Cowboy in the Extreme

2017-11-09T13:58:38+00:00

Cowboy in the Extreme

Bucking Bronc Lodge Series

Cowboy in the Extreme

“There’s an intruder in my cabin!”

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

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

“Carter escaped from prison.”

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

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

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

Kim, his first love, his only love.

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

That hurt the worst?.

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

“Now you believe he was innocent of murder?”

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

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

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

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

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

That affair had ripped apart their friendship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did Troy find her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then he’s looking for this woman?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucy’s eyes grew sleepy. “Pwomise?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her breath caught as fear shot through her.

Lucy.

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

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

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

Was one of them breaking in now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?”

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

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

Lucy jerked awake, her eyes wide with terror.

“Mommy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unbreakable Bond

2017-11-09T13:58:38+00:00

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.

Bad.

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.”

Peek-a-Boo Protector

2017-11-09T13:58:38+00:00

Peek-a-Boo Protector

Seeing Double Series

Peek-a-Boo Protector

Police chief John Wise admired Samantha Corley’s courage when she discovered her remote cabin ransacked and an adorable baby girl in need of a bottle. The only clue to her identity was the note pinned to her blanket, stirring John’s protective instincts like nothing before. Agreeing to help Sam find out the truth, he claimed it was a purely professional pairing. But he couldn’t ignore the way his heart clenched watching Sam care for the innocent child, or the feelings baby Emmie stirred in his soul. With the danger escalating, John knew he was in way too deep. Bad guys he could handle. Caring about the fate of both baby and guardian was out of his jurisdiction….

You’ll be sorry you messed with me.”

Leonard Cultrain’s angry words echoed through Samantha Corley’s head as she drove up the winding graveled drive to her cabin. His mother, Lou Lou, one of the most bitter, crotchety old ladies she’d ever known, had insisted that her son was innocent of murdering his wife, that he never should have been arrested in the first place.

But everyone in town knew Leonard was out of jail on a technicality, and the residents were on edge.

Gravel spewed behind her as she pressed the accelerator and screeched up her driveway. Normally she wasn’t skittish, and could hold her own, but she’d feel a hell of a lot better once she was inside her house with her shotgun by her side.

Usually Sam liked living out here alone in the wilderness, but today the isolation felt eerie.

The thick dense trees rocked with the wind, the branches dipping like big hands trying to reach her, hands like Leonard’s.

Hands that could choke her just like he’d choked his wife.

Stop it; you’re just being paranoid. You’re home now.

But her headlights flickered across the lawn as she braked, and she spotted a strange car parked in front of her house.

An uneasy feeling rippled up her spine. Had Leonard come to make good on his threat?

No, this wasn’t Leonard’s old car.

The license plate was from Fulton County, the Atlanta area. She didn’t know anyone from Atlanta.

Maybe she should call the local police. Chief John Wise’s strong masculine face flashed in her mind, and for a brief moment, she wished that he was here. That he’d take charge and make sure she was safe.

But she couldn’t depend on a man. She’d learned that a long damn time ago. Besides, John wouldonly fuss at her for going out to Leonard’s. He thought she was foolish to go up against bullies like him.

The infuriating man was like most others she knew. They wanted a dainty little female, one they could protect—and control.

Sam was none of those things. In foster care, she’d learned to do the protecting and to stand up for herself.

Besides, tangling with the tall, dark brooding cop rattled her every time—and made her want things she couldn’t have. Like a man in her life?.

No, she’d check this out for herself. Maybe she simply had a visitor.

Yeah, right. Sam didn’t have a lot of friends. Acquaintances, yes, but no one she shared her secrets with. No one to sleep over.

Not since Honey had left.

Clenching her cell phone in one hand, she grabbed the baseball bat she kept with her from the backseat floorboard and climbed out.

Slowly she moved up the porch steps, glancing at the windows and searching for movement inside the house, listening for sounds of an intruder. If a car was here, someone had to be around. But where?

Her senses sprang to alert at the top of the steps. The front door had been jimmied. She held her breath and inched forward, then touched the doorknob. It felt icy against her finger, then the door swung open with a screech.

She exhaled shakily. Inside, the house was dark, the smell of fear palpable. But another scent drifted to her. A man’s cologne. Heavy. Cheap. Too strong.

She hesitated and moved behind the door. She’d be a fool to go inside. She had to call for help.

But a baby’s cry pierced the air. A baby? God, what if the child was hurt? If the parent was here for her help?

It was a small town. Everyone knew what she did for a living, that she was a children’s advocate, a guardian ad litem, and sometimes they needed her help.

Her heart stuttered in her chest. If the child was in danger, she couldn’t wait.

Still she had to be cautious. She inched into the entryway, but froze at the sight of blood in the kitchen.

Someone was hurt.

Trembling, she slipped into the corner behind the door and punched 9-1-1, then whispered that she had an intruder.

“We’ll get someone there ASAP,” the dispatch officer said. “Stay on the line.”

But the baby wailed again, and she ended the call and slipped up the stairs. Gripping the bat in her hands, she paused to listen, searching for the direction of the noise.

It was coming from her room. She scanned the hall, the extra bedroom and bath at the top of the stairs, but they were empty.

Her eyes had adjusted to the dark now, and she peered into her bedroom. The windows were closed, the bed made, nothing amiss. No signs of an intruder.

She crept inside, then realized the cry was coming from her closet. She eased opened the door and her heart clenched.

An infant was kicking and screaming from an infant carrier on the floor, a darling little girl wrapped in a pink blanket.

She knelt and scooped up the child to comfort her, her mind racing. What was going on?

There had been blood downstairs?. Someone was hurt.

The baby’s mother?

<p”>Police Chief John Wise gripped his cell phone with his fist as his father lapsed into a diatribe about his plans for John’s future.

“You know you were meant to do more than work in that hole-in-the-wall town,” his father bellowed. “The most serious crime you’ve solved has been the theft of those stupid Butterbean dolls. And that was just a bunch of kids selling them on eBay.”

John silently cursed. “You don’t have to remind me.” The case had been the talk of the small town. All the parents had been in an uproar, divided on the issue. Some blew it off as boys being boys while others wanted the kids punished for tainting the town’s biggest tourist draw.

CNN had picked up the story, plastered photos of Butterville Babyland Hospital on the news, panning the rooms where the Butterbean babies were birthed from their butterbean shells along with a picture of him in uniform as if he were guarding the dolls. Miss Mazie, the doll’s originator, had her five minutes of fame.

And he’d looked like a country bumpkin fool.

“You need to move on,” his father continued. “We want the political supporters to take you seriously when your name comes up for office.”

Sweat dribbled down his jaw. “I know, Dad. But the town needs me now. Leonard Cultrain has been released from prison and poses a threat.” Especially to the women.

His phone beeped that he had another call, and he jumped on it. “A 9-1-1 is coming in. I’ve got to go.”

“What this time? Someone’s cat up a tree?” his father said in disgust.

His father was probably right. But he’d heard enough for tonight. “Later.” He disconnected the call and clicked to dispatch. “Chief Wise here.”

“We just got a call from Samantha Corley’s house. An intruder.”

He scrubbed a hand over his face, scraping beard stubble. “Did you remind her not to go inside?”

“I told her to stay on the line but then the line went dead.”

John swore, then hit the siren, wheeled around and raced toward Samantha’s cabin. The damn woman was a magnet for trouble. That job of hers was going to get her killed one day.

Not that he didn’t admire her dedication to her calling—and her killer legs—but he wished she’d choose another line of work. Let someone else deal with the parent abusers and troubled families in the county.

But she’d grown up in a foster home, so he guessed it was her nature. Still, sometimes he worried about the blasted woman.

Why, he didn’t know. He’d known her since high school, but she’d never given him the time of day. Except for that friend of hers, Honey Dawson, who’d left town months and months ago, Sam hadn’t made many friends. And as far as he knew, she’d never had a boyfriend.

He guessed the morons in town couldn’t see past that quiet, independent demeanor of hers. That and the gossip about her father being a bad cop, killed because of it.

Coupled with the fact that she was a tough girl from a foster home and that she could outshoot most men in town, she intimidated the hell out of them, too.

But he actually admired her guts and her skill.

His mind ticked over the possibilities of who might want to harm her. Leonard had just been released today and now Sam was in trouble—could the two be connected?

Adrenaline shot through him, and he pressed the gas and sped up. If the son of a bitch had hurt her, he’d be back in the pen tonight. And this time no technicality would get him off.

His heart rate kicked up as he rounded the curve and turned onto Pine Bluff, then raced around the winding road, fighting the curves at breakneck speed. He swung onto the gravel drive leading up the ridge to her cabin on two wheels, bracing himself mentally and physically for what he might find.

He approached the cabin and screeched to a stop, then he grabbed his gun and jumped from the vehicle, scanning the periphery for an intruder, and for Sam. If the fool woman had any sense, she’d have waited outside. But he didn’t see an intruder or Sam anywhere.

It figured she’d try to handle things on her own.

He saw a dark green sedan with a dent in the front fender, then noticed the plates were Fulton County and frowned. Why would an intruder have parked in front of the house?

A coyote’s wail rent the night, trees rustled in the wind, and an owl hooted. The chill of the night engulfed him, warning him trouble was at hand. Too close by to ignore.

He inched forward, searching the porch, the windows, the doorways for signs of movement, and sounds of an intruder.

When he pushed the front door open, he saw the blood splattered on the kitchen floor, and his chest clenched.

He hoped to hell that wasn’t Sam’s blood.

Gun at the ready, he crept toward the kitchen but it appeared empty, although the blood trail led out the back door. It looked as if the intruder might have gone into the woods. God, he might have Sam with him.

Then a sound disturbed the quiet. He hesitated, tensed, listening.

A crying baby? He hadn’t seen Sam around much; surely she hadn’t had a baby without his knowing.

He pivoted to search for the child and realized the cry had come from upstairs. He slowly moved toward the staircase, but glanced in the dining room first just to make sure it was empty. Satisfied the downstairs was clear, he tiptoed up the steps, pausing to listen. If the intruder had Sam up there, he wanted to catch him off guard.

But just as he turned the corner of the staircase, a shadow moved in front of him. He reacted instantly and raised the gun. “Police, freeze.”

A strangled yelp made him pause, then an object swung down. He jumped back to dodge the blow, and the object connected with the floor.

What the hell?

He flipped on the light aiming his gun at the source, then Sam screamed.

His heart hammered. “Sam! For God’s sake, I could have shot you.”

She pulled back, her eyes huge in her pale face. “John?”

He heaved a breath, trying to control his raging temper. She could have killed him with that damn bat.

“Did you see anyone?” she whispered shakily.

Feeling like a heel for yelling at her, he reached out and stroked her arms. Her dark curly hair was tousled, her cheeks flushed, and fear glimmered in her vibrant brown eyes. “No. It looks like the intruder went out the back door.”

“There was blood,” she whispered. “Someone’s blood?.”

He pulled her up against him, surprised at how soft she felt when she was such an athlete, was so well-toned. “I know, but it’s all right,” he murmured. “I’mhere now.”

She allowed him to soothe her for a brief second, then Sam suddenly pulled away as if she realized she’d let down her guard and shown a weakness by letting him touch her.

He stiffened. What was wrong with him? He had a job to do, and this was Samantha Corley, Miss Cool and Independent.

Although he had to admit that he’d liked the way she felt up against him.

“I’m sorry, I was just shaken for a moment.” Sam blushed and squared her shoulders, chastising herself for acting so wimpy. But the thought that the little baby might have been in danger frightened her.

“Don’t sweat it,” he said. “Let’s go sit down and you can tell me what happened.”

She nodded, but the little girl whimpered from the bedroom again, and she whirled around. “Let me get the baby.”

“Baby?” his gruff voice echoed behind her as he followed her into her bedroom.

He paused at the doorway as if uncomfortable entering her private room, then cleared his throat and walked on in, following her to the closet.

She opened the door, then knelt and scooped up the whimpering child in her arms. “Shh, sweetheart, it’s all right. I’ll take care of you.”

“Good grief, Sam, what’s going on? You have a baby in the closet?”

She wrapped the blanket snugly around the child and patted her back as she turned to him. “Whoever was here, the mother maybe, left her in my room.”

Shock strained his features for a brief second, then she saw the wheels turning in his mind. “I see.”

She swallowed, cradling the infant to her chest, then gestured toward the diaper bag as the little girl began to fuss. “Can you grab that and bring it downstairs? She might be hungry. I’ll give her a bottle.”

He gave a clipped nod, then yanked the frilly pink bag up with one hand as if it were a snake, and she almost laughed.

She started toward the stairs, but John reached out a hand to stop her. “Let me go first just in case the intruder decided to return.”

Her chest tightened, but she nodded. He braced his gun again as they descended the steps, his gaze scanning the foyer and rooms, but the house appeared to be empty.

She headed to the kitchen, but again he stopped her. “That room is a crime scene now, Sam. You can’t go inside.”

She bit her lip and jiggled the baby up and down. “But the baby needs to be fed.”

He shifted, looking uncomfortable, then glanced into the kitchen, which adjoined the den. “All right. Sit down in the den and tell me what to do. We can’t touch the blood or door. I want a crime unit to process the kitchen for forensics.”

She nodded, took two steps and settled in the rocking chair, cradling the baby to her and rocking her.

“Let me call for backup first.” He phoned the station. “I need a crime scene unit out at Samantha Corley’s house along with officers to search the woods.” He hesitated and glanced at Sam. “And bring the bloodhounds. We might be looking for a body.”

A shudder coursed through her as he disconnected the call. Then he turned to her with a helpless expression as he searched the diaper bag and pulled out a plastic bottle. “No ID or wallet inside. What do I do with the bottle?