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?

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?

Cowboy to the Max

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

Cowboy to the Max

Bucking Bronc Lodge Series

Cowboy to the Max

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he’d get on with his life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carter didn’t want that on his conscience.

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

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

His ears perked up, listening for a siren.

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

Another close call. Another reprieve.

It wouldn’t last.

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

The reality that he was a dead man walking.

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

Sadie Whitefeather.

God, she was beautiful.

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

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

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

Another seductive quality.

Or so he’d thought.

Dammit. It had all been an act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So he’d gone back for another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only that he was most likely coming for her.

Of course she couldn’t blame him.

What she had done?was wrong.

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

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

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

She had had no choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unbreakable Bond

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

Unbreakable Bond

Guardian Angel Investigations Series

Unbreakable Bond

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

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

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

That was, when he found the children alive.

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

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

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

Not that he hadn’t done his research.

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

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

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

But he needed a case.

Bad.

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

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

He would not fall apart and become needy, dammit.

And he would keep the nightmares at bay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And this is Derrick McKinney.”

Slade nodded toward him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slade frowned. “Presumed?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vacation,” another one boasted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The headlines immediately caught her eye.

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

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

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

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

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

Her frantic rush to find Peyton…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peek-a-Boo Protector

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

Peek-a-Boo Protector

Seeing Double Series

Peek-a-Boo Protector

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

You’ll be sorry you messed with me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, this wasn’t Leonard’s old car.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not since Honey had left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone was hurt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There had been blood downstairs?. Someone was hurt.

The baby’s mother?

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

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

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

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

And he’d looked like a country bumpkin fool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he actually admired her guts and her skill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the hell?

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

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

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

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

“Did you see anyone?” she whispered shakily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Kiss Goodbye

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

Last Kiss Goodbye

Last Kiss Goodbye

Fearful yet determined, Ivy Stanton returns to the small Appalachian town she left fifteen years ago? The night her parents were murdered. But in coming home to Kudzu Hollow, she discovers she is not alone in her search for the truth: Matt Mahoney, the man who saved her life, who haunts her dreams, who was wrongfully accused of the crime, has come back, too, demanding answers — and justice.

When Matt looks into Ivy’s eyes, he sees a woman whose pain mirrors his own. The feelings she stirs within him promise a life he never thought he’d have. But evil still resides in this sleepy mountain town, as do secrets worth killing for. Now danger stalks them both, and Matt is fighting for more than vengeance he’s fighting for their future.

“I LOVED this book! From the very first page I was hooked. Each character I was introduced to was fascinating and unique. Kudzu Hollow sent chills down my spine, with every turned page. Rita Herron has packed everything I ever wanted in a book into LAST KISS GOODBYE, which is why it has earned five blue ribbons!” 5 Blue Ribbons – Kerensa Wilson, Romance Junkies

“Rita Herron has once again given us a story that will pull you in and not let go until the last page and word has been read. LAST KISS GOODBYE is a wonderful story. It has all the small town elements, set in the mountains that have some disturbing elements every time it rains. If you haven’t read a book by Ms. Herron, you don’t know what you’re missing, the suspense and drama of a beautifully written romantic thriller.” 5 Roses! – Pam Clifton, A Romance Review

“Herron pens a fast-paced, romantic thriller that captivates readers from the first page. This is a masterpiece of multilayered plots and memorable characters. With its romance, suspense, supernatural undertones and brilliant dialogue, readers will not be able to put this book down. Be sure you have the lights on and all windows and doors locked; this novel will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.” 4 1/2 Stars Autumn M. Harrison, Romantic Times

Prologue

“MOMMY!” Eight-year-old Ivy Stanton stared at the blood on her hands in horror. There was so much of it. All over her. Her mother. The floor.

“Ivy, Jesus, look what you’ve done!” Her daddy’s gray eyes seared her like fire pokers. Outside the wind howled, rattling the windowpanes and metal of their trailer. The Christmas tree lights blinked, flashing a rainbow of colors across the room.

“She’s dead,” her daddy said, “and it’s all your fault.”

Ivy shook her head in denial, but he shoved her blood-soaked hands toward her face, and she started to cry. Then she looked down at the knife on the floor. And her mother’s lifeless body sprawled across the carpet. Her pretty brown eyes stared up at the ceiling, icy now.

No! Her mama couldn’t be dead. If Ivy just kissed her, she’d wake up. Then she’d smile and hug Ivy and tell her everything was going to be all right. That tomorrow they’d finish decorating the Christmas tree and wrap the presents.

Ivy pressed her lips against her mama’s cheek, but it was so cold and stiff, she shivered.

Then her father yanked her up by the arm. “You’re poison, Ivy. You’ve ruined this family.”

“No!” She struggled against him, but he shoved her so close to her mother, Ivy saw the whites of her mama’s bulging eyes. Ivy’s stomach cramped, and she coughed, choking. All that blood. So red.

No, not red. The color faded. Just yucky brown.

Even the colored Christmas lights disappeared, turned to black dots before her eyes.

He snagged her hair and flung her backward. Pain exploded in her head as she hit the wall. She scrambled to her knees, tried to run toward the door, but he lunged after her, grabbed her ankle and twisted it so hard she thought she heard it snap. She cried out and kicked at his hands until she was free. A bolt of thunder jolted the trailer, shaking it as if a tornado was coming. Two of her mama’s ceramic Santa Clauses crashed to the floor.

Ivy crawled across the glass, felt shards stab her palms. She had to save the Santas. Save them for when her mama came back.

Her daddy reached for her again. No. No time to get the glass Santas. She had to escape.

She grabbed the cloth Santa instead, the new one her mama had just sewed from felt scraps. Clutching it, Ivy vaulted up and out the trailer door. Her ankle throbbed as she hobbled down the wooden steps and darted toward the junkyard. Her father chased her, his screech echoing over the wind. Tree limbs reached like claws above her in the shadows. Lightning flashed in jagged patterns.

It was dark, and she could barely see. She tripped over a tire rim. A stabbing pain shot through her ankle and leg, and she had to heave for air. But she forced herself up, fighting the wind. It was so strong it hurled her forward. Rain began to splatter down, mud squishing inside her sneakers. Behind her, her father shouted a curse. His bad knee slowed him down.

Her chest ached as she dashed through the rows of broken down cars. Ones people didn’t want anymore.

Just like her daddy didn’t want her.

He’d told her so dozens of times.

Ivy’s legs gave way again, and she collapsed on the soggy ground. The Santa flew from her hands. Mud soaked her clothes, splashed her face.

Then someone grabbed her from behind.

Flailing, she yelled and kicked.

“Stop fighting me, dammit.”

He released her, and she scrambled away on her knees. It wasn’t her father. Bad-boy Matt Mahoney was standing in the shadows. He stood motionless, his chin jutting up, a pair of ragged jeans hanging off his hips. He was soaked with rain and smelled like car grease. And he was so muscular and big he could stomp her into the ground. His black eyes tracked her as if she was an ant he wanted to kill.

“Dammit to hell, Ivy.” He launched forward with one giant step, picked her up, then the Santa, and carried her toward a rusty van. Kudzu vines covered the roof and dangled over the windows, blocking all light.

Ivy shuddered. It was pitch-black. She knew the nasty things men did to women in the dark. Had heard her daddy and mama. And those other men from Red Row.

Knew what bad boys like Matt wanted.

He opened the door, then shoved her on the bench seat in the back. With one hand, he untied the bandanna from around his head and wiped at the blood on her mouth. She couldn’t breathe. He was going to choke her just like the kudzu choked the wildflowers in the yard.

Suddenly he yanked a knife from his pocket. The blade shimmered in the dark as he ripped away the front seat cover. His expression changed as he gently spread it over her. Then he pushed the cloth Santa back into her hands. “Shh, no one can see you in here,” he murmured softly. “It’s a good place to hide. Rest now, little Ivy.”

She searched his big black eyes. She knew what he saw. She was covered in mud and leaves and blood. A bad girl just like her daddy said.

She willed away the memory. Told herself it wasn’t true. Her mama hadn’t died. She would come back tomorrow. Glue the Santas together. Pick Ivy up and kiss her again. And this time her mama’s lips would be warm.

Ivy’s head spun, and the bloody red color faded to brown again. She didn’t want to remember. To see the red. Not ever again.

No, she had to forget . . . .

She closed her eyes, dragging the makeshift blanket over her head to shut out the night and the grisly images.

****

CHAPTER ONE

Fifteen years later

“Don’t go back to Kudzu Hollow, Ivy. Please. I’m begging you, it’s too dangerous. There’s nothing but evil and death in that town.”

Ivy squeezed her adopted mother’s hand, then bent to kiss her check, her cool leathery skin reminding her of the time she’d kissed her birth mother goodbye.

The day she’d died.

In fact that kiss was the last thing Ivy remembered about that horrible night. That and the terrified cries echoing in her head. Her mother’s. Her own. She couldn’t be sure which. Or maybe it was both, all mingled together, haunting her in the night.

Miss Nellie wheezed, cutting into Ivy’s morbid thoughts. Her adopted mother was close to death now, too. She’d suddenly taken ill a few days ago, and had gone downhill fast. She claimed she’d made peace with her maker, but Ivy wasn’t so sure. Sometimes she saw doubt, worry, secrets in Miss Nellie’s eyes. Secrets the woman refused to share.

Secrets that told her Miss Nellie had a dark side.

“I have to go back, Miss Nellie,” she said in a low whisper. “I . . . I’ve been having nightmares. Panic attacks.” And sometimes I see images from the past in the night, monsters that can’t be real. Cries and whispers of death. Screams of ghosts and spirits crying out for salvation. And I’m lost in the middle. . . .

Miss Nellie’s hand trembled as she lifted it to brush a strand of hair from Ivy’s cheek. “Forget about the past dear. You have to let it go.”

“How can I?” Fading sunlight dappled the patchwork quilt in gold and created a halo around Miss Nellie’s pale face. Ivy stood and faced the bedroom window, the scents of illness and dust surrounding her. She hated to lose Miss Nellie, but the elderly woman had looked so pale and her cheeks were sallow. The doctors weren’t certain what had caused her illness, but they’d said she wouldn’t make it another week, much less to Christmas.

Christmas – the Santas . . . .

Ivy shuddered and fought against the fear that gnawed at her at the thought of the upcoming holidays, with all the twinkling lights, festive ornaments and decorations. Snowmen and reindeer, and of course, the Santas. Those Santas were the only thing she had left of her mother. Dozens of them. Soft ones sculpted from fine red and white velvet, with tiny black boots and belts and long cottony beards. Crystal and homemade crafted Santas with glass eyes and painted smiles. Wooden ones carved from bark and painted in a folk art style. Ivy kept them boxed up, though, couldn’t bear to look at them.

Just as she couldn’t look at Miss Nellie now. She’d always felt Miss Nellie held something back, some part of herself she kept at a distance from Ivy. She knew it had to do with Nellie losing her own son when he was small, but her foster mother refused to talk about him or even show Ivy pictures.

A sob built in Ivy’s throat. Miss Nellie was all she had. Another reason she wanted answers. When Miss Nellie passed, she’d take her secrets with her to the grave. Just as Ivy’s parents had.

And Miss Nellie had secrets.

“Please tell me what you meant in the journal, Miss Nellie. How did you come to get me?”

“That journal was private, you shouldn’t have been snooping.” Miss Nellie clammed up abruptly, her thin lips pinched and almost blue as she turned her head away.

“I didn’t mean to snoop, Miss Nellie, but I need to know.”

“All that matters is that God wanted me to raise you. And I got you out of Kudzu Hollow. That town is tainted, I tell you,” Miss Nellie hissed. “There’s evil there. I knew it when I lived there. And I’ve seen the papers, heard stories on the news over the years. Ever since your folks were murdered, bad things have been happening. Livestock and animals attacking one another. Children dying before their time. Folks rising from the grave. Men becoming animals. Teenagers turning against their folks that raised them.”

Miss Nellie was superstitious. It was the way of the people of Appalachia. But Ivy couldn’t argue. She’d seen the stories, too, had read the papers. Every few years, always after a bout of bad thunderstorms and rain, the entire town seemed to go crazy. Crime spiked to a high. There had been several killings.

Even more odd was the fact that very few people ever left the town – alive anyway. And the ones who’d lost loved ones seemed trapped by the old legends. Either that or they were held there by the spirits of the dead, who supposedly roamed the graveyard on the side of the mountain.

“No town or person is all bad,” Ivy said, clinging to her optimistic nature. “There has to be some good there, too.”

Miss Nellie’s expression softened slightly. “You’re so na?ve, Ivy. You always try to find good in everything. But there ain’t no good there. Just ghosts and the devil.” The old woman coughed and reached for her oxygen mask, inhaled a deep breath, then continued in a wheezing voice. “I used to hear the children chant when they were skipping rope,

      ‘Evil in the kudzu
      devil in the men
      Death in the hollow
    again and again.’

“And it’s true. People are afraid to stay. Afraid to leave.”

Ivy shivered. She’d been so afraid to return.

But those old fears were keeping her from having a sane life. From being with a man. From loving.

Even the colors hadn’t returned. The fall leaves outside had already started changing, but all she would see was brown and hints of yellow. There was no red. Even oranges appeared a muddy color.

She crossed the room to Miss Nellie’s bed and sat down beside her in the hard wooden chair. “If you don’t want me to go back, then tell me the truth about the night my parents died.”

****
Miss Nellie’s face turned ashen. “The only thing you need to know is that they locked up the killer. None of them Mahoney boys were ever any account.”

Ivy bit her bottom lip, her stomach knotting. Matt Mahoney hadn’t been all bad. She wasn’t sure how she knew that, but she did.

So why had everyone been so quick to blame him? She’d written him letters to find out, but he’d never responded. And six months ago, she’d drummed up enough courage to drive to the prison to hear his side, but he’d refused her visit.

The past few months, the local paper had featured articles on a lawyer named Willis who was writing a book on old cases and corruption in small-town politics. He’d managed to clear prisoners who’d been falsely arrested, citing new evidence based on advances in DNA testing. He was working on Matt’s case now.

What if they’d convicted the wrong man for her parents’ murders? Matt had been sixteen at the time. Why would he have killed her folks? That question had haunted her for years now.

That and the fact that if he was innocent, Matt had spent fifteen years in jail for a crime he hadn’t committed.

All because she’d been too much of a coward to remember the events of that night.

****
Six weeks later

Matt Mahoney had spent the last fifteen years in jail for a murder he hadn’t committed. And someone was going to pay for the way he’d been wronged.

Thank God Abram Willis had taken an interest in his case. Willis had chosen to devote half of his practice to cold case files, to “the Innocents,” as he referred to them. Men and women falsely imprisoned.

And he’d been digging into Matt’s case for months now. Today would tell if he’d been successful.

Matt glanced at the lawyer and hoped he’d presented the case effectively, that he’d crossed all his t’s and dotted all the i’s. The judge had reviewed the evidence and called them to reconvene for his decision.

Willis fidgeted with his tie, then adjusted his wire-rims. The damn lawyer looked as nervous as Matt felt. Except Matt’s future was on the line here.

What was left of it.

The bailiff called the court to order, and the judge slammed down the gavel, then cleared his throat. Tufts of white hair stood up on the back of his balding head, making him look almost approachable. But his lack of expression during the hours Willis had presented the case made Matt wonder. And the steady gaze that he settled on Matt at that moment added to the mounting tension in the courtroom. Matt glanced at the sunlight streaming through the window, aching to step outside and bask in it. This judge was the only thing standing between him and freedom. He could almost taste the fresh air, smell the grass and leaves, feel the heat beating on his face and back.

But if he didn’t win today, he would go back inside.

Back to the dismal existence and that damn cell block that had become his life.

The judge cleared his throat. “After studying the evidence collected fifteen years ago, and after reviewing the current DNA evidence supplied, the court agrees that a mistake was made in this case. I’m ruling to overturn your conviction.” His expression turned grave. “The court offers its deepest apologies to you, Mr. Mahoney, but also issues you a warning. We’re trying to right a wrong here today. Remember that, and don’t use your incarceration as an excuse to make trouble.”

Matt exhaled slowly, the burning ache of disbelief rolling through him. Had he really heard the judge correctly? After all this time, was he ruling in Matt’s favor?

“You are free to go, Mr. Mahoney. With the court’s regrets, of course.”

He pounded the gavel, ending the session, and Willis jumped up and slapped Matt on the back in congratulations. A deputy stepped forward and removed the ankle bracelet. Matt stood immobile, breathless, as the metal fell away. He couldn’t believe it. He was free. Free to walk out the door for the first time in fifteen years. Free to go anywhere he wanted without a guard breathing down his shoulder, without handcuffs and chains around his ankles. Free to go to bed at night without another man watching him, or worrying that he might never live to see freedom.

But if the judge thought he’d righted the wrong just by releasing him, he was a damn idiot.

Matt had lost fifteen years of his life.

And someone had to answer for that. The town of Kudzu Hollow. Ivy Stanton.

And the person responsible for the Stanton slayings. The real killer had to be punished this time. And Matt would make certain that happened.

Even if it killed him.

****
“I know you’re still grieving over Miss Nellie’s death, Ivy,” George Riddon said. “And I want to help you if you’d let me.”

Ivy stared at her partner at Southern Scrapbooks, the magazine she’d birthed with the help of her own savings and George’s funding, and bit her lip. She’d thought George had stopped by her house to talk business. But so far, his visit had seemed personal. He’d been pushing her to date him for months now, had hinted that he wanted more.

Much more than she could give.

“I’m sorry, George, but it’s too soon.”

He slid his hands around her arms and held her still when she would have walked away. “Listen, I want you, Ivy. I’ve been patient, but a man can only wait so long. We would be really good together. All you need to do is give us a chance.”

She froze, the note of anger in his voice spiking her own. “No one is asking you to wait.”

A fierce look flashed in his hazel eyes. Eyes before that had always been kind and businesslike. “What are you saying? That you won’t ever . . . that you can’t see me that way? Is it my age?”

“No, of course not. You’re not that much older that me.” Ivy simply couldn’t see any man that way. She wished she could.

Sometimes she was so lonely.

He released her abruptly and snapped open the September layout she’d completed on Southern romantic rendezvous. “Look at all these places. Maybe if we took a trip together we could kindle the fire between us.”

She glanced down at the rows of pictures she’d scrapbooked for the magazine. Idyllic, charming bed-and-breakfasts in the mountains, the Grand Ole Opry Hotel in Nashville, a cozy inn on the river in New Orleans, the Chattanooga Choo-choo. A deep sadness washed over her. When she’d photographed and finished the layout, she had imagined herself there, walking hand in hand with a lover, making love as the river rushed over rocks nearby. She longed for a companion in life. But as much as she’d tried, she couldn’t imagine that person as George.

“Please just let it go.” She sighed. “I have too much on my mind right now.”

His jaw tightened as he ran a hand over his sandy-blond beard. “I’m beginning to think you’re a cold fish. That you use your past as an excuse so you won’t have to get close to anyone.”

Ivy glared at him. Granted, she hadn’t made a lot of friends, but she wasn’t a cold fish. She needed order to keep the demons at bay. The endless patterns of her day, the routines, the sameness kept her sane and safe.

Get up at seven. Shower. Go to the office. Hit the gym after work for a three-mile run around the track to help her sleep at night. Dinner. Reading. Tea. Bed. Then start it all over the next day, a vicious circle where she was never moving forward.

Sometimes the routines kept the nightmares away. And when those nightmares left her, erotic dreams filled her sleeping hours. Dreams of being touched, loved, caressed by an anonymous dark-haired man. He seemed familiar, but she couldn’t quite see his face or discern his features.

If or when she gave her body to a man, he had to be someone she really wanted to be with, a man who made her feel alive and special. A man who moved emotions inside her. A man she could trust enough to share her secrets.

That man wasn’t George.

“I’m sorry.” He sighed, looking frustrated but resigned. “I know you’re still troubled over Miss Nellie’s diary. But if you don’t get over it, Ivy, this magazine is going to fall apart because you’re not focused.”

She swallowed hard. The magazine was her baby, the only thing she’d ever put her heart into. Failure was not an option.

“What do you have planned for the October issue?” George asked. “The deadlines are approaching.”

“I was thinking about featuring Appalachian folklore and ghost stories. That would fit with the Halloween theme.”

He plucked at his beard again as he chewed over the idea. “That could work. Do you have a specific place in mind?”

“Kudzu Hollow.”

He frowned. “I thought Miss Nellie convinced you not to go back there.”

The television droned in the background, but Ivy froze, momentarily caught off guard when a special news segment flashed on the screen. Abram Willis, the lawyer who’d been working on Matt Mahoney’s case, appeared in front of a massive stone, columned structure, a flock of reporters on his heels. The courthouse in Nashville.

A tall man with thinning hair and tanning-bed-bronzed complexion stopped in front of the lawyer, blocking his exit. “This is Don Rivers reporting to you from C & N News. We have a live interview with Abram Willis, the nationally acclaimed attorney currently fighting to free falsely accused prisoners.”

“Ivy –“

“Shh.” She pushed past George and turned up the volume, her eyes glued to the set, her adrenaline churning. The distinguished attorney paused to address the group, absentmindedly straightening his tie, which matched his streaked gray hair. But it was the man beside him who captured Ivy’s attention.

Well over six feet tall with jet-black hair, and eyes so dark brown they looked black. His powerful body exuded pure raw masculinity, as well as bitterness and anger. The scar that zigzagged down his left cheek added an air of brutality that bordered on frightening. But something about his darkness drew her, made her wonder if he really was the hard, cold man he appeared on the surface. Pain radiated from his body, and his eyes held such deep sadness that Ivy literally trembled with compassion.

For a fleeting second, another image passed through the far recesses of her brain, the image of Matt Mahoney as a teenager. He’d been fierce, angry, frightening. But all the teenage girls had wanted him, had whispered about the girls he’d taken in the back of his daddy’s ’75 Chevy.

Now he looked exhausted, half-dead from defeat. Yet a small spark lit his eyes – relief at his sudden and unexpected freedom.

“Mr. Willis, is it true that the court overturned the ruling on Mr. Mahoney’s murder conviction?” Rivers asked. “That he spent fifteen years in jail for a crime that evidence now proves he didn’t commit?”

Willis nodded, puffing up his chest as he straightened his suit jacket, but Matt averted his face as if shying away from the camera. “That’s correct,” the attorney said. “Justice has finally been served. Mr. Mahoney has been cleared of charges and has been pardoned.”

The reporter shoved a microphone in Matt’s face. “Mr. Mahoney, tell us how it feels to be free.”

“What are you going to do now?” another reporter shouted.

A chorus of others followed. “Are you receiving monetary retribution for the past fifteen years?”

“Are you going home?”

“If you didn’t kill that family, do you know who did?”

Ivy pressed her hand to her mouth, waiting for his answer. But Matt scowled at the camera, pushed the microphone away with an angry swipe of his hand and stalked through the crowd without responding.

“What the hell is it, Ivy?” George said, sliding his hand to her waist. “You act like you’ve seen a ghost.”

She gestured toward the screen with a shaky hand, the black hole of her past threatening to swallow her. “That’s the man who was convicted of killing my parents.”

****
Matt inhaled the crisp fall air as he walked away from the courthouse, barely noting that the smells of grass, honeysuckle and clean air that he’d craved were missing, that the city with its concrete buildings and sidewalks had destroyed those things, just as prison had decimated his dignity. Goddamn bloodsucking reporters. He’d half wanted to use them as a tool to vent his case, since they’d sure as hell done a number on him years ago. But he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.

And what could he say?

That he was bitter. That he hated the system that had failed him. That he despised the citizens who still stared at him as if he was guilty. That he wished he had a nice home to go to. Someone waiting on him. A family. A loving wife or lover. Anyone who cared about him. A future.

He didn’t.

In fact, going home meant facing the very people who’d condemned him. The neighbors and family who’d gossiped about his family, testified against his character, thrown him away and forgotten about him.

The ones who believed he was a murderer.

But he would face them, anyway. Because someone in Kudzu Hollow knew the truth about the Stanton slayings and had allowed him to take the fall.

One last glance at the columns of the courthouse and its stately presence, and he remembered all he’d learned in prison. Laws varied, depending on a person’s financial status. For the poor, the old adage “Innocent until proven guilty” didn’t matter one iota. In fact it was the opposite—you were guilty from the beginning, and nothing you said made a damn bit of difference. From the moment the sheriff had slapped handcuffs on him, Matt had been labeled a killer. Not one person in Kudzu Hollow had spoken up to defend him.

Then in prison . . . hell, everyone screamed they were innocent. He’d had a hard time telling the difference himself. He’d met men bad to the bone, some meaner and more depraved than he’d ever imagined. But other innocents like him, convicted by bad cops, seedy lawyers, piss-poor judges and shoddy crime scene techs, filled the cells, too. Trouble was, once the prisoners were all thrown in there together, fighting for survival took priority.

And they all became animals.

Sweat beaded his forehead at the memory of the acts he’d committed in the name of survival.

His life would never be the same. He’d lost his youth, and for a while his chance for an education, although the last few years he’d pulled himself together and had been studying the law. One day soon, he’d obtain his license and take the bar exam. Become a respectable citizen and prove to the world that it had been wrong about him. Maybe he’d even work with Willis to help free other innocents.

Matt’s chest squeezed, though, as he climbed into the lawyer’s black Cadillac. Now only one thing drove him – bittersweet revenge on the man responsible.

If he only knew his identity.

That fateful night raced back as Willis drove through Nashville, Matt’s mind wandering back in time as the sea of cars and traffic noises swirled around him.

Fifteen years ago, he’d been up to no good, stealing tires from the junkyard, when he’d spotted that little Stanton girl running for her life. Hell, he’d felt sorry for the kid. They’d both grown up in the trailer park that backed up to the junkyard. He knew the kind of life she had. Had heard folks in town gossiping that her mother liked the men, that if she wasn’t married she’d be shacked up in one of Talulah’s Red Row trailers making money on her back. And some said that she did spend her days there with her legs spread wide, entertaining customer after customer while her old man sold car parts and pedaled junk for a living. And Matt had finally learned that was true, although he wasn’t proud of the way he’d found out.

Old man Stanton had beat his wife. They were white trash just like his family. Ivy had been such a puny little thing, with bundles of curly blond hair and those big green eyes that he hated to think of her big-bellied father taking his fists to her. The poor kid didn’t have enough meat or muscle on her to fend off a spider, much less a drunk, two-hundred-pound, pissed old fart who wreaked of whiskey and a bad temper.

When Matt had seen all that blood on her hands and shirt, the devil had climbed inside him. He’d wanted to kill her bastard daddy. Teach him to pound on somebody his own size. And he had gone to the trailer, the one with the torn, yellow curtains, the broken-down swing set and the beer cans smashed against the porch.

But he hadn’t killed anyone.

No, her mother had been dead when he arrived. A vicious slaying, as if animals had been at it. Matt had nearly lost his dinner seeing all the blood on the floor, like a damned river. And her daddy had been found later, buried beneath the kudzu, his body slashed and bloody, his face carved as if an animal had ripped him apart.

Not that Matt’s pleas of innocence had mattered.

The sheriff had found his boot prints, his damn fingerprints on the doorknob, and he’d been railroaded to jail for the crime, anyway.

Craving fresh air, and suddenly claustrophobic as prison memories assaulted him, Matt cranked down the window, uncaring that the air that assaulted him was tainted with smog and exhaust fumes. It spelled freedom.

He was thirty-one now. Thirty-one with nowhere to go, nothing to do, and not a soul in the world who gave a damn that he was out. Thirty-one and so damn scarred inside and out that no sane woman would ever want him.

All because he’d had a tender streak for a little girl who hadn’t bothered to show up at his trial and defend him.

Damn fool. That’s what he was. What he’d always been.

But never again.

The sun warmed his face as Willis wove through the heavy rush hour traffic, and he dragged his mind from the depths of despair where he’d lived for so long and tried to soak up the changes in the city. New businesses and skyscrapers had cropped up on every corner, rising toward the heavens. The car horns, motors humming, rush of SUV’s and mini-vans whizzing by and machinery from a new construction site bombarded him. The sight of modern vehicles, the styles so different from fifteen years ago, reminded him of all that he’d missed.

“How about a motel on the outskirts of the city?” Willis asked. “There’s a used car lot across the street, and a motor vehicle place a few blocks away so you can renew your driver’s license tomorrow.”

Matt nodded. “Sounds good.” Willis pulled into a Motel Six and cut the engine. Matt turned to him, forever grateful. “Thank you for all you did for me, Abram.”

A smile lifted the older man’s lips. “Just don’t make me regret it.”

Matt’s gaze met his, and he nodded. He just hoped he could keep that promise.

Willis handed him an envelope. “Here’s some cash from your account and a credit card. I’ll let you know when the state compensation comes in. It won’t be near enough, but it should help you get started.”

Matt accepted the envelope. “Thanks again.” He shook Abram’s hand, then climbed out, smiling at the fact that he could step outside alone, then went inside and registered. A few minutes later, he walked across the street to the Wal-mart, bought a couple of pairs of jeans and t-shirts, along with some toiletries. All mundane tasks that felt so liberating. Like a kid, excitement stirred inside him as he stopped at the Burger King and ordered a couple of whoppers and fries. He grabbed the bag, inhaling the smell of fast food with a grin, then walked to the convenience store on the corner, bought a six-pack of beer, and headed back to the motel for his celebration.

He had to go back to Kudzu Hollow and face his demons soon, but not tonight.

Tonight he’d celebrate his freedom. Tomorrow, he’d renew his driver’s license, buy a car, and a used computer, then locate Ivy Stanton. And when he found her, he’d surprise her with a little visit.

Unlike the day the police had questioned her about her parents’ murders, this time she wouldn’t claim she didn’t know what happened.

This time, she’d damn well do some talking.

****
Arthur Boles waved his son into his office with a glare, popped an antacid tablet into his mouth and released a string of expletives. “Damn it, Crandall, I’ve paid you a small fortune to keep that Mahoney boy in jail. How did you let that confounded fool Willis get him free?”

“Listen, calm down, Arthur,” his attorney screeched over the telephone line. “I did everything I could. By all rights, the boy should have been paroled years ago.”

“But you managed to keep that from happening, so why couldn’t you stop this disaster?”

“I’ve used up all my favors and jeopardized my own reputation for you,” Crandall snapped. “Now, I’m through, Arthur. Through doing your dirty work for you, through putting myself on the line. I fully intend to salvage my career and wash my hands of the whole mess.”

Arthur ran a hand over his thinning hair, watching as his son A.J. paced the room like a caged animal. The boy was nervous. Hell, they all were.

“You can’t walk away from me now, Crandall.”

“I can and I will,” Crandall snapped. “And if you dare try to use what I’ve done to blackmail me, I will expose you and your son.”

Crandall slammed down the phone, and Arthur cursed again, then raked a hand across his desk sending papers flying in fury. Crandall wouldn’t reveal a damn word. Arthur would see to that.

“Dad,” A.J. said in a worried voice as he paused, jerked open the liquor cabinet and grabbed a fifth of bourbon. His son turned it up and like a heathen, drank straight from the bottle, the brown liquid dribbling down his chin. Just like fifteen years ago. The night the trouble had started.

“What in the hell are we going to do?” A.J. swiped a hand over his mouth. “Mahoney’s out. And you know the first place he’ll come.”

Traces of desperation and fear lined A.J.’s face, suddenly aging his son another ten years. Arthur’s own panic gripped his chest into a vise, but he stalked toward A.J., took the bottle from his hand. “I’ll take care of things. Don’t worry.”

A.J. relaxed slightly, but remnants of memories lingered in his eyes. The same ones that troubled Arthur. They both had made mistakes fifteen years ago. But they’d survived this long without anyone knowing.

And those mistakes would go with them to their graves.

Even if he had to kill Crandall and Mahoney to keep them buried.

****
Ivy had been alone for so long.

His dark eyes skated over her, and her body tingled in response. She wasn’t a cold fish. No, she craved his touch. Could not get enough.

His shaggy black hair nudged his collar, the desire in his dark eyes nearly bringing her to her knees. She reached for him, but he shook her hand away and made her wait. With one finger he flicked the buttons on her shirt free, the corner of his mouth twitching as he peeled it from her shoulders. Cool air brushed her skin, and her nipples budded beneath the flimsy lace of her bra. A hot look of hunger colored his irises, but he still didn’t move to kiss her. He simply stood stone still, watching her chest rise and fall as he slid her panties down her thighs. She stepped out of them, suddenly feeling shy.

But the hiss of his breath was so erotic that all shyness fled.

He smiled, then cupped one hand behind her neck, lowered his mouth and claimed hers. Her heart pounded as he tasted and explored, teased her lips apart and thrust his tongue inside. Then he trailed kisses down her neck and lower, to her breasts. Pleasure rippled through her. She had been waiting all her life for this moment. For his touch. His lips. His hands.

His fingers slid along her spine, over the curve of her hips, then lower to tangle in the blond curls that were already wet from wanting him. A groan erupted from his throat as he pulled back and looked at her. A fierce need glimmered in his eyes, making her ache to strip him and touch him all over.

But when she reached for him, he drifted away, swallowed by the darkness..

Ivy jerked awake, panting and sweating, the sheets twisted around her legs and arms where she’d rolled from side to side as waves of erotic satisfaction splintered through her. She wasn’t the cold fish George had accused her of being. She was starved for love, for a man’s comfort, for his touches and kisses.

Only the man in her dreams…this time she had seen his face.

And that face had belonged to the man who’d been imprisoned for killing her parents — Matt Mahoney.

God. She dropped her head into her hands, trembling. Matt Mahoney was not a man she would ever have sex with. Not a man who would want her.

The dark coldness of the room closed around her, suffocating her. The screams of terror suddenly exploded in her head again, and her heart pounded. A monster’s face replaced Matt’s, and she saw the blood. Brown, not red. Floating like a river around her mother’s head. A wail lodged in her throat as the smell of death bombarded her. She had to run but her legs wouldn’t move. The silent voices screeched in her head.

Run like the wind. Run from the monster or he’ll get you again.

Just like she had fifteen years ago. Anything to escape the horror.

Or he would kill her, too. And there would be no tomorrow.

****
Tomorrow was the beginning of another bad day. The beginning of the end for some in Kudzu Hollow.

For years now, the dark cloud, as Lady Bella Rue called it, had hovered about the small mountain community, floating away only occasionally, only long enough to give the locals a momentary reprieve. But before hope could be rekindled, the cloud returned with a vengeance to dump more sorrow and misfortune on the town.

She gathered her shawl around her trembling shoulders, fighting the wind as she walked outside and descended the steps to her root cellar. Storm clouds brewed above, the smell of rain and trouble filling her nostrils, a streak of lightning splintering off the mountain ridges. Thunder followed like an unwelcome guest announcing it’s arrival.

The frizzled hen she kept in the yard scratched at the ground, a reminder of the West African legends. She had learned from the best. And she had visited the crossroads and prayed to the Devil for nine days and nights to strengthen her powers.

But she did not practice evil sorcery as the locals said. She desperately wanted to save the town.

Thunder rumbled again, growing louder, and the impending pain and fear of what was to come pierced her heart, settling so deeply in her bones that she could almost feel the brittle edges poking through her paper-thin skin. Folks whispered that the evil had started the day the Stanton family had been murdered. Others thought that Lady Bella Rue was the cause. That she had killed her own child and cast a wretched spell on the town years ago beginning a vicious cycle of families turning on one another.

But they were wrong.

The gods and goddesses of the rivers, mountains and land were angry at the people, and fought the devil at every turn. Just as she did.

And the ones who’d lost family over the years were trapped here, just as she was herself. Forced to listen to her baby’s cry at night as it echoed in the wind from the tangled vines of the kudzu. As long as she was alive, she would visit her son’s grave and pray for his spirit.

She touched the red flannel charm bag she kept tucked inside her blouse, hoping the mixture of Jerusalem bean, devil’s shoestring, High John the Conqueror root, bloodroot, snake root and Adam and Eve root would be strong enough to stave off the evil when the rain came. After all, how could she protect the town if she was dead herself?

Methodically, she gathered the roots and ingredients for the protection spell she hoped would help stave off the dangers. She would need eggs, candles, sulfur and chimney dust. She also needed graveyard dust, so she climbed the steps from the root cellar and headed toward her son’s grave. There, she would pray and chant and maybe be able to see the future. If she knew the man who brought danger this time, the man already possessed, perhaps she could make a spell to strip the devil from him before the killing began.

If not, God help them all. More would die.

And the devil would win again.

Look-Alike

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

Look-Alike

Nighthawk Island Series

Look-Alike

HAD HE MARRIED THE WRONG SISTER?

This is the eighth book in the continuing Nighthawk Island series which is set around a fictitious medical research park in Savannah, Georgia. In Look-Alike, the premise revolves around a twin identity experiment being conducted with identical twins.

Sheriff Miles Monahue had fallen hard for Caitlin Collier; meeting and marrying her in less than a month. So when she disappeared and Miles was accused of foul play, his world shattered. Then, just when he thought he’d never learn the truth, her body was discovered. Before Miles could grieve, Caitlin’s look-alike stumbled back into his life, with no memory. True, his wedding had been uncharacteristically impulsive, but the feelings “Caitlin” stirred made him determined to protect her from the danger that had followed her home…till death did they part.

Raven’s Peak, North Georgia
Nine months later

“I didn’t kill my wife.” Sheriff Miles Monahue leaned back in his desk chair in an effort to rein in his volatile emotions. “Like I told the police when I reported Caitlin missing three weeks ago, I have no idea where she is or what happened to her.”

FBI agent Reilly Brown’s accusing look spoke volumes. “Take off your sunglasses, Sheriff.” Brown folded his arms on Monahue’s desk and pierced him with a stare as icy as the North Georgia winter wind outside. “I like to look at a man’s eyes when I’m talking to him.”

Monahue whipped off his Ray-Bans, struggling to bank his temper as he met the agent’s gaze head-on. He’d always had dangerous impulses, but lately he’d barely been able to restrain himself from acting on them. He half attributed his springboard reactions to the stress of his wife’s disappearance.

But the emptiness had been in his soul a long damn time. And lately, he’d developed severe headaches and a sensitivity to light. The doctor said it was stress, that he needed to lighten up. Release his emotions in a healthy way.

Hell, the man didn’t know what he was talking about. Besides, without the shades, he felt exposed, raw. As if someone might see inside his soul and glimpse the darkness. The bitter boy he’d turned into after he’d witnessed his parents’ murder at age ten. The fact that he’d been a suspect in their deaths.

Or the soft spot he’d had for Caitlin. His hand automatically strummed over his pocket where he still carried the charm bracelet he’d bought for her the night he’d proposed–two tiny silver hearts melded together, just as he’d thought theirs had.

What a damn fool he was for believing such nonsense. “Do you have new evidence? A lead?” Miles asked. God knows he wanted some news. Some closure.

“I’m the interrogator here.” Agent Brown’s chair squeaked as he shifted his weight. “You’re the suspect. You answer the questions.”

Miles gritted his teeth. “Dammit, tell me. Have you found her body?”

Brown’s eyebrows rose. “Then she is dead?”

“You’re twisting my words.” Miles bit back a curse. He had no idea if Caitlin were dead or alive. After that last fight, she’d stormed out of their three-week marriage. A few short days after they’d been married, he’d realized his wife wasn’t the woman she presented before the I do’s. Or the passionate, love-struck woman she’d led him to believe.

She’d been mysterious. Had been hiding something. And when he’d questioned her about her past, her family, she’d clammed up.

For all he knew, she’d faked her death and would let him fry for murder. But where had she gone?

Brown didn’t want to hear his suppositions. He’d only think Monahue was making excuses. “You’re interrogating me again,” he finally replied, “so that makes me wonder if you’ve found something new.”

Brown twisted his mouth into a frown. “Nothing I can reveal.”

Miles stood abruptly, his chair hitting the floor. “Then get the hell out. I’m sick of your runaround. If you find her, call me. Or if she contacts me, I’ll let you know.”

Brown pushed up from the desk, his boots clacking on the wooden surface. He paused in the doorway, pinned him with a warning look. “Don’t go anywhere without informing me.”

Miles glared at the man’s back as he stalked out, then he slammed the desk so hard his stapler flew onto the floor with a clatter. Frustration clawed at him. Even though he and Caitlin had only been married three weeks, their wedding triggered by a drunken night of raw, passionate sex, he’d exhausted every imaginable lead hunting for her.

Of course, the police suspected him. He was the husband. And the last time he’d seen Caitlin, they had fought publicly. She’d shouted that she didn’t want to be married to him. That it had been a mistake.

He’d agreed. He knew nothing about love. Family. Commitment. But his pride had smarted and he’d spouted off in anger.

Where was she?

Off in Tahiti with a lover? Sipping margaritas and laughing at the mess she’d left behind? Or had she met with foul play?

Guilt assaulted him as the gruesome possibilities flitted into his mind. Caitlin, dead at the hands of a madman. Or maybe she’d been kidnapped and was being tortured and was still alive.

If so, every day that passed meant there was less chance of finding her.

He grabbed his keys and headed to his car. He had to get out of the office. Drive someplace and be alone.

Freezing rain and sleet pelted him as he jogged to his Pathfinder, cold air blasting him as he climbed inside and started the engine. He blew on his hands to warm them, hit the gas pedal and soared from the parking lot, gravel churning beneath his tires, sludge and mud spewing. Storm clouds darkened the sky, the sleet creating a steady staccato rhythm as it pinged off the hood and windshield. He flipped on the defroster, grateful for the noise that drowned out his turbulent thoughts as he drove through the small town of Raven’s Peak. He tried to focus on the road and his surroundings as he made his nightly rounds, but the nightmares hovered in his mind, tormenting him. After Caitlin had left, the evening blurred. He’d had a headache, then added liquor on top of it. He must have blacked out. Then the nightmares had started. Nightmares that went back to his childhood.

The rugged edges of the mountain peaks and towering hardwoods rose in front of him like ice statues standing guard to the secrets within their massive walls. The canyon below had once been green and lush, sprinkled with wild-flowers and honeysuckle, a haven for the sun as it fought over the jagged gorges. Now, it looked like a brown crater resting at the underbelly of the mountains, like a dark cavern below ground where shadows walked at night, a home for the demons who rested in their evil lairs.

He couldn’t shake the interrogation with Brown from his mind, or the sense that something sinister had happened to his wife. Hell, he did have his dark side, but he hadn’t killed Caitlin.

And not a second had gone by that he wasn’t plagued with worry about her. The first few days, he’d beaten the streets searching for her, for any clue as to where she might have been, had used all his resources and questioned everyone in Raven’s Peak, where he’d first met her at a local honky-tonk, the Steel Toe. But he’d found nothing but questions.

His hands tightened around the steering wheel. The defroster worked overtime to clear the fog from the storm outside, the gears grinding as the tires clutched at black ice. Day by day, he’d assured himself that Caitlin had probably just run off and left him. She was tough. Formidable. She’d obviously decided she’d married him on a whim, that commitment wasn’t her style, and ditched him before the ink on their marriage certificate could set permanently.

Still, he’d blamed himself. It was his fault she had left. He hadn’t known how to be a husband. She’d needed something he didn’t know how to give.

Love.

He’d almost convinced himself he believed that she was coming back, that at least she was alive. Almost…

But the fact that neither he nor the feds had actually turned up any leads on her whereabouts kept his doubts and fears alive.

Streetlights illuminated the town square. Most of the storeowners had long gone for the evening and the citizens were tucked safely in their homes within the city limits, the wooded hills and valleys of the mountains. A safe, small Southern town.

Until he’d brought Caitlin here and she’d disappeared. Now, he wondered if there might be a murderer among them.

Squinting through the sleet, Monahue searched the shadows of the town park for vagrants or unwanteds, then drove past the high school to check for trouble-seeking teenagers, but the street and parking lot were quiet.

The storm grew in intensity as he headed up the mountainside to the house he’d rented, the wind bowing branches on the bare trees that comprised the sloping foothills. Winter had set in to stay, and the holidays were just around the corner, a time for friends and family.

He had neither. In fact, Raven’s Peak looked as desolate and empty as Miles felt inside.

He’d find out the truth about everything. If Caitlin had been hurt or killed because of him, he’d get revenge on the person responsible.And if she were alive, well, he’d at least exonerate himself, keep his job and move on with his life.

Either way, he’d never get seriously involved with another woman again.

Nighthawk Island Savannah, Georgia

SHADOWS FLICKERED around the sterile hospital room, the scent of antiseptic and alcohol nauseating. Rain pounded the roof, the monotonous drone echoing the beat of her heart. Despair threatened to steal her energy, so she forced herself to channel her courage into the will to survive. But she was so confused, she didn’t remember her own name. Did she have family somewhere looking for her? A boyfriend, husband?
Caitlin…Nora…

The two names bled together in her mind as if they were one and the same person. Maybe they were. Sometimes the doctor called her Nora. Other times, the nurse had whispered “Good night, Caitlin,” to her in the darkness.

“Here you go, sugar, this should help you sleep.” Donna, a robust nurse who usually worked nights, handed her a small paper cup holding a pill, then poured her a glass of water from the plastic hospital pitcher.

She cradled the capsule beneath her tongue, took a sip of water and pretended to swallow it. The bitter taste assaulted her senses, her struggle not to let it dissolve warring with the craving for something to sweep her away from the nightmare she’d been living the past few days. Or had it been weeks?

She’d lost all sense of time.

Donna patted her hand in approval, then ambled her bulk to the window and adjusted the shades, drowning out the dwindling light that had tried to cut its way through the fog. “Let me know if you need anything else, dear.”

She nodded, a show of obedience earning her another sympathetic smile. Then the nurse bustled by, humming Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” beneath her breath as she exited.

She spit the pill into her hand, her socked feet slipping on the cold linoleum as she ran to the potted plant by the window. Hands trembling, she dug a hole in the potting soil and stuffed the capsule below the surface, then packed the dirt tightly over it. The screech of the lock turning on the door, shutting her in, brought a fresh wave of panic.

She didn’t belong here.

Not in this mental ward or research hospital, whatever it was. Worse, she couldn’t remember how she’d ended up hospitalized. But she’d heard the nurses talking, whispering about the Coastal Island Research Park on Catcall Island, and the more restricted facility on Nighthawk Island. The place was dark, had secrets. The doctors were conducting strange experiments, ones nobody wanted to talk about.

So why was she locked inside?

She wasn’t crazy. She hadn’t willingly committed herself for experiments or treatment. She hadn’t experienced delusions or heard voices until they’d pumped her full of narcotics. Then the voices had started, the strange terrifying dreams, the cries in the night from down the hall.

Cries from other patients…her own…

She had to escape. Get help.

Caitlin? Nora…

She had a sister somewhere. She felt it, a connection of some kind. But where was she? And why hadn’t she come looking for her?

Vows of Vengeance

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

Vows of Vengeance

Nighthawk Island Series

Vows of Vengeance

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

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

Undercover Avenger

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

Undercover Avenger

Nighthawk Island Series

Undercover Avenger

After surviving a near-fatal accident, undercover agent Eric Caldwell wanted revenge. Falling for his beautiful physical therapist had never been part of his plan. Melissa Fagan was investigating the same mysterious medical research complex that he was. But she was asking too many questions, digging too deep.

Now someone wanted her dead—before she could discover the truth about her birth parents.

All Eric wanted was to keep Melissa safe and alive. But how could he protect her without blowing his cover, jeopardizing his mission…and risking both their lives?

Chapter One

Eric Caldwell walked a fine line with the law, but he didn’t care. He had trusted the Feds before and people had died. He didn’t intend to let it happen to this witness.

Even if he and his brother, Cain, fought again. Cain, always the good guy, the one on the right side of the law. The man who never saw the grays.

The only color Eric did see.

“Come on, Eric, where’s the witness in the Bronsky case?” Cain asked.

“What?” Sarcasm laced Eric’s voice. “Did the police lose another witness?”

“We do the best we can,” his brother said. “Do you know where he is?”

Eric grabbed a Marlboro and pushed it into the corner of his mouth. “Sorry, can’t help you, bro.”

Cain hissed, his message ringing loud and clear. Eric was lying, but Cain knew better than to push it. Eric would do whatever he could to keep the witness alive. “You can’t go around undermining the cops and the FBI, Eric, or killing every criminal who escapes the system.”

He glared at Cain over the duffel bag he’d been packing. “I didn’t kill anyone.”

Cain’s gaze turned deadly. “I don’t want to see your vigilante ways get you in trouble. It’s like you’re on a death mission, taking everything into your own hands.” Cain’s voice thickened. “One day you’re going to cross the wrong people.”

Eric ignored the concern in Cain’s warning, zipped his bag, then threw it over his shoulder, grabbed his keys and strode toward the door. “Like you don’t cross the wrong kind all the time.”

“It’s not the same thing,” Cain argued. “I have people covering me. You’re on your own.”

Eric hesitated. “You could quit the force and help me. Make it your New Year’s resolution.”

“New Year’s has come and gone,” Cain said. Their gazes locked briefly and Eric’s stomach clenched. His brother was serious. “Join the force, Eric, and work with the law, not against us.”

But Eric could not fit the mold. “I guess we hit that impasse again.” He snagged his laptop off the counter.

Cain’s jaw tightened. “Watch your back. If you get into trouble -”

“Then you’ll be there to help me.” A cocky grin slid onto Eric’s face. “Now, I’d love to stay and talk politics but I gotta go.”

Cain caught his arm before he could fly past. “Where are you going?”

Eric stared him down hard, the way he had when they were boys and they’d argued over whether or not to interfere when things had gone sour at home. When their father had taken his rage out on their mother and them. “I have business to finish,” he said between clenched teeth. “Legitimate business at the ranch.”

His brother studied him, didn’t believe him. Eric didn’t care.

Or maybe he did, but he would do what he had to do anyway.

Mottled storm clouds rolled across the sky as he headed outside, thunder rumbling above the trees. The wind howled off the lake, a haunting reminder of the bleakness that had become his life.

He didn’t have time for self-analysis, though. He had to get the witness to a safe house, then meet that woman his friend Polenta had sent his way. She’d sounded desperate, as if she was in trouble. And there was a kid involved. Some baby named Simon. The woman hadn’t made sense. She claimed they were after the baby, that he was the product of a research experiment.

He’d known then he had to help her and the child. He’d even considered confiding in Cain, but she had turned to him for a reason. Because she couldn’t trust the cops.

The reason he did what he did.

Eric could never say no to a woman or child in trouble. Not when his own past haunted him, when memories of his mother’s suicide still sent sweat trickling down his spine. Years ago, he’d started working with an underground organization to help women escape abusive homes so they didn’t meet the same fate, and their children didn’t suffer from abuse themselves. Someone had to help them break the cycle.

He jogged down the front-porch steps two at a time, heading toward the lean-to where he’d parked the Jeep. Thankfully, his brother followed him to the porch. The witness was hiding in the back room, waiting to escape out the side door, then slip through the woods to the SUV.

Rocks and gravel sprayed beneath his boots as he walked, the sting of his brother’s disapproval burning his back. He shrugged it off, tossed his duffel bag into the back seat along with his computer and saw the witness crawl into the passenger seat. He waited until Cain turned before he went to retrieve the cash he kept stashed in the shed for emergencies.

Shaded by the thick forest of trees between his property and the road, he stepped toward the knotty pines. But a sudden explosion rent the air, the impact throwing him against a tree. Glass shards and flying metal assaulted him. He banged his head and tasted dirt, then jerked around on his knees in shock. His Jeep had exploded. A fireball rolled off it toward the sky. Ignoring the blinding pain that seared him, he lurched forward to rescue the witness, but another explosion rocked the ground and sent him hurling backward again into the woods.

Fire breathed against his skin, catching his clothes and singeing his arms and legs. A jagged rock pierced his skull.

The world went momentarily dark, the crackle of fire eating into the night. Eric pulled himself from the haze and tried to yell for help, but his vocal cords shut down. The smoke and fire robbed him of air. He coughed, inhaling the acrid odor of his own burning flesh. Pain, intense and raw, seared him. Flames clawed at his face, and pieces of hot metal stabbed his thigh. Then dizziness swept over him.

He released a silent scream into the night, welcoming death and telling his brother goodbye.

(Continues…)

Saving His Son

2017-11-09T13:58:41+00:00

Saving His Son

Top Secret Babies Series

Saving His Son

Lindsey Payne’s feelings for her former bodyguard had exploded in one passionate night. But Detective Gavin McCord had no room in his life for love or family. And so Lindsey kept her pregnancy to herself, only to have her child taken from her in a sinister plot. Now, Lindsey suspected her son was somewhere close…and someone would kill to keep her from finding the truth.

When no one believed her, Lindsey turned to Gavin—and found hope. For this Gavin was not the cool, collected cop who’d left her—this was a man fighting for his child—and his woman….

Send Me a Hero

2017-11-09T13:58:42+00:00

Send Me a Hero

Men Made in America Series

Send Me a Hero

NO ONE BELIEVED HER
Echoing footsteps, threatening phone calls, and a midnight attacker – Veronica Miller wasn’t imaging things. But police found no evidence – and Veronica feared someone who knew of her past wanted to make her look crazy.

EXCEPT ONE MAN
Detective Nathan Dawson had heard about Veronica’s false alarms. But nothing prepared him for the beautiful, shaking woman who collapsed in his arms – or the instinct that warned him her fears were justified. Believing in her risked his badge – desiring her risked his heart. And keeping Veronica safe meant uncovering the truth about a night she can’t remember…

HER PROTECTOR