Worth Dying For


Worth Dying For

Book 3 in the Slaughter Creek Series

Worth Dying for


The sadistic experiments conducted in Slaughter Creek have left the town mired in mystery. As Special Agent Rafe Hood works to tie up the loose ends, the discovery of a grisly murder reveals there’s a new killer at work. Someone they’re calling “The Dissector.” Someone who keeps his victims’ body parts as gruesome trophies…

Special Agent Liz Lucas has been on leave, recovering from the trauma of her last case. But returning to find the Dissector will demand extra caution—especially with Rafe leading the investigation. The last time the two worked together, passions ran high and the resulting emotional interference with the case nearly cost Liz her life.

Now, even though their attraction is more magnetic than ever, Liz and Rafe will need to resist getting involved again if they’re to avoid the lethal distraction. As mounting evidence suggests the Dissector’s kills are personal, a threat returns from Liz’s past that suggests she was hardly safe to begin with…

Cold Case at Carlton’s Canyon


Cold Case at Carlton’s Canyon

Book 4 of the Cold Case Series

Cold Case at Carlton's Canyon

Two officers’ badges—and hearts—are on the line in Rita Herron’s Cold Case at Carlton’s Canyon

Sergeant Justin Thorpe has dedicated his life to justice and won’t stop until he finds the vicious serial killer who has already claimed ten innocent lives. He works solo—until he joins forces with Sheriff Amanda Blair. The Texas Ranger can’t let his desire for his coworker keep him from his mission, especially when Amanda’s life is threatened.

Ten girls have vanished—one for every year since Amanda graduated from Canyon High. And as she tries to fight her attraction to a man as independent as she is, a trap is being laid to make Amanda the final victim in a killer’s terrifying endgame….

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 shoes.in 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?.

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.

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?

Say You Love Me


Say You Love Me

Say You Love Me

A columnist for the Big Easy’s hottest erotic magazine, Britta Berger has heard her share of wild, hidden desires. But beneath her sophisticated facade, Britta is running from much darker secrets—including the terrifying night she barely survived. Now someone from her past has returned to play a merciless game. And only one man can help her…

Detective Jean-Paul Dubois knows instinctively that Britta is the key to ending the string of vicious ritualistic murders that plague his city. But still haunted by his past, he must resist the dangerous attraction between them. For lurking deep in the shadows of the bayou, a killer waits to end her life—and their future—with one devastating final strike.


The bayou killed.

But it also gave life. And it was home.

As was the covens.

They thrived in the swampland, creating their black magic just as they would tonight as he began his own private kingdom.

The magic circle had been formed. The mandrake root had been pulled, a task itself that had put him at risk for death. But he had withstood the maddening shriek as he’d confiscated the plant, knowing the importance of it for his ritual.

At sixteen, he was finally a man.

He studied the thirteen-year-old girls as they were brought before him, the flames from the open fire illuminating their pale, frightened faces. They stood shivering in thin white virginal dresses, their heads bowed in fear, yet sublimation. Symbolic, yes. But the translucent cotton fabric also offered a reprieve from the vicious heat of the bayou and teased him with a sneak peak at the supple bodies that lay beneath. Two blond girls studied him as if he had not earned the right to be a man.

But he had.

Just as the full moon glowed, hypnotic, beckoning the animals to prowl, the wild to hunt, the men to mate. Just as the drums of Mardi Gras pounded out the ancient voodoo priestess spells.

It was time for the passage.

And he could choose among the girls offered.

Automatically one stood out. He’d watched her for ages. Known he wanted her. Her eyes haunted him.

Adrianna Small.

Her hair flamed as red as the sunset on the deep murky Mississippi River. Her temper matched it fiercely.

She was a bad girl. Defiant. Adversarial. A fighter.

One who needed to be broken.

He met her gaze and held it, uncertainty gnawing at him like the mosquitoes clawing at his bare legs. He could never please his father. Wasn’t tough enough. Big enough. Enough of a fighter. The other boys laughed at his artwork. Called him a sissy and other vile names.

Would he be man enough for Adrianna?

Yes, he had spread the mandrake root oil on his body, inhaled the intoxicating aroma, grateful the aphrodisiac would entice Adrianna to succumb to his wishes. She just had to get near him…

A frog croaked from the depths of the backwoods. An alligator lay stone still, searching for his own prey, waiting, watching, ready to pounce. The mysteries of the wild surrounded him, the scent of jasmine, marshy land, danger. Spanish moss draped the cypress trees along the swampland with gnarled witch-like fingers, hiding its secrets, ready to snatch another lost soul to the tangled wild vines and brush of the backwoods. Yet honeysuckle and verbena sweetened the air.

“Now, son.” His father, tall and commanding, placed his hand on his shoulder. “You have chosen the first, the one to begin your kingdom?”

“Adrianna,” he said, his palms sweating. Drums pounded as the masked musicians and the clan danced around the fire. The witchdoctor screeched his secret chant. Sobek had to be pacified tonight.

“Ahh, the feisty one. The one with the witch’s eyes.” An odd expression replaced his smile. “She would be the perfect sacrifice to the Crocodilian gods.”

He trembled at the thought. “No, father. I want to keep her for myself.”

“No, son. She has the evil in her just like her mother.”

His father gestured toward Mrs. Small, a frail woman who’d been drugged since her arrival. His father had found her on Bourbon Street and brought her and her daughter to safety with the clan. The tenth woman his father had added to his own kingdom.

Now he knew his father’s true reason.

Adrianna’s mother brushed her daughter’s hair from her cheek in a motherly gesture, then suddenly pushed her forward. Did she know the extinct of her offering?

His father jerked her up beside him, and the voodoo priestess doused her with oil and whispered a spell of love and fertility.

Adrianna’s icy look chilled his blood as if she had silently cast a death spell upon him. Maybe she was a secret member of one of the covens, a witch who had enticed him for her own sick motives. Or maybe she was born of the swamp devil herself. After all, no one knew who her father’s identity.

The clan surrounded them, chanting and clapping to the beat of the drums, urging them to start the celebration into adulthood. Snakes hissed and spewed venom from the depths of the fiery pit. The crude carvings of the crocodile surrounded them. The battle between good and evil.

He reached for Adrianna, the special necklace he’d crafted for her dangling in his other hand. His gift — the serpent swallowing its tail — it symbolized the great work of alchemy, the transformation into a higher form already inherent within it. That was his gift for Adrianna. If evil possessed her, he would cure her of it. Then he could save her.

But she screamed in protest, then threw the necklace into the dirt and spit at him. His father slapped her, and she wrenched free, grabbed a rifle near the fire, raised it and a gunshot blasted the air. The bullet slammed into his father’s chest and sent his body flying backward. Shouts and cries erupted. He went numb at the sight of the blood spilling from his father’s crumpled body. Like a scarlet river, it ran down his white shirt and splattered onto the ground.

“I could never love you,” Adrianna screamed at him. “You can’t make me.”

Then she turned and ran into the bowels of the bayou. Like predators ready to swallow her, the weeping willows and gnarled branches of the oaks and cypress trees captured her into the black abyss.

Chaos erupted. The witch doctor knelt to tend to his father. His father’s wives surrounded him, as did the rest of the clan.

“He’s dying,” someone whispered frantically.

The still waters of the bayou that had lain eerily quiet mere seconds ago, churned to life. The gators’ yellow eyes pierced the blackness, searching for prey. One crocodile shot forward, his teeth gnashing. Adrianna had crossed into the unknown part of the swampland where danger awaited.

The bayou took lives. The animals, the plants, the heat, it was relentless. She didn’t even have water. And the snakes and alligators lay waiting for their next meal. Then there was the fabled swamp devil who met at Devil’s Corner. He would eat her alive.

There was no way she would survive the night.

He knotted his hands into fists. After what she’d done, she didn’t deserve to live. She deserved to be punished. To suffer the bayou.

One of the men shouted that they had to find the girl murderer. He ran for a pirogue to take on the river to search for her.

Although if the swamp devil or the gators got her first, there would be nothing left to bury, nothing but mutilated flesh, bones and tissue…

No, he’d find her first. Then he’d make her pay for killing his father.

Chapter One

New Orleans — thirteen years later. One week before Mardi Gras.

“I know your secrets. And you know mine.”

The hairs on the nape of Britta Berger’s neck stood on end as the note slipped from her hand to the wrought iron table. She’d already sifted through a half dozen letters for her Secret Confessions column at the magazine she worked for, Naked Desires. All erotic. Some titillating, others romantic as they described various private confessions and sexual fantasies. Some bordered on S & M. And others were plain vulgar and revealed the debauchery of the south’s sin city.

But this note felt personal.

An odd odor wafted from the envelope, a scent she vaguely recalled. One that made her skin crawl.

Powdery sugar from her morning beignet settled like snowflakes on the charcoal gray paper as she glanced around the crowded outdoor cafe to see if someone was watching her. A drop of sweat trickled into her bra, a side effect of the record high warm temperatures for January.

Or maybe it was nerves.

The French Quarter always seemed steeped in noise, but today excitement buzzed through the air like mosquitoes on a frenzy. The twelve days of partying and parades organized leading up to Mardi Gras had already brought hordes of masked creatures, artisans, musicians, voodoo priestesses, witchdoctors, tourists, and crime. Bourbon Street fed the night life and drew the tourists with its infamous souvenir shops, voodoo paraphernalia, palm readers, street musicians, strip clubs, jazz and blues clubs, seedy all-night bars. And then the hookers…

The massive crowd closed around her as the sidewalk seemed to move with them. Any one of them could be the enemy. Any one of them could have sent her the note. Battling panic, she reread the words. I know your secrets. And you know mine.

Yes, she’d done things she wasn’t proud of. Things no one else must ever know. They would say she was a bad girl. But she had done what she had to do in order to survive.

The very reason she was the perfect editor for the Secret Confessions column. She wanted her privacy. Understood that the written word could be evocative. But the fantasies deserved to be kept anonymous.

Just as she tried to do with her identity. Always changing her name. Running.

And what better place for her to hide than in the heart of New Orleans, so near where it had all happened? Working for this magazine was the perfect cover, the perfect way for her to blend with the masses.

But how could the person who’d written the note know about her past? The horror. The shame. The lies.

They couldn’t. It was impossible. She’d never told a soul.

Furious, she stuffed the note inside the envelope. It was probably just a prank from some sex-starved fan who wanted to win her attention like the pervert with the fetish for penis-rings who’d exposed himself to her in Jackson Square last week.

Just because she printed sexually explicit material, some people thought she understood their individual desires. Condoned their behavior. And that she wanted them personally.

Shivering at the thought, she tried to shake off her anxiety. No one knew the real Britta Berger.

And no one ever would.

She took a deep drink of water to swallow the remnants of the beignet which had lodged in her throat. In the background, the blues singer drifted into a slow tune, crooning out his heartache blues. A tall man around forty with a goatee and wire-rimmed glasses strode by and stared at her. She froze. Was he going to stop? Tell her he had sent the note. That he’d been following her. Waiting to watch her reaction?

Oddly though, he winked at her, and strode down the crowded sidewalk toward the Business District. She breathed out a sigh, but forced herself to take a mental snapshot of the man in case she saw him again.

Time to let old ghosts die. Move on.

Shaking off her paranoia, she started to close the envelope but a photo fell into her lap. A picture of a dead woman?

Was this some kind of voodoo spell?

Her heart pounding, she examined the picture more closely to see if it was real.

A naked woman had been tied to a four-poster bed. The bedding appeared rumpled, and stained with blood. The woman’s eyes were wide-open in terror, outlined in crudely painted-on black make-up, her slender young face contorted in agony. Ruby red lipstick covered her mouth, and was smeared as if she’d hastily applied it. The remainder of her make-up was grotesque, overdone to the point of making her look like a whore. And the blood red color of the lipstick matched the crimson red teddy that had been ripped and lay at her bare feet.

Where had the photo been taken? She scanned the room for details. An alligator’s head hung on the scarred wall in the dilapidated shanty. A snake was coiled by the bed. A lancet pierced her heart.

Inhaling sharply, Britta zeroed in on the necklace dangling around her bruised throat. The black stone was shaped like a serpent swallowing its tail.

Britta had seen that same necklace before. Years ago…

The man had tried to make her wear one, but she’d thrown it into the dirt and run.

The scene moved in slow motion in her mind. The scents of rotten vegetation, blood, mutilated animals, the marsh rose from the depths of her darkest hours to haunt her. Like quicksand, the muddy soil tried to suck her underground. Alligators and snakes nibbled at her heels, begging for dinner. Bones crunched where one had found his dinner.

She closed her eyes, banished the images and sounds. Visualized herself escaping. Slowly, her breathing steadied, and the panic eased in her chest. She was overreacting. The picture was probably fake.

But the yellowish/blue tint to the woman’s skin and the blood looked real. And her gut instincts told her that the woman had been murdered.

Dusk darkened the sky around the backwoods, blurring the lines between day and night as the murky Mississippi churned and slapped against the dilapidated shanty.

Detective Jean-Paul Dubois stared at the crime scene in disgust. The woman had been viciously murdered. Blood covered her bare chest and had dried onto the stained sheets of the bed. A scarlet teddy lay at her feet which were bound to the footboard with thick ropes, and her hands were tied to the headboard. Whoever had killed her had defiled her body, left her naked, bound, posed, her heart literally ripped apart with some kind of ancient spear.

His gaze fell to the serpent necklace, and he recognized the symbolic meaning. Good fighting evil.

Apparently the evil had won this time.

The CSI team arrived but he held up his hand for them to wait, then bowed his head for a moment, silently offering a prayer of reverence before he allowed them to move forward. With two sisters of his own, and the neverending guilt of his wife’s death on his conscience, seeing any female hurt and stripped of her dignity grated on his soul. At least Lucinda had not suffered rape or this humiliation. But still her death had cut him to the bone.

He had to put her out of his mind. Had to work, keep busy, pay penitence for his mistakes by saving others.

The Dubois’ men were cut from Cajun cloth. Had shady characters in their own ancestry. But today’s Dubois men spelled law. All three of them. Himself, Damon and Antwaun. He’d do his job and find out who had made this woman suffer.

He mentally cataloged the crime scene while his partner Detective Carson Graves searched the exterior. The room reeked of raunchy sex. Her face was painted with make-up in a grotesque style. Especially her eyes.

Then her heart had been brutally slashed. The killer had intentionally left her vulnerable and exposed as if to shame her. Worse, he’d left her deep in the bayou where the vermin might eat her before her body could be discovered.

It appeared ritualist. Had he murdered before?

Or had this sicko just come to New Orleans?

Bourbon Street, the Mardi Gras …as much as Jean-Paul loved his home in the bayou, something untamed in the land and climate drew the crazies like flies to sweet maple syrup. And with the pre-Mardi Gras celebrations, crime would only escalate.

Still, he did things by the book. No man was above the law. He had to make sure the investigators did everything right.

Flies and mosquitoes swarmed inside. The sounds of the woods croaked and buzzed around him while the muddy river carried vines, broken tree limbs and God knows what else upstream. Shadows hugged every corner, offering a hiding place for predators.

The stench of death and decay from the victim assaulted him, along with another strange odor that he didn’t quite recognize. The female CSI officer paused, stepped outside for air, then returned, looking pale but determined a few seconds later.

Judging from rigor and her body’s decay, she had been here at least a couple of days. In fact, they might never have found her had a local fisherman not noticed a faint light from an old bulb shining in the darkness and decided to check it out.

“At least he left her inside the cabin,” Skeeter Jones, the head CSI officer murmured.

Yeah or the gators would have fed on her already. Then no one would ever have found her.

The medical examiner, Dr. Leland Charles, leaned over to examine the body. “The chest wound looks bad. A wide blade, lots of bruising, looks as if he twisted it. He wanted her to suffer. Her coloring is pale with a yellowish tint.”

“We’ll check and see where he got the lancet.” Jean-Paul stooped to study the spear. “They sell them in the gift shops in town.”

“Hell, a man could have his pick of murder weapons from the street vendors,” Charles muttered.

“So, what was the cause of death?” Jean-Paul asked.

“There are no ligature marks on her neck so I’d rule out asphyxiation. She might have bled out from the chest wound, but I want to check tox screens. ” Charles noted more bruises on her body, her ribs, abdomen, thighs. “She did fight back — ” he murmured, “ — as much as she could in her position.”

Jean-Paul wondered if she had agreed to the bondage, then changed her mind later. Or she could have been unconscious when the perp tied her up. “I want the cause of death as soon as you finish with her. And make sure to send me the result of the full tox screen and rape kit. We need to determine if the sex was consensual.”

Charles nodded, then dabbed a q-tip across the woman’s abdomen and bagged it. “It looks like he rubbed some kind of oil on her body, maybe one of those love potions or sensual oils they sell in the market.”

Jean-Paul scanned the room for a bottle. “So, our guy uses massage oil as if he wants the woman to enjoy sex, then kills her? I don’t get it. Maybe he was conflicted?”

Charles muttered a curse. “Figure out what makes this one tick and you’ll catch him.”

“Maybe the night started out with romance, then things got rough.”

“And something she said or did triggered the man to snap and he killed her,” Charles added.

Jean-Paul shook his head, not buying it. The scene seemed too posed. Too planned. “No, the serpent necklace and lancet indicate he came prepared.” And what the hell did the mask of that crocodile head mean?

A tech motioned toward the medical examiner, and Jean narrowed his eyes. “Did you find something?”

She shrugged. “Boombox is still warm. Found a CD in it called Heartache Blues.”

“Symbolic or what?” Dr. Charles commented.

“She ripped out his heart, so he did the same to her.” Jean-Paul made a sound with his mouth. “Could be his motivation.”

“Check out the artist,” the tech said. “Some newbie named Randy Swain. I saw a write-up about him in the paper. He’s here for the music festival.”

Along with a thousand others. All strangers which made their investigation more difficult. “Of course.” Jean-Paul made a note to question the singer Randy Swain. And to question a couple of guys who made masks and sold them in the market.

The woman bagged the CD, dusted the boombox, then tagged both items for evidence.

“Anyone find the girl’s identification?” he asked.

One of the CSI techs shook his head. “Not so far.”

“Where are her clothes?”

“We didn’t find them either,” the CSI tech replied. “No clothes. No condom. Nothing personal. Not a toothbrush, comb, or even a pair of underwear.”

“This guy knows what he’s doing,” Jean-Paul said “He’s meticulous. He cleaned up. Didn’t leave any trace evidence.”

“There’s usually something, a hair fiber, an errant button, thread off a jacket,” the female crime scene investigator said. “If there is, we’ll find it.”

Jean-Paul nodded and studied the victim’s face again. Woman? Hell, she looked so damn young. Like someone’s daughter or little sister. Except for the grotesque make-up. Had she been a hooker or had the killer only painted her to resemble the girls in the red light district?

His cell phone trilled, and he checked the number. His superior, Lieutenant Phelps. He connected the call, his gaze catching sight of his partner combing the wooden dock. “Lieutenant, what is it?” Jean-Paul asked.

“We just got a call I need you to check out.”

Do we have a lead already?”

“Maybe. You know that erotica magazine, Naked Desires?”

He grimaced. His sisters had mentioned it at one of their family gatherings. Apparently they thought some of the letters were titillating. “I don’t exactly subscribe to it.” Phelps chuckled. “I wouldn’t expect my pride and joy officer to.”

Jean-Paul grimaced. He hated all the hype he’d received after the hurricane. Just because he’d stuck to his post, done his job and saved a few people, he’d received a damn commendation. Big deal.

He’d lost his wife…

“So what is it?” he asked.

“Britta Berger, the editor of the Secret Confessions column called and said she had something we needed to see.”

“Now?” Jean-Paul tapped his boot impatiently. “What is it, some letter that freaked her out?”

“Apparently it’s a photograph, not a letter,” Phelps said in a serious tone.

“But doesn’t this case take priority?” Jean-Paul asked.

“It is about the case,” Phelps said deadpan. “According to her description, she received a photograph of a crime.”

“What crime?”

“A murder,” Phelps said. “One that sounds suspiciously like the one you’re investigating.”

Jean-Paul gripped the phone with a sweaty hand. Had the killer photographed his handiwork and sent a copy to Britta Berger? And if so, why?

He stood outside the door to Naked Desires, the urge to go in making him shake with need. The moment he’d seen her photograph in that magazine, he’d recognized her. His Adrianna.

How ironic to finally have found her here in the city. So close to where he had first met her. So close to where everything had gone wrong.

What was she doing now? Studying the photograph he’d sent her? Staring in horror at the woman’s vile bloodless eyes? Wondering why he had sent her the message?

Adrenaline churned through his blood, heating his body.

He had to see her. Touch her. Watch the realization dawn in her eyes…

No. Not yet.

He’d waited years for this moment. Had searched in every face and town he’d visited. Had combed the edges off the bayou, hunting, hoping, yearning, praying she had survived. So he could kill her.

Laughter bubbled in his chest. And now the moment was so near, his vengeance almost within reach. Yet he had to draw it out. Earn his redemption. Save the other sinners. Make them pay.

And make Adrianna watch them suffer.

With each one, she would feel him breathing down her neck. Coming closer. Know the pain of having death upon her conscience.

Just as he lived with his father’s death upon his.

God made the world in seven days and nights. Seven days and nights he had been tortured after she took his father’s life.

Seven more days until Mardi Gras.

Each day until then, a celebration.

Each day until then, a time to torture.

And on the seventh day when Mardi Gras reached its grand finale, he would find salvation. He couldn’t wait to see the shock in her eyes when she realized that she had never escaped at all. That she had to pay for her sins.

And that she had to die because he loved her.


Force of the Falcon


Force of the Falcon

Falcon Ridge Series

Force of the Falcon

After rescuing Sonya Silverstein and her four-year-old daughter from a vicious attack, Brack Falcon had every intention of retreating into the Colorado mountains. But with a blizzard raging, a scared Sonya was desperate to safeguard her child.

Now Brack’s protective instincts — and his attraction to the single mother – had him ready to battle the forces obsessed with Sonya’s vulnerability. Never before had Brack questioned his instincts…but never before had he had so much to lose…

“Mommy, save me!”The childlike cry whispered through the eaves of the old farmhouse and echoed off the walls, terrifying and insistent.

Sonya Silverstein jerked awake and sat up, a shiver rippling through her as if the icy fingers of a ghost had touched her neck.

Had Katie cried out for help?

She clutched the sheets and listened for her daughter’s voice, for the sound of her small crutches clacking on the wooden floor, but an eerie silence seeped through the cold, dark room instead, and fear gripped her.

Something was wrong. Sonya felt it deep in her bones.

Her heart pounding, she slid from the bed, pushed open the bedroom door and searched the murky gray den for her little girl.

The dying embers of the fire they’d had going earlier glowed. A wild animal howled in the distance. A tree limb scraped the ice-crusted glass, and the shutter flapped against the weathered boards encasing the window.

Wind, vicious and blustery, tore through the dark room, hurling dead leaves across the plank flooring through the open door. Her breath caught.

She had locked the door when she’d gone to bed. Had an intruder broken in while she’d been sleeping?

Panic seized her. Dear God, Katie had to be there. She had to be all right. Katie was everything to her. She was all that mattered.

She’d moved here to Tin City to raise Katie, to give her a safe life. To take solace in the small mountain town and heal from the pain her ex-husband had caused them.

But the house she’d rented was practically in the wilderness. What if Katie had gone outside hunting for the kitty? Or what if a madman had broken in and kidnapped her?

The door to her little girl’s room was cracked open, and she pushed it, praying she’d find Katie snuggled in bed with Mr. Buttons, her favorite teddy, and their kitten, Snowball. But Mr. Buttons lay on the floor, and she didn’t see the baby cat. The covers were tousled, and the bed was empty.

“Katie!” She searched beneath the bed, then yanked open the closet. But Katie wasn’t inside. Frantic, she screamed her name again and checked the bathroom. Katie’s Hello Kitty cup. Her damp toothbrush. Her fluffy bedroom slippers.

But no Katie!

Sonya whirled around, scanning the room for Katie’s small crutches.

They were gone.

Terror streaked through Sonya as she ran back into the den and grabbed her coat, her hat and a flashlight, then jammed on her snow boots and darted outside.

The bitterly cold Colorado wind clawed at her face as she searched the porch, then the snowpacked ground below, for her daughter or her footprints.

Snow whirled in a blinding haze, covering any tracks that might have lingered. A sob welled in Sonya’s throat as she scanned the thick, snow-capped woods surrounding the farmhouse. The rigid cliffs and peaks climbed toward the heavens like stone boulders. While she’d thought they’d offer a perfect place for her to hide, a sanctuary, now they looked ominous, threatening.

Katie was out there somewhere all alone. No telling what dangers lay waiting in the dense patches of firs and aspens. Katie was so small. She’d never survive the elements or be able to fight off an attacker.

“Katie!” A scream tore from deep in her throat, but got lost in the howling wind.

“Save me, Mommy!”

The whisper of her daughter’s plea reverberated through the chilling tension. Whether Katie had cried out for real or not, Sonya didn’t know. But she heard her daughter’s silent plea for help anyway.

She ran into the woods, blindly searching. She had to find her. She couldn’t lose Kate. Not now.

Not ever.

FRESH BLOOD dotted the powdery white snow, the scent of death floating in the whistling wind of the forest surrounding Falcon Ridge. Brack Falcon knotted his hands around the flashlight as rage rippled through him. A loud screeching sound had awakened him and brought him outside. And now, out here, he’d heard it again and found fresh blood. He hadn’t yet found the source of the blood this time, but he instinctively recognized the pattern.

Another one of the precious creatures of the forest had been attacked. He had discovered several dead birds of prey already this week. Most had been viciously slaughtered and mauled, their talons ripped off, their blood drained as if some creature had virtually sucked the life from them.

What kind of animal would do such a thing? Or could it be a man?

Stories of the ghosts and legends that thrived in Tin City haunted him. The dead that lingered. Miners trapped below the town, screeching in terror, haunting the very place where they’d died–the underground tunnels and caves that had been built as escape routes back in the 1800s.

And now a revival of the tales of wild animals that attacked without provocation. Stories of hybrid and mutant creatures, half human, half animal. With the bizarre attacks on the falcons this week, the fables had risen from the depths of the past, creating panic and hysteria.

All the more reason for the citizens to once again look at the Falcon men with suspicion.

Brack followed the blood-dotted snow, trekking farther into the bowels of the towering aspens and fir trees. The bitterness he’d lived with since he was six years old and his father had been falsely accused of murder ate at his insides. Granted, he and his two brothers, Rex and Deke, had finally helped exonerate his father, and his parents were now reunited, but twenty years of hating the people in the town who’d shunned the boys and their mother had stolen a part of Brack’s soul.

A part that was lost forever.

And now his brothers were back at Falcon Ridge, and had decided to settle in Tin City and relocate their private detective agency to Colorado, back at the old homestead. They’d built offices in the basement and had installed high-tech security and state of the art computer systems. Deke and his new wife, Elsie, had bought one of the historical houses in town and were renovating it, while Rex and his wife, Hailey, had built a beautiful Victorian on her parents’ property.

Brack had moved in to Falcon Ridge. Alone. But the cries, anger and pain from his childhood still echoed in the stone structure as if twenty years had never passed, as if he were that little boy again watching his father being dragged away to jail.

He’d listened to his mother’s sobs at night, had seen the anger and helplessness in his brothers, and he’d virtually shut down. Had learned to suppress any emotion.

Never get close to anyone and you’ll never hurt like that again.

And he hadn’t.

Instead, he’d pulled away from people and befriended the birds. And over the years, he’d honed his natural instincts with the falcons, instincts he’d inherited from his father and his grandfather before that, until he had such a deep connection with the animals of the forest that they communicated in their own silent language.

The crackle of twigs being severed in the wind jarred him from his reverie. A branch snapped off, and layers of snow and ice pelted him. Above, he heard the flapping of a falcon’s wingspan stirring the frigid air, then the faint, heart-wrenching cry of a bird in pain.

He picked up his pace, knowing it was too late to save the creature, but hating for it to die alone.

Seconds later, fury welled inside him as he studied the mauled remains. Its body had been ripped apart as if killed by one of its own kind. Blood streaked the muddy white ground. Feathers were scattered across crimson patches of ice, and the eagle’s head lay against a stone.

Dammit. The head had been severed.

Rage shot through him, primal and raw, all-consuming.

When he found what or who was doing this, he’d kill it.

Then another cry of terror floated from the distance. It was so faint he had to strain to hear it.

This cry was human.

A chill shot through him, and he took off running.

AN ODD SCREECH rippled through the air, sending a chill through Sonya. What kind of animal made a sound like that? Nothing she’d ever heard before.

The wind was so strong she had to fight to keep from being knocked against the trees. The snow was almost ankle-deep on her–what would it be like for Katie?

Each footstep she took intensified her fears. Katie must be freezing. Terrified. What if she’d fallen and gotten hurt? What if she slipped off one of the ridges? What if a man had her, and he hadn’t brought her into the forest?

No, Katie had to be out here. Sonya hadn’t heard a car engine. She grabbed a vine and pulled herself along, shining the flashlight across the snowpacked ground, pushing through bramble and broken limbs. The white haze of swirling snow blurred her vision, and she swiped at her eyes, willing them to focus.

Up above, she saw a faint flash. The color red. Katie’s red pajamas?

Her pulse raced. “Katie!” She began to run, slogging through the thick weight of the downfall. Cold bit at her cheeks and nose, and her limbs felt heavy. Wet sludge squished beneath her boots, and twigs and dead leaves crackled.

She spotted the red again, just a quick flash, then the outline of a small form. An animal? A deer, maybe?

No, her daughter hobbling on her crutches, her frail body swaying as she struggled against the elements.

Sonya screamed Katie’s name again and launched into a jog. A limb shattered, then crashed to the ground. Ice and snow rained down on her. Sonya jumped over the limb and pushed forward. Another splintered and slammed into her arm. She threw it aside and tore through some fallen branches, desperate to get to her little girl.

Suddenly Katie went down. Her small body disappeared, lost in the blizzard. Panic ripped through Sonya. Where was Katie? The heavy snow could bury her alive within minutes.

Swiping at tears, she sprinted faster, searching, praying, turning to scan the area where she’d seen Katie a moment earlier. Finally she spotted one crutch sticking up from the ground. Her heart throbbed as she closed the distance.

Katie was lying in the thick snow and ice, trying to battle her way up against the ferocious wind, but it pulled her down as if it were quicksand.

Oh God, her poor baby.

Vows of Vengeance


Vows of Vengeance

Nighthawk Island Series

Vows of Vengeance

Stella Segall couldn’t remember how she’d gotten into the seedy hotel room—or how the dead man got into her bed. Worse, she couldn’t remember Luke Devlin, the fiercely sexy FBI agent who arrived claiming to be her husband….

Searing attraction had brought Stella and Luke together thirteen months ago. But on their wedding night she’d mysteriously disappeared, leaving him to question everything about her. Now, the only woman he’d ever loved—and lost—stood accused of murder, and he’d lay his life on the line to discover whether she was a pawn in some vengeful mind game, or, in truth, a coldblooded assassin.