Single and Searching

2017-11-09T13:58:37+00:00

Single and Searching

Single and Searching

Reporter Gabe Thornton is not interested in romance or the crazies who advertise for love in the paper. But a lead in a robbery case takes him straight to Casey McIntyre’s door, and her Single and Searching ad, and now he must investigate her…

When Casey placed that personal ad to find a date, she never dreamed she’d find true love. But she also never expected her date to write about it!

Determined to get revenge, she dresses for seduction.

But payback is hell, and when Gabe turns the tables and pursues her with a vengeance, Casey finds herself falling in love.

Only Gabe holds her fate – and her heart – in his hands…

When the truth is revealed, will Casey be single and searching again, or will she succumb to the passion burning between them?

Cold Case at Carlton’s Canyon

2017-11-09T13:58:37+00:00

Cold Case at Carlton’s Canyon

Book 4 of the Cold Case Series

Cold Case at Carlton's Canyon

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

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

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

Safe with Him

2017-11-09T13:58:37+00:00

Safe With Him

Book 3 of the Manhunt Series

Safe With Him

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

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

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

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

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

Her Dying Breath

2017-11-09T13:58:37+00:00

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…

Prologue

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.

Dying to Tell

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

Dying to Tell

Book 1 of the Slaughter Creek Novel Series

Dying to Tell

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

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

Certified Cowboy

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

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.

Again.

“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?

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?

Insatiable Desire

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

Insatiable Desire

Book 2 of the Demonborn Series

Insatiable Desire

CAN SHE DARE TO TRUST HER HEART

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…

WHEN HIS SOUL BELONGS TO THE DARK?

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.

(Continues…)

In a Heartbeat

2017-11-09T13:58:39+00:00

In a Heartbeat

In a Heartbeat

A HEARTBEAT IS ALL IT TAKES….

You’ve stolen my heart. I’m coming back for it.

With that brief, terrifying phone call, Lisa Langley’s nightmare began again. Four years ago she was the sole survivor of the Grave Digger, a madman who buried his victims alive. Now a copycat killer is on the loose and she’s the only chance Special Agent Brad Booker has of stopping this twisted psycho before more women – including Lisa – die.

Hard-edged and always in control, Booker has never forgiven himself for failing to save Lisa from falling victim to the first Grave Digger. Whatever it takes, this time he’s not going to let her down. Because almost losing Lisa is not something he can live through twice…

  • Ellijay is a real, southern mountain town in north Georgia where apple orchards and apple houses abound. Why do you think Rita chose to have Lisa move to this town? Do you live in, or have you visited a similar small town? Why do you think small towns are appealing as settings for stories? What images do the apple orchards and apple houses conjure for you?
  • Is there any significance in the fact that Lisa has chosen to teach young children instead of following in her father’s footsteps?
  • Brad Booker is a tortured hero in this story. What about his past makes him that way? Do you know people who’ve been affected by their childhood/upbringing? Why do you think he chose to be in law enforcement?
  • Lisa and her father have not been close since her attack. Often, in real life, tragedies and violence can bring families closer together – or it can tear them apart. Do you know families where this has happened?
  • Both Lisa and her father are dealing with her attack in their own way. What is it that each of them needs from the other? Why are they unable to give it at the beginning of the story? And what changes to make them learn to communicate?
  • The first Grave Digger chose his victims to fit a pattern – except for Lisa. Why did he choose her? And why did the copycat Grave Digger return for her?
  • The villain in this story, the first Grave Digger, was a true sociopath and had suffered an abusive childhood. What about the copycat killer? What motivated him to kill?
  • In some ways, the theme of this book reads as a “home is where the heart is” story? How so? Do you believe that’s true?
  • This story flirts with a paranormal element? Do you believe in the supernatural? Do you think that violence is caused by nature (genetic)/nurture (environmental factors and upbringing)?
“IN A HEARTBEAT is an awesome and edgy suspense thriller that will keep you on the rim of your seat guessing who the culprit is and how the thick plot will conclude. Ms. Herron weaves a lovely romance into a world of chaos, mystery and angst-ridden souls trying to find the power to live again. Both Lisa and Brad captured my heart with their distressed pasts and their willingness to overcome huge obstacles to achieve the ultimate goal of learning to love and trust again. Ms. Herron paints such a vivid picture that you can not help but feel the emotions and see the surrounding imagery. Just when I thought I had the culprit pegged, Ms. Herron negated my theory with yet another twist to the story and I never would have guessed who the madman really was. The ultimate part of this thrilling tale for me was the last thirty pages. It is so powerful that you will not be able to help but to grab a box of tissues and cry with these two magnetic characters. I applaud Ms. Herron for captivating this reader from the beginning and keeping me enthralled to the very end. IN A HEARTBEAT is going on my keeper shelf and I anxiously await more of Ms. Herron’s work.” Billie Jo, Romance Junkies

Prologue

Lisa Langley couldn’t breathe.

Heat engulfed her, and perspiration trickled down her brow and neck, the cloying air filled with the scent of decay, blood and foul body odors.

Her captor’s smell.

Her own.

She was suffocating. Being buried alive. Swallowed by the darkness.

Cold terror clutched her in its grip. The wooden box imprisoning her was so small her arms and legs touched the sides. An insect crawled along her chin, nipping at her skin, biting at the flesh. She tried to scream, but her throat was so dry and parched that the sound died.

Tears mingled with the sweat on her cheeks, streaming into her hair and down her neck. What kind of maniac buried a woman alive?

The same kind that robbed you of your life the last few days.

William White. The man she’d dated off and on for the past six months.

How could she not have known what kind of monster he was?

She trembled as the terrifying memories rushed back — the first day the suspicions had crept into her mind. The subtle nuances that William possessed a violent streak. His morbid fascination with the articles in the paper describing the murders.

The odd look in his eyes when the press named him the Grave Digger.

Above her, a shovel scraped the ground. Dirt splattered the top of the box. Rocks and debris pinged on top of her. The shovel again. More dirt. Over and over. The eerie drone of his voice humming an old hymnal faded in and out as he worked.

The past few days had been a living nightmare. He’d heard her call the police. Had known she’d figured out his identity, that the FBI was coming for him.

There was nothing else he could do, he’d told her — except treat her as he had his other victims.

She’d thought each day she would die. But each time, when he’d finally left her, bruised and hurting, she’d managed to will herself to survive. Because she’d thought she might be rescued. That Agent Brad Booker would make good on his promise to protect her.

Particles of dirt pinged off of the mound above her again, the sound growing faint as she imagined him finishing her grave.

And then the silence.

It frightened her the most.

He had gone. Was never coming back. Her body convulsed with fear. She was hidden beneath the ground, locked in the endless quiet.

No one would ever find her.

She tried to raise her hand, to roll sideways to so she could push at the lid. Her right hand was broken, throbbing with pain, but she dragged her left one to her side, twisted enough to turn slightly and clawed at the top. Her nails broke into jagged layers, and her fingers were bloody and raw, splinters jabbing her skin.

He had nailed the top shut. And laughed as she’d begged him to stop.

A few grains of sand sifted through the cracks, pelting her face. She blinked at the dust. Tasted dirt.

It was so dark. If only she had a light.

But night had fallen outside when he’d lain her in her casket.

She pushed and scraped until her fingers grew numb. In spite of the unbearable heat, chills cascaded through her as death closed in. Then slowly peace washed over her as she reconciled herself to the fact that she was going to die.

The life she’d dreamed about flashed into her mind — a beautiful white wedding dress. Getting married on a warm, sandy beach with the breeze fluttering the palm leaves, and the ocean lapping against the shore. Moonlight shimmered off the sand as they exchanged vows, while her father stood in the distance smiling proudly.

Then she and her husband were making love beneath the open trees. Promising to hold each other forever.

And later, a baby boy lay nestled in her arms. A little girl danced toward her.

A little girl she could buy a birthstone ring for her just like her mother had for her. As she’d outgrown it, she’d made it into a necklace. But William had stolen that, too. Had ripped it from her throat and thrown it to the ground. It was lost forever. Just like her dreams.

Too weak to scream, the sob that erupted from her throat died in the dusty abyss of her prison.

The hopes of that life, of a family, faded with it as she closed her eyes and floated into the darkness.

****
She had to be alive.

The tires of Special Agent Brad Booker’s sedan screeched on the wet asphalt as he veered onto the narrow dirt road leading around the old farmhouse. It was pitch dark, a cloudy moonless night. He’d reached Death Valley.

Now he knew why it had been dubbed the gruesome name.

The grass and trees all looked brittle and frail from the drought, the outbuildings run-down and dilapidated, the lack of life a sign that it was deserted. He’d heard rumors about the area. That the soil wasn’t fertile. That plants and animals couldn’t thrive here. That families didn’t either.

He threw the car into park, jumped out, grabbed a flashlight and shovel from the trunk and took off running. Behind him two other cars raced up and parked. One, his partner Ethan Manning. The other a squad car from the local Buford police.

His heart pounded as he tore through the dark, wooded area searching for fresh ground that had been turned. Limbs cracked and branches splintered beneath his boots. It had been over twenty minutes since Brad had received the call from the reporter.

The call describing the spot where Lisa Langley was buried.

Jesus.

Brad had promised to protect her.

But he’d failed.

Behind him, the men’s voices sounded, each deciding which direction to go. It was so damn dark they could barely see their own feet, the towering oaks and pines like a jungle that drowned out any light. They parted, the locals with the police dogs allowing the hounds to lead. Brad wove behind them to the right, shined his flashlight over the dry ground, ignoring the buzz of insects and threat of snakes as he raced through the briars and bramble. A voice inside his head whispered to him that it was too late.

Just as it had been for the other four victims.

Another voice ordered him to fight the panic.

But the air in the box wouldn’t last long. If the oppressive summer heat didn’t cause Lisa to have a heatstroke first. And then the bugs would feast on her body.

He banished the image and forged on.

It seemed like hours, but only a few minutes passed. Then one of the police tracking dogs suddenly howled.

“Over here!” the officer yelled. “I think we’ve got something.”

Brad spun around and raced toward him. Seconds later, he spotted the mound of dirt. The single white rose lying on top.

The Grave Digger’s signature.

“Damnit!” His heart clutched painfully as he imagined Lisa Langley down below. Terrified. Dying.

Or dead already.

He loosened the knot in his tie, then jammed the shovel into the ground, swiping at the perspiration on his face with the back of his shirtsleeve. Manning and the locals followed, digging with a frenzy. Dirt and rocks flew over their shoulders as they worked. Sweat poured down his face, the sound of the shovels and the men’s labored breathing filling the humid air.

Finally, the shovel hit something hard. A wooden box. Just like the others.

His heart pounding, he dug faster, raking away the layers of soil until they uncovered the top of the box.

“Give me a crowbar and some light!” Brad shouted.

Ethan knelt beside him, shoved the tool into his hand. Brad attacked the box while the locals shined flashlights on the dark hole.

The wood broke and splintered. Brad clawed it open. His throat jammed with emotions. Fury. Rage. Guilt.

Lisa Langley. Such a beautiful young girl. Left naked and dirty. Bruised and beaten. Her fingers were bloody from trying to dig her way out. Her eyes were closed.

Her body so still.

“Too late,” one of the locals said.

“Shit,” the other one muttered.

“No!” He couldn’t accept it.

Even though he never went to church, wasn’t sure he was even a believer, a prayer rolled through his head as he reached inside and lifted her out. She was so limp. Heavy. Cold. He spread her across his lap, then immediately began CPR.

Ethan ran to the car and brought back blankets, draped them across her body, then felt for a pulse.

The two men’s gazes locked. Paralyzed for just a second.

Brad continued CPR, muttering under his breath. “Come on, damnit, Lisa, breathe! Don’t you dare die on me.”

Time lapsed into an eternity as they waited. Finally her chest rose slightly.

Ethan made a choked sound. “Jesus Christ, she’s alive.” He jumped into motion, punching in his cell phone. “Where the hell’s that ambulance? Get it here asap — our vic is breathing!”

Brad sent a thank-you to heaven, then lowered his head and wrapped the blankets more securely around her, rocking her back and forth. “Come on, Lisa, stay with me, sweetheart,” he whispered. “Help is on the way.” He shook her face gently, trying to rouse her into consciousness, but she was in shock. He wrapped the blankets tighter, hugging her closer to warm her. Somehow, if she lived, he’d make it all up to her.

And when he found the bastard who’d done this to her, he’d make him pay with his life.

 

Chapter One

Four Years Later

“The Grave Digger is back.”

Special Agent Brad Booker stared at the crime scene in shock, the detective’s voice mimicking his own thoughts The Grave Digger case — this whole scenario reeked of it.

That first one had almost cost him his career, his entire life.

His mind ticked over the similarities. Four years ago, the final victim, Lisa Langley, had been found on another moonless night. It had been dark, and so damn hot the heat had literally robbed his breath. As if the thought of her missing hadn’t already done so.

Just like the other victims, he’d found her in a rural, deserted wooden area. Rotting vegetation and overgrown bushes marred the trail. Yet they had plowed their way through and found the grave tucked into the midst of Death Valley.

Except today, there was no white rose on the grave. This killer was making his own statement here. Adding his personal signature with the gold cross dangling around the woman’s neck. But what was the significance?

Hopefully Joann Worthy’s battered body would give them some answers. The stench of blood, decay and death permeated the air. Crime scene technicians combed the woods with flashlights searching for evidence in the inky night. Insects buzzed noisily by. Cameras flashed, capturing all angles of the woman’s lifeless body and her burial spot. The medical examiner was busy logging details of injuries and determining the cause of death. A rookie Buford cop named Surges turned green as he spotted the already decaying body, and ran toward the bushes.

Brad stood rooted to the spot, sweat coating his neck and trickling down his back. An image of Lisa’s grave four years ago flashed back. Digging furiously in the heat of the night. Praying she was alive. Knowing it was his fault if she didn’t survive.

Barely resuscitating her.

And then the trial. Watching Lisa face her attacker. Listening to the gruesome details describing what the man had done to her. Then seeing the man finally locked away.

Another local, Gunther, sidled up next to him. “You sure it’s not the same man? Maybe that first Grave Digger got out of jail.”

“Impossible.” Brad swiped at a gnat swarming around his face. “William White died in prison nine months ago of a massive head injury from a prison fight. I identified his body myself.” In fact, he had flown directly to the jail the minute he’d heard about White’s demise. Had wanted to make sure for himself the sadistic psycho was really gone. That he could never escape and hurt another woman again.

Especially Lisa.

Then he’d driven to the mountain cabin she’d rented near Ellijay to deliver the news himself. To see the relief on her face.

To see if the ghosts still haunted her.

He’d somehow known they would, that she’d never fully escape them. And when he’d seen her reaction to him, that he reminded her of the worst time of her life, he’d forced himself to leave. But he’d never forgotten her. Never stopped blaming himself.

Never stopped admiring her courage or …imagining that things could have been different if she’d never been a victim.

But a personal relationship with Lisa Langley was a pipe dream, especially a short term one which was all a jaded man like him had to offer. He knew nothing about love. Commitment. Families.

Dealing with a traumatized victim.

His own mother had thrown him out as a kid, discarded him like day-old meat. His bitter childhood had nearly turned him into the type of men he chased today. And there were times even now when he thought he might cross the line. Times when he’d come so close that he’d nearly tripped and fallen over to the dark side.

He had actually done so in the past.

The night he’d finally gotten his hands on William White, that killer instinct in him had emerged again.

Sweet blissful relief to have caught the man had filled him, just as the rage and injustice of what White had done to his victims had made Brad nearly take the man’s life. Because Brad Booker was a man without mercy.

And White had seen that wrath..

Brad had no regrets. He would have enjoyed watching the man die.

Forcing himself back to the present, he glanced at the victim’s body as the ME rolled her over. Bile rose in his throat. When they’d found her, Lisa’s lower back had been covered in welts in much the same way. Thank God she was safe now.

And keeping her safe continued to be part of the job. No one knew where she was. The new name she’d assumed.

And he intended to keep it that way.

But this poor woman…it was too late.

“Can you believe this?” His partner, Ethan Manning, strode up, notepad in hand, rubbing at the sweat on his neck. “We were in a drought back then, too, a real scorching heat wave.”

Brad nodded. “And the killer always left the body in an isolated place.” The proximity to his own cabin on the lake seemed eerie, too coincidental. He didn’t like coincidences.

“Wooden box was nailed shut with the same kind of nails,” Ethan said. “And he chops off the victims hair. Brutalizes them. Even calls a reporter to gloat.”

Brad grimaced. “But this time he left a cross instead of a rose.”

“What’s that all about?” Ethan asked.

“Maybe some sign that he’s a religious freak.” Brad scoffed at the idea. “Any sign of rape?”

The one thing Lisa had been spared. Thank God. Apparently White had been impotent.

“Can’t tell yet, but I’ll let you know,” the ME said. “He cuts the fingernails off to get rid of trace evidence.”

If the woman had been raped, then the copy cat was deviating slightly from the first killer’s MO. Still, there were so many similarities. “How could this copy cat know every last detail?”

“The papers carried the trial,” Ethan suggested. “And he could have read the transcript of Lisa’s testimony.”

Brad’s gut clenched. Every word of that agonizing testimony had been seared into his brain.

“Or hell, he probably bragged about it in prison,” Ethan said. “You know how these sickos are. White was a sociopath.”

Brad nodded. Right, the bastard had no conscience.

Brad almost understood. He’d been forced to get into the perps heads too many times. Had seen their handiwork. Had witnessed the unthinkable.

Had begun to think he might be tainted himself from the violence. Not knowing his daddy or what genetic pool he’d come from made him wonder all sorts of things in the dark hours of the night.

The M.E. lifted a maggot from inside the box and bagged it. July first, the dead of summer, and the Atlanta temperature was soaring near a hundred. The heat in the box must have been even more suffocating because of it.

The poor woman. How long had she been kept down there before he’d called? He turned toward Gunther, the local officer. “She the one you’ve been looking for?”

“Matches the sketch,” Gunther said tight-mouthed. “I’ll phone the family to meet us at the morgue and verify her identity.”

Brad grimaced. One of the worst parts of the job. Telling the victim’s family.

He still remembered Dr. Langley’s reaction when he phoned to relay the news that they’d found Lisa. Alive. Only the man hadn’t reacted as he’d expected.

“We’ll question the other inmates where White was imprisoned,” Ethan said.

Brad mumbled agreement. “And I want to talk to that reporter.”

“I’ll get someone on the lumber supply companies,” Ethan said. “He may be building these boxes himself like White did. Maybe we can get a jump on where he bought the wood.”

Surges staggered up, wiping at his mouth. “Sorry.”

“Don’t sweat it, kid. You’ll get used to it,” Brad said. “Just start canvassing those cabins around the lake.”

Surges nodded, and Brad contemplated different possibilities — what if White hadn’t been operating alone years ago?

Sometimes serial killers worked in pairs…

The hairs on his neck tingled. They’d explored that angle during the original trial, but had never found any evidence to support it. But they could have been wrong.

Ethan moved up to his side. “Are you going to tell Lisa?”

Brad jerked his head toward his partner and swallowed hard. He’d never confided his feelings for White’s final victim, but Ethan had sensed the attraction. That Brad had nearly lost perspective.

But Lisa hated him. Would barely even look him in the eye.

How could he blame her? He’d hounded her for information on her boyfriend for weeks, accused her of covering for the man, even suggested White had used her, that she was a fool if she didn’t know the truth.

Then when she’d finally phoned him to admit her suspicions, he’d promised to protect her. But White had gotten to Lisa first. The week that had followed had been hell for him.

But nothing compared to the ordeal Lisa had endured. Seven days and nights of pure torture.

Ethan cleared his throat. “Booker?”

“No, not yet. I don’t want to alarm her.”

“You think that’s wise? Maybe she remembered something during the last four years that might help us. Like the place where White kept her. Or a second man.”

Ethan nodded, looking resigned while they both tried to focus on the details regarding this other woman.

But as things wound down, and Brad strode back to his car, a sense of foreboding followed him. Could he ask Lisa to relive those nightmarish details again? To tap into her subconscious where she’d repressed some of the horror?

Of course, you can. You’re the man without mercy. You can do whatever it takes to get the job done.

His stomach knotted as another thought struck him — if this psycho was copying White’s crimes down to a tee, would he go after Lisa just as the last madman had?

A Breath Away

2017-11-09T13:58:39+00:00

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, RomanceJunkies.com

“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?”

“No.”

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.

A Warrior’s Mission

2017-11-09T13:58:39+00:00

A Warrior’s Mission

Colorado Confidential Series

A Warrior

Colorado Confidential agent Night Walker could track like a wolf and gentle the wildest beast. But learning that his night of forbidden desire with Colorado’s own society princess had produced a son, and that his baby had been kidnapped, cut the fierce Cheyenne to the soul. Now Holly Langworthy—the mother of his child, the woman who had seduced him and entered his heart against his will—was also missing.

Holly and their baby were prisoners, and all leads pointed to a madman. And though he feared he and Holly could never bridge the gap between their opposite worlds, the primal warrior in Night could never rest until he brought them safely home….

Chapter One

Mid-July

“Holly Langworthy’s three-month-old son has been kidnapped from his crib.” Colleen Wellesley leveled her gaze at the group of operatives she’d assembled in the secret meeting room at the Royal Flush, the 6,000-acre cattle and horse ranch where the Colorado Confidential organization based its operation. The surveillance room had videos of the ranch access points and of the ICU offices in Denver, and computers that linked to the Department of Public Safety, the DMV and other government agencies on a limited basis.

Ten years ago, Colleen had founded a private investigation agency, Investigations, Confidential and Undercover, or ICU, which took on typical P.I. work – divorces, missing persons, blackmail and other cases. Six months ago, ICU had been recruited as the newest branch of the Confidential organization, Colorado Confidential. ICU’s office in Denver had become a cover for Confidential activities. The private detective business still operated on a highly selective level, but most of the work now was done for the DPS and the federal government.

Confidential agent Night Walker jerked his head toward his boss in shock.

Holly Langworthy had a child?

The beautiful, chestnut-haired, sexy and pampered daughter of Samuel Langworthy, the former governor? Holly – the woman he had shared one incredible night with before her father had run him off and ordered him never to darken the doors of the Langworthy estate again?

“Everyone, this is my brother, Michael.” Colleen continued. “I’ve asked him to join us today to offer suggestions and observations.”

Night tuned out the introductions. His mind was still reeling from the bombshell Colleen had just dropped about Holly Langworthy. Did Colleen know about his previous relationship with Holly?

How old was the baby?

Fiona Clark and Shawn Jameson, two other Confidential agents, sat across from him, their expressions unreadable.

“Although the Langworthy family had not made public the fact that they have a grandchild,” Colleen said, “the baby has been living with his mother at the Langworthy estate in Denver since his birth three months ago. Holly’s father, former governor, Samuel Langworthy, has suggested that the kidnapping is connected to the upcoming gubernatorial election.” Colleen continued, “Of course, now that the media has gotten wind of the story, it will be major news.”

Really major news, since the former governor was a millionaire and his son Joshua was firmly entrenched in the upcoming election as a prime candidate. Even more major news as Night mentally counted back the months and realized the baby might very well be his own son.

A son Holly Langworthy had not bothered to tell him existed.

NIGHT STRUGGLED with the idea that he might have a son as he drove at record-breaking speed away from the Royal Flush, located between Fairplay and Garo, toward the Langworthy mansion in Denver. All his life he had been a loner. His father had died when Night was little, leaving his white mother to raise him in a world that hadn’t wanted her Cheyenne half-breed son. She’d eventually taken him to live on one of the reservations, hoping the people there would be more welcoming, but he had felt just as alone in the midst of his native American Indian cousins as he had in his mother’s world.

He had never expected to have a family. Had blamed his father for leaving him, had thought that loving meant only pain. Especially when love involved the mixture of cultures.

But that one night with Holly had lingered in his mind. He had wanted to see her again, to call her, to touch her, yet he’d known a relationship between them would never work. Had she given birth to his son? A son who might need him?

A son who had crossed the lines between the Cheyenne and the white man, just as he had?

The snowcapped peaks of the Colorado mountains became a hazy blur as the facts of the case imprinted themselves in his brain. According to Colleen, Holly was distraught and had been avoiding the press since the kidnapping. The Langworthys had suggested that Governor Todd Houghton and his buddy Senator Franklin Gettys had instigated the kidnapping to distract Joshua Langworthy from his campaign. In turn, Governor Houghton suggested the Langworthys had staged the kidnapping to garner sympathy for Joshua in the election. Either scenario sounded feasible.

Both disgusted Night.

The odd details of the crime had the police perplexed. How had a kidnapper breached the walls of the Langworthy mansion? Langworthy had topnotch security. Night should know – he’d worked security detail at the estate a year ago. Was there someone on the inside who’d been a conspirator?

The other details were odd, too. Traces of Merino sheep wool, eggshells and dirt from the southern part of Colorado had been found at the scene, in baby Langworthy’s nursery. Colleen had sent Fiona to check out Governor Houghton and Senator Gettys’s ex-wife, Helen Gettys. Michael was assigned to check out the Merino sheep ranch partially owned by Gettys. Shawn was staying on with Colleen.

She had assigned Night to watch Holly.

He had a helluva lot more than watching in mind. Holly owed him some answers. And if she’d had anything to do with staging her own baby’s disappearance, if that child was Night’s …

The fury and anguish he felt at the realization that he might have a son he had known nothing about obliterated his ill-spent desire for Holly. Protective instincts unlike anything he’d ever felt before rose to the surface for the infant. The thought of any child, much less his own offspring, missing, being in danger, being used as a pawn in some kind of political game sickened him. The other possibilities that lurked behind the obvious political ones were even more maddening.

But what if the baby wasn’t his? Would he be able to tell by looking into Holly’s eyes?

He barely noticed the Denver lights as he maneuvered through traffic toward the Capitol Hill area, his mind on autopilot as he made his way to the Langworthy estate. He gave his name at the security gate to the fenced-in Victorian mansion, wondering if Langworthy had blackballed his name from the acceptance list, but as Colleen had promised, he got through with no problem. Apparently, the exgovernor wanted ICU’s help badly enough to tolerate him. Emotions breathed like a fireball in his belly as he drove down the long drive to the house.

His hand trembled as he lifted the photograph Colleen had given him of Holly’s son. The Langworthys had released the picture to the public in an attempt to find out who had taken the three-monthold infant from their home in the middle of the night.

(Continues…)

Have Cowboy, Need Cupid

2017-11-09T13:58:39+00:00

Have Cowboy, Need Cupid

Hartwell Hope Chest Series

Have Cowboy, Need Cupid

Suzanne Hartwell was all work and no play—until she caught the latest Hartwell bridal bouquet and received a hope chest from Grammy Rose! Suzanne had to convince the most stubborn cowboy in town to sell his ranch, but the magical hope chest suddenly made Suzanne want to mix business and pleasure….

The Lazy M Ranch was Rafe McAllister’s heart and soul. He wouldn’t sell it to anyone without a fight. But one look into Suzanne’s eyes and Rafe had a hard time resisting her sophisticated charms. Could Suzanne turn out to be the cowgirl of Rafe’s dreams? The hope chest never lies….

Chapter One

Rebecca tossed her bridal bouquet straight at Suzanne, but Suzanne jumped aside so she wouldn’t catch it. So, how did it land in her hands anyway?

And why did she have this odd pang in her chest? This twinge of sadness. Of envy. A feeling of desperation, as if she would never find a man who would look at her with adoration and unbridled passion in his eyes the way Thomas did Rebecca. Or the way her other cousins’ husbands looked at them.

Maybe because your latest boyfriend just dumped you like the rest of the guys you dated.

Why did all those men keep dumping her? Did she have some big sign emblazoned on her forehead that said, Can’t Love This One?

Sure, she knew how to attract a man, to cast the line and throw out the bait. A little flirting here. A smile there. Throw in some hip movement, and voilà, they chased her like flies after honey. But once they sampled a taste of the nectar, she never could quite keep them for more than a few quick bites.

The wedding drowned out her thoughts as everyone rushed past the white folding chairs, food-laden
tables and the gazebo to see the bride and groom off on their honeymoon. The scent of freshly cut grass and wildflowers seemed to warm the cool air, the first signs of spring evident in the tulip bulbs sprouting along themountaintop. Fading sunshine dappled golden rays over the happy couple as they stopped to laugh at the words Just Married painted on the back of Thomas’s Porsche. Then Thomas folded Rebecca into his arms and kissed her, stirring a round of cheers and applause, and another bout of heart-sickness rippled through Suzanne.

Drat. She did not need a man to be happy. She was managing fine on her own. Right?

“Have fun on your honeymoon!” Mimi shouted.

“Take lots of pictures,” Alison yelled.

“Be happy,” Grammy Rose hollered.

“Drive safely!” Hannah called.

Laughing and waving, Rebecca and Thomas climbed in his Porsche convertible, streamers and tin cans trailing behind the car compliments of her uncle Wiley.

Suzanne’s father, Bert, strode up beside her, his ruddy face even pinker from emotions. A rarity for her father since his life normally revolved around work and making money. “That boy better take good care of Rebecca,” her father said.

Suzanne tucked her hand in her father’s bent arm. “I’m sure he will, Dad. They look totally in love.”

Her father angled his head to study her. “What about you, baby? Are you happy?”

Suzanne frowned, surprised by her father’s question. He usually didn’t venture anywhere near such personal territory. “Of course,” Suzanne replied automatically. She had a great job, a great condo, everything she wanted. Didn’t she?

She stroked the delicate gold cross tucked between her breasts, the one her mother had given her before she’d died. “Always wear this and feel my love,” her mother had whispered.

Suzanne had felt her love then, but she’d been angry that her mother was leaving her. Had she felt loved by anyone since? Sure, Rebecca loved her, and so did her father, but a man?

“Anyone special in your life?” her father asked, glancing at the bouquet. “A boyfriend I don’t know about?”

“Dad, well … no, not now.” Suzanne coughed nervously.

His graying eyebrow rose a fraction. “How about your boss?”

“James?”

“Yes, you and Horton seem to get along pretty well.”

Suzanne frowned. “We work well together, but that’s all there is to our relationship.”

Her father’s newest wife, Eleanor, coasted toward them, pearls dripping from her earlobes and neck, her pale-blue silk dress shimmering in the orange glow of the sunset. “Not everyone finds the romantic kind of love, Suzanne. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good partnership.” He sipped his champagne. “You’re a smart girl. You’re going places in this world. Just keep that in mind and find someone who’ll help you achieve your goals.”

Her father kissed her goodbye, then curled his arm around Eleanor and headed toward her grandmother. Suzanne watched carefully, just in case he crossed paths with her uncle Wiley and the two of them got into one of their brotherly arguments. Although her father had promised to behave himself and not spoil Rebecca’s wedding, Suzanne had become his self-appointed guard dog.

Her mission was accomplished when she saw him veer toward his Mercedes. Suzanne’s gaze dropped to the bouquet in her hands, one finger tracing the edge of a delicate rose petal as she sniffed the heavenly fragrance. Maybe her father was right. Maybe she should consider the fact that she might not have a soul mate.

A few minutes later, when the crowd had dispersed, Suzanne found her grandmother in the homey kitchen. “I’m leaving now, Gram.”

“Come into the parlor first, dear,” Grammy Rose said.

Suzanne’s stomach flip flopped. “Is this about the hope chest?” Rebecca and her cousins had already warned her.

“Yes, I want you to take yours home today.”

“But, Grammy, there’s really no need. I’m not even dating anyone.” Suzanne followed her grandmother into the nostalgic parlor filled with antiques, silver-framed photos of family members and scrap-books overflowing with memorabilia marking the special days in her grandchildren’s lives. For some reason this room always brought a surge of emotions – feelings both happy and sad at the same time. Maybe it was the reason she’d opted for such modern decor in her own apartment. No frou-frou or sentiment …

“Your love life will change soon,” Grammy said with a wink. “Now, I’m going to clean up in the kitchen if you want to look through the hope chest before you go.”

(Continues…)

Have Bouquet, Need Boyfriend

2017-11-09T13:58:39+00:00

Have Bouquet, Need Boyfriend

Hartwell Hope Chests Series

Have Bouquet, Need Boyfriend

Shy, mousy Rebecca Hartwell had a shocking secret—she was in love with the town’s hottest bachelor, Dr. Thomas Emerson! Her feelings seemed hopeless, but when the latest Hartwell bridal bouquet landed smack on her head and Rebecca received an heirloom hope chest full of seductive surprises, she suddenly had an outrageous idea. Dare a shy virgin ask her secret crush to father the baby she yearned for?

He’d been burned by a Hartwell before, but Thomas couldn’t get Rebecca off his mind. The quietly lovely woman blushed fiery red every time they met. She was hiding something…and uncovering it might just be the cure for this doc’s jaded heart and soul!

Chapter One

“Who’s getting married next?” Alison Hartwell Broussard waved her bridal bouquet of roses in the air in open invitation, looking pointedly at her cousin Rebecca.

A few shrieks answered in reply. “Me!”

“No, me!”

A quiver of longing rippled through Rebecca, but she remained silent, hugging her arms around herself in a protective embrace as she stood beneath the sprawling branches of a live oak. She was the least likely of all the single and female bridesmaids at her cousin Alison’s wedding to tie the knot.

Her model-gorgeous sister, Suzanne, would probably be next. That is, if she ever decided to settle down with one man. Right now, marriage and monogamy were two words missing from Suzanne’s vocabulary.

Rebecca was the very opposite.

She ached for marriage. For one man to love her and hold her and make her feel special. To give her a child.

Unfortunately, the man she yearned for happened to be Thomas Emerson, a man who had once been engaged to Alison.

A man who had his pick of women in town. A man who might still be in love with Alison. A man who’d barely noticed Rebecca.

Well, except for the time she’d dropped an entire platter of pastries on his head at Vivi Broussard’s wedding. He had gazed at her through the whipped cream dripping from his hair as if she might possibly be the biggest klutz in the world. Which she was.

Especially when she got nervous. And being around Thomas Emerson made her extremely nervous.

“Come on, ladies, line up.” Alison stepped beneath the trellis of roses, an early-winter breeze carrying the spicy scent of flowers through the air. “Brady and I are ready to leave. He’s finally promised me a honeymoon.” She slid her arm around Brady’s waist. “I only had to marry him twice to get it.”

Laughter and cheers erupted. Alison’s sisters’ husbands, Jake Tippins and Seth Broadhurst, grinned wickedly, obviously remembering highlights of their own honeymoons.

Brady slung an arm around his new wife. “Honey, it’ll be worth the wait.”

More laughter followed, envy mushrooming inside Rebecca. Her three cousins had all married this past year in the gazebo on top of Pine Mountain at Grammy Rose’s, and their husbands obviously doted on them. She wanted that kind of love, that mind-altering, earth-shattering bond with a man.

But every time she got physically close to a man, she lost her cool. Rational conversation fled, and she stumbled all over her size-seven feet. And sometimes, God help her, sometimes she even stuttered.

“Becca, come on.” Suzanne jerked her toward the small crowd of women gathering on the lawn, their long dresses fluttering in the wind. “Angie and Caitlin are about to attack Alison for those flowers.”

Rebecca laughed at her twenty-three-year-old twin cousins – daughters of her aunt Shelby who giggled and squealed – vying for the place in front of Alison. Although the twins shared a sibling rivalry born of being identical, they also shared a loving sisterhood, as did Hannah, Mimi and Alison. For some reason, she and Suzanne had never quite had that connection.

Probably because they were so different.

Another stab of envy assaulted Rebecca as Mimi nestled her three-month old baby to her chest. Rebecca’s own biological clock beat inside her like a drum. She desperately wanted a baby.

But a husband had to come first.

“Back to earth, Becca.” Suzanne waved her hand in front of Rebecca’s eyes, but Thomas gazed their way, and Rebecca froze. A frown marred his lips, his charcoal-black hair gleaming in the early evening light. The immediate pull of attraction that engulfed her slid through her nerve endings, sending a frenzy of delicious sensations spiraling through her. Sensations that paralyzed her.

His six-foot-plus muscular frame filled out his dark suit. His broad shoulders almost seemed massive in the crisp white dress shirt. The sparkle of laughter normally present in his light-green eyes was replaced by a dark, faraway look, arousing her curiosity. Was he wishing Alison had married him instead of Brady?

Contemplating going to him and offering a comforting hand, Rebecca started across the lawn. But her heel caught on a twig. She took a step forward and nearly plunged to the ground. Yelping, she reached for something to steady her, or at least break her fall, but found nothing to hold on to, not a chair or a tree or a table in sight. Thomas pitched forward as if to break her fall, although he wasn’t near enough to reach her, but Suzanne, ever the graceful one, slid a long manicured hand beneath her elbow, catching Rebecca first. Mortification stung Rebecca’s cheeks.

A fraction of a second later, Thomas raised his gaze, the dark intensity disappearing as a slow smile spread across his face.

Rebecca’s heart fluttered.

Suzanne poked her. “Wow, who is that hottie eating the groom’s cake?”

Her heart sank.

If Suzanne wanted him, even though she lived miles away in Atlanta, she would have him. Suzanne always got what she wanted.

“Thom-Thomas Emerson, the OB-GYN -” She took a deep breath to steady her voice. “He works with Hannah.”

Suzanne whistled beneath her breath. “Whew, a girl might be tempted to tear up her little black book for him.”

Rebecca gulped. Thomas continued to stare, his gaze almost unnerving this time.

He had to be looking at Suzanne. Everyone stared at her dark-haired, incredibly exotic-looking sibling. Not that she could blame them. Suzanne was beautiful. Dazzling. Mesmerizing. And, darn it, she was even nice, so Rebecca couldn’t hate her. Suzanne didn’t try to get all the attention. People were just drawn to her.

But Rebecca was the mousy blonde who hid behind books and art and wire-rimmed glasses. The impossibly shy one who couldn’t talk or walk without tripping over her own tongue or feet.

“Let’s hurry, she’s getting ready to throw the roses!” Suzanne gently pushed Rebecca forward just as Alison released the flowers. The bouquet soared through the air, bouncing first from Caitlin’s hands to Angie’s, then finally landing with a thump on Rebecca’s head. She reached for the arrangement, but the ribbon caught on the stem of her glasses, dangling over her eyes, blinding her, and a thorn from the rose stabbed her finger.

(Continues…)

Have Baby, Need Beau

2017-11-09T13:58:39+00:00

Have Baby, Need Beau

Hartwell Hope Chests Series

Have Baby, Need Beau

Steady, responsible Dr. Seth Broadhurst was all wrong for impetuous Mimi Hartwell. But ever since she’d received the heirloom hope chest from her dearest Grammy Rose, she hadn’t stopped fantasizing about him. Somewhere under the starched shirts and silk ties beat the heart of an undeniably sexy male. And Mimi was just the woman to find him….

It had taken only one night—one tender, passionate, stolen night in Seth’s arms. Mimi’s heart swelled when Seth offered her and their baby the protection of his name. Until she realized her dreams of marrying Seth included a proposal from the heart!