark at her, but she ignored it.

A muscle jumped in Nick’s jaw. “I’m warning you, Brenda, stay away from my father.”

“Why?” Brenda asked, a challenge in her voice. “Are you afraid he’ll tell me your deep dark secrets?”

His fingers gripped her wrist so tightly that she bit her tongue to keep from wincing as pain ripped up her arm. A second later his gaze dropped to his hand, and he must have realized he was hurting her because he released her.

Still, rage darkened his eyes. But he didn’t respond to her challenge. Instead, he strode down the steps, his shoes clicking on the cement.

Brenda rubbed her wrist, curious at his reaction. She’d obviously pushed a button. That rage meant she was right—he had suffered at the hands of his father. She had no doubt.

But how much? And what had his father done to him that he didn’t want to be revealed?


The dim glow of the lamp on the table painted her lover’s chiseled face with a sickly yellow glow as his eyes bulged in shock. His name was Jim Logger.

A decent name.

But he still had to die.

“What are you doing?” he rasped.

His face blurred, and the Commander’s replaced it. He was hurting her. Punishing her. Laughing.

She twisted the piano wire around Logger’s neck, tightening it with her fingers.

The whites of his eyes bulged. “Enough, babe, please…”

She shook her finger in his face, brushing her bare breasts against his chest. His erection stood tall and stiff below her, the cock ring holding him hard and thick, just waiting for her to climb on him.

She hadn’t yet decided if she would, or if she’d make him wallow in unsatisfied anticipation.

“I can’t breathe,” he whispered.

She ran one finger along his jaw and straddled him. “Just go with it. Soon you’ll feel the euphoria, then the hallucinations will come. Colors and images like you’ve never seen before.”

His chest rose and fell, panic creasing his face as he struggled for air.

The bastard had been speechless with lust when she’d performed her strip tease, then undressed him.

He’d barely blinked when she’d wound the ropes around his wrists and ankles. And he’d nearly exploded all over her face when she’d planted wet licks along the insides of his thighs as she secured his restraints.

“Seriously,” he gasped. “Stop it and let me just fuck you.”

Her smile faded, the pain of what the Commander had done fueling her fury. All men were like the Commander. She saw him in every face on the street.

“No, I’m going to fuck you.” She increased the pressure against his throat. “Do you feel the high? Do you see the lights twinkling?”

He kicked and jerked his arms, rattling the bedrails. She glanced at the clock, timing him as she impaled herself on his rigid length.

Ten seconds, twenty…thirty…

He jerked again, desperate to escape, but she rode him hard and fast, her senses taking over. The pressure of her orgasm rippled through her as he began to gag and choke.

His penis was big, long, felt delicious inside her. Heat sizzled along her nerve endings, the rhythm building as she gripped the wire and moved up and down on his cock. Over and over until a tingling started in her womb and her climax seized her.

Blinding colors of pleasure washed over her as she thrust deeper, so deep he touched her core. She threw her head back and groaned, moving her hips in a circular motion and riding the waves as sensation after sensation pummeled her.

His body jerked and spasmed, his own orgasm teetering on the surface.

But she climbed off of him, denying him the release.

“Please,” he moaned.

She squeezed it harder, repeating it seven times, lifting it from his skin and pressing it to another spot, each time increasing the pressure so hard she cut off his oxygen. His breath rasped out, his pallor turned gray. His body jerked, then a gurgling sound erupted from his throat.

Finally his eyes rolled back in his head and his body went slack.

She paused to listen for the sound of his breathing, but barring the tick-tock of the clock, the room was silent.

Puny son of a bitch. Not even two minutes, and he’d passed out.

She loosened the wire, leaned over and blew air into his mouth, then began chest compressions to bring him back from the brink of death.

When he finally opened his eyes again, shock glazed his irises, the realization that she’d choked him evident in the panic on his face.

“Get off of me, you freak!”

His shout sounded more like a croak. “No, babe,” she said, using the pet name he’d given her. “The fun is just beginning.”

She straddled him again, gripped the ends of the piano wire and wound it together until the fleshy skin around his neck bulged in fatty rolls. Again, seven squeezes, each one more intense, each one marking him.

She checked the clock. “The first time you die is always the worst. Let’s see if you can make it longer the second go around.”

Pure terror shot across his face, and he struggled frantically, then shouted as loud as his sore vocal cords allowed, “Help! Someone help me!”

She chuckled softly, then stuffed her panties in his mouth to muffle his screams. “If you last more than two minutes, I’ll save you again,” she murmured.

The pupils of his eyes dilated as he fought, but he was weak from dying the first time. He flailed, tears rolling down his ruddy cheeks.

The fight drained from him as her fingers worked the wire. Seconds later, he lay limp again.

A sad excuse for a specimen.

The Commander would have been disappointed.

She studied his face, the slack jaw, the listless eyes. Really, he was a handsome man.

Maybe she would save him again.

She ran a finger down his chest, through the thick, dark hair, then down to his waist.

Yes, she’d watch him die one more time.

But first she’d mark him as she’d been marked.

She took the knife she’d brought with her and carved a number behind his ear: # 1. Her first kill.

Now for more fun.

Then she’d alert that reporter who broke the story on the Commander and tell her where to find him.

Brenda Banks would give the message to the Commander.

Then all the world would see what she’d done in his honor.

Looking for Love


Looking for Love

Box Set

Looking for Love

A boxed set of three of Rita’s romantic comedies:

3 single women looking for love – but are they looking in all the wrong places?

HUSBAND HUNTING 101 – a woman takes a class to find a husband and is suddenly attracted to a commitaphobic advertising executive she just hired to create a new ad for her sexy lingerie store!

HERE COMES THE BRIDE – a twin switch leaves Marci Turner playing fake fiancé to a sexy man at his best friend’s wedding. But his parents decide to throw them an impromptu wedding and the fireworks begin!

UNDER THE COVERS – a marriage therapist hires an actor to play her husband for publicity purposes when her husband leaves her for a man!

Dying to Tell


Dying to Tell

Book 1 of the Slaughter Creek Novel Series

Dying to Tell

Sadie Nettleton fled Slaughter Creek ten years ago, leaving behind the only home she’d ever known—and the only man she ever loved. Sadie knew Jake Blackwood could never forgive her if he discovered her terrible secret, so she ran and never looked back. But when her grandfather is murdered, and her mentally ill twin sister charged with the crime, Sadie has no choice but to return and face the ghosts of her past…

For Sheriff Jake Blackwood, time has not dimmed the love he felt for Sadie Nettleton—or the pain of her leaving. But now that she’s back, he’s determined to help her uncover the truth about her grandfather’s death. As their investigation leads them deeper into a world of secrets, lies, and betrayal in Slaughter Creek, Sadie becomes the target of a madman who will do anything to keep the truth buried. Jake would give his life to protect Sadie. But can he again risk giving her his heart?

Cowboy Cop


Cowboy Cop

Bucking Bronc Lodge Series

Cowboy Cop

Miles McGregor had dedicated his life to justice, and with his latest arrest behind bars, the detective finally had more time to spend with his son, Timmy. Then the unthinkable happened—Timmy’s mother was murdered before his eyes. Miles’s only choice was to bring his little boy to the Bucking Bronc Lodge, a ranch where young boys heal.

Jordan Keys is an expert at rehabilitating children. But when it comes to Miles, she is lost. The sexy detective is harder to reach and a whole lot less willing to try. Before long, though, a killer comes calling and Jordan witnesses the true power of Miles McGregor. And just how far he’ll go to rescue them from this living nightmare.

“Dugan is out.”

Miles’s fingers tightened around his cell phone as he wheeled his SUV around and headed toward the station. “What?”

His superior, Lieutenant Hammond, didn’t sound happy. “Based on the Kelly woman’s murder and some technicality with the chain of evidence when they’d searched the man’s place, Dugan’s lawyer got his conviction overturned.”

The past few weeks of tracking down clues and false leads day and night taunted him. He released a string of expletives.

Hammond cleared his throat. “If we’d found evidence connecting Dugan to a partner, maybe things would have gone differently, but?”

Hammond let the sentence trail off, but Miles silently finished for him. If he and Mason had found such evidence, Dugan would still be in a cell. And the world would be a safer place.

But they’d failed.

The day Dugan’s verdict was read flashed back. Dugan’s threat resounded in his head—you’ll pay. “Now that he’s back on the streets—”

“I know. He’s going to kill again,” Miles said. And he’s probably coming after me.

His cell phone chirped, and he glanced at the caller ID. Marie’s number.

Damn, she was probably on his case for working again last night and missing dinner with Timmy. He’d thought he might have found a lead on the copycat, but instead he’d only chased his own tail.

The phone chirped again.

You ‘ll pay.

Panic suddenly seized him, cutting off his breath. Dammit?what if payback meant coming after his family?

“I have to go, Hammond.” Sweat beaded on his neck as he connected the call. “Hello?”

Husky breathing filled the line, then a scream pierced the receiver.

He clenched the steering wheel with a white-knuckled grip. He had to clear his throat to speak. “Marie?” God, tell me you’re there?.

But the sudden silence sent a chill up his spine.

“Marie, Timmy?”

More breathing, this time followed by a husky laugh that sounded sinister, threatening?evil. Dear God, no? Dugan was at Marie’s house.

He pressed the accelerator, his heart hammering as he sped around traffic and called for backup. The dispatch officer agreed to send a patrol car right away.

A convertible nearly cut him off, and Miles slammed on his horn, nearly skimming a truck as he roared around it. Brush and shrubs sailed past, the wheels grinding on gravel as he hugged the side of the country road.

Images of the dead women from Dugan’s crime scenes flashed in his head, and his stomach churned. No, please, no?Dugan could not be at Marie’s house. He couldn’t kill Marie?not like the other women.

And Timmy?his son was home today with her.

The bright Texas sun nearly blinded him as he swerved into the small neighborhood where Marie had bought a house. Christmas decorations glittered, lights twinkled from the neighboring houses, the entryways screaming with festive holiday spirit.

Somehow they seemed macabre in the early-morning light.

He shifted gears, brakes squealing as he rounded a curve and sped down the street. He scanned the neighboring yards, the road, the trees beyond the house, searching for Dugan.

But everything seemed still. Quiet. A homey little neighborhood to raise a family in.

Except he had heard that scream.

His chest squeezed for air, and he slammed on the brakes and skidded up the drive. He threw the Jeep into Park, and held his weapon at the ready as he raced up to the front door.

Cop instincts kicked in, and he scanned the outside of the house and yard again, but nothing looked amiss. He glanced through the front window, but the den looked normal?toys on the floor, magazines on the table, TV running with cartoons.

Only the Christmas tree had been tipped over, ornaments scattered across the floor.

He reached for the doorknob, and the door swung open. His breath lodged in his throat, panic knotting his insides. No sounds of holiday music or Timmy chattering.

Gripping his weapon tighter, he inched inside, senses honed for signs of an intruder.

Slowly, he made his way through the den to the kitchen. The Advent calendar glared at him, mocking him with a reminder that Christmas was only a few days away.

There was a half-empty coffee cup on the counter and an overturned cereal bowl on the table. Milk dripped onto the floor.


Terror seized him.

A creaking sound suddenly splintered the air, and he swung around, braced to shoot but he saw nothing. Then another sound came from above, water running?the shower? No, the tub?overflowing.

He clenched his jaw, then inched toward the staircase, slowly climbing it and listening for an intruder, for Marie, for his son.

Any sign of life.

A quick glance into Timmy’s room and it appeared empty. Bed unmade. Toy airplane on the floor. Legos scattered. Stuffed dinosaur on his pillow.

Where was his son?

His hand trembled as he bypassed the room and edged toward the bedroom where Marie slept. One look inside, and his heart stopped.

The lamp was broken on the floor. Pillows tossed on the carpet. The corner chair overturned. Glass shards from the mirror were scattered on the vanity.

A sea of red flashed in front of him. Blood?it soaked the sheets and led a trail into the bathroom.

His stomach revolted, but he forced himself to scan the corners of the room before slowly entering the bathroom. Blood streaked the floor and led toward the claw-foot tub.

A groan settled deep in his gut.

Marie. Her eyes stood wide-open in death. Blood dripped down her neck and bare chest. Her arms dangled lifelessly over the tub edge, one leg askew.

For a moment, he choked. Couldn’t make himself move. He’d seen dozens of dead bodies before but none so personal?none that he cared about.

Emotions crowded his throat and chest, and he gripped the wall to steady himself. He had to. Had to get control. Slide that wall back into place so he could do his job.

Every second counted.

Fighting nausea, he slowly walked toward her and felt for a pulse. Although he knew before he touched her that it was too late.

Dugan had done this. Had gotten his payback by killing his son’s mother.

That creaking sound suddenly echoed again. He froze, hand clenching his gun, then spun around.

Nothing. Except the evidence of Dugan’s brutal crime.

Where was Timmy?

For a fraction of a second he closed his eyes on a prayer. The sound echoed again. The attic.

Heart hammering double-time, he headed toward Timmy’s room. The door to the space had been built inside his closet. Timmy had called it his secret room.

Had Dugan found it?

Hope warred with terror as he inched inside the closet and pushed at the door. It was closed, but he had insisted the lock be removed for fear Timmy might lock himself inside and be trapped.

Now he wished he’d left that damn lock on so his son could have locked Dugan out.

Darkness shrouded the cavernous space as he climbed the steps. He tried to move soundlessly, but the wood floor squeaked. As he reached the top step, a sliver of sunlight wormed its way through the small attic window, allowing him to sweep the interior.

It appeared empty, but he had heard something.

“Timmy,” he whispered. “Son, are you here?”

Praying he was safe, Miles examined the room. Timmy’s toy airplanes and horses, his train set.

Another squeak, and he jerked his head around. An antique wardrobe sat in the corner, one Marie had used to store old quilts. He held his breath as he approached it, then eased open the door.

Relief mingled with pain when he saw his little boy hunched inside, his knees drawn to his chest, his arms wrapped around them. He had buried his head against his legs, silent sobs racking his body.

“Timmy, it’s okay, it’s Dad.” Anguish clogged his throat as he gently lifted his son’s face. Blood dotted Timmy’s T-shirt and hands, and tears streaked his splotched skin, a streak of blood on his left cheek.

But it was the blank look in his eyes that sent a wave of cold terror through Miles.

Timmy might be alive, but he was in shock.

He stooped down to Timmy’s level and dragged him into his arms, but his son felt limp, as if the life had drained from him just as it had his mother.

Three weeks later

Jordan Keys watched the busload of new campers arrive at the Bucking Bronc Lodge, her heart in her throat. The troubled kids ranged from ages five to sixteen.

Her brother had fit in that category. But he was gone now.

Because she hadn’t been able to help him.

She fisted her hands, silently vowing to do better here. She’d read about the BBL and how hard the cowboys and staff worked to turn these kids’ lives around, and she wanted to be a part of it.

If she saved just one kid, it might assuage some of her guilt over her brother’s death.

A chilly January wind swirled dried scrub brush across the dirt and echoed through the trees. She waved to Kim Woodstock, another one of the counselors and Brandon Woodstock’s wife, as she greeted the bus, then Jordan bypassed them and headed straight into the main lodge to meet with Miles McGregor and his five-year-old son, Timmy.

Apparently Miles also volunteered at the BBL, but this time he’d come because he needed solace and time to heal from a recent loss.

So did his little boy, who they believed had witnessed his mother’s murder.

A thread of anxiety knotted her shoulders as she let herself in the lodge. The empty spot where the Christmas tree had stood made the entryway seem dismal, but truth be told, she was glad it was gone. The holidays always resurrected memories of Christmases past, both good and bad memories that tormented her with what-ifs.

Shoving the thoughts to the back of her mind, she grabbed a cup of coffee and made her way back to the wing Brody Bloodworth had recently added to serve as a counseling and teen center.

The moment she stepped into the room, she sensed pain emanating through it. Like a living, breathing entity smothering the air.

Little Timmy, a dark-haired boy who looked scrawny and way too pale, sat in the corner against the wall, his knees drawn up, his arms locked tightly around them as if he might crumble if he released his grip. The poor child didn’t even look up as she entered, simply sat staring through glazed eyes at some spot on the floor as if he was lost.

For a moment, she couldn’t breathe. What if she failed this little guy, too? What if he needed more than she could give?

Inhaling to stifle her nerves, she pasted on a smile, then glanced at the cowboy standing by the window watching the horses gallop across the pasture. His back was to her, his wide shoulders rigid, his hands clenching the window edge so tightly she could see the veins bulging in his broad, tanned hands.

She cleared her throat. “Mr. McGregor?”

The subtle lift of his shoulders indicated he’d heard her, then he hissed something low and indiscernible between his teeth and slowly turned to face her. Dark brown hair like his son’s, except his was shaggy and unkempt, framed a face chiseled in stone. His jawbones were high, his face square, his eyes the color of a sunset, brown and orange and gold, rich with color, but?dead.

That was the only word to describe the emptiness she saw there.

He removed his Stetson, then walked toward her and held out a work-roughened hand that looked strong enough to break rocks. Everything about the man, from his muscular build, his towering height, his broad shoulders and those muscular thighs, screamed of masculinity.

And a raw sexuality that made her heart begin to flutter.

But anger also simmered beneath the surface of his calm, anger and something lethal, like a bloodthirsty need for revenge.

She didn’t know all the details about his relationship to Timmy’s mother, but she understood that anger. She also knew where it led?to nothing good.

“I’m Jordan Keys,” she said, finally finding her voice. “Nice to meet you.”

“There’s nothing nice right now,” he said in a gruff voice.

Jordan stiffened slightly. Obviously he was in pain, but did that mean he didn’t want her help? A lot of men thought counseling was bogus, for sissies?beneath them.

“Maybe not, but you’re here now, and I see you brought your little boy.” She gestured toward Timmy, who still remained oblivious to her appearance. “So let’s talk.”

He worked his mouth from side to side as if he wanted to say something, but he finally gave a nod. “Brody filled you in?”

“Briefly. But I’d like to hear the details from you.”

“Of course. We’ve seen doctors—”

“Not in front of Timmy,” Jordan said, cutting him off. “Let me talk to him for a minute, then we can step outside and discuss the situation.”

His mouth tightened into a grim line, but he nodded again. This man didn’t like to be ordered around, didn’t like to be out of control.

And he had no control right now.

Which was obviously killing him.

She understood that feeling as well.

She slowly walked over and knelt beside the child. “Timmy, my name is Miss Jordan. I’m glad you came to the BBL. We have horses here and other kids to play with and lots of fun things planned.”

His eye twitched, but he didn’t reply or look at her.

“Why don’t you sit at the table? There are markers and paper. Maybe you can draw about Christmas.”

Again, he didn’t move.

Miles touched his son’s shoulder. “Why don’t you draw the bike Santa brought you?” Again, no response.

“Come on, sport.” Miles took his arm and led the boy to the table. Timmy slumped down in the chair, but he didn’t pick up the markers. He simply stared at the blank paper as if he was too weighted down to move.

“I need to talk to your daddy for a minute,” Jordan said, giving his arm a soft pat. “We’ll be outside that door if you need us, all right?”

His eyes twitched sideways toward her this time. Frightened.

She rubbed his shoulder gently. “I promise. We’re not going anywhere but right outside the room.” She gestured toward a glass partition. “See that glass? We’ll be in there so if you need us, just call or tap on the glass and we’ll come back.”

He didn’t respond, just tucked his knees up and began to rock back and forth. His bony little body was wound so tight that Jordan felt the tension thrumming through him.

“If you want to draw, that’s fine,” she said again, using a quiet voice. “If not, you can look out that window and watch the pretty horses running around.”

The fact that he didn’t turn to look at them worried her. But she simply smiled, then ushered his father into the hallway and into the other room.

When she closed the door, Miles immediately angled his head to watch his son through the partition. Jordan’s chest squeezed.

Miles McGregor was one of the biggest, toughest-looking men she’d ever met. He was not only a cowboy, but Brody had told her he was a cop who chased down the dregs of society.

Miles was also hurting inside and felt powerless to help his son. That made them kindred spirits.

“Tell me what happened,” Jordan said gently.

He slanted her a condescending look. “I thought you said Brody filled you in.”

Jordan simply folded her arms. “Yes, but I want to hear it from you. Everything from the day Timmy’s mother died to how and where you found Timmy to what the doctors said.”

A muscle jumped in his chiseled jaw. “You can read the police report.” He yanked an envelope from inside his denim jacket pocket. The movement revealed the weapon he had hol-stered to his side. “Here’s the doctor’s report, too.”

Jordan forced a calm into her voice. “I will read it, but it’s important I hear what you have to say.”

Cover Me


Cover Me

Cover Me


Eight years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, three men lost everything. Now it’s time to reclaim what is theirs….

He lost his job and the love of his life when the storm hit, but Mack Rivet never gave up searching for answers. His passionate reunion with Lily Landry forces him to confront what really happened that fateful night. And then he learns about the son he never knew existed….

Remy Comeaux pulled up in front of the lavish Saint Charles Avenue mansion just before dark on Sunday evening.Nice digs, he thought as he took out his wallet and grabbed a few bills to tip the limo driver. Had he shown up in his beloved beat-up pickup truck, it might have been a little harder to crash the party. He wanted nothing to spoil the surprise he had planned for the guest of honor.

The last time he’d seen Lee Barnaby had been the day Katrina had roared into New Orleans, drowning Remy’s hopes and dreams along with much of Crescent City. The night he’d lost Carlotta. His fiancée. His reason for living. His heart.

Lee had been only the deputy superintendent of police then. Not that most civilians or cops referred to him that way. In everyday matters, it was simply Chief or Deputy Chief. Tonight Barnaby was celebrating his rise to the top rung of the department. Remy was back in town to make sure his reign was short-lived.

Remy adjusted the uncomfortable silk cummerbund of his rented tux as he walked up the paved path toward the plantation-style home with its massive white pillars and wide verandas. Light spilled into the gathering twilight, and music and laughter drifted through the open doorway.

An aging, mustached butler stood sentinel at the heavy wood-and-etched-glass double doors. He scrutinized Remy for a few seconds, as if he were trying to place him. Evidently the limo and monkey suit were not enough to sell Remy as an invited guest.

“Good evening,” Remy said. “Looks like I’m at the right place.”

“Yes, sir. Can I have your name, sir?”

“Andre Comeaux,” he said, using the first name of a cousin who just happened to be one of LSU’s former legendary quarterbacks. “Just flew in from the West Coast. Wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”

“Yes, sir,” the butler said, finally buying his act and flashing a welcoming smile. “Welcome to the Delacroix home.”

“Thank you.”

“Mrs. Delacroix requests that her guests gather in the ballroom at eight o’clock. Until then, the first floor of the house and the back gardens are at your disposal. Enjoy yourself.”

“Thanks. I’m sure I will.” Remy walked away as the next guests arrived and the butler went through his rehearsed spiel again.

It didn’t take but a minute of wandering for Remy to realize that locating Lee Barnaby among the throng of guests in the sprawling house might not be as easy as he’d figured. A waiter passed with a tray of cocktails. Remy accepted a vodka martini. This was his first and no doubt his last foray into New Orleans old-money high society. He may as well partake of the perks.

He had to admit the house was impressive, though he couldn’t imagine living here. Where would a man prop up his feet, pop a top and flick on the TV to watch a Saints game? Surely old man Delacroix had a man cave that was off-limits to Marilyn Delacroix’s interior-design team.

Remy made the rounds from room to room, doing his best to remain inconspicuous as he scanned the partiers. He didn’t come across Lee, but he recognized a few of the chief’s pets from his old days with the department. The suck-ups who’d done Lee’s bidding without question had no doubt moved right up the pay scale.

Amazingly, none of them recognized Remy, even though he practically ran into one of Lee’s go-to cops from the pre-Katrina days. Charlie Gibbons had been the man who’d fastened the cuffs around his wrists the night Remy had been hauled off to jail.

Had he noticed Remy, he’d have no doubt raced to give Lee a heads-up that trouble was stalking the party scene. Fortunately, good old Charlie was far too engrossed in the cleavage of the woman draped across his shoulder to notice Remy.

Admittedly, Remy had changed a lot in eight years. He’d gained a few pounds—all muscle. Working out at a local gym and coaching a boxing team of underprivileged boys had become his grief-and-frustration outlet once he’d moved to Houston and started his own private detective agency.

He’d let the military haircut grow out. His nose, which had had been broken a couple of times playing football and again when he was a narc detective, had finally been straightened by an expert surgeon. And the boyish grin that Carlotta Worthing-ton had loved had been replaced by a wary, brooding edge—or so he’d been told.

He stepped into a spacious dining room with rows of tall windows that offered views of a meticulously tended English garden lit by what appeared to be strings of stars strung through the spreading branches of dozens of century-old live oak trees.

There were no chairs at the beautifully crafted antique mahogany dining table, but it and an equally impressive sideboard were laden with seafood. The oysters on the half shell looked too tasty to resist.

Remy had just slipped one between his lips when he felt a hand on his arm. He turned and looked into the deep violet eyes of one of the most stunning women he’d ever seen in his life, though she was likely twice his thirty-one years.

She smiled and moved her head just enough that her exquisite diamond earrings trapped the dazzling sparkles emanating from the multifaceted chandelier. “I’m Marilyn Delacroix. I don’t believe we’ve met.”

Remy smiled. “No, I don’t believe we have. I’m an old friend of Lee’s, but I don’t get back to New Orleans often.”

“You should make time. In spite of what you might hear, the city is almost as vibrant and lively as before.”

“I can see that. And you throw a great party.”

“Thank you. I didn’t catch your name.”

A young woman in a black suit without the requisite sequins and huge diamonds hugging her neck and dangling from her ears stepped next to Marilyn before he had time to lie.

“I hate to interrupt you,” the woman said, her tone and manner all business. “Mr. Delacroix asked me to find you.”

“Is there a problem?”

“Yes, ma’am. He said the mayor has been held up and he’s not certain he can make it in time for the formalities.”

“Oh, dear. We can’t start without him. He’s giving Lee’s congratulatory speech.”

Marilyn turned her eyes if not her attention back to Remy. “Perhaps we can talk later. In the meantime, enjoy yourself. I know you must be as proud of Lee as we are.”

“Absolutely. He’s a breed unto himself.”

“My husband says it’s about time Lee received recognition for all he’s done for the city.”

And Remy was here to see that Lee got exactly what was coming to him. The sins of old had ridden long enough. It was payback time.

By the time Remy reached the ballroom, it was teeming with guests. Couples rocked the dance floor to the beat of a loud, jarring tune Remy had never heard before and with any luck would never hear again.

He scanned the room, growing antsy when he still didn’t spot Lee. Surely the guy wasn’t late to a party given in his honor.

Finally the band took a break. Remy’s ears enjoyed the moment until a woman’s laughter caught him off guard, so hauntingly familiar it sliced into his heart.

He took a deep breath. His mind was playing cruel tricks on him. He had to get a grip. He’d known returning to New Orleans would bring back the old memories, but he couldn’t let anything get in the way of what he’d come to do.

Yet when he heard the laughter again, he found himself walking toward the sound until he spotted the woman responsible for the free-spirited exuberance. She was facing away from him, but the straight, silky red hair that reached her shoulders was so much like Carlotta’s that Remy had to struggle to breathe.

She was taller than Carlotta, or perhaps the height came from the silver heels that peeked from below a swirl of emerald-green silk. Her waist was as narrow as Carlotta’s had been, her shapely hips well-defined.

Damn. Start falling prey to old desires and he’d make a fool of himself. Carlotta was dead. The woman with the lyrical laugh and burnished red hair was a stranger. Still, he was far too intrigued at this point to walk away without seeing her face.

He circled her and the young woman at her side, keeping his distance, but not so far away that he couldn’t see the fullness of her red lips or the nose that turned up ever so slightly. Her smile was dazzling. Her features were striking. She was an absolute knockout.

She wasn’t Carlotta.

He exhaled slowly, regaining a much-needed sense of equilibrium. But then their gazes met and for a second a sense of deja vu ran so strong that it rocked his soul.

He turned away, exchanged his empty glass for a full one from the tray of a timely waiter and strode toward the double doors that led to the back loggia. He needed fresh air and to put some space between himself and the tantalizing redhead.

Nicole Smith’s gaze followed the sexy stranger as he walked away. She was certain she’d never seen him before, yet for one brief moment, she’d felt as if she were drowning in the depths of his whiskey-colored eyes.

Her friend Deanie nudged her with her shoulder. “Who is that luscious creature and why haven’t I met him before?”

“I’ve never seen him before, either, but he must be a friend of Lee’s,” Nicole answered. “Likely someone on the police force.”

“May the force be with me.”

“Your husband might object.”

“Oh, yeah, him,” Deanie teased. “But you’re not married, and you’re the one he was staring at. Go check him out.”

“I’m here with Lee.”


Deanie made no secret of her negativity where Lee was concerned. She thought he was arrogant and chauvinistic, but it was only because she didn’t know him the way Nicole did. Sure, he was tough. He was a cop who’d risen through the ranks. But he had his sensitive side, and he spoiled her in so many ways that she actually wished she were sexually attracted to him.

“Go say hello to the hot stranger,” Deanie urged. “You know you want to.”

“If I do, it’s only because he looks vaguely familiar and I’m wondering if we’ve met before.”

“That’s as good an excuse as any to start up a conversation with a gorgeous hunk.” Deanie put a hand to the small of Nicole’s back and gave her a gentle shove in the stranger’s direction.

“I’ll go introduce myself if you go with me,” Nicole said.

“You are such a wimp, Nicole. Besides, I’m going to find Billy. Suddenly I’m in the mood for a little romantic adventure of my own.”

“If Marilyn catches you having a quickie in one of the upstairs bedrooms, you’ll be blacklisted forever.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. Too stuffy. I’m thinking about under the fake stars in the back of the Delacroixes’ Saint Charles Avenue garden. How often does a lowly nurse get a chance to do that?”

Deanie sashayed off before Nicole could come up with an appropriate response. Deanie was bright, witty, daring, candid and totally unimpressed with money or social status.

The only reason she and her husband were here tonight was because Nicole had asked Lee to add them to the invitation list. Having Deanie around made these occasions a lot more fun for Nicole and she knew she couldn’t duck out of this one, not when tonight was all about Lee.

Lee—her date for the evening, and yet here she was, drawn to a sexy stranger with mesmerizing eyes and a killer body.

Before she could talk herself out of it, she turned and joined him on the balcony.

“It’s a nice night for a party,” Nicole murmured as she stopped next to the stranger.

When he turned to face her, a ridiculous zinging sensation danced along her nerve endings.

“A splendid night,” he agreed. “And it just got a whole lot better.”

A slow burn crept to her cheeks. Impulsively, she checked his ring finger. It was bare. “I love spring in New Orleans,” she said, directing the subject back to the weather.

“So do I. But blink twice and it will have turned into the humid heat of summer.”

“Ah, you know the city. Do you live here?” she asked.

“I used to—a lifetime ago.”

Edginess crept into his voice, making him all the more intriguing.

“Are you a friend of Lee’s?”

“You could say that.”

“I’m sure he’ll be glad you made the party.”

“If I ever run into him. I’m beginning to think he dodged his own celebration.”

“He’s here somewhere,” Nicole assured him, “probably surrounded by well-wishers or talking police business.”

“No doubt.”

She put out a hand. “I’m Nicole Smith. You look familiar. Have we met before?”

“No. If we had, I’m sure I’d remember.”

His hand wrapped around her much smaller one and he held it. Her pulse quickened.

“I’m Andre,” he said, smiling and meeting her gaze before finally letting go of her. “Hope you don’t mind my saying so, but you do great things for that dress.”

“Thank you.”

“Do the Delacroixes always throw such lavish parties?”


He looked around. “They have the perfect mansion for it.”

“The gardens are lovely, too,” Nicole said, “especially this time of the year. You should make time to see them.”

His brows arched. “Is that an offer of a tour?”

“No?. I mean?” She swallowed back a twinge of guilt and a rush of blood that made her positively light-headed. “I would offer, but I have to get back to the party.”

“That’s a gracious brush-off.” He leaned closer and slid his hand across the railing until their fingers touched.

Awareness sizzled.

“I should get back to the party myself, but it was nice meeting you, Nicole.”

“Likewise,” she murmured. She leaned on the railing and watched as he walked away, still reeling from the effect he’d had on her and faced with an undeniable truth.

Lee Barnaby had never excited her senses like that.

Remy walked back into the house determined to get his mind off the gorgeous redhead and back where it belonged. The woman had ignited so many sparks that he was still feeling the heat.

But he couldn’t act on the attraction. She reminded him far too much of Carlotta, and not just her laugh. It was her hair, her eyes, her enchanting Southern drawl.

Even if he weren’t about to jump into a blazing fire of his making, contacting her would be a mistake. And not fair to either of them, even if she were willing to see him again.

After another ten minutes of searching, Remy spotted Lee at the far end of the ballroom. He looked much the same as he had eight years ago, except that he’d put on a few pounds and his hair had started to gray a bit at the temples. Still, he looked younger than his age, which Remy knew was somewhere in the early fifties.

Remy cleared the few yards between them without Lee noticing him. He was seconds away from showing his face when Lee was joined by the seductive redhead.

Lee turned and slipped an arm around her shoulder, pulling her into the cluster of people who surrounded him.

The gesture and the smile she flashed for Lee appeared overly familiar, almost intimate. Remy felt a tightening in his gut. The woman had seemed far too nice to get romantically involved with a dirty rat like Lee—even if he hadn’t been too old for her. Not that it was any of Remy’s business.

Remy stayed out of sight, watching silently until Lee whispered something in the woman’s ear that made her smile. Then the illustrious new NOPD chief turned and walked away.

Following quickly, Remy caught up with him just as he ducked into a small, hallway powder room.

Without breaking stride, Remy blocked the door with his foot before it could close completely. He pushed into the tiny room with Lee, then closed and locked the door behind them.

It was time to get reacquainted.


The Bachelor Pact


The Bachelor Pact

Box Set

The Bachelor Pact

Three men sworn to bachelor hood meet their matches in this trilogy about friendships, family and love!

Marry Me, Maddie — When Maddie is dumped on television, her brothers’ best friend is enlisted to babysit her — but will they fall in love?

Sleepless in Savannah — a dating game show goes awry and forces Sophie to take a weekend date with a stranger instead of Maddie’s brother — the man she wants to be with.

I Love Lucy (renamed to Love Me, Lucy) — all Lucy wants for the holidays is to be with her family and the man she loves — instead she’s hiding out from a stalker in a sixties & up community!

Before She Dies


Before She Dies

Prequel to the Slaughter Creek Novel Series

Before She Dies


she has to tell someone what is happening in Slaughter Creek.

BEFORE SHE DIES — a short story prequel to Rita Herron’s exciting new romantic suspense series set in a small rural Tennessee town called SLAUGHTER CREEK.

Look for Book one in the series DYING TO TELL on sale December 25 from Amazon Montlake!

Cowboy to the Max


Cowboy to the Max

Bucking Bronc Lodge Series

Cowboy to the Max

Rancher Carter Flagstone refuses to take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit. Branded a murderer five years ago, he’s dead-set on getting freedom—and revenge. But after locating the woman who helped frame him, Carter is shocked to find Sadie Whitefeather scared, alone and hiding out in a remote Texas town. And what he discovers about the unforgettable night they spent in each other’s arms makes Carter even more eager to learn the truth. On the run, with no one to turn to but each other, Carter finds forgiving Sadie isn’t so hard after all. And clearing his name is more important than he ever imagined.

Carter Flagstone would die before he would go back to prison.

Which might just happen if he didn’t find out who had framed him for murder.

He rolled over on the makeshift bed he’d made in one of the unused barns at the Bucking Bronc Lodge, breathing in the smell of hay, fresh air and freedom.

A freedom that was temporary at best. One that had come at a cost. A guard had been injured in the prison escape, and fingers were pointing at him as the shooter.

His escape only made him look more guilty of that crime and the murder of that man named Dyer, the man he’d been convicted of killing five years ago.

The police had orders to shoot to kill. His damn mug shot was plastered all over the television and in the papers. And if that guard died and the cops caught him, and by chance he lived, he’d end up on death row.

Yep, Texas held one of the highest records for executions, and adding his name to the list would be his claim to fame.

Just like his sorry old man’s name would have gone on the list if he hadn’t developed lung cancer. Hell, the state had decided to save their money and the publicity. Killing a dying man just didn’t seem worthy.

His bones creaked and his muscles ached as he unfolded his body from the floor and stood. The scars on his arms and chest looked stark and ugly in the thin stream of light seeping through the slats of the barn.

He’d always been a fighter, but prison had hammered in those instincts and made him better at it. Meaner. Tougher. Harder. Unrelenting.

He would use those skills now to find out who’d framed him, put him in jail and ruined his future.

Then he’d get on with his life.

A desolate emptiness filled him at the thought. What life? He’d lost it all the minute the police had slapped the handcuffs on him.

Even before that, he’d been on a downward spiral. He’d had a major rift with his two best friends, who were now rich and owned their own spreads. He’d drunk himself into bar fights and jail more than once before he was incarcerated and earned a reputation that meant no one would hire him if he tried to get a job.

And now his old man was dead, but his ranch had gone belly-up and the bastard hadn’t even had the courtesy to will it to him. It was one last dig into his soul that said how much his father had hated him.

Outside, the sounds of the ranch burst to life. The gentle summer breeze fluttering the leaves on the trees. The noise of trucks cranking as workers started the day. The hush of a mare’s tail swishing flies.

All sounds he’d missed and yearned for daily. Anything to replace the clank of metal chains, keys unlocking cell doors, feet padding in rhythm as the prisoners were led to the mess hall like cattle to the trough.

Well aware he’d return to that mundane life if he didn’t make use of his time, he peeked through the crack in the door to see if the coast was clear. Cows grazed in the lush pastures, two geldings galloped across the flat ranch land, their hooves pounding the grass. The sound of a truck’s engine rumbled down the dirt drive.

Maybe it was Frank Dunham, his buddy from the pen who had landed a job at the Bucking Bronc Lodge. Dunham had owed him and helped him hide out here for the past two days, but if the police found out, Dunham’s parole would be revoked and he’d go back to jail.

Carter didn’t want that on his conscience.

Sweat beaded on his neck as he watched the truck blaze a dusty trail toward the barn. No, not Dunham’s. This truck was black, had shiny new chrome wheels, was newer.

He sucked in a breath, his pulse pounding. Twice today he’d seen choppers flying over the property. Had someone caught wind he was here, hiding out like a trapped animal? Had they called the cops?

His ears perked up, listening for a siren.

Then the truck sped past the barn and veered onto the turnoff for the main lodge. Clenching the edge of the barn door with a white-knuckled grip, he watched it disappear in the trail of dust, then finally managed to breathe again.

Another close call. Another reprieve.

It wouldn’t last.

The last few days on the run he’d felt the devil breathing down his neck at every turn. The cops. The real killer.

The reality that he was a dead man walking.

Determined and knowing that he couldn’t hide out on the Bucking Bronc for long, not with another group of campers due any day now, he unfolded the news article of the fundraiser rodeo Johnny had organized to raise money for the camp and stared at the picture of the woman who could save him.

Sadie Whitefeather.

God, she was beautiful.

Raven-black hair framed her heart-shaped face and delicate features, her high cheekbones accentuating eyes as rich and deep as dark chocolate. Those sinful eyes had mesmerized him, had seduced him. Had made him want to believe that a man like him could not only hold her in his arms but have her.

Those eyes had also held secrets. Pain. A gentle, unspoken understanding that had radiated from her touch.

She had talked of her Navajo ways, her training in medicine with the shaman, her desire to educate herself and become a doctor to help her people. She was also an advocate for the Native American segment and a staunch supporter of environmental issues.

Another seductive quality.

Or so he’d thought.

Dammit. It had all been an act.

She was the reason he’d spent five years in prison, and her day of reckoning had come.

The date on the newspaper proved she’d attended the rodeo a couple of weeks before. Which meant she might be living close by.

For the past two days, he’d been lurking around the ranch hoping she’d show again. Dunham was on the lookout as well, but so far no luck.

His mind rolled back to that fateful night five years ago, and once again he cursed his stupidity. He’d been pissed at his life in general. Mad at his old man for doing an interview from jail, yet again dragging the Flagstone name through the mud.

He’d also had another run-in with Johnny and Brandon. Brandon had beat the hell out of him for sleeping with Kim, his former girlfriend and Johnny’s sister. It hadn’t mattered to Brandon that he’d broken up with Kim and crushed her heart. That Carter had only tried to comfort her.

Hell, it hadn’t mattered to Johnny, either. He’d accused Carter of taking advantage of his sister.

So he’d gone on a drunken tear and ended up at a bar near the reservation. That was where he’d met Sadie Whitefeather.

His body hardened just thinking about her luscious body and the way she’d wound her long legs around him. Her long black hair had hung down her back to her waist, her skin a creamy, sun-kissed Navajo brown, her big, dark eyes haunting and sultry.

One night in her bed and he’d fallen madly in lust.

So he’d gone back for another.

But that night had been his fatal mistake. He’d woken up with no memory of what had happened, with blood on his hands, a dead man on the floor beside him, a man named Dyer who he didn’t even know, and the police on his tail.

She had drugged him. That had to be the explanation.

Then she’d disappeared and left him to rot in jail.

He tapped the picture with his finger. Now he’d escaped and he intended to find her. And he would make her talk.

If she didn’t, he’d show her firsthand the hard lessons he’d learned in prison, where she had sent him.

Sadie Whitefeather shivered at the news photo of Carter Flagstone as the story of his prison escape and criminal record flashed across the TV screen perched on the wall above the bar.

His dark brown hair was shaggy now, his face unshaven, rough with stubble, his eyes tormented, his strong, stubborn jaw set in anger.

He looked hardened, scarred and lethal. All deadly to a woman whose dreams of making love to him still taunted her.

Not that he would want her in his bed again. No, he’d probably kill her.

“Flagstone is considered armed and dangerous,” the reporter said. “Police have orders to shoot to kill. If you have any information regarding his whereabouts, please contact the police.”

Her fingers itched to make that call. But she didn’t know where he was.

Only that he was most likely coming for her.

Of course she couldn’t blame him.

What she had done?was wrong.

She sucked in a sharp breath, then rubbed her finger over the prayer beads around her neck. Her mother’s people had taught her that all life was sacred. That all things on the earth were alive and connected. That all things alive should be respected.

But she had been a party to a murder and sent an innocent man to prison for it.

Shame clawed at her, but she fought it, struggling with her emotions and reminding herself of the circumstances.

She had had no choice.

The sound of the bell over the doorway tinkled, barely discernible over the wail of the country music floating through the Sawdust Saloon. But her senses were well-honed to detect the sound, knowing it might alert her to trouble.

A cloudy haze of smoke made it difficult to make out the new patron as he entered. He was big, so tall that his hat nearly touched the doorway. And he had shoulders like a linebacker.

He hooked his fingers in his belt loops, standing stock still, his stance intimidating as he scanned the room. Shadows hovered around him, and the scent of danger radiated from him like bad whiskey.

She froze, her heart drumming as she studied his features. Carter?

Or the evil monster she’d been running from for five years?

She hated to be paranoid, but life had come at her hard the night she’d met Carter.

He wasn’t the only one with scars. She had her own to prove it.

Her finger automatically brushed the deep, puckered X carved into her chest, now well hidden by her shirt, and traced a line over it. For a moment, she couldn’t move as she waited to see the man’s face in the doorway. He was imposing like Carter and her attacker. Muscular. Big-boned. Large hands.

His boots pounded the wood, crushing the peanut shells on the floor as he moved into the light, and her breath whooshed out in relief.

Even in the dim lighting, she could see he had dark-blond hair.

Carter had thick brown hair, so dark it was almost black.

Her attacker—a shaved head, and he’d smelled like sweat and tobacco.

A group of the men in the back room playing pool shouted, toasting with beer mugs, and two men to her right gave her a flirtatious grin and waved at her to join them.

Sadie inwardly cringed, but remembered she needed this job, and threw up a finger gesturing that she would be right there.

“Your order’s up!” the bartender yelled to Sadie.

Amber Celton, blond, boobs falling out of the cheap lacy top of her waitress uniform, and a woman who would screw any man in pants, sashayed up beside her and gestured toward the TV screen. “Man, I don’t care if that cowboy is armed and dangerous. He could tie me in his bed anytime.”

Sadie wiped her hands on her apron and reached for the tray of beer she needed to deliver. Carter had been seductive, all right.

All that thick, scraggly hair. Those deep whiskey-colored eyes that looked tormented, like they were hunting for trouble. That crooked nose that looked as if it had been broken and needed kissing.

And his mouth?thick lips that scowled one minute as if he was the devil himself, then twitched up into a lazy grin that had made her weak in the knees.

And Lord, those big, strong, wide hands. What he could do with those hands was sinful. Downright lethal.

He had destroyed her for wanting another man as a lover.

Cowboy in the Extreme


Cowboy in the Extreme

Bucking Bronc Lodge Series

Cowboy in the Extreme

“There’s an intruder in my cabin!”

The moment he heard Kim Long’s terrified voice on the phone, Brandon Woodstock knew he had to help her and her little girl. Once, he’d promised to love and protect Kim forever. Now, in spite of the secrets that had come between them, the Texas rancher intended to keep that promise. But rescuing Kim riled all the wrong people—and rekindled the attraction he’d thought ended with their broken relationship. Honoring his role as Kim’s fiercest protector, he whisked her and her daughter to safety without considering the consequences. With a target on Kim’s back and old wounds reopened, Brandon thought there’d be no more surprises. He’d never been more wrong.

Bucking Bronc Lodge: These Texas cowboys will help troubled boys become honorable men.

“Carter escaped from prison.”

“What?” Brandon Woodstock’s heart began to race as he heard the worry in his best friend’s voice. “How?”

“I don’t have all the details yet,” Johnny said, clearly agitated. “After the rodeo, I went to see him in prison and gave him the number of a P.I. I hired to investigate his case.”

“And he accepted your help?” Brandon asked. “I thought he hated both of us.” Brandon sank into the desk chair at the Bucking Bronc Lodge’s office wishing he was home on his own spread. He would be in a few hours. He couldn’t handle being on the ranch when Johnny’s sister, Kim, was here.

Kim, his first love, his only love.

The woman who’d betrayed him with Carter. The woman who’d had Carter’s child instead of his.

That hurt the worst?.

“Not at first,” Johnny said. “But I convinced him to take the P.I.’s card and talk to him.”

“Now you believe he was innocent of murder?”

The three of them, Carter, Johnny and him, had been inseparable as kids. Kim had tagged along, the tomboy little sister, and aggravated the hell out of them.

Until she’d hit her teens and become a raging beauty. He’d fallen for her, then slept with her, much to Johnny’s consternation, although eventually Johnny had accepted them as a couple.

Then he’d made the worst mistake of his life by leaving her for another woman, one he’d thought would help him climb from the gutter of his trailer-park-trash past to success.

And it had worked initially. But then Brandon realized he’d crawled into bed with a snake and had been running from the venomous bite ever since.

Still, Carter had wasted no time. He’d stepped in to fill his Kim’s bed.

That affair had ripped apart their friendship.

Soon after, Carter had been arrested and convicted of murder. Carter had begged him and Johnny to lie and give him an alibi. Their refusal to perjure themselves had cemented the end of their friendship with Carter.

Johnny cleared his throat. “After seeing the way Rachel’s ex bought off the cops and framed her for trying to kill him, I started thinking that someone could have framed Carter.”

“So did the P.I. turn up anything?” Brandon asked, getting back on track.

“No, he didn’t have time. Carter met with him once and told him about this woman he claims he was with the night of the murder. Carter recognized her in one of the photos of the rodeo.”

The newspaper featuring the rodeo was spread on Brandon’s desk. He’d tried to avoid looking at the picture of Kim and her little girl, Lucy. It hurt too damn much.

He steered his mind back to Carter. “This woman was at the Bucking Bronc Lodge?”

“In the stands,” Johnny said. “She’s Native American. Carter claimed they had a one-night stand, and that he saw her the night of the murder.”

“Did Troy find her?”

“I don’t know. Troy was working on locating her, but two days after he visited Carter, Troy was found dead.”

The air in Brandon’s lungs tightened. “He was murdered?”

A tense moment passed; then Johnny mumbled, “Yes.”

Brandon chewed the inside of his cheek, contemplating everything that had happened. “Maybe he was onto something that got him killed.”

“My thoughts exactly.” Johnny’s footsteps clattered, and Brandon realized he was pacing.

Anxious himself, Brandon went to the bar in the corner, poured a shot of whiskey and swirled the amber liquid in the glass. He hated to distrust Carter, but before the arrest five years ago, Carter had been drinking too much, constantly skirting trouble. He’d even blacked out a few times and let his rage rule his actions.

The way Carter had attacked him a few times replayed through Brandon’s head, and more doubts nagged at him. “Or maybe Troy found out Carter committed the murder, and Carter had someone kill Troy.”

Johnny sighed. “Or maybe Carter thinks Troy died because of him and it’s time he found out the truth.”

“Then he’s looking for this woman?”

“Probably,” Johnny said. “And he has to be desperate. I raised his hopes and so did Troy. And now Troy’s dead. That’s enough to do a number on anyone.”

“Dammit. We both know how Carter gets when he’s bottled up with anger.” The very reason both of them had questioned Carter’s innocence five years ago.

“Yeah, I know.” Johnny sounded frustrated. “I just wanted to warn you. Two other prisoners escaped and a guard was wounded. His weapon was stolen.”

Brandon cursed. “So Carter may be armed, and the cops probably have orders to shoot to kill.”

“That about sizes it up,” Johnny hissed. “Carter has to be scared. Whether he went willingly or not, he’s on the run, he’s pissed, he needs help, and he—”

“May show up here.” Brandon downed the liquor. Hell, Carter would probably blame him for this trouble, too. He removed his gun from the desk drawer where he’d locked it and stuffed it in the back of his jeans.

If Carter came looking for a fight, Brandon would be ready.

Kim Long tried to ignore the rapid tapping of her heart as her four-year-old daughter, Lucy, taped the photos of the rodeo onto her bedroom wall. Ever since the rodeo, Lucy had been asking questions about her Uncle Johnny’s friend Brandon.

“I wants to learn to do twicks like him,” Lucy chimed. “He was co-ol.”

Lucy had picked up that word from Kenny, Johnny’s fiancée’s six-year-old son who Lucy trailed after like a puppy.

Just as Kim had trailed after Johnny and Brandon and Carter when they’d been kids. The boys had dubbed themselves the Three Musketeers, and Kim had begged to be the fourth. They had refused, although they had tolerated her, mostly because she’d been such a tomboy.

Then they’d all grown up and everything had gone awry.

Lucy twirled a pigtail around one finger. “Mommy, will Uncle Johnny’s friend teach me?”

Oh, God?she didn’t think so. “I doubt it, baby. He has his own ranch to run. But maybe Uncle Johnny will.”

Lucy poked her lips into a pout. “But he gots his own family now. He gots Kenny and if they gets another baby he won’t ever see us.”

Kim tipped her daughter’s chin up with her thumb, her heart aching. She’d known that one day Johnny would have his own family and was thrilled for him. No one deserved to find happiness and love more than her older brother. That was one reason she’d taken the job at the Bucking Bronc. She and Lucy couldn’t live with Johnny forever. And he would never ask them to leave. He was too protective.

She just hadn’t realized how much Lucy would miss him.

How much Lucy had missed not having a real daddy of her own.

“Your Uncle J will always have time for us, sugar.” She kept the tears at bay. “And we’ll visit him and Rachel and Kenny all the time.” In fact, every time Brandon volunteered at the Bucking Bronc, they’d make the trek to Johnny’s ranch. She couldn’t be around Brandon and not ache for the life she’d dreamed they might share one day.

Lucy’s eyes grew sleepy. “Pwomise?”

“Promise.” Kim hugged her, then tucked Lucy’s lamb beside her and covered her with her favorite pink blanket. Lucy snuggled down under the covers, and Kim stroked her dark red hair until she fell asleep.

Exhausted from helping reorganize and clean between camps, she went to her room and crawled in bed. But as she closed her eyes, images of Brandon plagued her.

Brandon at age ten staggering up to the fort they had built, bloody from another beating from his old man. Brandon at thirteen teaching her how to shoot a BB gun. Brandon at sixteen galloping across the pasture and showing off the tricks he’d learned from the rancher who’d given him a job and some self-respect. Brandon entering into some extreme fighting contests hoping to make a buck to get him out of his hellhole.

Then the night of the barbecue. The night Brandon had first kissed her. The night the budding romance and passion kindling between them had become more.

But another memory intruded, one so painful it was like being doused with ice water. The night Brandon had broken her heart.

She closed her eyes and drifted into a fitful sleep. In the nightmare, she was riding in the open pasture, but it was dark and she’d lost her way. She couldn’t see which direction to go and someone was chasing her?.

Suddenly she startled awake, her heart drumming. Outside, the wind shook the roof and something scraped the windowpane. A tree branch? One of the shutters loose?

Then another sound echoed in the silence?a door squeaking?

She vaulted up in bed, searching the darkness as she scanned the room. The dresser, the chair?the closet door was closed. Everything was just as she’d left it.

A faint sliver of moonlight seeped through the blinds, making the silhouette of the trees outside look gigantic and ominous. Had she imagined the noise? Dreamt it?

No?another sounds soft, muffled like footsteps. The floor squeaked in the living room.

Her pulse pounded, and she jumped up, slowly cracked open her door, and peered through the dimly lit hall. A shadow moved across the den.

Her breath caught as fear shot through her.


She reached for her cell phone, wishing she had a gun. But her shotgun was locked in the gun cabinet in the den.

She tiptoed to the bathroom and grabbed her hair spray, then eased through the door and crept across the hall to Lucy’s room. The floor squeaked again, and fear nearly choked her.

They’d had some problems with vagrants and a vandal on the Bucking Bronc property.

Was one of them breaking in now?

She eased the door shut and locked it, determination setting in. He could steal whatever he wanted. But she wouldn’t let him hurt her daughter.

Lucy was still sleeping, and Kim lifted her in her arms and carried her into the walk-in closet.

“Mommy?” Her daughter stirred, her face wrinkling with confusion, and Kim rocked her gently.

“Shh, baby, it’s okay. We need to be quiet and hide for a minute.”

Lucy clutched the lamb, squinting at her through the hazy darkness. Panic tugged at Kim. Her first instinct was to call Johnny, but he’d already left for his place.

Her hands shook as she punched in Brody’s office number. Brody was the primary owner of the ranch and could get here faster than a 911 call could send somebody.

A voice answered on the second ring, deep and gruff. “Bucking Bronc Lodge.”

Kim froze, hand shaking. Oh, God?it wasn’t Brody. That was Brandon’s voice.


The rattling sound grew louder. Whoever was outside was going to break down the door!

Kim pressed her mouth to the phone’s mouthpiece, terrified the intruder would hear her. “It’s Kim,” she whispered. “There’s an intruder in my cabin.”

Lucy jerked awake, her eyes wide with terror.


“Shh, baby.” Kim tucked Lucy’s head against her chest, her heart racing.

Brandon made a shocked sound in his throat. “I’ll be right there.” The phone clicked to silence, and Kim closed her eyes and said a silent prayer that he would reach them in time.

But a second later, the bedroom door rattled. Then came the sound of the doorknob being turned.

“Mommy!” Lucy’s nails dug into Kim’s arms, and she braced herself to fight.

A loud noise—a body slamming against the door—made her jerk her head up.

Oh, God, he was going to break down the door?.

Certified Cowboy


Certified Cowboy

Bucking Bronc Lodge Series

Certified Cowboy

After a successful career as a Texas rodeo champ, Johnny Long quit living on the wild side. Now he was devoted to a cause he understood all too well: giving kids a second chance. But when he hires a mysterious woman, Johnny knows trouble has reentered his life. Not only is Rachel Presley beautiful, but the fear in her eyes—and in those of her five-year-old son—practically breaks his hardened heart. It isn’t long before strange “accidents” put Rachel in serious jeopardy, convincing Johnny her past has caught up with her. Sharing some of his secrets is the only way to get to the bottom of Rachel’s…even if revealing them could have their own dangerous consequences.

Rachel Presley was suffocating.
“I told you I’d never let you go.”

Her ex-husband’s sinister voice made her body convulse with fear. Rex had found her.


“No,” she whispered in a raw voice. “Please…” She tried to pry his hands from around her neck, but his grip tightened, and his fingernails dug into her throat, closing off her windpipe.

She jerked awake, trembling. Her hands felt clammy, her throat raw, her stomach heaving.

It couldn’t be real. She was dreaming again. Having another one of the terrifying nightmares that had dogged her since she’d left Rex.

But a wet tongue trailed a path down the side of her face. A very real wet tongue. “I’d forgotten how beautiful you look when you’re sleeping, Rach.”

Nausea flooded her. How had he found her this time? She’d covered her bases, changed her name again, hadn’t left a paper trail behind…

But the acrid scent of sweat and whiskey breath told her that she hadn’t been smart enough.

Rex’s heavy weight pressed her into the mattress, and stirred her panic to a frenzy.

“Just tell me you’re sorry and come back to me, Rachel.” Another swipe of his tongue and he ground his crotch into hers. “You want me,” he murmured into her hair. “I can feel it.”

“No,” she whispered. But her efforts to escape were cut off as his hands tightened around her throat.

“Yes, you do. Say it.” He kneed her legs apart with his and rubbed the rough stubble of his jaw against her face. He’d always thought it was funny to hear the rasp of his whiskers scraping her delicate jaw. And he’d taken pride in the whisker burns he left behind. He liked to mark her, brand her like a piece of cattle, so any man who looked her way recognized that she belonged to him.

“Our son needs me, too,” Rex murmured. “And I intend to be there for him. To teach him how to be a man.”

Over her dead body.

Ever since she’d left Rex, she’d been prepared for him to find her. Attack her. Beat her up. Try to kill her. He had once before.

That was the reason she’d run. And bought a .38.

“After we make love, you can whip us up a batch of pancakes,” Rex said. “Kenny will be happy to see me, won’t he, Rach?”

The thought of Rex touching, fathering her precious son sent rage through her, and she summoned every ounce of strength she possessed. Kenny would never be subjected to Rex’s violent mood swings.

But Rex had gained weight and he was even heavier than she remembered. She had to use her wits to gain advantage long enough to retrieve her gun.

“Rex, please…you’re choking me.” She lifted her hips slightly as if she was warming to his touch, and in the moonlight streaking the room she saw a slow lecherous smile spread across his face. Rex was such a narcissistic man that he still believed she’d fall for his charms.

“That’s it, baby. Show me you still love me.” His hands slid down her throat to her breasts, then he shifted slightly, ready to shuck his jeans.

Taking advantage of the moment to strike, she raised her knee and slammed it into his groin, then shoved him backward with all her might. Rex bellowed in pain and shock, and she reached sideways below the mattress and grabbed her gun.

He lunged at her, but she flicked off the safety and pointed the barrel at his chest.

“Move and I’ll shoot.”

Shock made his eyes bulge. “You wouldn’t, Rachel. You’re too soft.”

“You changed that,” she said sharply. Keeping the gun trained on him, she slowly pushed herself up on the bed and slid off the side. He started to move toward her, but she shook her head and cocked the trigger, then yanked open the drawer to her nightstand and removed a pair of handcuffs she’d bought at a pawn store.

“One inch,” she said. “And you’re dead.”

His jaw hardened to steel and he froze, but the menacing look in his eyes grew fierce and deadly.

“You wouldn’t shoot the father of your son,” he said, although his voice had a tremor to it this time.

Good, let him know what it felt like to be afraid.

“Now sit down in that desk chair,” she said between clenched teeth.

His eyes narrowed, but he gave a cocky shrug as if he thought it was a game. Then she pressed the gun to his temple and tossed the handcuffs into his lap. “Handcuff yourself to the chair. Now.”

He shot blades of steel from his eyes and cursed violently, but did as she said.

“You’re going to regret this,” he growled.

“The only thing I regret is marrying you.” Still keeping the gun aimed at him, she tugged on her jacket, grabbed her purse, then ran to get Kenny, tucking the .38 in her handbag so he wouldn’t see it. He was asleep in his bed and looked so innocent and cozy snuggled with his blanket and stuffed puppy that she hated to disturb him.

But they had to go.

He stirred as she lifted him in her arms. “Mommy?” He blinked and glanced around his room, confused.

“It’s okay, sweetie. We’re taking a little trip. Go back to sleep.”

She wrapped him in the blanket, tucked his stuffed animal under his arm, then ran toward the den. The chair clanged against the floor in the bedroom, then Rex’s grating voice shattered the air.

“I’ll kill you when I find you, Rachel. You’ll never get away from me. Never!”

Rachel’s throat clogged with fear, but she forged ahead and ran out the door. A breeze kicked up, stirring leaves and dust around her as she settled Kenny in the backseat and buckled him in. Just as she climbed in the driver’s side and shut the door, Rex ran onto the front porch, dragging the chair behind him. His arms were still chained to the wood, and he was cursing and raging like a bull tied in a pen.

Grateful she’d kept a suitcase for her and Kenny packed in the trunk, she cranked the engine and stepped on the gas. Then she gunned the engine and ripped down the dirt road, praying she could outrun him this time.

If he caught her again, there was no doubt in her mind that he’d kill her.

Johnny Long had to make one more attempt to help his old friend Carter Flagstone clear his name.

He just hoped to hell Carter didn’t refuse to see him as he had the last time he’d tried to visit the jail.

The sprawling ranch faded in his vision as he headed toward the state prison, and his thoughts turned back to the meeting with Brody Bloodworth, the founder of the Bucking Bronc Lodge. The ranch was designed to give troubled boys a second chance through working with animals, ranch hands and cowboys, and reminded him of how he, Carter and Brandon Woodstock had all grown up.

He admired Brody and his plans and appreciated the fact he’d given his sister, Kim, a job, yet Johnny had sworn never to put himself in the limelight again. And spearheading the rodeo Brody wanted to raise money for the summer camps would do exactly that. Worse, using his name could backfire in all their faces.

Still, the idea of a rodeo for a bunch of needy, troubled kids, kids like he had once been, sent an adrenaline rush through him that he hadn’t felt in a long time. If it hadn’t been for the rodeo, he might never have pulled himself out of the gutter. But fame and fortune came at a price.

And the events of that last year, the way the media had turned on him, had almost destroyed him. Still, as a kid, channeling his anger and energy into penning, roping cows and riding had saved his life.

That and his friendship with Brandon and Carter. They had been like the Three Musketeers, growing up.

All from poor, dysfunctional homes. All roughhousing boys who liked to ride and cause trouble and skirt with the law. All had sorry daddies who’d beaten them. Mothers who’d done just as much damage by walking away, finding home in a bottle or just plain ignoring the abuse.

So they’d found each other, had watched each other’s backs for years, even taken beatings for one another.

Until five years ago when everything had gone wrong.

When Carter had been arrested, he and Brandon had taken a good hard look at their own lives and decided it was time to grow up. Sure, they’d had bad childhoods. Lived in hellholes. Never had a family who gave a damn.

But they’d made a pact to show the world they weren’t the white-trash losers the rich rancher kids had dubbed them.

Yet Carter had still wound up in jail. Not that Johnny believed he was guilty of the murder he’d been locked up for. Well, maybe he’d had a few doubts, but he really didn’t think Carter was a cold-blooded killer….

Only, Carter had refused to talk and had begged him and Brandon to give him an alibi. A phony alibi.

If he wasn’t guilty, why had he asked him and Brandon to lie?

Their refusal to commit perjury, circumstantial evidence, incompetent lawyers and a lowlife judge who might have been paid off had cost his friend his freedom.

Even worse, Carter claimed he and Brandon were getting revenge for his short fling with Johnny’s sister, Kim. Brandon had dated Kim first, much to Johnny’s consternation, then he’d broken her heart, which had caused tension between him and Brandon. On the rebound, she’d fallen into Carter’s arms, which had ended badly for everyone, causing a rift between Brandon and Carter.

But Kim had suffered, as well, and Johnny had had to work to contain his own bitterness. His sister had been off-limits and both his friends had crossed the line.

But that wasn’t the reason he hadn’t lied for Carter.

Still, Carter had refused his visits and letters over the years.

Didn’t Carter know that it hurt them to see him locked up? That they wanted justice, too?

He had to give it one more try.

But he fought a sense of guilt as he parked his pickup in front of the prison and reread the news article about Carter’s father’s death. How was Carter handling the news?

Her Stolen Son


Her Stolen Son

Guardian Angel Investigations Series

Her Stolen Son

A little boy hired a brooding detective to bring his mother home…and then the child disappeared.

Detective Colt Mason’s latest “client” was impossible to resist. Not only was he just five years old, his teary-eyed pleas to prove his mother was innocent of murder pulled at Colt’s hard to reach heartstrings. But before he could investigate, the child disappeared without a trace. Now, with Serena Stover desperate to find her son and clear her name, Colt took one look at the beautiful widow and knew this little family would change his life forever. As the search intensified, Colt unearthed a far-reaching— and deadly— conspiracy, making him more determined than ever to solve this case and keep his promise that Serena’s smile would return when she was reunited with her little boy.

“Mister, will you get my mommy out of jail?”

Colt Mason glanced up from his desk at Guardian Angel Investigations and stared at the dark-haired little boy, surprised at his request.

He was probably what, five or six years old?

“I don’t gots a lot of money,” the boy said, then hoisted the piggy bank he held in his arms onto Colt’s desk. The change inside clanged and rattled as he shoved it toward Colt. “But you can have it all if you’ll help me.”

Colt grimaced. The last thing he wanted was the boy’s savings.

Besides, the kid’s eyes were red and swollen from crying, and he was breathing hard as if he’d been running.

Where had he been running from?

“Why don’t you sit down, son, and let me get you some water. Then you can tell me who you are and what’s going on.”

The boy slid into a chair, his shoulders hunched. Colt stepped from his office into the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of water, brought it back and handed it to him.

The kid’s big brown eyes studied Colt warily, but he took the water, unscrewed the lid then took a long drink. Finally he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and sighed. “My name is Petey Stover. My mommy said people here help kids. And she’s in trouble so I come here.” Petey pointed to the nameplate on Colt’s desk. “You gots the name of a gun.”

“Yeah, I do.” Colt fought a small smile. “Now, tell me what happened, Petey. How did your mother end up in jail?”

Worry tightened Petey’s bowlike mouth. “Last night my mommy had a date with this man named Mr. Lyle. But he pushed Mommy against the fireplace, and then he grabbed her neck.” Petey gulped and Colt noticed his hands shake. “I didn’t like him hurting her.”

Cole clenched his jaw. “I wouldn’t like that either. What happened next?”

“She stomped on his foot and kicked him in the? you know—” he pointed to his private parts “—where it hurts.”

Colt barely resisted a smile. “Yes, I know. Then what?”

“I tried to pull him away ’cause now Daddy’s gone I’m the man of the house.” Another deep breath and he squared his small shoulders as if to prove he was a man. “But he knocked me down on the floor.”

Anger made Colt grip the chair edge. “He hit you?”

Petey nodded. “Then my mommy got the fire poker and yelled at him to leave.”

Colt narrowed his eyes. “Did your mother hit him with the fire poker?”

“No.” Petey took another swig of water. “She acted like she would though ’cause she was scared. Then the man got mad and said she’d be sorry.”

Colt wouldn’t have blamed the woman if she had killed the bastard. “What did he do then?”

“He gives her a mean look but he left.” Petey sighed. “So Mommy and I wents to bed. But this morning when I was eatin’ cereal, the sheriff came and he said Mommy killed that mean Mr. Lyle, and they taked Mommy away. And this lady with big orange hair took me to kid jail.”

Colt’s head was reeling. “Kid jail?”

Petey pointed toward the door. “To that big spooky house down the street.”

Ah, Magnolia Manor, the orphanage. DFAC had obviously gotten involved.

“But I runned away when they went in for lunch, cause I don’t wanna stay in jail, and Mommy shouldn’t be there either.” He squared his little shoulders. “Jail is for bad people, and my mommy is good. She didn’t kill nobody.”

Colt took a moment to process the situation. “Where’s your father, Petey?”

Petey looked down at his hands where they clenched the water bottle. “He was a policeman, but he got shot and he died.”

Poor boy. And now his mother had been arrested.

Petey’s chin quivered as he looked back up at Colt. “Will you get her out, Mr. Colt?”

Colt stood. He didn’t know if the woman was innocent or guilty but he wanted more details on the matter. “Let me talk to her and we’ll see.”

Petey jumped off the chair. “Then let’s go.”

Colt knelt beside the boy. He wasn’t a babysitter. Hell, he didn’t know much about kids at all.

In fact, he’d screwed up bad when he’d been left in charge of his own brother?.

But how could he refuse this little boy? “Petey, I’m sorry, bud, but the sheriff won’t allow children in the jail. One of my friends will stay with you here while I talk to your mom. All right?”

“You won’t send me back to kid jail?” Petey touched his arm, his voice pleading.

Colt winced. Petey’s hands were tiny, just like the rest of him. Yet he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.

He’d been fifteen when he’d lost his own dad and he’d felt that weight on his shoulders. A few months later, he’d failed and lost his brother, too.

Petey was nowhere near that age. Still, he couldn’t lie to the child. He would have to call Magnolia Manor sooner or later. “Let me talk to your mom and then we’ll make a plan.”

Petey nodded, his trusting acceptance sending a streak of guilt through Colt. Still, he went to get Derrick. Derrick could phone Brianna at the manor and smooth things over. She must be frantic.

He hurried to Gage’s office, pausing at Derrick’s to ask him to join them.

“What’s going on?” Gage asked.

“This little boy just came into my office asking for my help. His name is Petey Stover.”

Gage switched on the TV in the corner. “His mother was arrested. It’s all over the news.”

Colt watched as the special news story aired.

“This morning, Serena Stover, wife of former police officer Parker Stover of the Raleigh Police Department, was arrested for the murder of a man named Lyle Rice. Rice was supposedly killed at his home, but police have yet to recover the body. However, evidence quickly led the sheriff to Serena Stover’s door.”

The camera zeroed in on Sheriff Gray handcuffing and escorting an attractive woman with long, curly, copper-colored hair from her home. She was arguing and protesting, trying to break free to reach her little boy.

Petey was crying and kicking and shouting, determined to wrestle away from the deputy who was hauling him toward another vehicle. A woman Colt assumed to be the social worker was trying to soothe the boy, to no avail.

The camera panned back to Serena as the sheriff pushed her into the back of his squad car. Tears streaked her big eyes as she turned and watched her son beating on the window, screaming her name.

Colt’s gut clenched.

“As you can see,” the reporter continued, “the arrest quickly became an emotional scene. However, the sheriff feels he has sufficient evidence and motive to move forward.”

The camera panned back inside to focus on the crime scene. Massive amounts of blood stained the bedroom floor, and the sheets were blood splattered, one corner dragging the floor. A crime scene tech lifted the corner to reveal more blood.

In fact, Serena’s name had been spelled in blood on the wood floor.

“Police believe that Rice scribbled his killer’s name in his own blood before he died,” the news reporter continued. “More on this story as it develops.”

“That’s not good,” Gage said.

“If Serena killed Rice and got rid of the body, why wouldn’t she have cleaned up?” Colt asked with a frown. “Besides, she sure as hell wouldn’t have left her name there for the police to finger her.”

“Maybe she was in a hurry and didn’t see it,” Gage suggested. “The name was covered by the sheet.”

Colt shrugged, questions nagging at him.

“Petey was taken to Magnolia Manor, Derrick,” Colt said. “Will you let Brianna know he’s here and safe?”

Derrick nodded. “She’s probably frantic. I’ll call her right now.” Derrick stepped from the office to make the call.

Gage drummed his fingers on the desk. “This isn’t our usual kind of case.”

“I know,” Colt said. But something about the poor kid and that emotional scene had gotten to him. “The boy is so upset, though. And his story made sense. I’d like to at least talk to the woman.”

Gage hesitated, then gave a nod. “All right. But be careful. And don’t make an enemy of the sheriff. So far, he’s cooperated with us on other cases. I’d like to keep it that way.”

Colt agreed and headed back to Petey. He’d be civil to Sheriff Gray, but if he thought the man was wrong about Serena, he wouldn’t hesitate to rattle some cages.

There was no way he’d sit by and let him railroad a single mother away from her child if she was innocent.

Serena stared at the ink on her fingertips, still stunned that she had been arrested, fingerprinted and was locked in a cell.

Not that it was the first time. But she’d thought her juvenile record was sealed.

She had to get out. The first chance she had, she’d make a break for it. Then she’d find Petey and get him and run.

What kind of life would that be for him, Serena? Hiding out, always making up new names, always afraid?.

No, she couldn’t do that to her son.

Poor little Petey. He’d been through so much the last two years. His father’s murder. Their move to Sanctuary because she’d wanted a nice small town where they could both heal. And they both had started to heal.

Then her friend from work had encouraged her to start dating. A huge mistake.

Lyle Rice had been a charmer at first, then turned into a snake. When the arrogant animal had pushed Petey, she had wanted to kill him. But she hadn’t, dammit.

And she couldn’t run either. She’d given up that life when she’d married Parker. She’d vowed to give Petey a more stable life than she’d had?

Footsteps pounded, the shadow of movement in the hall indicating the sheriff or his deputy had returned. She’d requested her phone call, but the truth was, she didn’t even know the name of a good lawyer to call.

Of course, the state would give her a public defender, but she’d had one of those before and that had ended with her in a juvenile facility.

Suddenly the sheriff appeared, along with a broad-shouldered man with hair as black as coal and eyes just as black. He looked powerful, lethal even, with a strong, square jaw and arms that were as big as her legs.

Definitely an alpha guy who was accustomed to being in control. And judging from his short haircut, muscular physique, that laser-intense look and the tattoo on his arm, he was former military.

Either that or a hardened criminal.

Her stomach pitched. Surely, the sheriff wasn’t going to lock him in the cell with her.

“Ms. Stover,” Sheriff Gray said. “You have a visitor.”

Serena crossed her arms, confused. Frightened. Wary.

Who was this man and what did he want with her? Remembering her husband’s horror stories about how

devious police interrogation tactics could be, she braced herself. She had to be careful.

He might be here to trap her into giving a confession.

Chapter Two

Serena adopted a brave face. “Who are you?”

“My name is Colt Mason. I’m a detective with GAI, Guardian Angel Investigations.”

Serena frowned, confused even more. “I don’t understand. Why do you want to talk to me?”

“It’s about your son, Petey,” Colt said gruffly.

Serena’s mouth went dry, the room swirled around her, and she reached for the bars to steady herself to keep from passing out. Today had been too much, and if something had happened to Petey.

The sound of the cell opening registered, the men murmuring something indiscernible in low voices. Colt gripped her arm and led her to the cot by the wall. Her legs buckled, and she sank onto it, then leaned over, the room spinning in a dizzying circle.

“It’s all right. Take a deep breath, Serena,” Colt said in a low voice. “Then another.”

His soothing tone brought a flood of tears. Angrily she brushed at them and inhaled, determined to regain control. She had to know what had happened to her son. But when she tried to speak, nausea rose to her throat.

The sheriff returned, then Colt pressed a cold cloth against the back of her neck.

Dammit. She needed to be strong. But she’d lost Parker. She couldn’t lose Petey. And that blasted woman had promised to take care of him.

Clawing for control, she jerked her head up, removed the cloth from her neck and tossed it aside. Colt Mason was staring at her with those intense black eyes again as if he was trying to see into her mind and soul. Maybe even her heart.

She wouldn’t let anyone there, not ever again.

Besides, he was probably trying to judge whether she was a killer.

“Where’s my son?” She clutched his shirt. “Is he hurt?”

“Petey is fine,” Colt said. “He’s at my office.”

“What? I thought that social worker took him to a foster home.”

Colt covered her hands with his and peeled her fingers loose. “She dropped him off at Magnolia Manor, but as soon as the children went inside for lunch, he bolted and ran down to GAI. Apparently you told him that some nice men there helped children.”

Relief mushroomed inside Serena, and she found herself hanging on to his hands. Caution told her not to trust him, but the fact that she had used those exact words with Petey made her relax slightly.

“You have fifteen minutes,” Sheriff Gray interjected.

Colt nodded to the sheriff, and he strode back to the front of the jail.

“He must be so scared,” she whispered. “Are you sure he’s okay?”

“I’m certain.” Colt hesitated, an awkward second passing as he released her hands. “Do you feel better now?”

She nodded, searching his strong face for the truth. This man looked hard, cold, forceful, as if he’d seen the worst in humans and was trying to figure out where she stood on the pendulum, if he should be protecting her son from her. That suspicious look cut through her like a knife. “You scared me to death. When you said GAI, I thoughts”

“That he’d been kidnapped,” Colt said darkly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. Petey is in my office. One of the other agents, Derrick McKinney, is staying with him. His wife, Brianna, works at Magnolia Manor where the social worker took Petey.”

“So you’ll send him back there?”

“We have to follow the law, but Brianna is a great lady,” Colt said. “She has a son of her own, and loves those kids. Trust me, she’ll be like a second mother to him.”

He obviously meant to make her feel better, but rage churned through Serena at the thought of anyone else taking care of her son.

“Petey should be with me.” She scanned her bleak surroundings. Concrete floor, dingy concrete wall covered in graffiti. Scratchy, faded wool blanket on top of a cot with a mattress so thin the springs bore into her. “And I shouldn’t be here. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Colt’s gaze scrutinized her. “Petey told me a little bit about what happened,” Colt said. “But I’d like to hear your version.”

Serena hesitated, doubts creeping in. “Do you have some ID?”

The Missing Twin


The Missing Twin

Guardian Angel Investigations Series

The Missing Twin


Detective Caleb Walker had taken on some tough cases for Guardian Angel Investigations, but when Madelyn Andrews came to him, claiming that her five-year-old daughter was able to “communicate” with her twin sister who’d never made it home from the hospital, Caleb was skeptical. One glimpse at the beautiful single mother, though, and he couldn’t walk away. Now, as he looked into what had really happened when Madelyn went into labor, suspicious details were uncovered. Details that prompted Madelyn to cling to him as pain consumed her. And the deeper he dug, the more invested Caleb became in their tiny family, in their safety when danger penetrated their lives—and in their salvation when he promised to bring a little girl home…

Emotionally gripping, quickly paced, and littered with bodies, this latest addition to Herron’s “Guardian Angel Investigations” series features a complex plot, a cast of likable characters—including a pint-sized charmer—a fragrant hint of the South, and a heartwarming sense of family. A satisfying hair-raiser with a gentle psychic touch. ~ Kristin Ramsdell, Library Journal

THE MISSING TWIN (4.5) A slick plot combined with riveting characters and unyielding suspense make Herron’s latest a star attraction for fans. ~ Reviewed By: Pat Cooper, RT

Fear clogged five-year-old Sara Andrews’s throat. She could see her twin sister running from the old wooden house, stumbling down the porch steps, crying as she raced toward the woods.

“Help me,” Cissy cried. “He’s gonna hurt Mommy!”

The wind whistled, shaking the trees. Leaves swirled and rained down. A dog howled in the distance.

Then thunder boomed.

No, not thunder.

It was the big, hulking man storming down the steps. “Cissy!” the monster bellowed. “Come back here.”

He slapped at the branches with his beefy fists, moving so fast he was nearly on top of her. Then he lunged for her.

Cissy screamed and darted to the right, running, running, running into the darkness?.

The monster reached a pawlike hand toward her and snatched her jacket. Cissy screamed again, stumbled and fell to the ground. But her jacket slid off in the man’s hands, and he cursed.

Sweat slid down Sara’s temple. Her heart was pounding so loud she could hear it beating in her ears. “Get up,” Sara whispered. “Get up and run, Cissy.”

As if Cissy heard her, she took a deep breath, grabbed a fistful of dirt and hurled it at the man.

The dust sprayed his eyes and he cursed, then swung one fist toward Cissy. Cissy dodged the blow, pushed herself to her hands and knees and stood. Tree branches cracked. The wind screeched.

The monster roared and dove for her.

“No!” Sara cried. “Run, Cissy, run.”

Tears streamed down her sister’s cheeks as Cissy tried to run, but the monster yanked her by the hair and dragged her back toward the house.

“Help me!” Cissy cried. “Please, help me!”

“No!” Sara screamed. “Let her go?.”

Madelyn Andrews raced toward her daughter’s bedroom, her lungs tightening at the sound of her daughter’s terrified sobs. Outside, the wind roared off the mountain and sleet pelted the window, reminding her that a late winter storm raged around the small town of Sanctuary, North Carolina.

Shivering with the cold, she threw open the door, flipped on the sunflower lamp Sara had begged for and crossed the distance to her little girl’s bed. Sara was thrashing around, tangled in the bright green comforter, sobbing and shaking.

“No, don’t hurt her, don’t hurt Cissy?”

Madelyn’s heart broke, worry throbbing inside her as she eased herself onto the mattress and gently shook Sara.

“Honey, wake up. It’s just a nightmare,” she whispered. Although Sara would insist that it was real.

Sara sobbed harder, swinging out her hands as if fighting off an invisible monster, and Madelyn pulled her into her arms. Tears blurred her own eyes as she rocked her back and forth. “Shh, honey, Mommy’s here.

It’s all right.”

“Gonna hurt Mommy?” Sara wailed. “Help Cissy. We have to help Cissy!”

“Shh, baby.” Madelyn stroked Sara’s fine, blond hair. “No one is going to hurt Mommy. I’m right here.”

Sara jerked her eyes open, her pupils distorted, her lower lip quivering. For a moment, she stared at Madelyn as if she didn’t recognize her.

“But Cissy’s mommy is hurt,” Sara said in a shaky voice. “The bad man chased Cissy into the woods and he catched her, and?”

“It was a dream.” Madelyn cupped Sara’s face between her hands, imploring her to believe her. “A really bad dream, sweetheart, but it was just a nightmare.”

“No,” Sara choked out. “It was real. Cissy’s in trouble and we gots to help her or he’s gonna hurt her.”

“Oh, honey,” Madelyn said softly.

Sara gulped. “It was real, Mommy. I saw Cissy.” Tears rolled down her face. “And she saw me. She begged me to help her. I tolded her to get up and run, but he caught her and dragged her back to the house? ”

Shaken by the horror in Sara’s voice, Madelyn took a deep breath, desperately trying to calm the anxiety bleeding through her.

She dried Sara’s tears with her fingers. “Sara, I told you that we lost Cissy a long time ago.”

“No,” Sara said with a firm shake of her head. “She lives with that other mommy. But if we don’t helps her, that mean man’s gonna kill ’em both.”

Madelyn hugged Sara to her, lost in turmoil.

Something was very wrong with her little girl. She’d been having these nightmares for the past two months, ever since they’d moved back to Sanctuary, and nothing Madelyn had done or said had helped. Not her long talks with her about Cissy, Sara’s twin who they’d lost at birth, or the therapists Madelyn had consulted for assistance.

“Please, Mommy,” Sara cried. “We gots to do something.”

A tear slid down Madelyn’s cheek. The day the twins had been born was the happiest and saddest day of her life. She’d gotten Sara but lost her sister.

She’d heard that twins had a special connection, but why was Sara still dreaming that Cissy had survived?

Knowing neither she nor Sara would sleep well the rest of the night, she carried Sara to her bed, then snuggled beside her. Sara lay on her side, sniffling for another hour, then finally drifted into an exhausted sleep.

Madelyn’s heart wrenched, and she lay and watched her daughter, unable to sleep. Just as dawn streaked the sky, her telephone jangled. Who could be calling at this hour? She checked the caller ID. Her mother.

She grabbed the handset, then slid from the bed, walked to the window and connected the call.

“Mom? What’s wrong? Are you all right?”

“Yes, honey, I’m fine. Have you seen the news?”

“No, why? What’s going on?”

“A big story aired about a doctor in Sanctuary who stole babies and sold them. His name was Dr. Emery. Isn’t that the doctor who delivered the twins?”

“Yes. Oh, my god. What else did the story say?”

“This lady named Nina Nash thought her baby died in that big, hospital fire eight years ago but discovered her child was alive. She hired these detectives at an agency called Guardian Angel Investigations there in Sanctuary. These men are all dedicated to finding missing children and they found her little girl.”

A cold chill swept up Madelyn’s spine. She glanced back at the bed where Sara was sleeping.

Dear God.

Was it possible that Cissy could have survived?

Caleb Walker entered the offices of GAI, his neck knotted with nerves. He hadn’t liked the sound of his boss’s voice when he called. The urgency had him postponing his visit to the cemetery to visit his wife’s grave this morning, and that pissed him off. He’d wanted to go by first thing, to pay his respects, leave Mara’s flowers, talk to her and beg her forgiveness one more time?

Gage’s voice rose from his office, breaking into his thoughts, and Caleb forced himself to focus. There would be time for seeing Mara later. Time to drown his sorrows and guilt.

He climbed the steps to Gage’s office, his mind racing. Had another child gone missing?

Or was there another case related to Sanctuary Hospital? Ever since the news had broken about the recovery of Nina Nash’s daughter and Dr. Emery’s arrest for selling babies, the phones had gone crazy.

People from all over were demanding to know if their adoptions were legal. GAI had been plagued by crank calls, as well, two from distraught women whose accusations of baby kidnapping had turned out to be false. The women had been so desperate for a child they’d tried to use the illegal adoptions to claim one for themselves.

Caleb twisted the hand-carved arrowhead around his neck to calm himself as he knocked on his boss’s office door. “Come in.”

Caleb opened the door and Gage stood.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Gage said without preamble. “We have a new client. One I’d like for you to handle.”

Caleb narrowed his eyes. “Why me?”

Gage’s eyes darkened. “You’ll know after you meet her and her five-year-old daughter, Sara. Sara insists she sees her twin in her nightmares, that her sister is in trouble.”

“I don’t understand,” Caleb said. “Sounds like a child having bad dreams, not a missing person case.”

“It gets even more interesting.” Gage flicked his gaze to the conference room across the hall. “The mother claims the twin died at birth, but Sara insists she’s alive.”

Damn. Gage requested him because of his so-called sixth sense. He wished to hell he’d never divulged that detail.

But Gage had caught him in a weak moment. Gage motioned for him to follow. “Come on, they’re waiting.”

Caleb rolled his hands into fists, then forced himself to flex them again, struggling to control his emotions. Emotions had no place in business. And business was his life now.

The moment Caleb entered the conference room, he spotted the woman sitting in a wing chair cradling the little girl in her lap. Gage had purposely designed the room with cozy seating nooks to put clients at ease.

But nothing about this woman appeared to be at ease.

Her slender body radiated with tension, her eyes looked haunted, her expression wary.

Yet he was also struck by her startling beauty. Copper-colored hair draped her shoulders and flowed like silk around a heart-shaped face. Big, green eyes gazed at him as if she desperately needed a friend, and freckles dotted her fair skin, making her look young and vulnerable. Her outfit was simple, too, not meant to be enticing—long denim skirt, peasant blouse—yet the soft colors made her look utterly feminine.

And downright earthy.

Earthy in his book meant sexy. Lethal combinations to a man who had been celibate for the past three years.

Dammit. He hadn’t been attracted to another woman since Mara. He sure as hell didn’t want to be attracted to a client. Not one with a kid who claimed to see her dead sister.

Then his gaze fell to the little blonde munchkin, and his lungs tightened. She looked tiny and frail and terrified and so lost that his protective instincts kicked in.

“Ms. Andrews,” Gage began. “This is Caleb Walker. He’s one of our agents at GAI. I’d like for him to hear your story.”

The woman squared her shoulders as if anticipating a confrontation. She expected skepticism.

“You can call me Madelyn,” she said in a husky voice that sounded as if it was laced with whiskey.

Gage claimed the love seat, leaving the other wing chair nearest Madelyn for him. Caleb lowered himself into it, aware his size might intimidate the little girl.

“What’s your name?” he asked in a gentle tone.

Eyes that mirrored her mother’s stared up at him as if she was trying to decide if he was friend or foe. Smart kid. She should be wary of strangers.

He smiled slowly, trying to ease her discomfort. But his senses prickled, suggesting she was special in some way. That she possessed a sixth sense herself.

Not that he would wish that on anyone, especially a kid.

“Let’s see,” he said, a smile quirking his mouth. “Are you Little Miss Sunshine?”

A tiny smile lit her eyes, and she relaxed slightly and loosened her grip on her blanket. “No, silly. I’m Sara.”

“Hi, Sara,” he said gruffly. “That’s a pretty name.”

“Thank you,” she said, her tone sounding grown up for such a little bitty thing. “It’s my Gran’s middle name.”

“Okay, Sara. Tell me what’s going on so I can help you.”

Madelyn stroked her daughter’s hair. “Sara’s been having nightmares for the past two months, ever since we moved back to town.”

“Where are you from?” Caleb asked, probing for background information.

Madelyn hugged Sara closer. “We moved to Charlotte four years ago to be near my mom, but Sara was born in Sanctuary. Recently my mother suffered a stroke, and I found a nursing facility here that she liked, so I bought the craft shop in town, and we packed up and moved back.”

“I see,” Caleb said. Had the move triggered these nightmares? “Sara, did you have dreams of your sister when you lived in Charlotte?”

Sara nodded and twirled a strand of hair around her finger. “We talked and sang songs and told secrets.” Caleb narrowed his eyes. “What kinds of secrets?” Sara pursed her mouth. “They’re not secrets if I tell.”

Hmm. She was loyal to her sister. But those secrets might be important.

“She has dreamed about her twin all her life,” Madelyn confirmed. “But lately those dreams have been disturbing.”

Sara piped up. “Her name is Cissy, and she looks just like me.”

Caleb nodded, aware that she used the present tense. “Sara and Cissy. How old are you?”

“Five,” Sara said and held up five fingers. “Cissy’s five, too.”

He smiled again. “You’re identical twins?”

She swung her feet. “Yep, ‘cept I gots a birthmark on my right arm and hers is on the other side.” She pointed to a small, pale, crescent-moon shape on her forearm.

Caleb folded his hands. He needed to keep Sara talking. “Tell me what happens in your dreams, Sara.”

Terror darkened the little girl’s face. “Cissy is scared and she’s screamin’ and she runned into the woods.”

Damn. He understood about nightmares, how real and haunting they could seem. “Who is she running from?” Caleb asked.

“From a big, mean man. He screamed at her mommy,” Sara said with conviction. “Cissy says he’s gonna kill them.”

Caleb intentionally lowered his voice. “Can you see his face? Does she call him by name?”

Sara chewed on her thumb for a moment as if trying to picture the man in her mind. “No, I can’t see him.” Her voice rose with anxiety. “But I saw Cissy running and crying.”

Caleb clenched his hands, listening, hating the terror in the little girl’s voice. The last thing he wanted to do was traumatize a troubled child by doubting her or confirming her fears. And she was genuinely afraid and believed what she was telling him.

His sixth sense kicked in. This little girl was?different. Did she truly have a psychic connection to her twin?

Other questions bombarded him: If her sister was dead, was Sara seeing and conversing with her spirit? Was Sara a medium? If so, why was she seeing images of Cissy at the same age as herself instead of the infant she’d been when she died? Was Cissy’s growth a figment of Sara’s imagination?

Another theory rattled through his head. Or could Sara be experiencing premonitions? Could Cissy’s spirit be trying to warn Sara that Sara was in danger from some future attacker?

“You’re a brave girl,” Caleb said, then patted Sara’s arm. “And if you see anything else—the man’s face, or the mommy’s—I want you to tell me. Okay?”

Sara bobbed her little head up and down, although she looked wrung out now, as if relaying her nightmare had drained her. Or maybe she was worried that describing the terrifying ordeal might make it come true.

He lifted his gaze to Madelyn. “Can we talk alone?”

Her wary gaze flew to his. “I don’t like to leave Sara by herself.”

Gage retrieved a pad of paper and some crayons and gestured to the coffee table.

Brandishing a Crown


Brandishing a Crown

Cowboys Royale Series

Brandishing a Crown


He’d come to Wyoming on business, but the moment Prince Stefan Lutece met the beautiful forensics expert, all he could think about was pleasure. Unfortunately, Jane Cameron had a job to do – one that involved missing evidence and possibly murder – and she wasn’t falling for Stefan’s royal charms. But everything changed when Jane became the target of her own investigation and Stefan, with his military training and commanding presence, became her self-imposed guardian. Protecting her 24/7 guaranteed Jane’s survival…and stirred up the attraction practically burning between them. Stefan guaranteed he’d keep Jane out of the line of fire – but not out of his bed.

“Stefan, if you would simply return to Kyros and marry Princess Daria, our problems would be solved. In exchange for the marriage, King Nazim El-Shamy has agreed to give our nation as much financial and military support as we need to fend off Saruk.”

Prince Stefan Lutece sighed as his private jet began its final descent into the Wyoming airport. “Father, you know I have other plans for Kyros.” And for himself.

And an arranged marriage was not on his agenda.

Saving Kyros from being swallowed by Saruk, the larger militant nation nearby, however, was.

But he didn’t intend to succumb to his father’s outdated means, or force his people to be swallowed into the folds of another nation. He wanted to utilize the oil on their land which could make them financially independent. That was the prime reason he’d joined COIN, the Coalition of Island Nations in the Mediterranean, and the purpose for his trip to America now.

And as far as marriage—if he ever indulged it would be with a woman who stirred his passions, not a woman like Daria who although physically beautiful, possessed a coldness in her eyes that chilled him to the bone.

“If this summit meeting goes as planned,” Stefan continued, “and the coalition succeeds in making the trade agreements with the U.S., Kyros will prosper and gain independence without becoming indebted to King Nazim or Saruk.”

The sound of the plane’s landing gear rumbled, the plane tipped slightly, then righted, dropping altitude. Stefan glanced out the window at the rugged Wyoming land, the white-tipped mountains, the acres of untamed prairie land, and momentarily missed the lush tropical beauty of his own country.

Kyros, with its century-old ruins and stone temples, was rich in culture and history. With tourism as its main industry, the island was picturesque, boasting plush green foliage, colorful gardens, and inviting private resorts nestled along the Mediterranean coast.

But the island had been forced to become a member of the EU, and with the euro so strong and with additional import costs, fewer and fewer people could afford the exorbitant costs of vacationing on the remote island.

He and his people had discovered several untapped areas prime with oil, though, that could turn around their economy.

“You know Thaddeus and I are both opposed to polluting our nation with mining,” King Maximes growled.

“I do know that, Father. But as I’ve explained countless times, my team of experts has devised a way to minimize the waste and pollution to the environment.” It was a major breakthrough, which he intended to use as a selling point to the summit.

“Do not sign anything until you discuss it with me and Thaddeus, Stefan.” His father began to cough. “Remember I want what’s best for our people.”

“So do I, Father. And the COIN compact is what is best.”

Stefan gritted his teeth as he ended the call. He felt his blood pressure rising. He and his father and brother would never agree on politics, but with his father’s illness, an illness he was forced to keep secret to prevent Saruk from pouncing on them at a vulnerable moment, he was the new leader.

And he’d be damned if he’d allow Thaddeus to deter him. The spoiled brat did not want to make the tough choices but he wanted the glory—and their father’s inheritance.

Suddenly streaks of yellow, orange, red and gold filled the distance, the brilliant sunset momentarily capturing his interest. Below him the desert with its spiny cactuses, sagebrush and tumbleweed reminded him of the ghost towns of the old West he’d seen in American motion pictures.

As the plane soared closer to its destination, mountain peaks jutted toward the sky and the desert gave way to hundreds of acres of ranchland, a winding river, and a valley filled with smaller ranches, wildlife, farmland, and green pastures where cattle and horses grazed.

Sheik Amir Khalid had chosen the meeting spot, claiming the Wind River Ranch and Resort was both sophisticated and full of grandeur, and if the sight below him was any indication, the description had not done the place justice.

Unfortunately he was not here for pleasure, but business.

He sipped the last of his scotch, then leaned back and watched the sunset fade as the plane touched down.

Seconds later his cell phone beeped, indicating he had a text message.

Grimacing, he checked the text, half expecting it to be his father, yet hoping it was one of the leaders of the other COIN nations confirming their meeting place.

Instead a warning appeared on the screen, YOUR LIVES ARE IN DANGER. DON’T TRUST ANYONE.

His chest clenched with worry. He and the other royals were well aware that their arrival might cause trouble. Both anti-American sentiment and the fear of terrorists had been prevalent reactions when they had first announced the summit.

Who had sent this message? Was it a real threat?

The plane skidded to a stop, and a drop of perspiration slid down his temple.

It did not matter. He had to contact his security detail and the other COIN members and alert them that they might be in danger.

Forensic expert Jane Cameron slumped onto the tattered sofa in the break room at the crime lab, sighing in disgust at the special news feed of the royals’ arrival in Wyoming. Cameras panned the airport where the private jets for the dignitaries were landing. Security and police had roped off areas to fend off the nosy spectators, disgruntled citizens protesting the summit, and the swooning single women who wanted to sneak a peak at a real prince and sheik.

“Every girl’s fairy tale—she’ll grow up and marry a prince one day,” Ralph Osgood, her boss at the crime lab, muttered sarcastically. “How about you, Jane? You got stars in your eyes?”

“Hardly,” Jane said with a smirk. Fairy tales didn’t come true.

She glanced at the newspaper photograph on the desk. Prince Stefan Lutece was clad in his prince’s robe and crown, Sheik Khalid in his traditional robe?

Damn. Even if fairy tales did come true, a man like Prince Stefan wouldn’t bother with a second look at a plain Jane like her.

Not that she was in the market anyway. She liked her life just fine. She had her job. Control of her own remote. The environmental issues she supported.

“Today marks a monumental day for Wyoming,” Danny Harold, a cutthroat news reporter, stated interrupting her thoughts. “The Wind River Ranch and Resort will serve as host to a week of meetings that promise to help bring peace and economic security to the smaller nations of COIN as well as offering innovative and financially beneficial trade agreements to the U.S.”

Jane poured herself a cup of coffee and stirred a massive amount of sweetener into the cup. Everybody in the world was in a tizzy over this damn summit meeting, raising the threat level for travelers and locals to a high. Hell, for the last week she’d worked around the clock checking out suspicious crime scenes that police suspected might be terrorist threats. Thankfully they had been bogus, but the possibility of problems was very real.

“Sheriff Jake Wolf, Wind River’s local sheriff, is coordinating efforts between the various nations’ security teams,” Harold continued. “And now, here they come!”

Cameras focused one by one on the royals as they exited their private jets, each surrounded by a team of armed security agents in suits. In the background, protestors shouted derogatory remarks about terrorists, urging them to go home, while women and young girls shrieked at the sight of the princes and sheiks clad in regal attire.

“Sheik Efraim Aziz of Nudar,” Harold announced, “?twin brothers Prince Sebastian Cavanaugh and Prince Antoine Cavanaugh of Barajas?Sheik Amir Khalid of Jamala?and Prince Stefan Lutece representing Kyros.”

While the crowd cheered and booed, and the security teams muscled through the throng escorting the royals to the scheduled press conference, Jane studied the individual men, silently admitting that they were all very striking.

Sheik Efraim Aziz, clad in a galabiyya and embroidered hat, had dark hair and eyes and looked to be in his late thirties. The twin princes of Barajas, Prince Sebastian and Prince Antoine, were over six feet with brown hair and wore trousers with shirt length robes. She’d heard that both had military training. Sheik Amir Khalid was slightly younger, in his early thirties with black hair. From what she’d heard, he had suggested Wyoming as the summit meeting destination because of an earlier visit. His hat was a kufi skullcap, his galabiya colorful.

Then her gaze fell on Prince Stefan, and for the first time in her life, her stomach fluttered. Not a girl to let a man turn her head, she was shocked at how her pulse jumped and her body tingled.

Prince Stefan had jet black hair that matched his impressive tailored black suit. His prominent cheekbones and patrician nose boasted of a Greek heritage and made him look regal as if he should be the poster boy for all royals worldwide.

Or as if he was a Greek god.

And when the camera focused on him, his piercing green eyes gleamed with an intensity, an air of authority and intelligence that made her want to climb inside his mind.

Yet those piercing eyes scanned the crowd with suspicion.

Suddenly he leaned over, spoke to the security agent beside him, and panic stretched across the guard’s features. A second later, security agents surrounded the prince, then whisked him toward a limo while other security teams did the same with the remaining royals.

She tensed and tried to pan the crowd for suspicious characters. Something was wrong. Had the dignitaries been threatened?

Stefan hated to stir panic amongst the royals and forgo the initial press conference, but the moment he’d shared the text message, his chief of security Edilio Misko had contacted Fahad Bahir, Amir’s personal chief of security agent and the head of security for the COIN compact. Fahad had canceled the press conference. Security had also insisted the men immediately be transported to the resort.

Stefan despised being forced to slink away like a coward when he was a military man at heart and could defend himself, but he had no weapon now, and he had to remember that he was representing his nation. This deal was far too important for him to dismiss even the smallest hint of trouble.

And worry that this threat would impact their meetings consumed him. Efraim was already on the verge of pulling out of the deal.

Surrounded by Edilio and five other security agents, Hector Perro, Stefan’s chief aide, herded him toward the limo. Edilio pushed Stefan inside while shielding him with his own body. The security team surrounded the vehicle, each scanning the area for questionable characters.

Shouts from disappointed fans and protesters echoed from behind the gates as the limo driver drove toward the exit. Police had blocked off the parking lot as well as streets, and a pair of police cars led the entourage of limos as the collective group left the airport.

A mob of protesters lined the front gate, news station reporters and helicopters circled like vultures, and anti-Muslims waved American flags voicing their opinions.

Stefan frowned.

Even though he lived in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern nations surrounded him, he failed to understand the hatred. He had valuable ideas which could benefit Kyros and the U.S., and he refused to allow either country to deter his mission of peace.

“I am sorry you did not get to hold the initial press conference,” Hector said quietly. “I understand how important this trip is to you, Prince Stefan.”

Stefan glanced out the window at the passing scenery. Night had descended, yet moonlight streaked the horizon, giving the rugged farm and ranchland an ethereal feel. Alpine meadows and Aspen forests filled his vision. Elk, deer, antelope, wild horses, cattle, mountain goats, and prairie animals roamed in their natural setting as if life had been turned back a century to a much simpler time.

A time before hatred and war and pollution.

“We must find out who sent this message,” Stefan said quietly, “determine if it was in fact a threat, and if so, discern what the person who sent it might know.”

“Yes, Prince Stefan,” Hector said. “Edilio is trying to trace the origin of the message as we speak.”

They passed an impressive sprawling ranch called the Seven M, then passed the Wind River reservation which jutted up to the resort property. Finally the driver veered down a side road and Stefan noted signs indicating the Wind River Ranch and Resort. The two-hundred acre secluded resort was situated on a working cattle ranch, a concept that intrigued him.

Yet this beautiful state was also troubled with pollution from their oil drilling. An area in which he possessed expertise and a problem he intended to rectify.

The main resort guest accommodations appeared as the driver wound up the drive. A sense of welcome engulfed him at the rustic charm, and the floor to ceiling windows and skylights with their majestic views of the mountains.

Minutes later, his security team ushered him through the enormous lobby, which boasted massive stone fireplaces and cozy seating nooks, to a large conference room where the other COIN members joined him.

“I’ll see that your luggage is stowed and your suite properly prepared,” Hector said, then excused himself.

Stefan nodded, then greeted each of the royals in turn while a staff waiter uncorked champagne and passed it amongst them.

“We have much business to attend to,” Amir said. He gestured toward Stefan. “Stefan has alerted us that he received a warning not to trust anyone while here. We do not take this warning lightly. Yet we must forge ahead unscathed by the hostility of those who oppose us.”

“Here, here,” Sebastian said, then raised his champagne flute for a toast. The men clinked glasses.

“The summit begins tomorrow, but tonight is for us to relax.” A broad smile filled Amir’s face. “I chose this resort for its privacy, beauty and charming hospitality. It would be shameful if we did not become acquainted with the area and partake of the amenities offered.”

“I for one, am looking forward to those amenities,” Stefan said with a devilish grin. “And something the locals call Shoshone lamb and navy beans.”

The men laughed.

“I think a massage might be in order.” Antoine rolled his shoulders. “The long travels seem to have created a kink in my neck.”

More laughter followed as the men chatted about the possibility of attending an American rodeo, trout fishing, and hiking. A waiter appeared announcing dinner, and they were escorted into a private dining suite. Crystal chandeliers, a massive oak table, ornate molding and a picturesque view of the winding river added ambience to the artistically presented array of appetizers, meats, vegetables and desserts.

Stefan lacked a sweet tooth but tried each item displayed, his belly bulging from the fine cuisine. After dinner, drinks were served in a ballroom where they actually mingled with other guests.

Unbreakable Bond


Unbreakable Bond

Guardian Angel Investigations Series

Unbreakable Bond

For eight years Nina Nash has been told it’s time she moved past the night that changed her life forever. But the sounds of her baby’s cries at night—and the intense feeling that her little girl is still alive when she’s been led to believe otherwise—remain. Only, no one accepts her claims…except the one man who’s determined to help her uncover the truth.

Investigator Slade Blackburn takes Nina’s case, hoping to finally give her some closure. But what she really needs is someone to trust, someone to protect her…someone to erase the sadness from her beautiful blue eyes. Their search for answers turns dangerous, and Slade vows he’ll stop at nothing to ensure her survival—and reunite her with the child she knows is still out there.

Finding missing children was the only thing that kept Slade Blackburn going. The only thing that kept him from giving into the booze that promised sweet relief and numbness from the pain of his failures.

That was, when he found the children alive.

The other times…well, he locked those away in some distant part of his mind to deal with later. Much, much later when he was alone at night, and the loneliness consumed him and reminded him that he didn’t have a soul in the world who gave a damn if he lived or died.

Voices echoed through the downstairs as the agents at Guardian Angel Investigations entered the old house Gage McDermont had converted into a business and began to climb the stairs.

Slade’s instincts kicked in. He’d arrived early, situated himself to face the doorway in the conference room so he could study each man as he entered.

Not that he hadn’t done his research.

Gage had started the agency in Sanctuary and recruited an impressive team of agents.

The moment Slade had read about GAI in the paper, he’d phoned Gage and asked to sign on. Leaving his stint in the military had left him wired and honed for action, yet the confines of the FBI or a police department had grated on his newfound freedom.

Too long he’d taken orders, followed commands. Now he was his own man and wanted no one to watch over, not as he’d had to do with his combat unit.

But he needed a case.


Being alone, listening to the deafening quiet of the mountains, remembering the horrific events he’d seen, was wreaking havoc on his sanity.

He refused to be one of those soldiers who returned from war damaged and suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

He would not fall apart and become needy, dammit.

And he would keep the nightmares at bay.

By God, he’d survived his childhood and Iraq, and he wouldn’t go down now.

Still, returning to the small town of Sanctuary, North Carolina, held its own kind of haunts, and when he’d passed by Magnolia Manor, the orphanage where his mother had dropped him off without looking back, he’d questioned his decision to settle in the town.

Gage McDermont strode in and took the head seat behind the long conference table while the others filed in. Slade maintained his stoic expression, honing his self-control.

Gage gestured toward Slade. “This is Slade Blackburn,” he said. “He just finished his first case and returned Carmel Foster’s runaway daughter to her.”

The men surrounding the table nodded, then Gage gestured to each of them as he made the introductions. Slade analyzed each one in turn.

Benjamin Camp, a dirty-blond-haired computer expert with green eyes. Brilliant techy, he’d heard. Slade would bet he had a shady past. Maybe a former criminal with skills that could come in handy in a pinch.

Levi Stallings, former FBI profiler, black hair, military-style haircut, dark brown eyes. Intense, a man who studied behaviors and got into a killer’s mind. He cut his gaze toward Slade as if dissecting him under his microscope, and Slade forced himself not to react, to meet him with an equally hard stare.

First rule of engaging with the enemy: Never let on that you’re afraid or intimidated.

Not that he was, but he didn’t like anyone messing with his mind or getting too close.

Adopting his poker face, he angled his head to study the man, seated next to him, whom Gage introduced as Brock Running Deer.

“Running Deer is an expert tracker,” Gage said in acknowledgment.

A skill that would be needed in the dense mountains. He was also big, slightly taller than Slade’s own six feet, had shoulder-length brown hair, auburn eyes and was part Cherokee. He scowled at Slade as if he were permanently angry, but Slade shrugged it off. He hadn’t come here to make friends.

“And this is Derrick McKinney.”

Slade nodded toward him.

Next Gage introduced Caleb Walker, who also looked mixed heritage. He had thick black hair, black eyes, and wore a guarded expression. Gage didn’t elaborate on his particular skill, which made Slade even more curious about the man.

Gage gestured to the last man seated around the table. “This is Colt Mason, a guns and weapon expert.” Slade sized him up. Short, spiked black hair, crystal-blue eyes, sullen and quiet. He had that military look about him, as well, as if he’d stared down death and it hadn’t fazed him. Probably former Special Ops.

The door squeaked open and a petite brunette with hair dangling to her waist and large brown eyes slipped in.

Gage’s face broke into a smile. “This is Amanda Peterson, our newest recruit. Amanda is a forensics specialist, and we’re glad to have her on board.

“Now that we’ve all been introduced, I want to get you up to speed on the latest case and the arrests made in Sanctuary. Brianna Honeycutt, now the wife of Derrick, adopted an infant son when the baby’s mother, Natalie Cummings, was murdered. Our investigation revealed that Natalie learned about a meth lab in town that was connected to the creators of a lab eight years ago, the one that caused the hospital fire and explosion that took dozens and dozens of lives.”

Gage paused and twisted his mouth into a frown. “The police have made several arrests, but locals are up in arms now that they know who was responsible. There’s also been speculation that there might have been more locals involved in the lab. Lawsuits are cropping up each day, and people who lost loved ones are asking questions. Due to the fire and contamination of evidence, there are questions regarding some of those who were presumed dead.”

Slade frowned. “Presumed?”

“Ones whose bodies were never found or identified,” Gage clarified. “Among those were women and children. I expect that we might have some work ahead of us.”

Slade’s blood began to boil. Women and children… who’d died because of some stupid drug lab. Women and children whose bodies had never been identified.

Families with no answers just as his own hadn’t had answers when his older sister had disappeared. Not until Slade had found her in the morgue.

Maybe it was right that he’d come back to Sanctuary. If he had the opportunity to find closure for even one of the families involved, it was worth it.

Then maybe he could finally find peace and forgive himself for his sister’s death.

Nina’s baby’s cry haunted her every day.

Peyton would have been eight years old had she survived, the same age as the children Nina taught at Sanctuary Elementary.

She tried to envision what her daughter would look like now as she watched her students rush to the school bus, squealing and laughing, excited to be out for summer break. Most of the teachers were jumping for joy, as well.

“Freedom at last,” one third-grade teacher said with a laugh.

“Vacation,” another one boasted.

But instead of dreaming about long, lazy days at home or a vacation road trip, tears filled Nina’s eyes.

To her, summer break meant weeks of being without the kids. Long, lonely days and nights of silence. Of no tiny hands reaching out for help, no sweet voices calling her name, no little patter of feet or giggles, no little arms wrapping around her for a big bear hug.

Tortured nights of an empty house and more nightmares of what her life would have been like if her little girl were alive.

For a moment, she allowed herself to dream of taking her daughter to the beach. They’d build sand castles, collect shells, ride bikes. She could almost hear her daughter’s laughter in the wind roaring off the ocean….

The bus driver gave a big honk of its horn, jerking her back to reality. Kids waved and screamed out the window, and the bus roared away. Teachers cheered and waved, laughing and talking about their plans as they dispersed back to their rooms to tidy up for the day.

Nina wrapped her arms around her waist and watched until the last bus disappeared from the school drive, then turned and walked back inside, her chest tight.

She should be over the loss of her daughter, people had told her. “Move on with your life,” her father had insisted. “Let it go,” the ob-gyn had said.

But sometimes at night, she heard her baby’s cries, and she sensed that Peyton was still alive. That she hadn’t died in that fire. That she was out there somewhere, and that she needed her.

Moving on autopilot, she went to her classroom, packed up boxes, wiped down the chalkboard, stripped the bulletin boards and cleaned out her desk.

Finally she couldn’t procrastinate any longer. The empty room was almost as sad and overwhelming as her house. Here she could still see the kids’ cherub faces, hear their chatter and smell their sweet, little bodies.

She stuffed her worn plan book in her favorite tote, one emblazoned with a strawberry on the front and sporting the logo Teachers Are Berry Special, then added a copy of the language arts guide for the new language arts program the county had adopted, threw the tote over her shoulder, flipped off the lights and headed outside.

The late-afternoon sunshine beat down on her as she walked to the parking lot. The sound of engines starting up filled the air, and she noticed a group of teachers gathering for an end-of-the-year celebration.

Celia, her friend from the classroom across the hall from her, looked up and waved as she climbed in her minivan. Celia had invited her to join them, but she’d declined. Celebrating was the last thing on her mind.

Instead she drove to the little bungalow she’d bought in town, picked up the newspaper on the front stoop, then dragged herself inside and poured a glass of sweet iced tea. Hating the silence that engulfed her, she flipped on the television, then glanced at the front page of the paper.

The headlines immediately caught her eye.

Murder of Natalie Cummings and Kidnapping of Her Son Ryan Leads to Answers about the Hospital Explosion and Fire Eight Years Ago.

Nina skimmed the article, her own memories of the explosion taunting her. For years now the town had mourned the lives lost back then. Now they finally had answers.

Police have learned that a meth lab built by local teenagers at the time was the cause of the explosion that killed dozens. Recently Natalie Cummings had overheard students at Sanctuary High discussing a new meth lab nearby, and she was apparently murdered when she connected the current lab to the one eight years ago.

Derrick McKinney, an agent from Guardian Angel Investigations, was instrumental in uncovering the truth about the explosion, the kidnapping and murder connection.

Nina frowned, her heart racing. That night had been horrible. The explosion, the fire, the terrible confusion. The burning bodies.

Her frantic rush to find Peyton…

Her stomach knotted. She’d wondered if her baby might have been confused with another that night, or if she could have been kidnapped in the chaos.

But the investigation had been a mess, and the sheriff had assured her her fears had been unfounded. Even worse, the P.I. she’d hired had been convinced she was just a hysterical mother and had done nothing but take her money.

Still, one question nagged at her. They had never found Peyton’s body.

She glanced at the article again. Guardian Angel Investigations. They specialized in finding missing children.

Her hand shook as she went to the mantel and picked up the photo of her newborn. Peyton had been so tiny Nina had been able to hold her in one hand.

If someone had kidnapped her, how would she have survived?

Still, every night when she crawled into bed, she heard her cries. And every time she closed her eyes, a little angel’s voice sang to her in the night.

Determination and a new wave of hope washed over her as she grabbed her purse. “I’m going to find you, baby.”

If GAI had dug deeply enough to find out who’d caused that fire, maybe they could dig even deeper and find out what had happened to her daughter.

Just as the meeting was about to disperse, the bell on the downstairs door jangled. Gage gestured for the group to wait while he descended the stairs. A minute later, he returned, escorting a young woman with him.

A beautiful blonde with long wavy hair, enormous blue eyes the color of the sky on a clear North Carolina day, and a slim body with plump breasts that strained against her soft, white blouse.

But nothing about the woman indicated she was aware of her beauty.

Instead, those blue eyes looked wary and were filled with the kind of grief and sadness that indicated she’d lived through a hell of her own.

“This is Nina Nash,” Gage said. “She’s interested in our services.”

Gage gestured for her to sit down, and Slade noticed her body trembling slightly as she slid into a leather chair. Why was she on edge?

Was she intimidated by the agents, or in some kind of trouble?

“How can we help you, Miss Nash?” Gage asked.

She bit down on her lower lip and twisted her hands together, glancing at each of them as if to decide whether to continue.

“Just relax and tell us your story,” Gage said in a soothing tone.

She nodded, then jutted up her little chin, took a deep breath and spoke. “I read about your agency in the paper and saw that you found the people responsible for the hospital fire and explosion eight years ago.”

“Yes,” Gage said. “The police made some arrests.”

“I…lost my baby that night,” Nina said in a pained tone. “At least she went missing.”

A hushed silence fell across the room as everyone contemplated her statement. Finally Gage assumed the lead and spoke. “Why don’t you start from the beginning and tell us what happened.”

She rolled her tiny hands into fists as if to hold herself together. “My baby girl was early, a preemie, and I had to have a C-section,” she said as if she’d repeated this story a thousand times already. Then she rushed on as if she had to spit it out or she’d completely crumble. “I was asleep when the sound of the explosion woke me. Everyone started shouting and screaming, and I smelled smoke so I got out of bed and tried to get to the nursery, to Peyton…” Her voice cracked in the deafening silence stretching across the room.

But no one spoke. Her anguish was like a palpable force in the room.

“It was chaos,” she said on a choked breath. “Everyone was screaming, desperate to escape. Patients were struggling and needing help, and an orderly told me to go to the stairwell, but I couldn’t leave my baby so I pushed him away.”

Forbidden Passion


Forbidden Passion

Book 1 in the Demonborn Series

Forbidden Passion


Fueled by her family’s murder years ago, Dr. Marlena Bender has devoted her life to understanding violent criminals. But when a serial killer in this small Southern town starts taking the lives of women in diabolical ways—leaving trophies of his kills on Marlena’s doorstep—it all hits too close to home. Terrified, Marlena turns to the only man she can trust…the man who saved her life.


Sheriff Dante Valtrez would move heaven and earth to keep Marlena safe, but he’s not the savior she thinks he is. A dark legacy runs through his blood and a dangerous secret lies within him. Now a fierce, hot, ruthless desire draws Dante and Marlena together—as a demonic force from his past threatens to rip them apart, destroying everything they hold dear.


Fire gave him power. It was his gift. His method of attack. His best defense.

It had also become his obsession.

Thirteen-year-old Dante Zertlav raised his fist to stare at his reddening fingertips. The urge to throw a fireball ripped through him, evil beckoning.

“Don’t fight your dark side,” Father Gio commanded. “Embrace it and you can rule the world.”

Dante nodded. He’d known this day was coming, the final test for him and his band of demonic brothers. The elements were all here now, Storm and Lightfoot preparing for their own initiation.

So far, Dante had passed the initiation with flying colors. He’d tracked the animals, killed them with his bare hands. Done everything Father Gio had ordered, no matter how vile.

He’d learned long ago that disobeying Father Gio meant harsh punishments. Torture.

Being turned into the hunted instead.

But today, the last and final test would be to kill a human.

A sickening knot gripped his belly.

He didn’t know if he could do it.

A maelstrom of ancient chants and sinister voices surrounded him as the other demons gathered. Smoke curled from the fire pit, and twigs and wood snapped and crackled, shooting flames against the inky sky.

Father Gio gestured through the woods, and Dante spotted a woman and a dark-haired little girl hunched by their own small campfire roasting marshmallows. A smaller blond girl sat swinging her bare feet into the gurgling creek water.

“Your assignment is to kill the youngest one, and offer her to Helzebar.”

Dante stiffened. Although he’d been banned from attending school with mortals, he’d snuck by the schoolyards to watch. One memory struck him hard and had stuck with him.

A bully of a boy had chased a puppy into a storm drain, and this little blond had wriggled inside and rescued the animal. When she’d climbed out, she was filthy, her hair tangled, her knees scraped, but she’d scooped up the pudgy dog and sang to it like an angel.

Until that day, he’d only known demons and violence.

He’d been so enthralled that afternoon that he’d followed her home, had watched her mother laugh at the sight of the puppy. Then the little blond and her sister had played with the dog in a field of wildflowers until they’d both collapsed in a fit of giggles.

He’d envied their laughter. Their innocence.

Their happy family.

They had no idea demons lurked in the woods of Mysteria, Tennessee. No idea the demons had decided to hunt humans in their own backyards.

“Storm will take the oldest girl, Lightfoot, the woman.” Father Gio placed a clawlike hand on Dante’s shoulder, drawing him back to the present. “But yours will be the biggest sacrifice for you are meant for great things.”

Pride mushroomed in his chest. But anxiety tightened his breath at the same time. He had embraced the darkness within him, had enjoyed the hunt, the taste of the animals’ blood, the screech of the kill.

He liked pleasing his master.

But something about taking this young girl’s life felt… wrong, and needled at his conscience.

A conscience he thought he’d buried long ago.

Suddenly a roar of thunder rent the air, the collective hiss of the demons’ war cries erupting, and Storm and Lightfoot charged toward their prey. The dark-haired girl cried out in terror.

“Run!” the mother cried as she shoved her daughters into the woods.

Both girls screamed as they stumbled over broken logs and brush in their haste to escape. But Storm and Lightfoot’s human forms shimmered into monsters as they attacked.

Storm swept the mother up by her hair and flung her across the woods, her body bouncing off a boulder a few feet away. Blood spurted from her forehead as she tried to get up, but her leg was twisted, broken, and she collapsed with a sob as Storm jumped her again. Lightfoot caught the dark-haired girl and swept her up as if she was air itself.

The little blond ducked behind an overhang on the ridge, eyes widening in horror as she stared at the grisly scene.

Indecision ripped through Dante. If he disobeyed, he would be ostracized from the only family he’d ever known.

How would he survive out here all alone? The demons would eat him alive…

Then the little girl spotted him. “Help me. Please help me.”

Pain squeezed his lungs at her haunted whisper. She was so tiny, so young. How could he squash the life out of her?

He couldn’t.

Tamping down the fire heating his fingers, he ran toward her, threw her over his back, then raced through the woods, adrenaline churning as the demons gave chase.

Behind him, the thunderous roar of the demons cheering Storm and Lightfoot rent the air, then Father Gio’s voice commanding him to bring the girl back.

But the frail girl clung to him, burying her head against his shoulder, and protective instincts surged inside him. The fiery breath of one of the demons stung his back, but he flung fireballs at the demon, warding them off as he raced through the forest.

Finally he reached a clearing and spotted a dingy white church on top of the hill. He’d never been inside a church and wondered if lightning would strike him if he entered. But it was the only safe place for the girl, so he dashed up to the doorway, shoved it open, and slipped inside.

The scent of burning candles filled the air, and a rainbow of vibrant colors illuminated the room from the stained-glass window above the pulpit, a calm peacefulness enveloping the chapel.

The little girl whimpered, and he carried her to the front pew and placed her on it.

“Wh… o are y… ou?” she whispered.

“My name is Dante,” he said softly. “What’s your name?”

Her lip trembled. “Marlena…”

“You’ll be safe here, Marlena. Just stay inside.”

Tears streaked her face as she reached for him. “I’m scared… Don’t leave me.”

The wooden floor creaked, jerking his attention to the pulpit, and a priest wearing a long robe appeared from the back. His intense gaze pinned Dante, as if he could see into his black soul.

Regret and sorrow for all he’d done bled through Dante. But he didn’t belong here, not in this holy place.

He cupped the little girl’s face between his hands to quiet her. “You’ll be all right now,” he said, then lowered his head and pressed a kiss in her blond curls. She smelled of sweetness and innocence, things he’d never known. “The priest will take care of you.”

Her lower lip quivered, tearing at him, but the earth shook and rumbled, the demons roared outside, and he knew he had to leave.

She was safer far away from him.

So he turned and fled through the doorway.

But as he stepped outside, the demons’ angry chants echoed from the forest. He couldn’t go back to Father Gio. He didn’t belong with the demons.

He didn’t want to be evil anymore.

But he wasn’t good either, and he didn’t belong with the humans.

He had to make his own path. Pay penitence for his sins before he lost his soul completely.

Chapter One


Evil has no rules. It always wins.

That creed had been beaten into Dante as a child. And when the portals from the underground to the Earth had opened on All Hallows’ Eve three months ago, the pull of evil had grown stronger.

The very reason he’d returned to Mysteria. The reason he’d become sheriff.

His penance was to protect the town from his own kind.

And part of that job meant checking the underground tunnels where the demons thrived.

But as he strode through the tunnels, the darkness called to him like a siren begging him to her bed. Hard to resist.

The evil gave him great power in his hands, fueled his firestarter abilities.

It also threatened to turn him into a monster as it had his demon brothers years ago.

The scent of impending death and doom hovered in the dank air. Somewhere in the cavern, he detected a shapeshifter nearby. He heard the hiss of fangs snapping. The cry of an animal drawing its last breath.

Ever since the new lord of the underworld Zion had risen, Dante had noted more widespread chaos and violence across the States.

He’d heard that new demon factions had formed, making plans, honing their powers to please Zion, the most notorious leader of the underworld ever known. Some said Zion was a direct descendant of Satan.

Father Gio was probably working for him now.

Dante’s gut tightened. He’d have to confront him eventually. Destroy him if he returned and began preying on the town.

Dante’s cell phone buzzed, and he glanced at the number, his hand tightening around the phone. His deputy, Hobbs.

A man he didn’t trust. Then again, he didn’t trust anyone.


“Sheriff, that doctor lady named Marlena Bender phoned again to see if there were any leads on those missing blood vials from BloodCore.”

Dante gritted his teeth. He’d seen the file on his desk and had been shocked to learn that she’d moved back to Mysteria.

Just as he had to face Father Gio, he had to face her. But not yet.

“I’ll call her when I get time,” Dante said. After all, a few missing vials of blood could wait.

The demons in the darkness posed a more imminent danger.

Marlena Bender forced herself to walk through the cemetery to her mother and sister’s graves. Gravel and dead leaves crunched beneath her shoes, the shadows of the ancient burial ground eerie in the waning moonlight. Dead flowers and faded plastic arrangements swayed and drooped beneath the elements, and dry parched grass bled between the rows of dirt-covered graves. A fresh mound a few rows over made her chest clench and stirred memories of the last time she’d stood here, burying her own family.

Images of the horrible night they’d died taunted her. Her mother and sister’s screams echoed in her ears and suddenly a shimmering light sparkled in a hazy glow as if their spirits had appeared.

She blinked, shivering at the thought, the winter wind biting through her as it whipped leaves and twigs around her ankles. Moonlight glinted off the granite tombstones highlighting their names and the date their lives had ended.

Beloved mother and sister—gone too soon.

Lost to a horrible fate.

But she had survived. Not for the first time, she’d questioned why she’d been saved.

And the man—the boy—who had rescued her.

Just the thought of seeing Dante Zertlav made her chest clench with anxiety.

Although he’d saved her life, questions plagued her. What had he been doing in those woods? How had he been able to run so fast?

And who had attacked and killed her mother and sister?

Had they been monsters as she remembered, or had her childhood imagination simply played a trick on her mind as the doctors who’d treated her had suggested?

She’d wanted to talk to Dante back then to find out what he’d seen, but she’d been too traumatized, and her grandmother had whisked her out of town as if the devil had been on their tails.

She’d been shocked to learn that he was the sheriff when she’d moved back to Mysteria.

She’d phoned three times this week asking if he had leads on the missing blood vials.

Apparently he wasn’t concerned.

But she was.

The missing vials held blood samples from violent criminals, individuals who professed to have paranormal powers, and the mentally and criminally insane.

One day she hoped to find a genetic abnormality that could be altered to correct deviant behavior and deter violent tendencies.

Recently she’d noted disturbing markers in some samples that made her wonder if the monsters she’d thought she’d seen as a child were real, not figments of her childhood imagination.

That was one of the reasons she’d moved back to Mysteria. Her nightmares had grown more intense lately. She had to confront her past in order to move on.

She bent and spread the rose petals across her mother’s grave, then her sister’s. “I have to know the truth about who killed you.”

And why the police had never found answers.

The ground suddenly felt as if it shifted beneath her, the dirt sucking at her feet as if the earth might literally suck her into the graves below.

She trembled. Mysteria was full of ghost stories, but she was a doctor, a scientist. She’d never believed in the paranormal.

Except for that day as a child…

But she was an adult now and she could face the truth. There had to be a logical explanation.

And what if her family’s killers had remained in Mysteria all these years?

Had there been other unexplained deaths since?

She’d have to check and see…

Thunder began to rumble, thick black clouds swallowing the moon, and a raindrop splattered her cheek, mingling with the tears she didn’t realize had fallen.

With a gloved hand, she swiped at the moisture, then turned and ran toward her car. Footsteps crunched leaves behind her, and she pivoted and scanned the distance, but the graveyard was empty. Twigs snapped on the opposite side and she jerked her head to the right. An ominous shadow floated behind a grave marker, then disappeared into the woods.

Suddenly sensing danger, she threw the car door open and collapsed inside, trembling. The shadow stood beneath the gnarled branches of a live oak, then spread his arms in a wide arc like some winged creature that had risen from the grave to attack.

God, she was seeing things again. It had to be a man. Or maybe some teenager trying to spook her.

Irritated that he’d succeeded, she started the engine and steered her Honda over the graveled drive, but the car suddenly lurched as if someone or something had pushed her forward.

Nerves on edge, she glanced in the rearview mirror, then over her shoulder, but didn’t see a car—or a person. Nothing.

It’s just the wind, she told herself.

But she felt the shove again and she accelerated, taking the curvy mountain road toward her old homestead so fast that her tires squealed and she skimmed the guardrail twice before she turned up her drive.

A tiny sliver of moonlight fought through the storm clouds and painted the turrets and attic in sharp angles as her Victorian homestead came into view, the swaying branch of an oak clawing at the frost-coated windowpane. The wind roared, seeping through her bones as she grabbed her purse and computer bag, then walked up the pebbled drive toward the wrap-around porch.

An animal howled, and she looked up and spotted a lone wolf silhouetted at the top of the ridge. Fear slithered through her like a poison eating at her as she searched the woods. She’d avoided the forest for years.

But the thick trees and dark secrets surrounded her, whispering that evil hid in the shadows, waiting to prey.

For God’s sake, Marlena. You’re a grown woman. You have to get a grip.

Desperate to shake off her anxiety, she scrubbed a hand through her tangled hair, her keys jingling in her trembling hand as she climbed the porch steps.

She would not give in to the fear. She hated the way it had paralyzed her when she was young.

Before that horrible day, she’d been a daredevil, had thought she was invincible.

But her naïveté had been shattered with her family’s brutal murder.

The wind swirled her hair around her face, but a box on the floor in front of the door caught her eye.

A small silver gift box tied with a big red bow.

Surprised, she picked it up and examined it. There was no card, no address, nothing on the outside to indicate whom it was from.

She unlocked the door and stepped inside, grateful for the blast of heat from the furnace. Yet the floors creaked, the windowpanes rattled, and the old pipes groaned like an aging person’s bones popping.

Shivering, she flipped on a light and opened the box. Surprise flared inside her at the sight of a ring lying on top of the crumpled tissue paper.

Then her heart began to pound, and apprehension tightened her shoulder blades.

A tiny pearl was set in an antique white gold setting with two small diamond chips flanking the sides. She recognized the setting—the ring belonged to Jordie McEnroe, a young waitress at the diner.

Her hand trembled.

The ring was soaked in blood.

The phone in the sheriff’s office was ringing as Dante entered. He glanced around the office for his deputy, then realized Hobbs had probably gone home for the night. Good. He wouldn’t have to deal with the man now. Dante didn’t want help, and Hobbs sure as hell didn’t like working for him. He’d wanted the job as sheriff himself.

In three quick strides, he crossed the wooden floor and grabbed the handset. “Sheriff Zertlav.”

A shaky breath rattled over the line. “Hello, who is this?”

A feminine voice finally squeaked out, “M… arlena Bender.”

He scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck. Hell. He’d wanted to stall longer, but her voice had warbled as if something was wrong. “Listen, Dr. Bender, I know you called about that stolen blood and—”

“It’s Marlena, Dante, so don’t act like you don’t know me. And I’m not calling about the blood this time,” she continued, cutting him off. “I need you to come out to my house.”

His gut tightened. Had the demons already found her? “What’s wrong?”

“I just got home,” she said, “and I found a gift… a box… on my doorstep.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will when you see it,” Marlena said. “It’s a woman’s ring, and it’s covered in blood.”

Dante frowned. “Blood?”

“Yes, and it’s fresh.”

He made a disgusted sound as his mind churned with the possibilities. “Somebody’s idea of a sick joke?”

“Maybe,” Marlena said. “But it belongs to Jordie McEnroe, the young waitress at the diner. I just saw her yesterday and she was wearing it.”

He rapped his knuckles on the desk, contemplating the situation. Why would someone leave Jordie’s ring, covered in blood, on Marlena’s doorstep?

“What if something’s happened to her, Dante?” Worry laced Marlena’s voice. “You have to check on her.”

“I’ll call the diner and see if she’s there, then come to your place and pick up the ring.” He paused. “And don’t touch it. If there has been a crime, I’ll need to dust it for prints.”

“I know.” Marlena sighed. “I just hope Jordie’s all right.”

“I’ll be there soon.”

A tense second passed. “Dante?”

He cleared his throat, tried to ignore the hint of emotion in her voice. “Yeah?”

“Don’t you need my address?”

He couldn’t admit that he already knew where she lived. That he’d followed her home as a child and watched her. That he’d checked out her house the first night he’d driven back into Mysteria.

“Yes, give it to me.”

She quickly recited it, and he disconnected the call, then punched in the number for the diner. A quick glance at the clock told him it was 9:00 p.m. The dinner rush should be over.

Finally a woman answered. “Roadside Diner. Rosy speaking.”

“This is Sheriff Zertlav. Can you tell me if Jordie McEnroe is there?”

“No, she didn’t show up tonight,” Rosy said. “And her mama is having a fit, too. It’s just not like Jordie to blow off her shift.”

An uneasy feeling slid up Dante’s spine. “Give me her address and I’ll check on her.”

“You think something’s wrong?” Rosy asked, suddenly panicked.

Dammit, he had a bad feeling. “No, just offering to ease Mrs. McEnroe’s mind.”

“Awww, Sheriff, you’re a sweetheart. I know she’ll appreciate that.”

A bitter chuckle escaped him as he hung up. If she knew he was part demon, knew the things he’d done, she sure as hell wouldn’t call him a sweetheart.

Dark shadows flickered off the tall, thick trees as he drove from Main Street toward the mountains. The roads grew curvy, more narrow, the shadows thicker, the silence more ominous. Five miles around the mountain, and he spun up the graveled drive toward Marlena’s.

The hundred-year-old blue Victorian house sat atop a hill, the paint slightly weathered, the sharp turrets and angles reminding him of an old haunted house.

Throwing the SUV into park, he climbed out, pulling his bomber jacket around him to battle the brittle wind as he walked up to the porch. The steps creaked as he climbed them, and the sound of a wolf howling from the woods made him twist his head and scan the edge of her property.

The trees shivered, but if there had been one nearby, it had disappeared.

Bracing himself to see Marlena again, and hoping like hell she’d turned into a geeky adult who would hold no temptation for him, he raised his fist and knocked.

But his lungs tightened when she opened the door.

She was even more beautiful than he could have imagined, a radiant full moon against a blinding sea of night.

From her heavy breasts to her narrow waist to hips that flared enticingly, she painted a picture of seduction. But she was the last woman on earth he could think about taking.

Gritting his teeth, he swallowed back guilt. But even as he fought it, the dark side of him emerged, lust heating his body.

Wavy, blond hair that looked like silk shimmered over her shoulders, and her frightened eyes were still the palest, oddest shade of green he’d ever seen.

He’d never forgotten those eyes. They had been luminous and trusting when she was a child. Now that she was a woman, they could suck a man in with their sensuality and promises.

But horror and sadness had filled them the day of the attack.

And that horror and sadness had taunted him day and night, reminding him of what he was.

She’d been made a homeless child because of his demon family. And if she knew the truth, she’d hate him.

He had washed his hands in her blood.

He was obsessed with it now. The thick, sticky crimson as it flowed from open wounds. The coppery metallic scent as it filled the air.

The tiny splatters that looked like artwork on the walls and his shirt.

Blood was the life force of the body. The river that swept a person along.

The heart and soul that gave life and took it away.

He lifted his fingers and stared at them now. Remembered the woman’s body as she’d jerked and screamed and begged him to stop.

She had had to die.

So did the others.

It was the only way to stop them from becoming like him. A monster. A child of the devil.

A killer who stole lives for pure pleasure and worshipped the evil growing inside him. The evil that gave him strength.

Strength and a power he’d never possessed before.

But he’d had to set the woman on fire to throw off the cops. Couldn’t let them know the real reason she’d had to die.

Besides, Zion had given him his orders. Make it look as if a firestarter had killed the girl.

And leave his trophy with the woman Marlena. The one who’d caused Dante to fail his initiation.

The woman who would have to die so Dante could find his way back to his father.

Rawhide Ranger


Rawhide Ranger

The Silver Star of Texas Series

Rawhide Ranger

Texas Ranger Cabe Navarro was full-blooded Comanche—his ripped frame even recalled history’s greatest warriors. Raven haired and eagle-eyed, Cabe trespassed on sacred land to investigate ritual murders, only to fix his full attention on the daughter of a local rancher.

They were on opposite sides of the law, and their initial attraction could have killed the case dead. But when Jessie Becker became a prime target for foul play, all bets were off. Knee-deep in dangerous territory, Cabe made quick decisions to keep her alive—and almost at arm’s length. He knew she needed his brand of protection, as a Texas Ranger and as a man. And that he was helpless to fight it when the line between the two started to blur…

“The case is not over,” Ranger Lieutenant Wyatt Colter announced to the task force gathered in the courthouse in Comanche Creek. “We still have a murderer to catch.”

Ranger Sergeant Cabe Navarro frowned. The last place in the world he wanted to be was back in his hometown. When he’d left it years ago, he’d sworn never to return.

But he couldn’t disobey an order. And so far, the multiple murder case had been a mess. National media was starting to take interest, and if they didn’t solve the case soon, the Rangers would be usurped by the FBI and look incompetent.

None of them wanted that.

Still, if they thought he could be a buffer between the Native Americans and Caucasians in town, they were sorely mistaken.

Cabe had never fit in either world.

Ranger Lieutenant Colter introduced the task force members. Forensic anthropologist Dr. Nina Jacobsen. Ranger Sergeant Livvy Hutton who absentmindedly rubbed her arm where she’d just recently been shot. And Reed Hardin, the sheriff of Comanche Creek.

Hardin cast a worried and protective look at Hutton, cementing the rumor that Cabe had heard that they had gotten involved on the case and now planned to marry.

“Okay,” Wyatt said. “Let’s recap the case so far. “First, two bodies were found on the Double B, Jonah Becker’s ranch, property the Native Americans claim was stolen from them. The first body was Mason Lattimer, an antiquities dealer, the second, Ray Phillips, a Native American activist who claimed Becker stole the land from the Natives.”

“They have proof?” Cabe asked.

“Supposedly there is evidence that suggests Billy Whitley forged paperwork to make it appear that the land originally belonged to Jonah Becker’s great-greatgrandfather. That paperwork overrode the Reston Act which had given the Natives ownership.”

Cabe made a sound of disgust in his throat. “No wonder the Native Americans are up in arms.”

Lieutenant Colter nodded, then continued, “Marcie James, who worked at the land office, had planned to testify against Jerry Collier, the lawyer who brokered the deal, but she went missing two years ago. Evidence indicated she was murdered and buried on the property and construction of the road going through was halted.”

He paused. “But we now know Marcie faked her kidnapping and murder. She resurfaced though, but someone caught up with her, and killed her at a cabin on Becker’s property.”

Sheriff Hardin stood, a frown on his face. Cabe had heard that Hardin was protective of his town and his job. “My deputy Shane Tolbert was found standing over Marcie’s body holding a Ruger. He claimed he was knocked unconscious and someone put a gun in his hand. We arrested him, but forensics indicated that the blood spatter and fingerprints were consistent with his story, so he was released.” Hardin rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “But his father, Ben, was certain we were gunning to pin the crimes on his son, and tried to kill me and Sergeant Hutton.”

“Ben Tolbert is in jail?” Cabe said.

“Yes. He copped to threatening us and destroying key evidence, as well as setting fire to the cabin where Marcie was murdered, but not to murder.”

“Daniel Taabe, the leader of the Native American faction, was also murdered?” Cabe asked, knowing Taabe’s death was the trigger for bringing him into the case. Everyone in town thought the Rangers were trying to cover up the crime.

“Right.” Lieutenant Colter’s eyes snapped with anger. “So far, our suspects include Jonah Becker, his son Trace, his lawyer Jerry Collier who brokered the land deal, the mayor Woody Sadler who could have been protecting Shane as Ben did, and possibly Charla Whitley, Billy Whitley’s wife.”

Holy hell. Half the town were suspects. Between that and the war raging between the Caucasian faction and Native American faction, he had his job cut out.

Especially since both sides detested him.

He’d get this case tied up as soon as possible, and leave town. And this time, nothing would bring him back.

Anxiety plucked at Cabe as he parked at the Double B where the murder victims’ bodies had been found. He scanned the area, half expecting an ambush.

Someone had been sabotaging the investigation at every turn, and he had to be on guard every minute.

According to the lieutenant, Jonah Becker was furious at having the Rangers on his property. And he certainly wouldn’t welcome Cabe in town or on his ranch.

Jonah had always made it clear that he thought the Comanches were beneath him.

Not that Cabe cared what the rich bastard thought. He’d dealt with prejudice all his life. Prejudice from both sides.

But his Native blood ran deep. So did his cop instincts.

And as he climbed from his SUV, the scent of death surrounded him.

According to Dr. Jacobsen, the forensic anthropologist brought in to study the bones of an unnamed cadaver that had also been found here, one grave held ancient bones belonging to a Native. That grave suggested that this land was a Native American sacred burial ground. Worse, the body had been moved.

Dr. Jacobsen was right.

The ancient war cries and whispers of the dead bombarded him as he walked across the dusty, rock-strewn rugged land. There were other graves here. Graves of Natives who’d been buried long ago. Spirits who were upset that their sacred grounds had been disturbed.

Noting the plywood platform the forensic anthropologist had built to excavate the first finds, he muttered a silent thanks that Dr. Jacobsen had respected the grounds.

The image of the most recent corpse in the morgue flashed back, jolting him to the past and the reason he’d left years ago. The way the legs had been bound with chord, the face painted red, the eyes glued shut with clay—all part of the Comanche burial ritual. Just the way Daniel Taabe’s had been.

And exactly the way his little brother had been buried as well. Pain and grief suffused him. His little brother had died because his father had relied on the Big Medicine Ceremony to heal him instead of taking him to the hospital as Cabe had begged.

The moment they’d buried Simon, Cabe had left town, and he hadn’t spoken to his father since.

Shaking off the bitter memories, he studied the area where the bodies of the antiquities dealer Mason Lattimer and Native American activist Ray Phillips had been discovered. Forensics had already combed the area and bagged everything they’d discovered. He didn’t expect to find anything new, but took a few minutes to search himself. Yet as he touched his finger to the ground, a sense of violence and pain assaulted him full force.

He could always sense death. It was part of his Comanche heritage.

Now the stench, the anguish and suffering, the cries of the fallen Native Americans filled the air as if they still walked the land. He heard their footfalls, the stampeding horses, the screams of women and children and battle cries echoing from the ground. He saw their ghostly spirits gathering as one.

Their collective shouts that this land belonged to them.

With his gloved hand, he pushed aside a clump of thorny brush and pushed at the dirt below, then dug a sample of the clay from the ground. The lab could verify if it was the same clay used in the burial ritual.

“You’re going to jail, Becker,” he muttered. Tipping back his Stetson, he collected a sample and bagged it.

Horse hooves pounded against the ground, the sound coming closer. He glanced up, half expecting to see more spirits, but instead a woman wearing a black Stetson with silver trim approached, riding a palomino, her long curly red hair flowing in the wind.

Dammit. Jessie Becker, Jonah Becker’s daughter. He’d heard about her, seen pictures of her. She was not only a knockout but supposedly the brains behind the ranch’s recent rise in success.

And she hated the Rangers being on her land, had thwarted their attempts to interrogate her father, protecting him at every turn.

She galloped toward him, rage and anger spewing from her aura as she brought the horse to a halt barely inches from his side and glared down at him. The morning Texas sun was nearly blinding him, and he shifted his own Stetson to shade his eyes so he could see her more clearly.

God, she was a sight for sore eyes. Her nose was dainty, eyes a crystal shade of green like fresh spring grass, her body full of sexy curves. And those legs…

Her lean legs hugged the horse’s flanks just the way they would a man.

His body tightened, his sex hardening against his fly.

Double damn. He didn’t need or want to be attracted to the rancher, not when they were on opposite sides of the land issue—and perhaps the murders.

“What in the hell are you doing here?” she asked.

In spite of the anger in her voice, Cabe bit back a smile at her sassy tone. He hated pansy, whiny women and judging from her attitude—and the way she rode—she didn’t fit that category.

But he had his priorities straight. His work as a Ranger. His people—the Comanches.

And women.

In that order.

The spitfire redhead giving him a go-to-hell look was a complication. But now the damn sex kitten—rather, tigress—was part of the job, part of the task force the Rangers had put together, and he had to deal with her.

He stood to his full six-four and pasted on his most intimidating stare. “Sergeant Cabe Navarro,” he said. “I’m investigating the recent murders.”

She slid one leg over the side of the palomino and dismounted as if she’d been born in the saddle, then planted her hands on her hips and squared her shoulders. Still, her head barely came to his chest, and he could pick her up with one hand tied behind his back.

“When are you Rangers going to stop harassing my family?” she barked.

His gaze settled over her, intense and suspicious. Since the Rangers had arrived, she’d been more or less the spokesperson for the Becker family. What was she hiding?

“When we find the evidence we need to put away your father for stealing Native American property.” He paused for emphasis. “And for murder.”

Jessie Becker ground her teeth in frustration at the tall, dark-skinned Ranger’s threat. She knew exactly why he was here, and she had about as much use for him as she had for the other Rangers and the sheriff who’d been traipsing all over her property the past few days.

No, she had no use for him. They’d brought out the big guns now. This one was Native American, a sexy broad-shouldered hunky one at that. But his heritage meant that he would definitely be out to slaughter her family.

And her as well.

She had to protect her family.

“My father didn’t steal this land, and he certainly never killed anyone.” Her tone matched his, and she dug the silver toe of her boot into the dirt.

“Are you sure about that, Miss Becker? Maybe you don’t know your father as well as you think.” He stepped closer, tilted his head sideways and pierced her with his laser eyes. “Or maybe you’re covering for him.”

Her stomach fluttered with awareness, but she steeled herself against his accusations—and his sinful looks. The fringed rawhide jacket he wore gave him a rugged look that matched his brusque masculinity. Shoulder-length, thick black hair brushed his neck and his eyes were the darkest color of brown she’d ever seen. Brown and sultry and mysterious.

They were also as cold and intimidating as his thick, husky voice.

Both of which could melt the clothes right off a woman. Even hers and she was a hard sell when it came to men.

But she had to stay on her toes and couldn’t let down her guard—or her bra straps—for a second.

“Or maybe you arranged to buy the land illegally,” he said, “and you’re responsible for murder.”

“How dare you?” She raised her hand back, balled it into a fist, tempted to slug him, but his eyebrow went up in challenge, and her sanity returned. She had to get a grip. She couldn’t attack the law or she’d end up in jail. Then what would her father do?

“How dare I what?” he asked. “Try to find out the truth? Try to solve the murders that occurred on your property?”

He inched closer, so close his breath brushed her cheek. A breath that hinted at coffee and intimacy and…sex.

She folded her arms, ignoring any temptation to take another whiff. “I thought Billy Whitley killed Marcie James, Daniel Taabe, and those others?”

He shrugged. “We have reason to believe that someone else might be responsible, that Billy Whitley’s suicide note might have been forged.”

“What makes you think that?”

“The handwriting analysis didn’t pan out after all, and the blood used in the ritualistic burial doesn’t match Billy’s.”

“What blood?” Jessie asked.

“The Comanches bury their dead in a ritualistic style. They bend the person’s knees, bind them with a rope, then bathe them. Then they paint the deceased’s face red, and seal the eyes with clay. The red face paint is made from powdered ochre mixed with fish oil or animal grease and blood.” He paused again to make his point. “Human blood.”

In spite of her bravado, Jessie shivered slightly.

“After that, they dress the deceased in the finest clothing, lay them on a blanket, then wrap the body in another blanket and tie them with buffalo-hide rope. The body is placed in a sitting position on a horse and taken to the burial place west of the Comanche settlement and buried.”

“So you really think this land is sacred?”

He gave a clipped nod. “Yes. The cadaver found was definitely Native American, the bones years old.”

Jessie rubbed her arms with her hands. “But why would Billy admit that he killed Marcie and Daniel if he didn’t?”

Sergeant Navarro’s eyes darkened. “Because someone forced him to write that confession, or forged it.”

Tension stretched between them as she contemplated his suggestion. “If you think my father did all that, you’re crazy.”

His Secret Christmas Baby


His Secret Christmas Baby

Guardian Angel Investigations Series

His Secret Christmas Baby

Investigator Derrick McKinney’s quiet bachelor life was shattered when the son he just learned existed was abducted right out from under the watchful eye of his beautiful guardian. And although she was left unconscious and heartbroken, someone feared Brianna Honeycutt saw more than she claimed, placing her life in danger. Working together, Derrick now had to push aside the long-buried attraction he’d always felt for Brianna. More determined than ever to end this nightmare and put a smile back on Brianna’s face, Derrick vowed he’d stop at nothing to bring his baby home in time for Christmas…

Why can’t Robert and I adopt Natalie Cummings’s baby?” Dana Phillips asked.

Brianna tensed at the cold hardness in the young woman’s eyes. Dana and her husband had been trying to get pregnant for three years, had tried fertility treatments and in vitro fertilization but none of it had worked. Worse, they had been on the adoption list for two of those stressful years.

“You said you’d find us a baby,” Dana screeched, “but you’ve done nothing to help us. And now there’s a baby we could have and you won’t give him to us.”

Brianna understood their desperation, but Dana’s emotional state worried her. The woman was obsessed with having a child to the point that Brianna worried about placing one with her.

“I’m sorry, Dana, but Ryan is not up for adoption.”

Dana crossed her arms, tears glittering in her eyes. “Why not? His mother is dead, and he has no father. And don’t forget, I grew up in this town. I know that Natalie’s family is gone now.”

Grief for Natalie was still so raw that Brianna’s throat thickened with emotions. The fact that Natalie had been anxious her last few weeks and seemed frightened gnawed at Brianna. Women dying during childbirth were uncommon these days. Had Natalie really had heart failure?

“You know I’m right,” Dana said, her shrill voice yanking Brianna from the worry that something hadn’t seemed truthful about the doctor’s explanation.

“I understand that you’ve waited a long time, Dana, but Natalie asked me to be guardian of her child, and I promised her I would.”

“You would be taking good care of him if you gave him to us,” Dana pleaded.

“But Natalie wanted me to raise him.” Brianna reached for Dana to calm her, but Dana jumped up and paced across Brianna’s office, her anger palpable.

“Listen, Dana, I know you’re desperate, but we’ll find you a child. I promised Natalie that I would raise Ryan, though. Natalie was like a sister to me. I have to keep that promise.” Besides, the moment she’d held the newborn, she’d fallen in love with him.

“That little boy deserves to have a mother and a father, Brianna, and you can’t give him that. You’re not even married.”

Brianna sucked in a sharp breath. “Dana, I’m not going to argue with you. I’ve already legally adopted Ryan. Believe me, it’s what Natalie wanted.”

“It’s what you wanted,” Dana said in a high-pitched voice. “You’re selfish. You took him for yourself even though you know he’d be better off with two parents. You act like you care and that you’re some Goody Two-shoes, but you don’t give a damn about Robert and me. You’re only thinking about yourself.”

“Dana, I will keep looking and find you a child. I promise. Maybe we can find a private adoption—”

“We can’t pay thousands for a baby and you know it,” Dana cried. “That’s why you have to give us Ryan.”

Brianna stood, her voice firm. “Dana, Ryan is my child now, and no one is going to take him from me.”

Derrick McKinney settled into the chair at the Guardian Angel Investigations Agency, his mind heavy. Now he was back in Sanctuary, North Carolina, he had to visit Natalie Cummings’s grave and pay his respects.

But visiting any grave after his last case was going to be a bear. He still couldn’t get the image of the child’s small tombstone out of his mind. If he’d only been sooner, figured out that the mother was lying….

Footsteps sounded from the upstairs of the old house that had been converted into a business, and Gage McDer-mont strode down the steps. Derrick hadn’t seen him in ten years, but Gage still exuded confidence and authority.

Derrick had read about Gage’s departure from the Raleigh Police Department and how he’d found Leah Holden’s little sister Ruby a few months ago when she’d gone missing, and was glad to hear Gage had opened his own agency.

The fact that Gage had focused his investigative services on missing children had been a big draw. The fact that, at the agency, he wouldn’t have to play by the rules was another major plus.

To hell with rules. They could be too damn confining.

Although he wasn’t sure Gage would want his help. They hadn’t exactly been friends in school. Gage had been the popular jock whereas he’d been the sullen bad boy on a Harley.

“Derrick McKinney, good to have you here.” Gage extended his hand and Derrick stood and shook it, surprised not to find any hesitation in Gage’s tone.

“Thanks for bringing me into the agency.”

“Are you kidding?” Gage grinned. “I know your reputation, McKinney. Your specialty is missing kids and that’s what we do here.”

Except the last one which had ended badly, and he’d received some bad PR from it. “Yeah, but you saw what happened on my last case.”

Gage’s smile faded slightly, but understanding lit his eyes. “I don’t go by rumors. Besides, I know how the job goes. We have to be tough to do it, but we’re only human. We can’t get them all.”

Derrick’s throat closed with emotions he didn’t dare show, and words he dare not say. He’d learned a hard lesson on that case.

Never trust a woman. Pretty eyes, tears and seductive voices could lead a man astray real fast.

“Thanks,” he finally said.

Gage gestured for him to follow him up the stairs. When they reached Gage’s office, Gage offered him a drink, but Derrick declined. For a few days after he’d found that kid’s body, he’d drowned himself in booze.

Then one day he’d realized that drinking himself to death was too easy. He needed a clear head to remember what he’d done wrong, and he’d spend the rest of his life trying to make up for it.

Over the next hour, they reviewed office business, salary, benefits and other candidates Gage had brought into the agency. Slade Blackburn, agent. Benjamin Camp, a computer and tech specialist. Levi Stallings, former FBI profiler. Brock Running Deer, an expert tracker. Caleb Walker had special skills that he didn’t elaborate on. Colt Manson, a guns and weapons specialist. And he was trying to recruit a woman named Amanda Peterson, a renowned forensic anthropologist. Caleb and Colt hadn’t started yet, but Levi, Ben and Brock were on board.

“Do we have a case now?” Derrick asked.

Gage fingered a file. “Not at the moment. I sent Slade Blackburn to recover a young teenager who ran away. He called and will be bringing her back soon.”

“Sounds good.”

Gage nodded. “Yeah. The mother is a local, Carmel Foster. She’ll be thrilled to have her daughter, Julie, back home with her.”

“That’s what it’s all about,” Derrick said. “Connecting families.”

A smile curved Gage’s mouth. “Exactly. But we’re still growing the agency. I’d like you on board.”

Derrick shrugged. “Hell, a few days off won’t hurt me. But I am ready to go back to work, just in case you’re wondering.”

“I have no doubt.” Gage stood. “In fact, that’s why I wanted you here now. Leah and I plan to take a little second honeymoon. Ruby is staying with a friend. I need you to hold down the fort.”

“I appreciate the opportunity,” Derrick said. “I won’t let you down.”

Derrick shook his hand again, then strode down the steps and walked out into the cool December air. Christmas was coming, the town was lit up with decorations, winter on its way.

But the holidays had never been high on his list. He’d seen too much over the years, had lost faith too damn long ago to think about singing Christmas carols or shopping.

Besides, he had no one to shop for. No one to celebrate with. No one to share a cozy dinner or decorate a stupid tree.

And that was fine with him.

He climbed in his Jeep, stopped by the florist, picked up a bouquet of lilies, and drove to the cemetery on the edge of town. The little white church needed paint, but vibrant colors from the stained glass windows danced in the waning sunlight across the parched grass and dead leaves. Snow fluttered from the sky in a light downfall, sticking to branches and painting the graveyard in a soft white that made the grounds look almost ethereal, a contrast to the sadness there. A small blue sedan was parked in front of the church, and he wondered if it belonged to the minister or another visitor, but dismissed it without thought.

Tugging his coat around him, he walked through the cemetery searching for Natalie’s marker. Sprays of flowers circled a grave in the distance, and he instantly realized it had to be hers. A lone figure stood beside it, burrowed in a coat, head bowed.

He hesitated for a moment, then curiosity overcame him, and he picked his way through the rows of graves until he was close enough to see the figure more closely.

The woman wore a long black coat, and as she leaned forward to place the flowers in the vase at the head of the marker, he spotted a bundle in her arms.

A baby wrapped in a blanket.

The two of them looked like angels in the midst of the snow, like a mirage so beautiful it couldn’t be real.

Then she turned to leave, and he sucked in another pain-filled breath.

It was Brianna Honeycutt, Natalie’s best friend. Brianna, beautiful Brianna. Brianna with the raven hair and sky blue eyes. Brianna with a voice that sounded like sugar and spice and everything nice. Brianna with skin like a porcelain doll, and a body like a goddess.

Brianna who’d never wanted anything to do with him.

Her face registered shock as she spotted him, and instant regret slammed into him. He’d never had the courage to talk to her when he was young.

Then he’d slept with her best friend, a night that was a blur. Natalie had been in Raleigh, and they’d run into each other at a bar. He’d been upset about a case, and she’d had a sympathetic ear.

Too many drinks later, and they’d ended up in bed. But they’d both known it meant nothing and had gone their separate ways.

Judging from the glare Brianna sent him, she knew exactly what had happened that night and didn’t think too highly of him.

His gaze dropped to the baby, and shock hit him. Brianna had a child? He hadn’t heard that she’d gotten married.

A quick check to her finger and he saw there was no ring.

“You have a child?” he asked, wondering who Brianna was involved with.

She hesitated, her look wary, then stroked the baby’s dark blond head. “I adopted Natalie’s son. It was what she wanted.”

A knot settled in his gut. He had kept up with the town through the online news and knew that she’d died in childbirth. “Of course.”

Then the date of Natalie’s death flashed into his head, and the months fell away as he ticked them off in his head.

The dark blond hair… Hair just like his.

Was it possible that that baby was his?

Brianna clutched baby Ryan to her, a frisson of alarm ripping through her at the sight of Derrick McKinney.

That same feeling of hopeless infatuation she’d felt as a young girl followed. Hopeless because he’d never even noticed her.

Just as she remembered, he was tall, muscled and broad-shouldered. The wind tossed his wavy dark blond hair across his forehead, snow dotting his bronzed skin. His eyes were the color of espresso, a magnetic draw to them that made her body tingle with want. She could still see him dressed in all black, tearing around the mountain roads on that Harley.

Sexuality leaked from his pores just as masculinity radiated off his big body. But even as need and desire swirled through her, fear sank like a rock in her stomach.

He suddenly stalked toward her, his jaw clenched, his eyes darkening as they raked over her and settled on the bundle in her arms.

She’d wondered who the baby’s father was, and had feared it might be Derrick, but Natalie had insisted he wasn’t. Besides, he hadn’t been in Natalie’s life the last nine months, nor had he attended the funeral, so she’d assumed that if he was the father, he didn’t want anything to do with the little boy.


She stiffened. His voice sounded rough and deep, the sensuality in his tone igniting desire inside her.

She had to get a grip. Had to steel herself against him. He’d slept with her best friend—not her.

And she couldn’t forget it.

Tears pricked her eyelids as she zeroed in on the bouquet in his hands. He’d even brought Natalie fresh flowers.

Lilies—Brianna’s favorite.

Natalie had loved roses.

God, she was pathetic. Jealous over her friend because Derrick had obviously loved her.

He cleared his throat. “I was sorry to hear about Natalie. How tragic.”

Brianna couldn’t speak. Instead she swallowed back tears. As if the baby overheard the reminder that his mother was gone, he whimpered and began to fuss.

“I know how close you two were.” He shifted awkwardly on the balls of his feet. “This must be really hard for you.”

She nodded. “I still can’t believe she’s gone. I miss her every day.”

His gaze dropped to the fussing baby in her arms. “So Natalie had a little boy?”

Brianna took a deep breath and tugged the blanket over his face to ward off the wind. Or was it so he couldn’t see the little boy’s face? “Yes.”

“What about the father?” Derrick’s voice warbled slightly over the word father.

Wariness filled Brianna, and she rocked the baby, trying to soothe him. “He’s not in the picture.”

Derrick’s broad jaw tightened. “Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” Brianna said, trying to stick as close to the truth as possible. “Natalie never told me.”

Surprise registered on Derrick’s face. “I thought you two shared everything.”

At one time they had. But Natalie had glossed over the details of that night with Derrick. And the last few weeks she’d acted strangely, secretive, even shut her out.

Because Derrick was the father of her son? Because she knew it would hurt Brianna even more to know that Natalie shared a child with the only guy she had ever wanted?

Dark Hunger


Dark Hunger

Book 3 of the Demonborn Series

Dark Hunger


Reporter Annabelle Armstrong will go to any lengths to deliver a story, even track down Quinton Valtrez, a man she believes is a coldhearted assassin. Yet the truth about the darkly sensual Quinton is even more shocking…and the overwhelming desire he ignites is one she vows to resist.


Quinton has fought his demonic powers since he was a child. Now using his gifts for the good of national security, he can’t let himself be distracted by the beautiful, determined Annabelle. But his need for her is sudden, fierce—and could soon cost Annabelle her life. For a wicked enemy is out for vengeance, a demon who wants to draw Quinton into a life of pure evil and is willing to use Annabelle as bait. To save her, Quinton must achieve the near impossible: tame the sinister force that is both his inheritance and his curse before it claims him forever.

Peek-a-Boo Protector


Peek-a-Boo Protector

Seeing Double Series

Peek-a-Boo Protector

Police chief John Wise admired Samantha Corley’s courage when she discovered her remote cabin ransacked and an adorable baby girl in need of a bottle. The only clue to her identity was the note pinned to her blanket, stirring John’s protective instincts like nothing before. Agreeing to help Sam find out the truth, he claimed it was a purely professional pairing. But he couldn’t ignore the way his heart clenched watching Sam care for the innocent child, or the feelings baby Emmie stirred in his soul. With the danger escalating, John knew he was in way too deep. Bad guys he could handle. Caring about the fate of both baby and guardian was out of his jurisdiction….

You’ll be sorry you messed with me.”

Leonard Cultrain’s angry words echoed through Samantha Corley’s head as she drove up the winding graveled drive to her cabin. His mother, Lou Lou, one of the most bitter, crotchety old ladies she’d ever known, had insisted that her son was innocent of murdering his wife, that he never should have been arrested in the first place.

But everyone in town knew Leonard was out of jail on a technicality, and the residents were on edge.

Gravel spewed behind her as she pressed the accelerator and screeched up her driveway. Normally she wasn’t skittish, and could hold her own, but she’d feel a hell of a lot better once she was inside her house with her shotgun by her side.

Usually Sam liked living out here alone in the wilderness, but today the isolation felt eerie.

The thick dense trees rocked with the wind, the branches dipping like big hands trying to reach her, hands like Leonard’s.

Hands that could choke her just like he’d choked his wife.

Stop it; you’re just being paranoid. You’re home now.

But her headlights flickered across the lawn as she braked, and she spotted a strange car parked in front of her house.

An uneasy feeling rippled up her spine. Had Leonard come to make good on his threat?

No, this wasn’t Leonard’s old car.

The license plate was from Fulton County, the Atlanta area. She didn’t know anyone from Atlanta.

Maybe she should call the local police. Chief John Wise’s strong masculine face flashed in her mind, and for a brief moment, she wished that he was here. That he’d take charge and make sure she was safe.

But she couldn’t depend on a man. She’d learned that a long damn time ago. Besides, John wouldonly fuss at her for going out to Leonard’s. He thought she was foolish to go up against bullies like him.

The infuriating man was like most others she knew. They wanted a dainty little female, one they could protect—and control.

Sam was none of those things. In foster care, she’d learned to do the protecting and to stand up for herself.

Besides, tangling with the tall, dark brooding cop rattled her every time—and made her want things she couldn’t have. Like a man in her life?.

No, she’d check this out for herself. Maybe she simply had a visitor.

Yeah, right. Sam didn’t have a lot of friends. Acquaintances, yes, but no one she shared her secrets with. No one to sleep over.

Not since Honey had left.

Clenching her cell phone in one hand, she grabbed the baseball bat she kept with her from the backseat floorboard and climbed out.

Slowly she moved up the porch steps, glancing at the windows and searching for movement inside the house, listening for sounds of an intruder. If a car was here, someone had to be around. But where?

Her senses sprang to alert at the top of the steps. The front door had been jimmied. She held her breath and inched forward, then touched the doorknob. It felt icy against her finger, then the door swung open with a screech.

She exhaled shakily. Inside, the house was dark, the smell of fear palpable. But another scent drifted to her. A man’s cologne. Heavy. Cheap. Too strong.

She hesitated and moved behind the door. She’d be a fool to go inside. She had to call for help.

But a baby’s cry pierced the air. A baby? God, what if the child was hurt? If the parent was here for her help?

It was a small town. Everyone knew what she did for a living, that she was a children’s advocate, a guardian ad litem, and sometimes they needed her help.

Her heart stuttered in her chest. If the child was in danger, she couldn’t wait.

Still she had to be cautious. She inched into the entryway, but froze at the sight of blood in the kitchen.

Someone was hurt.

Trembling, she slipped into the corner behind the door and punched 9-1-1, then whispered that she had an intruder.

“We’ll get someone there ASAP,” the dispatch officer said. “Stay on the line.”

But the baby wailed again, and she ended the call and slipped up the stairs. Gripping the bat in her hands, she paused to listen, searching for the direction of the noise.

It was coming from her room. She scanned the hall, the extra bedroom and bath at the top of the stairs, but they were empty.

Her eyes had adjusted to the dark now, and she peered into her bedroom. The windows were closed, the bed made, nothing amiss. No signs of an intruder.

She crept inside, then realized the cry was coming from her closet. She eased opened the door and her heart clenched.

An infant was kicking and screaming from an infant carrier on the floor, a darling little girl wrapped in a pink blanket.

She knelt and scooped up the child to comfort her, her mind racing. What was going on?

There had been blood downstairs?. Someone was hurt.

The baby’s mother?

<p”>Police Chief John Wise gripped his cell phone with his fist as his father lapsed into a diatribe about his plans for John’s future.

“You know you were meant to do more than work in that hole-in-the-wall town,” his father bellowed. “The most serious crime you’ve solved has been the theft of those stupid Butterbean dolls. And that was just a bunch of kids selling them on eBay.”

John silently cursed. “You don’t have to remind me.” The case had been the talk of the small town. All the parents had been in an uproar, divided on the issue. Some blew it off as boys being boys while others wanted the kids punished for tainting the town’s biggest tourist draw.

CNN had picked up the story, plastered photos of Butterville Babyland Hospital on the news, panning the rooms where the Butterbean babies were birthed from their butterbean shells along with a picture of him in uniform as if he were guarding the dolls. Miss Mazie, the doll’s originator, had her five minutes of fame.

And he’d looked like a country bumpkin fool.

“You need to move on,” his father continued. “We want the political supporters to take you seriously when your name comes up for office.”

Sweat dribbled down his jaw. “I know, Dad. But the town needs me now. Leonard Cultrain has been released from prison and poses a threat.” Especially to the women.

His phone beeped that he had another call, and he jumped on it. “A 9-1-1 is coming in. I’ve got to go.”

“What this time? Someone’s cat up a tree?” his father said in disgust.

His father was probably right. But he’d heard enough for tonight. “Later.” He disconnected the call and clicked to dispatch. “Chief Wise here.”

“We just got a call from Samantha Corley’s house. An intruder.”

He scrubbed a hand over his face, scraping beard stubble. “Did you remind her not to go inside?”

“I told her to stay on the line but then the line went dead.”

John swore, then hit the siren, wheeled around and raced toward Samantha’s cabin. The damn woman was a magnet for trouble. That job of hers was going to get her killed one day.

Not that he didn’t admire her dedication to her calling—and her killer legs—but he wished she’d choose another line of work. Let someone else deal with the parent abusers and troubled families in the county.

But she’d grown up in a foster home, so he guessed it was her nature. Still, sometimes he worried about the blasted woman.

Why, he didn’t know. He’d known her since high school, but she’d never given him the time of day. Except for that friend of hers, Honey Dawson, who’d left town months and months ago, Sam hadn’t made many friends. And as far as he knew, she’d never had a boyfriend.

He guessed the morons in town couldn’t see past that quiet, independent demeanor of hers. That and the gossip about her father being a bad cop, killed because of it.

Coupled with the fact that she was a tough girl from a foster home and that she could outshoot most men in town, she intimidated the hell out of them, too.

But he actually admired her guts and her skill.

His mind ticked over the possibilities of who might want to harm her. Leonard had just been released today and now Sam was in trouble—could the two be connected?

Adrenaline shot through him, and he pressed the gas and sped up. If the son of a bitch had hurt her, he’d be back in the pen tonight. And this time no technicality would get him off.

His heart rate kicked up as he rounded the curve and turned onto Pine Bluff, then raced around the winding road, fighting the curves at breakneck speed. He swung onto the gravel drive leading up the ridge to her cabin on two wheels, bracing himself mentally and physically for what he might find.

He approached the cabin and screeched to a stop, then he grabbed his gun and jumped from the vehicle, scanning the periphery for an intruder, and for Sam. If the fool woman had any sense, she’d have waited outside. But he didn’t see an intruder or Sam anywhere.

It figured she’d try to handle things on her own.

He saw a dark green sedan with a dent in the front fender, then noticed the plates were Fulton County and frowned. Why would an intruder have parked in front of the house?

A coyote’s wail rent the night, trees rustled in the wind, and an owl hooted. The chill of the night engulfed him, warning him trouble was at hand. Too close by to ignore.

He inched forward, searching the porch, the windows, the doorways for signs of movement, and sounds of an intruder.

When he pushed the front door open, he saw the blood splattered on the kitchen floor, and his chest clenched.

He hoped to hell that wasn’t Sam’s blood.

Gun at the ready, he crept toward the kitchen but it appeared empty, although the blood trail led out the back door. It looked as if the intruder might have gone into the woods. God, he might have Sam with him.

Then a sound disturbed the quiet. He hesitated, tensed, listening.

A crying baby? He hadn’t seen Sam around much; surely she hadn’t had a baby without his knowing.

He pivoted to search for the child and realized the cry had come from upstairs. He slowly moved toward the staircase, but glanced in the dining room first just to make sure it was empty. Satisfied the downstairs was clear, he tiptoed up the steps, pausing to listen. If the intruder had Sam up there, he wanted to catch him off guard.

But just as he turned the corner of the staircase, a shadow moved in front of him. He reacted instantly and raised the gun. “Police, freeze.”

A strangled yelp made him pause, then an object swung down. He jumped back to dodge the blow, and the object connected with the floor.

What the hell?

He flipped on the light aiming his gun at the source, then Sam screamed.

His heart hammered. “Sam! For God’s sake, I could have shot you.”

She pulled back, her eyes huge in her pale face. “John?”

He heaved a breath, trying to control his raging temper. She could have killed him with that damn bat.

“Did you see anyone?” she whispered shakily.

Feeling like a heel for yelling at her, he reached out and stroked her arms. Her dark curly hair was tousled, her cheeks flushed, and fear glimmered in her vibrant brown eyes. “No. It looks like the intruder went out the back door.”

“There was blood,” she whispered. “Someone’s blood?.”

He pulled her up against him, surprised at how soft she felt when she was such an athlete, was so well-toned. “I know, but it’s all right,” he murmured. “I’mhere now.”

She allowed him to soothe her for a brief second, then Sam suddenly pulled away as if she realized she’d let down her guard and shown a weakness by letting him touch her.

He stiffened. What was wrong with him? He had a job to do, and this was Samantha Corley, Miss Cool and Independent.

Although he had to admit that he’d liked the way she felt up against him.

“I’m sorry, I was just shaken for a moment.” Sam blushed and squared her shoulders, chastising herself for acting so wimpy. But the thought that the little baby might have been in danger frightened her.

“Don’t sweat it,” he said. “Let’s go sit down and you can tell me what happened.”

She nodded, but the little girl whimpered from the bedroom again, and she whirled around. “Let me get the baby.”

“Baby?” his gruff voice echoed behind her as he followed her into her bedroom.

He paused at the doorway as if uncomfortable entering her private room, then cleared his throat and walked on in, following her to the closet.

She opened the door, then knelt and scooped up the whimpering child in her arms. “Shh, sweetheart, it’s all right. I’ll take care of you.”

“Good grief, Sam, what’s going on? You have a baby in the closet?”

She wrapped the blanket snugly around the child and patted her back as she turned to him. “Whoever was here, the mother maybe, left her in my room.”

Shock strained his features for a brief second, then she saw the wheels turning in his mind. “I see.”

She swallowed, cradling the infant to her chest, then gestured toward the diaper bag as the little girl began to fuss. “Can you grab that and bring it downstairs? She might be hungry. I’ll give her a bottle.”

He gave a clipped nod, then yanked the frilly pink bag up with one hand as if it were a snake, and she almost laughed.

She started toward the stairs, but John reached out a hand to stop her. “Let me go first just in case the intruder decided to return.”

Her chest tightened, but she nodded. He braced his gun again as they descended the steps, his gaze scanning the foyer and rooms, but the house appeared to be empty.

She headed to the kitchen, but again he stopped her. “That room is a crime scene now, Sam. You can’t go inside.”

She bit her lip and jiggled the baby up and down. “But the baby needs to be fed.”

He shifted, looking uncomfortable, then glanced into the kitchen, which adjoined the den. “All right. Sit down in the den and tell me what to do. We can’t touch the blood or door. I want a crime unit to process the kitchen for forensics.”

She nodded, took two steps and settled in the rocking chair, cradling the baby to her and rocking her.

“Let me call for backup first.” He phoned the station. “I need a crime scene unit out at Samantha Corley’s house along with officers to search the woods.” He hesitated and glanced at Sam. “And bring the bloodhounds. We might be looking for a body.”

A shudder coursed through her as he disconnected the call. Then he turned to her with a helpless expression as he searched the diaper bag and pulled out a plastic bottle. “No ID or wallet inside. What do I do with the bottle?