Safe by His Side


Safe by His Side

Book 2 of the ManhuntSeries

Safe by His Side

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

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

Or will he die trying?

Her Dying Breath


Her Dying Breath

Book 2 of the Slaughter CreekSeries

Her Dying Breath

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

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


A journal entry, March 2

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

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

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

I didn’t want to die.

But I had no control.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am Seven.

My friend who sits beside me, Six.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His devious mind already had a plan.

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

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

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

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

I could read his mind now.

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

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

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

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

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

But they knew nothing.

Red Rover, Red Rover, send Seven right over…

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1

Special Agent Nick Blackwood hated his father.

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

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

Nick had his own stories to tell.

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

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

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

Psychopaths like his father.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They also wanted a list of all the subjects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then punishing him for reacting.

Men – soldiers — did not react.

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

“They were casualties of the cause.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“CIA protocol?”

His father nodded.

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

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

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

“But you will play this one.”

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

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

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

There once was a child with a mind

Till he stole it from her for all time

Then they played Red Rover

And he said, “Come over”

And she crossed the line to the dark side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’d crossed the line to the dark side…

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

Or somebody else?

Or was she coming after the Commander?

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

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


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

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

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

Would Arthur Blackwood receive the needle for his crimes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was more to the story, too.

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

She wouldn’t quit until she exposed them all.

No matter what she had to do.

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

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

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

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

And he hated everyone in it.

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

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

Always braced for a bullet to come flying at him.

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

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

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

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

Even worse, lowly female civilian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A mistake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Nick have his own secrets from the past?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A decent name.

But he still had to die.

“What are you doing?” he rasped.

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t breathe,” he whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten seconds, twenty…thirty…

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

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

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

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

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

“Please,” he moaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get off of me, you freak!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sad excuse for a specimen.

The Commander would have been disappointed.

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

Maybe she would save him again.

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

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

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

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

Now for more fun.

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

Brenda Banks would give the message to the Commander.

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

Certified Cowboy


Certified Cowboy

Bucking Bronc Lodge Series

Certified Cowboy

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over her dead body.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Move and I’ll shoot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they had to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until five years ago when everything had gone wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had to give it one more try.

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

Unbreakable Bond


Unbreakable Bond

Guardian Angel Investigations Series

Unbreakable Bond

For eight years Nina Nash has been told it’s time she moved past the night that changed her life forever. But the sounds of her baby’s cries at night—and the intense feeling that her little girl is still alive when she’s been led to believe otherwise—remain. Only, no one accepts her claims…except the one man who’s determined to help her uncover the truth.

Investigator Slade Blackburn takes Nina’s case, hoping to finally give her some closure. But what she really needs is someone to trust, someone to protect her…someone to erase the sadness from her beautiful blue eyes. Their search for answers turns dangerous, and Slade vows he’ll stop at nothing to ensure her survival—and reunite her with the child she knows is still out there.

Finding missing children was the only thing that kept Slade Blackburn going. The only thing that kept him from giving into the booze that promised sweet relief and numbness from the pain of his failures.

That was, when he found the children alive.

The other times…well, he locked those away in some distant part of his mind to deal with later. Much, much later when he was alone at night, and the loneliness consumed him and reminded him that he didn’t have a soul in the world who gave a damn if he lived or died.

Voices echoed through the downstairs as the agents at Guardian Angel Investigations entered the old house Gage McDermont had converted into a business and began to climb the stairs.

Slade’s instincts kicked in. He’d arrived early, situated himself to face the doorway in the conference room so he could study each man as he entered.

Not that he hadn’t done his research.

Gage had started the agency in Sanctuary and recruited an impressive team of agents.

The moment Slade had read about GAI in the paper, he’d phoned Gage and asked to sign on. Leaving his stint in the military had left him wired and honed for action, yet the confines of the FBI or a police department had grated on his newfound freedom.

Too long he’d taken orders, followed commands. Now he was his own man and wanted no one to watch over, not as he’d had to do with his combat unit.

But he needed a case.


Being alone, listening to the deafening quiet of the mountains, remembering the horrific events he’d seen, was wreaking havoc on his sanity.

He refused to be one of those soldiers who returned from war damaged and suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

He would not fall apart and become needy, dammit.

And he would keep the nightmares at bay.

By God, he’d survived his childhood and Iraq, and he wouldn’t go down now.

Still, returning to the small town of Sanctuary, North Carolina, held its own kind of haunts, and when he’d passed by Magnolia Manor, the orphanage where his mother had dropped him off without looking back, he’d questioned his decision to settle in the town.

Gage McDermont strode in and took the head seat behind the long conference table while the others filed in. Slade maintained his stoic expression, honing his self-control.

Gage gestured toward Slade. “This is Slade Blackburn,” he said. “He just finished his first case and returned Carmel Foster’s runaway daughter to her.”

The men surrounding the table nodded, then Gage gestured to each of them as he made the introductions. Slade analyzed each one in turn.

Benjamin Camp, a dirty-blond-haired computer expert with green eyes. Brilliant techy, he’d heard. Slade would bet he had a shady past. Maybe a former criminal with skills that could come in handy in a pinch.

Levi Stallings, former FBI profiler, black hair, military-style haircut, dark brown eyes. Intense, a man who studied behaviors and got into a killer’s mind. He cut his gaze toward Slade as if dissecting him under his microscope, and Slade forced himself not to react, to meet him with an equally hard stare.

First rule of engaging with the enemy: Never let on that you’re afraid or intimidated.

Not that he was, but he didn’t like anyone messing with his mind or getting too close.

Adopting his poker face, he angled his head to study the man, seated next to him, whom Gage introduced as Brock Running Deer.

“Running Deer is an expert tracker,” Gage said in acknowledgment.

A skill that would be needed in the dense mountains. He was also big, slightly taller than Slade’s own six feet, had shoulder-length brown hair, auburn eyes and was part Cherokee. He scowled at Slade as if he were permanently angry, but Slade shrugged it off. He hadn’t come here to make friends.

“And this is Derrick McKinney.”

Slade nodded toward him.

Next Gage introduced Caleb Walker, who also looked mixed heritage. He had thick black hair, black eyes, and wore a guarded expression. Gage didn’t elaborate on his particular skill, which made Slade even more curious about the man.

Gage gestured to the last man seated around the table. “This is Colt Mason, a guns and weapon expert.” Slade sized him up. Short, spiked black hair, crystal-blue eyes, sullen and quiet. He had that military look about him, as well, as if he’d stared down death and it hadn’t fazed him. Probably former Special Ops.

The door squeaked open and a petite brunette with hair dangling to her waist and large brown eyes slipped in.

Gage’s face broke into a smile. “This is Amanda Peterson, our newest recruit. Amanda is a forensics specialist, and we’re glad to have her on board.

“Now that we’ve all been introduced, I want to get you up to speed on the latest case and the arrests made in Sanctuary. Brianna Honeycutt, now the wife of Derrick, adopted an infant son when the baby’s mother, Natalie Cummings, was murdered. Our investigation revealed that Natalie learned about a meth lab in town that was connected to the creators of a lab eight years ago, the one that caused the hospital fire and explosion that took dozens and dozens of lives.”

Gage paused and twisted his mouth into a frown. “The police have made several arrests, but locals are up in arms now that they know who was responsible. There’s also been speculation that there might have been more locals involved in the lab. Lawsuits are cropping up each day, and people who lost loved ones are asking questions. Due to the fire and contamination of evidence, there are questions regarding some of those who were presumed dead.”

Slade frowned. “Presumed?”

“Ones whose bodies were never found or identified,” Gage clarified. “Among those were women and children. I expect that we might have some work ahead of us.”

Slade’s blood began to boil. Women and children… who’d died because of some stupid drug lab. Women and children whose bodies had never been identified.

Families with no answers just as his own hadn’t had answers when his older sister had disappeared. Not until Slade had found her in the morgue.

Maybe it was right that he’d come back to Sanctuary. If he had the opportunity to find closure for even one of the families involved, it was worth it.

Then maybe he could finally find peace and forgive himself for his sister’s death.

Nina’s baby’s cry haunted her every day.

Peyton would have been eight years old had she survived, the same age as the children Nina taught at Sanctuary Elementary.

She tried to envision what her daughter would look like now as she watched her students rush to the school bus, squealing and laughing, excited to be out for summer break. Most of the teachers were jumping for joy, as well.

“Freedom at last,” one third-grade teacher said with a laugh.

“Vacation,” another one boasted.

But instead of dreaming about long, lazy days at home or a vacation road trip, tears filled Nina’s eyes.

To her, summer break meant weeks of being without the kids. Long, lonely days and nights of silence. Of no tiny hands reaching out for help, no sweet voices calling her name, no little patter of feet or giggles, no little arms wrapping around her for a big bear hug.

Tortured nights of an empty house and more nightmares of what her life would have been like if her little girl were alive.

For a moment, she allowed herself to dream of taking her daughter to the beach. They’d build sand castles, collect shells, ride bikes. She could almost hear her daughter’s laughter in the wind roaring off the ocean….

The bus driver gave a big honk of its horn, jerking her back to reality. Kids waved and screamed out the window, and the bus roared away. Teachers cheered and waved, laughing and talking about their plans as they dispersed back to their rooms to tidy up for the day.

Nina wrapped her arms around her waist and watched until the last bus disappeared from the school drive, then turned and walked back inside, her chest tight.

She should be over the loss of her daughter, people had told her. “Move on with your life,” her father had insisted. “Let it go,” the ob-gyn had said.

But sometimes at night, she heard her baby’s cries, and she sensed that Peyton was still alive. That she hadn’t died in that fire. That she was out there somewhere, and that she needed her.

Moving on autopilot, she went to her classroom, packed up boxes, wiped down the chalkboard, stripped the bulletin boards and cleaned out her desk.

Finally she couldn’t procrastinate any longer. The empty room was almost as sad and overwhelming as her house. Here she could still see the kids’ cherub faces, hear their chatter and smell their sweet, little bodies.

She stuffed her worn plan book in her favorite tote, one emblazoned with a strawberry on the front and sporting the logo Teachers Are Berry Special, then added a copy of the language arts guide for the new language arts program the county had adopted, threw the tote over her shoulder, flipped off the lights and headed outside.

The late-afternoon sunshine beat down on her as she walked to the parking lot. The sound of engines starting up filled the air, and she noticed a group of teachers gathering for an end-of-the-year celebration.

Celia, her friend from the classroom across the hall from her, looked up and waved as she climbed in her minivan. Celia had invited her to join them, but she’d declined. Celebrating was the last thing on her mind.

Instead she drove to the little bungalow she’d bought in town, picked up the newspaper on the front stoop, then dragged herself inside and poured a glass of sweet iced tea. Hating the silence that engulfed her, she flipped on the television, then glanced at the front page of the paper.

The headlines immediately caught her eye.

Murder of Natalie Cummings and Kidnapping of Her Son Ryan Leads to Answers about the Hospital Explosion and Fire Eight Years Ago.

Nina skimmed the article, her own memories of the explosion taunting her. For years now the town had mourned the lives lost back then. Now they finally had answers.

Police have learned that a meth lab built by local teenagers at the time was the cause of the explosion that killed dozens. Recently Natalie Cummings had overheard students at Sanctuary High discussing a new meth lab nearby, and she was apparently murdered when she connected the current lab to the one eight years ago.

Derrick McKinney, an agent from Guardian Angel Investigations, was instrumental in uncovering the truth about the explosion, the kidnapping and murder connection.

Nina frowned, her heart racing. That night had been horrible. The explosion, the fire, the terrible confusion. The burning bodies.

Her frantic rush to find Peyton…

Her stomach knotted. She’d wondered if her baby might have been confused with another that night, or if she could have been kidnapped in the chaos.

But the investigation had been a mess, and the sheriff had assured her her fears had been unfounded. Even worse, the P.I. she’d hired had been convinced she was just a hysterical mother and had done nothing but take her money.

Still, one question nagged at her. They had never found Peyton’s body.

She glanced at the article again. Guardian Angel Investigations. They specialized in finding missing children.

Her hand shook as she went to the mantel and picked up the photo of her newborn. Peyton had been so tiny Nina had been able to hold her in one hand.

If someone had kidnapped her, how would she have survived?

Still, every night when she crawled into bed, she heard her cries. And every time she closed her eyes, a little angel’s voice sang to her in the night.

Determination and a new wave of hope washed over her as she grabbed her purse. “I’m going to find you, baby.”

If GAI had dug deeply enough to find out who’d caused that fire, maybe they could dig even deeper and find out what had happened to her daughter.

Just as the meeting was about to disperse, the bell on the downstairs door jangled. Gage gestured for the group to wait while he descended the stairs. A minute later, he returned, escorting a young woman with him.

A beautiful blonde with long wavy hair, enormous blue eyes the color of the sky on a clear North Carolina day, and a slim body with plump breasts that strained against her soft, white blouse.

But nothing about the woman indicated she was aware of her beauty.

Instead, those blue eyes looked wary and were filled with the kind of grief and sadness that indicated she’d lived through a hell of her own.

“This is Nina Nash,” Gage said. “She’s interested in our services.”

Gage gestured for her to sit down, and Slade noticed her body trembling slightly as she slid into a leather chair. Why was she on edge?

Was she intimidated by the agents, or in some kind of trouble?

“How can we help you, Miss Nash?” Gage asked.

She bit down on her lower lip and twisted her hands together, glancing at each of them as if to decide whether to continue.

“Just relax and tell us your story,” Gage said in a soothing tone.

She nodded, then jutted up her little chin, took a deep breath and spoke. “I read about your agency in the paper and saw that you found the people responsible for the hospital fire and explosion eight years ago.”

“Yes,” Gage said. “The police made some arrests.”

“I…lost my baby that night,” Nina said in a pained tone. “At least she went missing.”

A hushed silence fell across the room as everyone contemplated her statement. Finally Gage assumed the lead and spoke. “Why don’t you start from the beginning and tell us what happened.”

She rolled her tiny hands into fists as if to hold herself together. “My baby girl was early, a preemie, and I had to have a C-section,” she said as if she’d repeated this story a thousand times already. Then she rushed on as if she had to spit it out or she’d completely crumble. “I was asleep when the sound of the explosion woke me. Everyone started shouting and screaming, and I smelled smoke so I got out of bed and tried to get to the nursery, to Peyton…” Her voice cracked in the deafening silence stretching across the room.

But no one spoke. Her anguish was like a palpable force in the room.

“It was chaos,” she said on a choked breath. “Everyone was screaming, desperate to escape. Patients were struggling and needing help, and an orderly told me to go to the stairwell, but I couldn’t leave my baby so I pushed him away.”

Forbidden Passion


Forbidden Passion

Book 1 in the Demonborn Series

Forbidden Passion


Fueled by her family’s murder years ago, Dr. Marlena Bender has devoted her life to understanding violent criminals. But when a serial killer in this small Southern town starts taking the lives of women in diabolical ways—leaving trophies of his kills on Marlena’s doorstep—it all hits too close to home. Terrified, Marlena turns to the only man she can trust…the man who saved her life.


Sheriff Dante Valtrez would move heaven and earth to keep Marlena safe, but he’s not the savior she thinks he is. A dark legacy runs through his blood and a dangerous secret lies within him. Now a fierce, hot, ruthless desire draws Dante and Marlena together—as a demonic force from his past threatens to rip them apart, destroying everything they hold dear.


Fire gave him power. It was his gift. His method of attack. His best defense.

It had also become his obsession.

Thirteen-year-old Dante Zertlav raised his fist to stare at his reddening fingertips. The urge to throw a fireball ripped through him, evil beckoning.

“Don’t fight your dark side,” Father Gio commanded. “Embrace it and you can rule the world.”

Dante nodded. He’d known this day was coming, the final test for him and his band of demonic brothers. The elements were all here now, Storm and Lightfoot preparing for their own initiation.

So far, Dante had passed the initiation with flying colors. He’d tracked the animals, killed them with his bare hands. Done everything Father Gio had ordered, no matter how vile.

He’d learned long ago that disobeying Father Gio meant harsh punishments. Torture.

Being turned into the hunted instead.

But today, the last and final test would be to kill a human.

A sickening knot gripped his belly.

He didn’t know if he could do it.

A maelstrom of ancient chants and sinister voices surrounded him as the other demons gathered. Smoke curled from the fire pit, and twigs and wood snapped and crackled, shooting flames against the inky sky.

Father Gio gestured through the woods, and Dante spotted a woman and a dark-haired little girl hunched by their own small campfire roasting marshmallows. A smaller blond girl sat swinging her bare feet into the gurgling creek water.

“Your assignment is to kill the youngest one, and offer her to Helzebar.”

Dante stiffened. Although he’d been banned from attending school with mortals, he’d snuck by the schoolyards to watch. One memory struck him hard and had stuck with him.

A bully of a boy had chased a puppy into a storm drain, and this little blond had wriggled inside and rescued the animal. When she’d climbed out, she was filthy, her hair tangled, her knees scraped, but she’d scooped up the pudgy dog and sang to it like an angel.

Until that day, he’d only known demons and violence.

He’d been so enthralled that afternoon that he’d followed her home, had watched her mother laugh at the sight of the puppy. Then the little blond and her sister had played with the dog in a field of wildflowers until they’d both collapsed in a fit of giggles.

He’d envied their laughter. Their innocence.

Their happy family.

They had no idea demons lurked in the woods of Mysteria, Tennessee. No idea the demons had decided to hunt humans in their own backyards.

“Storm will take the oldest girl, Lightfoot, the woman.” Father Gio placed a clawlike hand on Dante’s shoulder, drawing him back to the present. “But yours will be the biggest sacrifice for you are meant for great things.”

Pride mushroomed in his chest. But anxiety tightened his breath at the same time. He had embraced the darkness within him, had enjoyed the hunt, the taste of the animals’ blood, the screech of the kill.

He liked pleasing his master.

But something about taking this young girl’s life felt… wrong, and needled at his conscience.

A conscience he thought he’d buried long ago.

Suddenly a roar of thunder rent the air, the collective hiss of the demons’ war cries erupting, and Storm and Lightfoot charged toward their prey. The dark-haired girl cried out in terror.

“Run!” the mother cried as she shoved her daughters into the woods.

Both girls screamed as they stumbled over broken logs and brush in their haste to escape. But Storm and Lightfoot’s human forms shimmered into monsters as they attacked.

Storm swept the mother up by her hair and flung her across the woods, her body bouncing off a boulder a few feet away. Blood spurted from her forehead as she tried to get up, but her leg was twisted, broken, and she collapsed with a sob as Storm jumped her again. Lightfoot caught the dark-haired girl and swept her up as if she was air itself.

The little blond ducked behind an overhang on the ridge, eyes widening in horror as she stared at the grisly scene.

Indecision ripped through Dante. If he disobeyed, he would be ostracized from the only family he’d ever known.

How would he survive out here all alone? The demons would eat him alive…

Then the little girl spotted him. “Help me. Please help me.”

Pain squeezed his lungs at her haunted whisper. She was so tiny, so young. How could he squash the life out of her?

He couldn’t.

Tamping down the fire heating his fingers, he ran toward her, threw her over his back, then raced through the woods, adrenaline churning as the demons gave chase.

Behind him, the thunderous roar of the demons cheering Storm and Lightfoot rent the air, then Father Gio’s voice commanding him to bring the girl back.

But the frail girl clung to him, burying her head against his shoulder, and protective instincts surged inside him. The fiery breath of one of the demons stung his back, but he flung fireballs at the demon, warding them off as he raced through the forest.

Finally he reached a clearing and spotted a dingy white church on top of the hill. He’d never been inside a church and wondered if lightning would strike him if he entered. But it was the only safe place for the girl, so he dashed up to the doorway, shoved it open, and slipped inside.

The scent of burning candles filled the air, and a rainbow of vibrant colors illuminated the room from the stained-glass window above the pulpit, a calm peacefulness enveloping the chapel.

The little girl whimpered, and he carried her to the front pew and placed her on it.

“Wh… o are y… ou?” she whispered.

“My name is Dante,” he said softly. “What’s your name?”

Her lip trembled. “Marlena…”

“You’ll be safe here, Marlena. Just stay inside.”

Tears streaked her face as she reached for him. “I’m scared… Don’t leave me.”

The wooden floor creaked, jerking his attention to the pulpit, and a priest wearing a long robe appeared from the back. His intense gaze pinned Dante, as if he could see into his black soul.

Regret and sorrow for all he’d done bled through Dante. But he didn’t belong here, not in this holy place.

He cupped the little girl’s face between his hands to quiet her. “You’ll be all right now,” he said, then lowered his head and pressed a kiss in her blond curls. She smelled of sweetness and innocence, things he’d never known. “The priest will take care of you.”

Her lower lip quivered, tearing at him, but the earth shook and rumbled, the demons roared outside, and he knew he had to leave.

She was safer far away from him.

So he turned and fled through the doorway.

But as he stepped outside, the demons’ angry chants echoed from the forest. He couldn’t go back to Father Gio. He didn’t belong with the demons.

He didn’t want to be evil anymore.

But he wasn’t good either, and he didn’t belong with the humans.

He had to make his own path. Pay penitence for his sins before he lost his soul completely.

Chapter One


Evil has no rules. It always wins.

That creed had been beaten into Dante as a child. And when the portals from the underground to the Earth had opened on All Hallows’ Eve three months ago, the pull of evil had grown stronger.

The very reason he’d returned to Mysteria. The reason he’d become sheriff.

His penance was to protect the town from his own kind.

And part of that job meant checking the underground tunnels where the demons thrived.

But as he strode through the tunnels, the darkness called to him like a siren begging him to her bed. Hard to resist.

The evil gave him great power in his hands, fueled his firestarter abilities.

It also threatened to turn him into a monster as it had his demon brothers years ago.

The scent of impending death and doom hovered in the dank air. Somewhere in the cavern, he detected a shapeshifter nearby. He heard the hiss of fangs snapping. The cry of an animal drawing its last breath.

Ever since the new lord of the underworld Zion had risen, Dante had noted more widespread chaos and violence across the States.

He’d heard that new demon factions had formed, making plans, honing their powers to please Zion, the most notorious leader of the underworld ever known. Some said Zion was a direct descendant of Satan.

Father Gio was probably working for him now.

Dante’s gut tightened. He’d have to confront him eventually. Destroy him if he returned and began preying on the town.

Dante’s cell phone buzzed, and he glanced at the number, his hand tightening around the phone. His deputy, Hobbs.

A man he didn’t trust. Then again, he didn’t trust anyone.


“Sheriff, that doctor lady named Marlena Bender phoned again to see if there were any leads on those missing blood vials from BloodCore.”

Dante gritted his teeth. He’d seen the file on his desk and had been shocked to learn that she’d moved back to Mysteria.

Just as he had to face Father Gio, he had to face her. But not yet.

“I’ll call her when I get time,” Dante said. After all, a few missing vials of blood could wait.

The demons in the darkness posed a more imminent danger.

Marlena Bender forced herself to walk through the cemetery to her mother and sister’s graves. Gravel and dead leaves crunched beneath her shoes, the shadows of the ancient burial ground eerie in the waning moonlight. Dead flowers and faded plastic arrangements swayed and drooped beneath the elements, and dry parched grass bled between the rows of dirt-covered graves. A fresh mound a few rows over made her chest clench and stirred memories of the last time she’d stood here, burying her own family.

Images of the horrible night they’d died taunted her. Her mother and sister’s screams echoed in her ears and suddenly a shimmering light sparkled in a hazy glow as if their spirits had appeared.

She blinked, shivering at the thought, the winter wind biting through her as it whipped leaves and twigs around her ankles. Moonlight glinted off the granite tombstones highlighting their names and the date their lives had ended.

Beloved mother and sister—gone too soon.

Lost to a horrible fate.

But she had survived. Not for the first time, she’d questioned why she’d been saved.

And the man—the boy—who had rescued her.

Just the thought of seeing Dante Zertlav made her chest clench with anxiety.

Although he’d saved her life, questions plagued her. What had he been doing in those woods? How had he been able to run so fast?

And who had attacked and killed her mother and sister?

Had they been monsters as she remembered, or had her childhood imagination simply played a trick on her mind as the doctors who’d treated her had suggested?

She’d wanted to talk to Dante back then to find out what he’d seen, but she’d been too traumatized, and her grandmother had whisked her out of town as if the devil had been on their tails.

She’d been shocked to learn that he was the sheriff when she’d moved back to Mysteria.

She’d phoned three times this week asking if he had leads on the missing blood vials.

Apparently he wasn’t concerned.

But she was.

The missing vials held blood samples from violent criminals, individuals who professed to have paranormal powers, and the mentally and criminally insane.

One day she hoped to find a genetic abnormality that could be altered to correct deviant behavior and deter violent tendencies.

Recently she’d noted disturbing markers in some samples that made her wonder if the monsters she’d thought she’d seen as a child were real, not figments of her childhood imagination.

That was one of the reasons she’d moved back to Mysteria. Her nightmares had grown more intense lately. She had to confront her past in order to move on.

She bent and spread the rose petals across her mother’s grave, then her sister’s. “I have to know the truth about who killed you.”

And why the police had never found answers.

The ground suddenly felt as if it shifted beneath her, the dirt sucking at her feet as if the earth might literally suck her into the graves below.

She trembled. Mysteria was full of ghost stories, but she was a doctor, a scientist. She’d never believed in the paranormal.

Except for that day as a child…

But she was an adult now and she could face the truth. There had to be a logical explanation.

And what if her family’s killers had remained in Mysteria all these years?

Had there been other unexplained deaths since?

She’d have to check and see…

Thunder began to rumble, thick black clouds swallowing the moon, and a raindrop splattered her cheek, mingling with the tears she didn’t realize had fallen.

With a gloved hand, she swiped at the moisture, then turned and ran toward her car. Footsteps crunched leaves behind her, and she pivoted and scanned the distance, but the graveyard was empty. Twigs snapped on the opposite side and she jerked her head to the right. An ominous shadow floated behind a grave marker, then disappeared into the woods.

Suddenly sensing danger, she threw the car door open and collapsed inside, trembling. The shadow stood beneath the gnarled branches of a live oak, then spread his arms in a wide arc like some winged creature that had risen from the grave to attack.

God, she was seeing things again. It had to be a man. Or maybe some teenager trying to spook her.

Irritated that he’d succeeded, she started the engine and steered her Honda over the graveled drive, but the car suddenly lurched as if someone or something had pushed her forward.

Nerves on edge, she glanced in the rearview mirror, then over her shoulder, but didn’t see a car—or a person. Nothing.

It’s just the wind, she told herself.

But she felt the shove again and she accelerated, taking the curvy mountain road toward her old homestead so fast that her tires squealed and she skimmed the guardrail twice before she turned up her drive.

A tiny sliver of moonlight fought through the storm clouds and painted the turrets and attic in sharp angles as her Victorian homestead came into view, the swaying branch of an oak clawing at the frost-coated windowpane. The wind roared, seeping through her bones as she grabbed her purse and computer bag, then walked up the pebbled drive toward the wrap-around porch.

An animal howled, and she looked up and spotted a lone wolf silhouetted at the top of the ridge. Fear slithered through her like a poison eating at her as she searched the woods. She’d avoided the forest for years.

But the thick trees and dark secrets surrounded her, whispering that evil hid in the shadows, waiting to prey.

For God’s sake, Marlena. You’re a grown woman. You have to get a grip.

Desperate to shake off her anxiety, she scrubbed a hand through her tangled hair, her keys jingling in her trembling hand as she climbed the porch steps.

She would not give in to the fear. She hated the way it had paralyzed her when she was young.

Before that horrible day, she’d been a daredevil, had thought she was invincible.

But her naïveté had been shattered with her family’s brutal murder.

The wind swirled her hair around her face, but a box on the floor in front of the door caught her eye.

A small silver gift box tied with a big red bow.

Surprised, she picked it up and examined it. There was no card, no address, nothing on the outside to indicate whom it was from.

She unlocked the door and stepped inside, grateful for the blast of heat from the furnace. Yet the floors creaked, the windowpanes rattled, and the old pipes groaned like an aging person’s bones popping.

Shivering, she flipped on a light and opened the box. Surprise flared inside her at the sight of a ring lying on top of the crumpled tissue paper.

Then her heart began to pound, and apprehension tightened her shoulder blades.

A tiny pearl was set in an antique white gold setting with two small diamond chips flanking the sides. She recognized the setting—the ring belonged to Jordie McEnroe, a young waitress at the diner.

Her hand trembled.

The ring was soaked in blood.

The phone in the sheriff’s office was ringing as Dante entered. He glanced around the office for his deputy, then realized Hobbs had probably gone home for the night. Good. He wouldn’t have to deal with the man now. Dante didn’t want help, and Hobbs sure as hell didn’t like working for him. He’d wanted the job as sheriff himself.

In three quick strides, he crossed the wooden floor and grabbed the handset. “Sheriff Zertlav.”

A shaky breath rattled over the line. “Hello, who is this?”

A feminine voice finally squeaked out, “M… arlena Bender.”

He scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck. Hell. He’d wanted to stall longer, but her voice had warbled as if something was wrong. “Listen, Dr. Bender, I know you called about that stolen blood and—”

“It’s Marlena, Dante, so don’t act like you don’t know me. And I’m not calling about the blood this time,” she continued, cutting him off. “I need you to come out to my house.”

His gut tightened. Had the demons already found her? “What’s wrong?”

“I just got home,” she said, “and I found a gift… a box… on my doorstep.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will when you see it,” Marlena said. “It’s a woman’s ring, and it’s covered in blood.”

Dante frowned. “Blood?”

“Yes, and it’s fresh.”

He made a disgusted sound as his mind churned with the possibilities. “Somebody’s idea of a sick joke?”

“Maybe,” Marlena said. “But it belongs to Jordie McEnroe, the young waitress at the diner. I just saw her yesterday and she was wearing it.”

He rapped his knuckles on the desk, contemplating the situation. Why would someone leave Jordie’s ring, covered in blood, on Marlena’s doorstep?

“What if something’s happened to her, Dante?” Worry laced Marlena’s voice. “You have to check on her.”

“I’ll call the diner and see if she’s there, then come to your place and pick up the ring.” He paused. “And don’t touch it. If there has been a crime, I’ll need to dust it for prints.”

“I know.” Marlena sighed. “I just hope Jordie’s all right.”

“I’ll be there soon.”

A tense second passed. “Dante?”

He cleared his throat, tried to ignore the hint of emotion in her voice. “Yeah?”

“Don’t you need my address?”

He couldn’t admit that he already knew where she lived. That he’d followed her home as a child and watched her. That he’d checked out her house the first night he’d driven back into Mysteria.

“Yes, give it to me.”

She quickly recited it, and he disconnected the call, then punched in the number for the diner. A quick glance at the clock told him it was 9:00 p.m. The dinner rush should be over.

Finally a woman answered. “Roadside Diner. Rosy speaking.”

“This is Sheriff Zertlav. Can you tell me if Jordie McEnroe is there?”

“No, she didn’t show up tonight,” Rosy said. “And her mama is having a fit, too. It’s just not like Jordie to blow off her shift.”

An uneasy feeling slid up Dante’s spine. “Give me her address and I’ll check on her.”

“You think something’s wrong?” Rosy asked, suddenly panicked.

Dammit, he had a bad feeling. “No, just offering to ease Mrs. McEnroe’s mind.”

“Awww, Sheriff, you’re a sweetheart. I know she’ll appreciate that.”

A bitter chuckle escaped him as he hung up. If she knew he was part demon, knew the things he’d done, she sure as hell wouldn’t call him a sweetheart.

Dark shadows flickered off the tall, thick trees as he drove from Main Street toward the mountains. The roads grew curvy, more narrow, the shadows thicker, the silence more ominous. Five miles around the mountain, and he spun up the graveled drive toward Marlena’s.

The hundred-year-old blue Victorian house sat atop a hill, the paint slightly weathered, the sharp turrets and angles reminding him of an old haunted house.

Throwing the SUV into park, he climbed out, pulling his bomber jacket around him to battle the brittle wind as he walked up to the porch. The steps creaked as he climbed them, and the sound of a wolf howling from the woods made him twist his head and scan the edge of her property.

The trees shivered, but if there had been one nearby, it had disappeared.

Bracing himself to see Marlena again, and hoping like hell she’d turned into a geeky adult who would hold no temptation for him, he raised his fist and knocked.

But his lungs tightened when she opened the door.

She was even more beautiful than he could have imagined, a radiant full moon against a blinding sea of night.

From her heavy breasts to her narrow waist to hips that flared enticingly, she painted a picture of seduction. But she was the last woman on earth he could think about taking.

Gritting his teeth, he swallowed back guilt. But even as he fought it, the dark side of him emerged, lust heating his body.

Wavy, blond hair that looked like silk shimmered over her shoulders, and her frightened eyes were still the palest, oddest shade of green he’d ever seen.

He’d never forgotten those eyes. They had been luminous and trusting when she was a child. Now that she was a woman, they could suck a man in with their sensuality and promises.

But horror and sadness had filled them the day of the attack.

And that horror and sadness had taunted him day and night, reminding him of what he was.

She’d been made a homeless child because of his demon family. And if she knew the truth, she’d hate him.

He had washed his hands in her blood.

He was obsessed with it now. The thick, sticky crimson as it flowed from open wounds. The coppery metallic scent as it filled the air.

The tiny splatters that looked like artwork on the walls and his shirt.

Blood was the life force of the body. The river that swept a person along.

The heart and soul that gave life and took it away.

He lifted his fingers and stared at them now. Remembered the woman’s body as she’d jerked and screamed and begged him to stop.

She had had to die.

So did the others.

It was the only way to stop them from becoming like him. A monster. A child of the devil.

A killer who stole lives for pure pleasure and worshipped the evil growing inside him. The evil that gave him strength.

Strength and a power he’d never possessed before.

But he’d had to set the woman on fire to throw off the cops. Couldn’t let them know the real reason she’d had to die.

Besides, Zion had given him his orders. Make it look as if a firestarter had killed the girl.

And leave his trophy with the woman Marlena. The one who’d caused Dante to fail his initiation.

The woman who would have to die so Dante could find his way back to his father.

Rawhide Ranger


Rawhide Ranger

The Silver Star of Texas Series

Rawhide Ranger

Texas Ranger Cabe Navarro was full-blooded Comanche—his ripped frame even recalled history’s greatest warriors. Raven haired and eagle-eyed, Cabe trespassed on sacred land to investigate ritual murders, only to fix his full attention on the daughter of a local rancher.

They were on opposite sides of the law, and their initial attraction could have killed the case dead. But when Jessie Becker became a prime target for foul play, all bets were off. Knee-deep in dangerous territory, Cabe made quick decisions to keep her alive—and almost at arm’s length. He knew she needed his brand of protection, as a Texas Ranger and as a man. And that he was helpless to fight it when the line between the two started to blur…

“The case is not over,” Ranger Lieutenant Wyatt Colter announced to the task force gathered in the courthouse in Comanche Creek. “We still have a murderer to catch.”

Ranger Sergeant Cabe Navarro frowned. The last place in the world he wanted to be was back in his hometown. When he’d left it years ago, he’d sworn never to return.

But he couldn’t disobey an order. And so far, the multiple murder case had been a mess. National media was starting to take interest, and if they didn’t solve the case soon, the Rangers would be usurped by the FBI and look incompetent.

None of them wanted that.

Still, if they thought he could be a buffer between the Native Americans and Caucasians in town, they were sorely mistaken.

Cabe had never fit in either world.

Ranger Lieutenant Colter introduced the task force members. Forensic anthropologist Dr. Nina Jacobsen. Ranger Sergeant Livvy Hutton who absentmindedly rubbed her arm where she’d just recently been shot. And Reed Hardin, the sheriff of Comanche Creek.

Hardin cast a worried and protective look at Hutton, cementing the rumor that Cabe had heard that they had gotten involved on the case and now planned to marry.

“Okay,” Wyatt said. “Let’s recap the case so far. “First, two bodies were found on the Double B, Jonah Becker’s ranch, property the Native Americans claim was stolen from them. The first body was Mason Lattimer, an antiquities dealer, the second, Ray Phillips, a Native American activist who claimed Becker stole the land from the Natives.”

“They have proof?” Cabe asked.

“Supposedly there is evidence that suggests Billy Whitley forged paperwork to make it appear that the land originally belonged to Jonah Becker’s great-greatgrandfather. That paperwork overrode the Reston Act which had given the Natives ownership.”

Cabe made a sound of disgust in his throat. “No wonder the Native Americans are up in arms.”

Lieutenant Colter nodded, then continued, “Marcie James, who worked at the land office, had planned to testify against Jerry Collier, the lawyer who brokered the deal, but she went missing two years ago. Evidence indicated she was murdered and buried on the property and construction of the road going through was halted.”

He paused. “But we now know Marcie faked her kidnapping and murder. She resurfaced though, but someone caught up with her, and killed her at a cabin on Becker’s property.”

Sheriff Hardin stood, a frown on his face. Cabe had heard that Hardin was protective of his town and his job. “My deputy Shane Tolbert was found standing over Marcie’s body holding a Ruger. He claimed he was knocked unconscious and someone put a gun in his hand. We arrested him, but forensics indicated that the blood spatter and fingerprints were consistent with his story, so he was released.” Hardin rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “But his father, Ben, was certain we were gunning to pin the crimes on his son, and tried to kill me and Sergeant Hutton.”

“Ben Tolbert is in jail?” Cabe said.

“Yes. He copped to threatening us and destroying key evidence, as well as setting fire to the cabin where Marcie was murdered, but not to murder.”

“Daniel Taabe, the leader of the Native American faction, was also murdered?” Cabe asked, knowing Taabe’s death was the trigger for bringing him into the case. Everyone in town thought the Rangers were trying to cover up the crime.

“Right.” Lieutenant Colter’s eyes snapped with anger. “So far, our suspects include Jonah Becker, his son Trace, his lawyer Jerry Collier who brokered the land deal, the mayor Woody Sadler who could have been protecting Shane as Ben did, and possibly Charla Whitley, Billy Whitley’s wife.”

Holy hell. Half the town were suspects. Between that and the war raging between the Caucasian faction and Native American faction, he had his job cut out.

Especially since both sides detested him.

He’d get this case tied up as soon as possible, and leave town. And this time, nothing would bring him back.

Anxiety plucked at Cabe as he parked at the Double B where the murder victims’ bodies had been found. He scanned the area, half expecting an ambush.

Someone had been sabotaging the investigation at every turn, and he had to be on guard every minute.

According to the lieutenant, Jonah Becker was furious at having the Rangers on his property. And he certainly wouldn’t welcome Cabe in town or on his ranch.

Jonah had always made it clear that he thought the Comanches were beneath him.

Not that Cabe cared what the rich bastard thought. He’d dealt with prejudice all his life. Prejudice from both sides.

But his Native blood ran deep. So did his cop instincts.

And as he climbed from his SUV, the scent of death surrounded him.

According to Dr. Jacobsen, the forensic anthropologist brought in to study the bones of an unnamed cadaver that had also been found here, one grave held ancient bones belonging to a Native. That grave suggested that this land was a Native American sacred burial ground. Worse, the body had been moved.

Dr. Jacobsen was right.

The ancient war cries and whispers of the dead bombarded him as he walked across the dusty, rock-strewn rugged land. There were other graves here. Graves of Natives who’d been buried long ago. Spirits who were upset that their sacred grounds had been disturbed.

Noting the plywood platform the forensic anthropologist had built to excavate the first finds, he muttered a silent thanks that Dr. Jacobsen had respected the grounds.

The image of the most recent corpse in the morgue flashed back, jolting him to the past and the reason he’d left years ago. The way the legs had been bound with chord, the face painted red, the eyes glued shut with clay—all part of the Comanche burial ritual. Just the way Daniel Taabe’s had been.

And exactly the way his little brother had been buried as well. Pain and grief suffused him. His little brother had died because his father had relied on the Big Medicine Ceremony to heal him instead of taking him to the hospital as Cabe had begged.

The moment they’d buried Simon, Cabe had left town, and he hadn’t spoken to his father since.

Shaking off the bitter memories, he studied the area where the bodies of the antiquities dealer Mason Lattimer and Native American activist Ray Phillips had been discovered. Forensics had already combed the area and bagged everything they’d discovered. He didn’t expect to find anything new, but took a few minutes to search himself. Yet as he touched his finger to the ground, a sense of violence and pain assaulted him full force.

He could always sense death. It was part of his Comanche heritage.

Now the stench, the anguish and suffering, the cries of the fallen Native Americans filled the air as if they still walked the land. He heard their footfalls, the stampeding horses, the screams of women and children and battle cries echoing from the ground. He saw their ghostly spirits gathering as one.

Their collective shouts that this land belonged to them.

With his gloved hand, he pushed aside a clump of thorny brush and pushed at the dirt below, then dug a sample of the clay from the ground. The lab could verify if it was the same clay used in the burial ritual.

“You’re going to jail, Becker,” he muttered. Tipping back his Stetson, he collected a sample and bagged it.

Horse hooves pounded against the ground, the sound coming closer. He glanced up, half expecting to see more spirits, but instead a woman wearing a black Stetson with silver trim approached, riding a palomino, her long curly red hair flowing in the wind.

Dammit. Jessie Becker, Jonah Becker’s daughter. He’d heard about her, seen pictures of her. She was not only a knockout but supposedly the brains behind the ranch’s recent rise in success.

And she hated the Rangers being on her land, had thwarted their attempts to interrogate her father, protecting him at every turn.

She galloped toward him, rage and anger spewing from her aura as she brought the horse to a halt barely inches from his side and glared down at him. The morning Texas sun was nearly blinding him, and he shifted his own Stetson to shade his eyes so he could see her more clearly.

God, she was a sight for sore eyes. Her nose was dainty, eyes a crystal shade of green like fresh spring grass, her body full of sexy curves. And those legs…

Her lean legs hugged the horse’s flanks just the way they would a man.

His body tightened, his sex hardening against his fly.

Double damn. He didn’t need or want to be attracted to the rancher, not when they were on opposite sides of the land issue—and perhaps the murders.

“What in the hell are you doing here?” she asked.

In spite of the anger in her voice, Cabe bit back a smile at her sassy tone. He hated pansy, whiny women and judging from her attitude—and the way she rode—she didn’t fit that category.

But he had his priorities straight. His work as a Ranger. His people—the Comanches.

And women.

In that order.

The spitfire redhead giving him a go-to-hell look was a complication. But now the damn sex kitten—rather, tigress—was part of the job, part of the task force the Rangers had put together, and he had to deal with her.

He stood to his full six-four and pasted on his most intimidating stare. “Sergeant Cabe Navarro,” he said. “I’m investigating the recent murders.”

She slid one leg over the side of the palomino and dismounted as if she’d been born in the saddle, then planted her hands on her hips and squared her shoulders. Still, her head barely came to his chest, and he could pick her up with one hand tied behind his back.

“When are you Rangers going to stop harassing my family?” she barked.

His gaze settled over her, intense and suspicious. Since the Rangers had arrived, she’d been more or less the spokesperson for the Becker family. What was she hiding?

“When we find the evidence we need to put away your father for stealing Native American property.” He paused for emphasis. “And for murder.”

Jessie Becker ground her teeth in frustration at the tall, dark-skinned Ranger’s threat. She knew exactly why he was here, and she had about as much use for him as she had for the other Rangers and the sheriff who’d been traipsing all over her property the past few days.

No, she had no use for him. They’d brought out the big guns now. This one was Native American, a sexy broad-shouldered hunky one at that. But his heritage meant that he would definitely be out to slaughter her family.

And her as well.

She had to protect her family.

“My father didn’t steal this land, and he certainly never killed anyone.” Her tone matched his, and she dug the silver toe of her boot into the dirt.

“Are you sure about that, Miss Becker? Maybe you don’t know your father as well as you think.” He stepped closer, tilted his head sideways and pierced her with his laser eyes. “Or maybe you’re covering for him.”

Her stomach fluttered with awareness, but she steeled herself against his accusations—and his sinful looks. The fringed rawhide jacket he wore gave him a rugged look that matched his brusque masculinity. Shoulder-length, thick black hair brushed his neck and his eyes were the darkest color of brown she’d ever seen. Brown and sultry and mysterious.

They were also as cold and intimidating as his thick, husky voice.

Both of which could melt the clothes right off a woman. Even hers and she was a hard sell when it came to men.

But she had to stay on her toes and couldn’t let down her guard—or her bra straps—for a second.

“Or maybe you arranged to buy the land illegally,” he said, “and you’re responsible for murder.”

“How dare you?” She raised her hand back, balled it into a fist, tempted to slug him, but his eyebrow went up in challenge, and her sanity returned. She had to get a grip. She couldn’t attack the law or she’d end up in jail. Then what would her father do?

“How dare I what?” he asked. “Try to find out the truth? Try to solve the murders that occurred on your property?”

He inched closer, so close his breath brushed her cheek. A breath that hinted at coffee and intimacy and…sex.

She folded her arms, ignoring any temptation to take another whiff. “I thought Billy Whitley killed Marcie James, Daniel Taabe, and those others?”

He shrugged. “We have reason to believe that someone else might be responsible, that Billy Whitley’s suicide note might have been forged.”

“What makes you think that?”

“The handwriting analysis didn’t pan out after all, and the blood used in the ritualistic burial doesn’t match Billy’s.”

“What blood?” Jessie asked.

“The Comanches bury their dead in a ritualistic style. They bend the person’s knees, bind them with a rope, then bathe them. Then they paint the deceased’s face red, and seal the eyes with clay. The red face paint is made from powdered ochre mixed with fish oil or animal grease and blood.” He paused again to make his point. “Human blood.”

In spite of her bravado, Jessie shivered slightly.

“After that, they dress the deceased in the finest clothing, lay them on a blanket, then wrap the body in another blanket and tie them with buffalo-hide rope. The body is placed in a sitting position on a horse and taken to the burial place west of the Comanche settlement and buried.”

“So you really think this land is sacred?”

He gave a clipped nod. “Yes. The cadaver found was definitely Native American, the bones years old.”

Jessie rubbed her arms with her hands. “But why would Billy admit that he killed Marcie and Daniel if he didn’t?”

Sergeant Navarro’s eyes darkened. “Because someone forced him to write that confession, or forged it.”

Tension stretched between them as she contemplated his suggestion. “If you think my father did all that, you’re crazy.”

Insatiable Desire


Insatiable Desire

Book 2 of the Demonborn Series

Insatiable Desire


Plagued by graphic visions and the desperate cries of murder victims, psychic Clarissa King will do anything to stop the brutal killer targeting her hometown — even work alongside the dangerously sexy FBI agent who thinks she’s a fraud. He’s the one man who sparks a hunger she never imagined possible — and the one man she should fear…


Vincent Valtrez knows how to get inside a serial killer’s mind. But with a dangerous past and a secret to keep, he wants nothing to do with this gorgeous psychic — especially since just the thought of her luscious body ignites a dark, irrepressible desire he’s determined to keep at bay. When the killer they seek turns out to be demonic and otherworldly, Vincent learns his connection to the murderer is more than just hunger and prey. Will the darkness inside Vincent claim him…or will he save Clarissa — and himself — from the evil that threatens them both?


Experienced romance suspense author Herron (Under His Skin) kicks off her new series with a bang. FBI agent Vincent Valtrez, the son of a devil and an angel, is a Dark Lord with the potential for great good or great evil. His dead father, Zion, is about to be named the new leader of Hell’s legions, and Pan, god of fear, wants to harvest Vincent’s soul and win Zion’s approval. He lures Vincent back to his hometown by targeting psychic Clarissa King, for whom Vincent has long felt an attraction. Herron manages to strike a balance between the romance bubbling between Vincent and Clarissa and the horror of Pan’s actions. Vincent displays enough self-loathing to make him an interestingly brooding hero, and readers will enjoy the chase after Pan’s earthly agents and Vincent’s struggle with his figurative and literal demons, right up to the obligatory cliffhanger ending. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

Twenty years later: six days until the rising

The first fuck was always the best.

Not that Special Agent Vincent Valtrez ever bedded the same woman twice.

No, twice meant they might misconstrue his intentions. Get involved. Expect something from him.

But he had nothing to give.

Sex was sex. An animal’s primal need. The one he fed willingly.

Unlike the evil bubbling inside him that he fought daily.

The motel room’s bedsprings squeaked as he ripped open the woman’s blouse, and he stared at her breasts spilling over the lace. Heat surged through his loins at the way her nipples puckered, begging for attention. A martini at midnight, and she’d easily become putty in his lust-driven hands.

He straddled her, then released the front clasp of her black bra, his cock twitching as her plump breasts filled his hands. Moaning, she traced a finger along his jaw, then dragged his face toward hers and nibbled at his lips. Their tongues danced together, and she slid her foot along the back of his calf, driving him crazy with desire.

Clouds shifted outside, moonlight streaking the room with shards of light, illuminating her flushed face and the splay of her fingers as she tore open his shirt and stroked his chest.

Vincent had felt the evil pulling at him for years, ever since his parents had disappeared. That night he’d been found on the edges of the Black Forest, bruised and beaten, and so traumatized he’d lost his memory.

Although he feared his father had killed his mother …

The woman’s blood-red fingernails clawed his bare skin. A droplet of blood mingled with the sweat, exciting him, blurring the lines in his mind between himself and the killers he hunted.

For an instant the beast inside him reared its head. He imagined sliding his hands around her slender throat, digging his fingers into her larynx until her eyes bulged, watching the life drain from her.

He hissed a breath between clenched teeth, forced himself to pull away. The dark side, the black holes, tugged at him again, trying to take control …

He couldn’t give in to the darkness. He was an FBI agent. Had sworn to save lives, not take them.

Oblivious to his turmoil, she jerked him back to her, took his hand and slid it between her thighs. She was so hot. Wet. Ready.

Raw need swirled through him. With a groan, he shoved the darkness deep inside, then bent and sucked her budded nipple into his mouth. She purred like a hungry cat, then parted her thighs in invitation, arousing him as she cradled his erection. He cupped her mound, pushing aside the edges of her panties to sink his fingers into her damp flesh. Her sigh of pleasure shattered his resistance, and he tore off her bra and underwear, then shoved her skirt up to her waist. A tight skirt that had drawn his eyes to her ass and made him horny as hell when she’d walked into the bar.

His jeans and boxers fell to the floor, socks into the pile. Then the condom-always the protection. He couldn’t chance continuing the Valtrez name with a child.

Growling in anticipation, he shoved her hands above her head, pinning her beneath him as if she was a prisoner of his desires.

She struggled playfully, but her eyes flashed and smoldered as he rubbed his throbbing length against her heat. She licked her lips, then bit his neck, and he groaned again, then flipped her to her stomach. He didn’t like to look at their faces, didn’t want any emotional connection.

His hands skated over her bare shoulders, slid down to massage her butt; then he lifted her to her knees. She braced herself on her hands and moaned, rocking forward, twitching against him.

“I want you inside me, Vincent,” she whispered raggedly. “Take me now.”

The flames of lust grew hotter as his cock stroked her ass, and the tip of his sex teased her center. Sliding in her moist channel a fraction of an inch, then retreating, then back again, taunting them both.

“God, sugar, please …”

He liked it when they begged.

She spread herself for him, and his control snapped, the vision of her offering setting his body aflame. He thrust inside her, ramming her so hard she cried out his name and dug her hands into the sheets, twisting them between those blood-red fingernails. He gripped her hips and began to pound her, deeper, faster, sweat beading on his body as the blood surged through his penis. Her body tightened around him, squeezing, milking his length, and delicious sensations built inside him. Panting, he increased the tempo, closed his eyes, heard her raspy breathing, his own chest heaving as he fought to hold back his orgasm. Pleasure was not an option, but release was imminent.

Another thrust and he tilted her, pressing her back against his chest as he stroked her nipples between his fingers. That sent her spiraling over the edge, and her body quivered, then spasmed around his. Relentlessly he hammered into her as sweat slid down his brow and the sound of their naked bodies slapping together mingled with the wind.

Vincent never lost control.

Except in the throes of his release, and even then, he held on to his emotions. A guttural groan erupted from deep inside him, and he ground himself deeper, biting back a shout as his orgasm spurted into her.

Outside the moon shifted, slid behind the clouds, vanishing completely. A black emptiness crept over the room, beckoning. The wind suddenly roared, rattling the walls, and he tensed, his senses honed, warning him that the devil had risen again to wreak havoc.

A second later, his cell phone jangled from the nightstand, saving him from the awkwardness after.

He released the woman so abruptly she fell forward, still trembling with the aftermath of her release. He tore off the condom and climbed away from her, hating himself. God, what had happened to him back there? He’d imagined killing her.

She caught his arm and tried to pull him back to her. “Don’t answer the phone.”

He had to leave. It was the only way she’d be safe. “Duty calls.”

Her eyelids fluttered wildly, and she ran a finger over his cock, raking a drop of come off the tip and sucking it into her mouth. “But I want you again already.”

“Tell the criminals to take a night off, then,” he growled.

She sighed, but he firmly ignored the disappointment in her eyes, the needy look suggesting that she wanted more than a lay, that she wanted to cuddle, to talk.

Instead, he reached for the phone, silently relaying what he didn’t want to have to say out loud. She was an okay fuck, but anything else was not in the cards. No use telling a lie. She had simply been a momentary reprieve between cases.

She clamped her teeth over her lips, then offered a disappointed smile and reached for that seductive skirt. Still he didn’t make excuses; he simply couldn’t give what he didn’t have.

A heart.

The silhouette of the woman’s skeletal remains swung from the Devil’s Tree in Clarissa King’s front yard.

She shuddered, battling the urge to grab an ax and chop it down. She’d tried that before, but the tree was petrified and held some kind of supernatural power. The moment she cut off a branch, it grew back, yet no grass grew beneath it, and in the winter the moment snow touched the branches, it melted. Mindless screams echoed from the limbs, as well, the screams of the dead who’d died there in centuries past.

The screams of Clarissa’s mother as she’d choked on her last breath in the same tree mingled with the others.

Forcing herself away from the window, she hugged her arms around herself to gather her composure. Night had long ago stolen the last strains of sun from the Tennessee sky, painting the jagged peaks and ridges of the Smokies with ominous shadows. Wind whistled through the pines and scattered spiny needles, dried and brittle from the relentless scorching heat that drained the rivers and creeks, leaving dead fish floating to the surface of the pebbled beds, muddy wells, and watering holes.

The grass and trees were starved for water, brown and cracking now with their suffering, and animals roamed and howled, searching for a meal in the desolate miles and miles of secluded forests.

There were some areas she’d never been because the infamous legends had kept her away. The Black Forest was one of them. Stories claimed that in the Black Forest, sounds of inhuman creatures reigned, half animal, half human-mandrills with human heads, shape-shifters, the unknown.

The few who’d ventured near had seen sightings of predators without faces, floating eyeballs that glowed in the dark, creatures that weren’t human. No light existed inside that forest, no color. And any who entered died a horrific, painful death at the hands of the poisonous plants and mutant creatures that fed on humans.

The whispers of the ghosts imprinted in the land chanted and cried from its depths. And nearby lay the Native American burial ground where screams of lost warriors and war drums reverberated in the death-filled air, where the ground tremored from the force of decades-old stampedes and battle cries.

Clarissa shivered and hurried to latch the screen door of her cabin that jutted over the side of the mountain. Useless, probably. The ratty screen and thin wooden door couldn’t protect her should the demons decide to attack.

The year of the eclipse-the year of death-was upon them.

Night and the full moon had brought them, stirring the devil from the ground, the serpents from the hills, the dead from the graves. Granny King-“Crazy Mazie” some had called her, God rest her soul-had taught her to read the signs. The insufferable heat, as if Hades himself had lit a fire beneath the earth, one to honor his kingdom. The blood-red moon that filled the sky and beckoned the predators to roam. The howl of Satan announcing his time for vengeance.

Yes, her once-safe hometown was full of evil, and no one could stop it until the demons fed their hungry souls with the innocents.

Yet the pleas of the women who’d died this week echoed in her head. She’d told the local sheriff her suspicions, that the deaths were connected.

That they were murders.

He’d wanted to know why she thought they were connected, and she’d had to be honest.

The victims had told her.

At least their spirits had when they’d visited.

Thankfully, Sheriff Waller had known her family and hadn’t laughed but had listened. Her grandmother had had the “gift” of communing with the dead, and so had her mother. Granny King used to read the obits daily over her morning herbal tea and confer with the deceased as if they were long-lost buddies. Everyone in town had thought she was touched in the head. But she’d been right on so many occasions that most folks believed her.

The rest were scared to death of her.

Clarissa’s mother had also been a psychic and an empath, only the constant barrage of needy souls had driven her insane. So insane she’d finally chosen to join them in death … instead of living and raising her daughter.

Bitterness swelled inside Clarissa at the loss, eating at her like a virus. She’d been alone, shunned, gossiped about, even called wretched names and cast away from certain families who thought she, too, was evil.

Her mother had visited Clarissa once after her death, ordered Clarissa to suppress her powers. And she had done so most of her life, trying to be normal.

She was anything but normal.

So she’d returned to the one place a few people accepted her. Back to Eerie.

Staying in her granny’s house seemed to have unleashed the spirits, as if they’d lain in waiting all these years for their friend to return, and she could no longer fight their visits.

Outside, the wind howled, a tree branch scraped the windowpane, and ominous storm clouds hovered with shadowy hands that obliterated the light. Even with the ceiling fan twirling, the oppressive summer heat robbed the air, stirring cobwebs and dust that sparkled in the dark interior like white ashes.

Wulf, the German shepherd mix she’d rescued last year after he’d been hurt in a collapsed mine, suddenly growled, low and deep as if he sensed a threat, too, then trotted to the window and looked outside in search of an intruder.

Anxiety needled her as she contemplated the meeting she faced tomorrow.

Vincent Valtrez was coming to town.

She’d thought about him over the years, had wondered what had happened to him. Both outcasts, her because of her gift, him because of his violent father, they’d formed an odd friendship as kids.

But when she’d offered to see if his mother had passed, had suggested she could talk to her from the grave, he’d called her crazy and pushed her out the door. He told her he never wanted to see her again.

She couldn’t believe he was an FBI agent now. He probably wouldn’t be any more open to her psychic powers now than he had been back then.

She had to talk to him anyway. Convince him to listen. She hadn’t asked for this gift, but she couldn’t deny it, either. Not when others’ lives were at stake. Because this killer wasn’t finished. And she didn’t want the women’s lost souls upon her conscience.

Pan, the god of fear, studied the town of Eerie, his plan taking shape in his demonic mind.

Six days until Zion rose from the dead for the coronation. Six days until their new leader assumed control.

The underworld buzzed with excitement and preparations. Legend told that Zion would be the most evil leader they had ever known, that he showed no mercy upon any soul.

Just as he hadn’t toward his wife and son.

In anticipation of his rising, demons met to plot and scheme, desperate to ingratiate themselves into their new master’s graces and raise themselves from their lowly levels to higher realms within the underground. Others forged secret plans, vying to outbid one another to sit at Zion’s right-hand side.

Pan had burrowed from his lowly chamber and accepted the challenge. A mere minion, punished to the fiery blazes of the lowest level, he had to collect enough souls to impress the new leader.

Seven souls and he would win great favor.

Mere days ago, fellow demons had fought the Twilight Guards, the ones who guarded the realm between mortals and the supernatural world, and had opened a portal for the demons. Pan had orbed through the dark planes of time and space, through the portal, and floated above the town of Eerie. There he’d watched the mortals and had chosen the face of one to borrow for his bidding. A face that no one would suspect hid a demon.

Two women had died at his hands so far.

One touch and he knew their greatest fear.

Then he’d used it to kill them.

Laughter bubbled in his parched throat. But killing the women and stealing their souls was a minor part of the larger picture. He’d specifically pinpointed the town where Vincent Valtrez had been raised, because he knew the local sheriff would call him.

And he’d chosen Clarissa King to taunt with the voices of the dead, because she was Valtrez’s Achilles’ heel.

As a boy, Valtrez had protected her from his father. She would be the perfect means to trap Vincent.

Pan had already pressed his hand to her and knew her greatest fear: that the dead she communed with would drive her insane. He would target her friends for his kills, then use their voices to torment her.

He raised his black palm and began to chant, to summon the demons to torture her:

“I call to you, Spirits far and wide, Rise from the dead To the medium’s side. Let your cries Fill her head So she may join You and the dead.”

If Valtrez still had a weakness for the woman, when she broke, he would try to save her.

Then Pan would turn the Dark Lord and bring him to the new master.


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.


A Breath Away


A Breath Away

A Breath Away

A spine-tingling tale of love, betrayal and deadly small-town secrets…

Haunted by ghosts of her childhood friend’s murder, Violet Baker returns to Crow’s Landing and braces herself for the backlash of her judgmental home-town. Violet’s quest for answers, coupled with psychic visions of a serial killer and his victims, sweep her up into a dangerous riptide. When the killer targets her as his next victim, she is forced to turn to embittered sheriff Grady Monroe to shelter her from harm. As pent-up passion and sinister forces swirl around them, Violet and Grady must guard their hearts against the greatest danger of all…falling in love.

Reviewers Choice Award

“Like most customers, an intriguing cover always draws me to a book and the romantic suspense feel of A BREATH AWAY caught my eye. While it was my first Rita Herron novel, it certainly won’t be my last.”

“I have chills just remembering the way this story unfolds, thanks to Rita Herron’s gift for heart-pounding suspense. Trust me – after reading this book, you won’t want to turn the lights out!” Aideen O’Leary Chung, Romance Diamond Club

“A BREATH AWAY is a tense and twisting ride right out of the starting gate. Rita Herron has packed her new romantic-suspense novel with gripping emotion, lots of characters that “could have done it”, and an ending that is fitting. Both Grady and Violet are both so guilt-ridden by the death of Darlene, it makes you wonder how they can ever come to love each other, and yet Ms. Herron makes it happen. A BREATH AWAY is a very intriguing, very suspenseful, and very satisfying book by this very terrific author.” Brooke Wills,

“When Rita Herron wields a pen, you better be prepared to have your world rocked! A BREATH AWAY is an absolute five-star keeper! Rita Herron has a superb talent, and her voice reverberates throughout the romantic suspense genre. Ms. Herron has combined suspense and romance to create a story that won’t let go. The plot is full of surprises that I couldn’t even begin to guess at. This is an honest to goodness hair-raising, edge of your seat, romantic suspense! Every character harbored secrets and left you guessing at their motives and past crimes. The writing is pure excellence, the characters are completely compelling, and the plot is out of this world! What more can you ask for? Nothing, because A BREATH AWAY is perfection in a book!” BJ Deese, CataRomance Reveiws

“4 Stars – Herron has crafted a psychologically frightening novel. The plot is complex and compelling, and the use of some Native American traditions adds dimension. The story’s twists are refreshingly not predictable.” Marilyn Weigel, Romantic Times

Twenty Years Later

He had come back to get her. She heard the sound, breath against bone…

Violet bolted upright from a dead sleep and searched the darkness. She’d known this day would come. That he’d find her and kill her just as he had Darlene.

Shadows from the room clawed at her. A reedy, whistling sound rippled through her ears. What was it? An animal crying? No, it was lower, softer but sharp.

Almost like… like the sound she’d head the night Darlene died.

Had the sound been in her dreams or was someone really outside this time?

She flicked on the fringed lamp, searching the room, angry she still hadn’t conquered her fear of the dark. Or storms. She had dreamt of Darlene’s death a thousand times over the years. And that noise, she’d heard it before, too.

But never like this.

Not like it was right outside, coming nearer.

And this dream was different. In her earlier nightmares, Darlene had remained the same sweet, red-haired, small child. This time the victim had been a woman. What did it mean? Was the evil back? Was it inside her?

Or was her subconscious aging Darlene so Violet could see what she might have looked like if she’d lived? She dropped her head into her hands. Or maybe her grief and guilt had finally robbed her senseless, and she’d lost her mind.

Outside, ocean waves crashed against the Savannah shore. The wind howled off the coast, rain splattering against the roof of the cottage she and her grandmother had rented a few months ago when they’d moved to Tybee Island.

The wind had seeped through the thin panes and weathered wood, causing the whistling sound. That was the logical explanation.

The only explanation.

Sweat-soaked and shaking, Violet tugged the quilt around her legs. The clock chimed midnight. The steady crashing of the waves faded into a hypnotic drone. But her heart pounded in her chest like ancient Indian war drums. The only time she’d had a psychic vision or heard voices in her head had been twenty years ago. The day her father had sent her away. The day her best friend had died.

It couldn’t be happening again.

Although a few times in a crowded room or store, she’d experienced strange sensations, odd snippets of a stranger’s voice whispering in her head, she’d written them off as her overactive imagination. And on a date in Charleston, she’d sensed something dangerous about the man. It was almost as if she’d met him before. As if he’d known more about her than he was telling.

She tossed aside the covers and padded barefoot across the braided rug, then stared through the windowpane at the moonless night. Her fingers toyed with her half of the Best Friends necklace she had shared with Darlene. The rain and fog rolling off the shore obliterated the normally crystal images of the cove and the constellations. Ominous shadows tore at her self-control. It was almost as if someone was watching her.

Like the past had returned to haunt her.

No. Tomorrow marked the twentieth anniversary of Darlene’s death. Thoughts of Darlene always dominated her mind this time of year. Like an obsession that grew stronger every year instead of weaker, the incessant guilt dogged her like a demon.

Yet as she looked into the inky sky, fear snaked through her, and she sensed that it was only the beginning. That just as the tides changed in the ocean, they were about to change in her life.

Just like everything had changed that horrible day when she was eight years old, and she’d stood by and let her best friend die.

“Are you all right this morning, dear?” Violet’s grandmother gripped the Magnolia coffee cup with gnarled fingers and slid into a kitchen chair. “You look tired.”

Violet shrugged, pushing away the half-eaten piece of dried toast. “I didn’t sleep well.”

“Having nightmares again?”

Violet nodded, her gaze straying to the rain still drizzling in soft sheets onto the parched sand outside. “It’s that time of year, I suppose.”

Sympathy lined her grandmother’s face. “I know it’s hard, Violet. Try not to dwell on the past though.”

Violet nodded, resigned. She wouldn’t upset her grandmother by confessing about the voices. She was twenty-eight now, independent and strong. She’d even invested in a gift shop in downtown Savannah, Strictly Southern, determined to plant roots and build a life here. She’d save some money, buy this cabin and fix it up for herself and her grandmother. In fact, she’d already mapped out the first decorating plans — she’d paint the fading chipped walls yellow, sew some frilly curtains, add a windowseat by the bay window so she could bask in the sunlight to read and draw.

And maybe she would finally escape the ghosts. “I’m going to the shop for a while. Do you need anything?”

Her grandmother pointed to the list on the butcher block counter. “Thanks, dear. I hate that I can’t get about like I used to.”

“You’re doing fine, Gram.” Violet patted her hand, then scraped the dry toast into the trash, a twinge of anxiety pulling at her. The doctor had cautioned Violet about her grandmother’s high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat. Occasionally she suffered memory lapses, and her arthritis was becoming more of a problem.

At one time, Violet had told her grandmother everything. Had shared her fears, all her nightmares, the bitter sense of loss that had eaten at her over the years when her father had never called or visited.

“Maybe you’ll find a nice young man here in Savannah,” Gram said with a teasing smile. “Get married, make me some great-grandbabies.”

“Maybe.” Violet feigned a smile for her grandmother’s benefit, although she didn’t foresee marriage or a man in her near future. If her own father hadn’t loved her, how could someone else? Besides, her failures with men were too many to count. The psychologist she’d finally spoken with about her phobia of the dark, had suggested she was punishing herself for Darlene’s death by denying her own happiness. So, she had forced herself to accept a few dates.

But Donald Irving, the man in Charleston had given her the creeps. When she refused to see him again, he started showing up at odd times, calling at all hours of the night. Then the hang-up calls…

Her grandmother had become so distraught, Violet had finally agreed to move.

No, Violet had no plans for marriage or men. She had been a loner most of her life.

And she probably always would be.

“Oh, my goodness.” Her grandmother paled. “Did you see this, Violet?”

Violet leaned over her grandmother’s shoulder and stared at the newspaper, her stomach knotting at the headlines.

Twenty-five-year-old woman from Savannah College of Art & Design Reported Missing.

Police suspect foul play.

Grady Monroe stacked the files on his desk, wishing he could rearrange his attitude and life as easily. He traced a finger over the edge of the photo of Darlene he kept on the scarred wooden desk. She’d been so damn young and innocent, just a freckled-faced kid with a heart-shaped face who’d liked everyone. And trusted them.

But she’d died for nothing.

He pressed the pencil down to scribble the date on the file, his gaze shooting to the desk calendar. The pencil point broke. The date stared back at him, daring him to forget it, the red circle around the fifteenth a staunch reminder of the reason he couldn’t.

The single reason he’d studied law himself. Only so far he had no clue as to who had committed the vile crime or how the killer had eluded the police for two decades. The police referred to it as a cold case — dead files.

The files would never be shut until he found his half-sister’s killer.

Jamming the pencil in the electric sharpener, he watched it spin, his mind sorting through the recent cases on his desk. Crow’s Landing — the usual traffic citations. Domestic crimes. A complaint against a stray dog that might be rabid. Not like crime in the big cities. A man murdered in Nashville two days ago. A drive-by shooting in an apartment complex in Atlanta. And this morning, reports of a woman missing in Savannah.

As if to mock him, the phone trilled. “Sheriff Monroe here.”

“Sheriff, this is Beula Simms.”

Oh, lord. What now?

“Get out to Jed Baker’s house right away. Your daddy and Jed’s at it again.”

She didn’t have to say at what; Jed and his father had hated each other for years. “I’ll be right there.” He hung up and snagged the keys to his patrol car. A headache pounded at his skull, the painkillers he’d managed to swallow barely touching the incessant throbbing. He should have left off the tequila the night before, but the approaching anniversary of his half-sister’s death always brought out his dark side, the destructive one.

And now this call.

Five minutes later, he screeched up the graveled drive to Baker’s clapboard house. His father and Baker were yelling at each other on the sagging front porch. Grady opened the squad door and climbed out, although both men seemed oblivious that he’d arrived.

“You should have left town a long time ago.” His father waved a fist at Jed.

“I did what I had to do and so did you,” Jed yelled.

Grady’s father raised a scotch bottle and downed another swallow, staggering backward and nearly falling off the porch. “But if we’d done things differently, my little girl might be alive. And so would my Teresa.”

“I know the guilt’s eatin’ at you, Walt.” Jed thumbed through his sweaty, thinning hair. “We’ll both be burning in hell for keeping quiet.”

“Hell, I’ve been living there for years.”

“But you don’t get it, someone’s been asking around.” Jed’s voice sounded raw with panic. “Claims he’s a reporter.”

His father coughed. “You didn’t tell him anything, did you?”

“Hell, no, but I don’t like him asking questions. What are we gonna do?”

“Keep your goddamn mouth shut, that’s what.”

“I ain’t the one who wanted to blab years ago. And what if he gets to Violet?”

“It’s always about her. What about what I lost!” Walt lunged at Jed, ripping his plaid shirt and dragging them both to the ground. Jed fought back, and they tumbled down the stairs, wood splintering beneath them as they crashed to the dirt. The late evening heat blistered his back as Grady strode over to them.

“Get up, Dad.” Grady yanked his father off Jed, and Jed rolled away, eating dry dirt and brittle grass.

His father swung a fist at him. “Leave us alone!”

Grady grabbed him by both arms and tried to shake some sense into him. “For God’s sake, Dad, do you want me to haul your ass in to jail for the night?”

Jed swiped a handkerchief across his bloody nose and climbed onto the lowest step. Grady’s father wobbled backward, a trickle of blood seeping from his dustcoated lower lip.

Grady snapped a finger toward his vehicle. “Get in the damn car before I handcuff you.”

His father muttered an obscenity as Grady shoved him in the backseat. He slammed the door and glared at Baker. “Are you all right?

Jed merely grunted.

“You want to press charges?”


Grady narrowed his eyes, wondering why Baker would allow his dad to assault him and get away with it. But as usual when the two men fought, neither Jed nor his father offered an explanation. Although this time the conversation had triggered more questions than usual.

It was senseless to ask though. Something had happened years ago that had caused a permanent rift between the men. Something they refused to talk about.

Judging from their conversation, it had to do with Darlene.

And sooner or later, Grady was going to find out exactly what it was. Then maybe he’d figure out who had killed his sister.

A few minutes later, he pulled up to his dad’s house, disgusted. The Georgian style two-story had once been impressive, almost stately with its front columns, but had deteriorated in the past twenty years from lack of upkeep. Paint peeled from the weathered boards, the shingles from the roof had blown off in the recent storm, and the columns needing painting, a sad testament to his father’s life. “You’d better stay put tonight, Dad,” Grady ordered.

His father wove toward the den, his face ruddy with rage. “You should have left us alone.”

“Sleep it off, Dad.” Grady slammed the door and jogged to his car. Damnit, just as he’d expected, his father had clammed up and refused to talk about his fight with Baker or offer an explanation.

His nerves shot, Grady reached for a cigarette, then remembered he’d quit smoking for the dozenth time this year. Rummaging through the litter of papers on his console, he grabbed a piece of Juicy Fruit gum and shoved it in his mouth instead. The shortest time without his Marlboros had been six days. The longest time, six months.

He automatically veered toward the graveyard beside Crow’s Landing Church, the daisies he’d bought for his little sister’s grave a reminder of the reason he’d started smoking in the first place.

Darlene’s death.

Everything in his life could somehow be related to that one crucial event. And the fact that her killer had never been caught.

Twenty years ago today she had been kidnapped. Twenty years ago tomorrow, they had found her dead. He knew his father was in pain. Hell, so was he. He had lost his entire family that day.

He’d never forgive himself for it either.

If only he hadn’t stopped to hang out with the boys, if he’d come straight home to watch Darlene, she wouldn’t have set across the hollow by herself to see that little friend of hers, Violet. And she wouldn’t be dead.

The small graveyard loomed ahead, shadows of tombstones darkening with age, some graves littered with debris, others better-tended with colorful artificial flowers. Still, the dank air and smell of freshly turned dirt from a new grave enveloped Grady as he forced his rubbery legs to track through the aisles of cement landmarks. It was almost midnight, the day of mourning upon him.

Night sounds twittered and screeched around him, the crunch of his boots snapping twigs and leaves. He knelt and traced his finger over the curved lines of Darlene’s name carved in slick marble, then laid the flowers across the headstone, his gaze straying to her mother’s grave beside her. At least the two of them were together, he tried to take solace in that fact. God only knew where his own mother was. She might be dead for all he knew. His father refused to talk about her.

He reached inside his pocket and removed the bag of marbles he’d purchased earlier at the Dollar General, fingering each colorful ball as he arranged them in a heart shape on top of the grassy mound. A green one with swirls of gold flecks looked almost iridescent like a mother-of-pearl, the cascade of bright reds, oranges, purples and yellows a kaleidoscope of colors against the earth.

“Come on, Grady, play Barbie dolls with me.” Darlene’s childlike voice echoed in his mind. He automatically pressed a hand over his shirt pocket, where he always carried a green marble. He’d refused to play Barbie with her though, he’d been too cool. So, he’d tried to convince her to play marbles instead. She’d never taken to the game, but she had been enchanted with all the colors, and had started collecting marbles, calling them her jewels.

Damn, if he had it to do over again, he would have sucked it up and played dolls with her.

He could still picture her angelic little face as she lined her jewels up on the shelf above her bed, those lopsided red pigtails bobbing, the freckles dancing on her pug nose. “Look, Grady, I’m making a rainbow. The green one looks like my eyes. And this chocolate brown one looks like yours, and this pretty blue one is like Violet’s. And look at this sparkly clear one! I can see through it, just like I can see right through Violet’s eyes sometimes.

Although he didn’t understand their friendship, Darlene had loved the homely Baker girl. He’d been shocked when Violet hadn’t attended the funeral. But Baker had claimed Violet had a breakdown, that he’d had to send her away. And as far as Grady knew, she’d never returned to Crow’s Landing. Maybe she’d gone off and forgotten Darlene.

His life might be different if he’d moved away, too. He might escape the constant reminders of his past. His father. And his guilt. But he didn’t want to escape.

He wanted revenge.

He paced around and around in a wide circle. The moonlight was bright, bright, bright. The light hurt his eyes. Hurt his eyes. Hurt his eyes. But the circle had to be complete.

He raised his arm and tore at the hairs. One, two, three.

No, stop it! He gripped the rocks, inhaling pungent, salty air and the delicious scent of death as he twisted his hands into a frenzy over the jagged surface. Then he ground his palms so hard the pointed rocks tore at his skin. The first prickles of blood seeped from the cuts and trickled down his arms. He raised his fist to study the patterns, the crisscross where the streams of blood met. The angle they flowed onto his palms. The thickening at the base of his hand.

Gi’ga — blood, the force of life. The scarlet color stirred his loins. Excitement sang through his veins. I am the gi’ga-tsuha’li. One cut, two cuts, three —

No, he screamed again. He no longer thought in threes. One was his number.

Three was the first pattern. One for his mommy, one for his daddy, and one for him.

Then he’d learned about another.

But that one had to die.

He imagined her sweet, baby lamb’s face with those big trusting eyes. That day he’d heard another voice in his head, screaming at him to stop. He’d known there were more. Too many more. He had to make them all die.

Let them know he was the chosen one.

But his mommy and daddy found out what he’d done. He hadn’t been careful. No, he’d been stupid, so stupid, and they’d gotten angry. Finally they’d admitted it wasn’t his fault, then they’d called him their little angel. But, after that, they’d kept him locked up at night. He despised being shut up. Hated the bare white walls. Had clawed them until blood streaked down, giving them color. Pretty crimson color.

His mommy needed him now though. Oh, yes, yes, yes. He couldn’t let her down.

Laughter bubbled up inside him, erupting like the blood bursting from an open vein. Like the dark red substance he drew from the sacrificial lambs before they died.

Yes, he was the bloodtaker, the gi’ga-tsuha’li.

He was the good son. The only one who could save the father. And he wouldn’t stop until he did.

His favorite childhood song chimed in his head, “There was one, there were two, there were three little angels…”

Smiling to himself, he reversed the words, “There were ten, there were nine, there were eight little angels, there were seven, there were six, there were five little angels, there were four, there were three, there were two little angels, one little angel in the band.”

Yes, when it was over, there would be only one little angel left.

And it would be him.

Mysterious Circumstances


Mysterious Circumstances

Nighthawk Island Series

Mysterious Circumstances

FBI agent Craig Horn had his hands full investigating a series of suspicious deaths without a single lead while trying to avoid a media circus. Complicating matters, he’d finally met his match in feisty reporter Olivia Thornbird.

But while trying to get her scoop, Olivia suddenly became the victim of dangerous threats—and honor demanded Craig offer his protection. Now, the only solution was to work together. But as Craig and Olivia joined forces to draw out a killer, the sassy spitfire’s big baby blues and tantalizing lips soon became a distraction he couldn’t afford….