Special Agent's Surrender

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Special Agent's Surrender


About the Author

   CARLA CASSIDY is an award-winning author who has written over fifty books. Carla believes the only thing better than curling up with a good book to read is sitting down at the computer with a good story to write. She’s looking forward to writing many more books and bringing hours of pleasure to readers.

   Special Agent’s

   Surrender

   Carla Cassidy

   


   

Chapter 1

   It had been another long, quiet day at the real estate office. In the current economy nobody was buying or selling property in the small town of Black Rock, Kansas.

   Layla West shuffled her feet beneath her desk, seeking her newest pair of navy sling-back heels. If there was one thing in the world that Layla loved it was shoes. There was also the fact that she’d been left with an inheritance that allowed her to remain calm despite the fact she hadn’t made a sale in a month.

   With high heels in place, she rose from the desk and grabbed her coffee mug. As she carried it into the back room where there was a bathroom, she noted that darkness had fallen outside.

   At least it hadn’t snowed yet, she thought as she dumped the last of the tepid coffee down the sink. Early-December often brought winter weather to the small prairie town.

   Coffee mug rinsed, she returned to the front office and grabbed her coat from the back of her chair. It was time to get home to her cat, Mr. Whiskers, the only male who seemed content to stick around with her for the long run.

   With her coat around her shoulders and her purse in her hand, she locked up the office and stepped outside. She looked around to make sure nobody was lurking nearby and then headed down the street where her car was parked against the curb.

   She’d stayed late in hopes that somebody might call, and because she’d been reluctant to go home where lately the silence, the loneliness, had begun to press in around her.

   The streets were deserted, most of the stores having closed not long before. She picked up her pace, uncomfortable with being out alone after dark.

   She noticed that the streetlight above where she’d parked had burned out and made a mental note to mention it to Sheriff Tom Grayson. The candy cane decorations hanging from all the streetlights reminded her that it was time to get her little fake Christmas tree out of its box and go wild with all her other seasonal decorations. She loved Christmas and always went nuts decorating her house.

   Eager to get inside and get the heat blowing, she started to open the car door and realized she’d left her cell phone on her desk in the office.

   “Nobody is going to call you,” she muttered aloud. Besides, she had a landline at home if anyone really wanted to get in touch with her.

   Deciding to get the cell phone in the morning when she returned to work, she quickly unlocked the car, slid in and punched her key into the ignition.

   Before she could turn the key an arm snaked around the back of the seat and against her neck. A scream tried to escape her as the arm applied pressure to her throat.

   For a moment she thought it was some kind of a weird joke, an old boyfriend trying to scare her, a friend playing a prank, but that momentary thought fled as the pressure on her throat increased, cutting off her airflow.

   Wildly, she glanced at the rearview mirror, but realized it had been flipped up so she couldn’t see who was in her backseat, who was trying to choke her.

   Her first instinct was to grab at the arm, to scratch and claw in an effort to get free. A searing fear gutted her as she thrashed against the seat. Her head pressed against the headrest as the arm tightened; her attacker did not make a sound as he squeezed the air from her lungs.

   This isn’t a joke, her mind screamed as her vision was narrowed by encroaching darkness. The candy cane decoration hanging from the nearest streetlight began to blur and fade as first tears, then stars danced in front of her eyes.

   She tried to scream again, but it came out only as a strangled sob. He was going to kill her. He was going to choke the life out of her. Tears once again blurred her vision and she knew if she didn’t do something quickly she was going to die.

   The arm around her throat was strong and she knew she didn’t have the strength to pull it away and would waste precious energy in the effort. As she realized she couldn’t break his hold, she did the only other thing she could think of—she pulled her foot up and took off one of her high heels. Using the heel as a weapon she slammed it back over her head.

   There was a low grunt and the pressure against her neck momentarily eased. As she drew in a rasping gasp of breath she slammed her hands down on the car horn.

   As it blared in the otherwise silent streets, the attacker jumped out of the car and raced off into the darkness of the night.

   She hit her automatic door locks and began to cry in deep, gulping sobs. Still she held down the horn, a bleating plea for help as she squeezed her eyes tightly closed.

   Dear God, what had just happened? Why had it happened and who had it been? The questions couldn’t maintain any weight as terror still fired through her.

   She’d almost been killed. She forcefully coughed, as if the act could banish the feel of pressure, the terror of not being able to draw a deep breath.

   A knock on the driver window ripped a new scream from her, but she gasped in relief as she saw Sheriff Tom Grayson standing next to her car. He’d either heard the horn from his office down the street or somebody had called and he’d come to investigate.

   A new torrent of tears escaped her as she unlocked the car and opened the door. “He tried to kill me,” she finally managed to gasp as she nearly tumbled out of the car. Her throat burned and her words sounded raspy.

   “Who?” Tom asked as he grabbed her arm to steady her trembling stance.

   “I don’t know who. I didn’t see his face. He was hiding in the backseat of my car.” She raised a hand to her throat. “He … he tried to choke me. I hit him with my high heel and when I leaned on the horn he ran out of the car.”

   Tom used his cell phone and called for his brother, Caleb. “Which way did he run?” he asked her as he clicked off the phone. In the distance Caleb left the sheriff’s station down the street and hurried toward them.

   “Back that way,” she replied as she pointed down the street. Her heart banged against her ribs and the taste of horror crawled up the back of her aching throat.

   Within minutes Caleb was chasing after the attacker and Tom was leading her down the block to the warm interior of the sheriff’s office. Once inside he deposited her into a chair in his office and instructed Deputy Sam McCain to get her a cup of coffee.

   Layla glanced at the clock above Tom’s desk and realized it had only been about fifteen minutes since she’d left her office to get into her car to go home.

   It felt like an eternity. It felt like a nightmare and no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t wake up. Somebody had tried to kill her. Somebody had tried to kill her. The words thundered in her head over and over again.

   She took the coffee from Sam not because she wanted to drink it but rather because she needed the warmth to banish the chill that gripped her.

   “Tell me exactly what happened,” Tom said.

   “There’s not much to tell,” she said, surprised when a laugh escaped her. Hysterical. She was definitely on the verge of becoming hysterical.

   She took a sip of the coffee and leaned back against the hard surface of the chair back. “I got into the car, he wrapped his arm around my neck and he squeezed.”

   “Was your car locked?”

   “Yes. At least I think it was but maybe not. I looked around to make sure nobody dangerous was lurking when I left the office and I didn’t think about anyone hiding in my backseat.”

   “Did he say anything?”

   She shook her head. “The only sound he made was a grunt when I hit him with my shoe. I hope I didn’t break the heel when I smashed him. Those shoes were expensive.” Once again a nervous burst of laughter rose to her lips but she quickly swallowed it down.

   It was a fault of hers, the inexplicable need to make light when she was scared or upset. “Why would somebody do that to me, Tom? Why would somebody try to hurt me?”

   He frowned thoughtfully. “Can you think of anyone in your personal life who might be angry with you?”

   “No, nobody,” she said firmly. “You know me, Tom. I don’t make enemies.”

   “What about professionally? Any problems at the office?”

   “I’m a Realtor, for goodness’ sake. I work for myself and I make people happy.” She set the cup on the edge of the desk with trembling fingers.

   At that moment Caleb returned to the office. “I didn’t see any sign of anyone, but I did a cursory check of the car and grabbed your purse,” he said to Layla. He handed her the oversize bag and then turned to Tom. “I also found this in the backseat.” He held up a plastic bag with a syringe in it.

   “Oh, my God, what’s that?” Layla asked as a new horror washed over her. “That’s not mine,” she exclaimed. “I don’t do drugs of any kind.”

   “I don’t know what’s in it, but it looks fully loaded,” Caleb replied.

   Tom rose from his chair and motioned Caleb out of the room. “Excuse us for just a minute,” he said as he and Caleb walked out into the hallway.

   Left alone, Layla’s anxiety flew off the charts as she grappled with what had just happened to her. She couldn’t imagine anyone hating her enough to try to strangle her. She even got along well with her ex-boyfriends.

   Sure, she knew that a lot of people in town thought she was shallow and superficial, brash and a bit of a wise-mouth. She also knew that there were some who probably thought she was a bit loose, but Layla was the first to admit that she made a lot of mistakes when it came to men.

   Even as she thought about her personal life she knew the truth, and the truth was far more terrifying than an ex-boyfriend.

   She reached for the cup and took another sip of the coffee, but the warmth of the brew didn’t begin to touch the chill that had taken up residency in her bones.

   What happened now? Did she just get into her car and go home? The idea of being alone in her house terrified her. What if he knew where she lived? What if he came back to finish the job?

   Other women had recently disappeared in the town of Black Rock. A new chill took possession of her body at this thought. They’d disappeared and never been seen again.

   Tom returned to the room and sat at his desk, a sober expression on his handsome face. “Layla, you know about the missing women we’ve had in the last couple of months.”

   “Of course,” she replied. “I was just thinking about that.” There had been four women who had disappeared from Black Rock in the last four months or so, including Tom’s own sister, Deputy Brittany Grayson. “It was him, wasn’t it?” Her heart beat so fast she felt slightly nauseous. This was the truth she hadn’t wanted to think about.

   Tom nodded. “Caleb and I think maybe it’s possible you were intended to be number five.”

   His words hung in the air between them as she stared at him in horror. Nobody knew what had happened to the women who had disappeared but the general opinion of everyone in town was that they were all dead.

   “We think that all the women were taken from their cars. Most people don’t look in their backseats when they get behind the wheel. I would guess that the syringe is filled with something that would knock a person unconscious. He was probably going to choke you unconscious and then administer the drug.”

   “Or it could have killed me instantly,” she said. Her throat began to hurt again, as if in response to their conversation.

   He hesitated a moment, his eyes flashing darkly. “We’ll know more about that after we send it to the lab.”

   “So, what happens now?” she finally managed to ask.

   “As terrible as this experience has been for you, this could be the break we’ve been waiting for. We’re keeping your car and will go through it with a fine-tooth comb to see if the attacker left anything behind besides that syringe. Hopefully we’ll get some hair or fiber or fingerprints that will lead us to an arrest.”

   “And what about me?” she asked.

   “I’ve called Benjamin. He’s going to come by and take you by your house to get some things then we’re going to stash you in a cabin out at the ranch until we’re certain you aren’t in any danger.”

   “A cabin?” She didn’t know about any cabin located on the Grayson property.

   He nodded. “It’s kind of a family secret, an old caretaker’s cottage that my parents renovated years ago.”

   “What about my cat?”

   Tom frowned. “You have a neighbor or somebody who can take care of him while you’re gone for a couple of days? Either that or we can see if Larry Norwood can board him.”

   Layla set the coffee cup on the desk and then leaned back once again, finding it difficult to comprehend everything that was happening. “The only person I’d trust to take care of Mr. Whiskers is Portia and she’s allergic.” Portia Perez was Layla’s best friend and Caleb’s fiancée. “I guess it would be okay to board him for a couple of days. I’m sure Larry would take good care of him.”

   Larry Norwood was the town veterinarian and Layla was comforted by the fact that he seemed like a nice guy who loved animals. Mr. Whiskers already knew the vet, for Larry’s office was where she took the cat for checkups and shots.

   “I’ll see that he’s taken care of,” Tom assured her. “The important thing is to get you someplace safe until we can figure out exactly what’s going on.” He leaned forward, his dark eyes piercing into her. “Layla, is there anything else you can tell me about the man who attacked you?”

   She thought of those terrifying moments in the car when she’d been certain death was a mere heartbeat away. “Nothing,” she finally replied. “It all happened so fast. All I can tell you is that he was strong.”

   “If you think of anything else, if you think of anyone who might have a reason to harm you, let me know. In the meantime all I need from you is that you tell nobody where we’re putting you, and I mean nobody, and that you stay put until we know the danger has passed.”

   The idea of staying in a cabin alone was nerve-racking, but the thought of going back to her house all alone was absolutely terrifying. “If the culprit is who you think it is, then maybe he won’t bother me again since I managed to get away.”

   “Maybe, or it’s possible that he’ll be more determined than ever to get to you.”

   A tiny laugh escaped her. “Thanks for the reassurance.”

   “I’m not going to waste my breath giving you false assurances,” he replied. “There’s no way to know if this is tied to the other disappearances or not. We don’t have enough information right now to know what’s going on. But, the one thing I don’t want to do is minimize the possible danger.” His mouth was set in a grim line. “I don’t want to lose another woman in this town.”

   “I don’t want to be the one you lose,” she replied. “I know it’s hard to believe coming from me, but I’ll do whatever you tell me to do, Tom.”

   At that moment Benjamin appeared in the doorway. Benjamin was another of Tom’s brothers who worked as a deputy, but rumor had it he intended to quit his deputy duties in the spring and focus on ranching and Edie Burnett, the new woman in his life.

   “Layla, heard you’ve had a bit of a rough night,” he said.

   She forced a smile. “That would be the understatement of the year.”

   “You ready to head out?”

   She looked at Tom, who nodded his assent. “I’ll be in touch to let you know what’s going on. And don’t worry about your cat. I’ll see he gets to Norwood’s later tonight or first thing in the morning.”

   She stood in an uneven stance minus one shoe. “Can I get my other high heel from the car?” she asked.

   “It’s evidence,” Tom replied. “I’m hoping that if you managed to hit him and break some skin then we might have some DNA on the shoe.”

   She took off the shoe she still wore and then looked at Benjamin. “Then I guess I’m ready to go.” A new burst of fear swept through her as she realized she wasn’t going home to Mr. Whiskers and her own bed, but rather was in effect going into protective custody.

   It took only ten minutes for Benjamin to get her from the sheriff’s office to her small house. She’d always felt safe in the three-bedroom ranch house she’d bought five years before. But she didn’t feel safe now. The shadows in the rooms suddenly felt ominous and she jumped at every ordinary noise. She was grateful to have Benjamin with her.

   She packed a large suitcase of the things she considered essential, kissed Mr. Whiskers goodbye and then they were back in Benjamin’s truck and on their way to his ranch.

   The adrenaline that had pumped through her from the moment the arm had wrapped around her neck eased away, leaving a gnawing fear that had her shaky.

   “Please tell me this cabin has electricity,” she said as she leaned forward to get the benefit of the warmth blowing from the heater vents.

   Benjamin smiled. “Electricity, running water and cable television,” he replied. The smile faltered somewhat. “There’s something else you need to know. Jacob is staying at the cabin.”

   Shock waves shot through her. “Jacob? But, I thought he was in Kansas City working for the FBI.” As far as Layla was concerned Jacob had always been the hottest of the Grayson men. She’d had a major crush on him before he’d left town to become an FBI agent.

   “He was, but he’s been back for about six months and staying in the cabin.”

   “Did he get hurt or something?”

   “Or something,” Benjamin replied. “He hasn’t told any of us what brought him back, but he’s not the same man he was when he left Black Rock. Anyway, I just thought I should let you know that you’ll be sharing the space with him.”

   Layla leaned back and digested this new information. At least she’d have some company and it didn’t hurt that her company was a man who had always intrigued her. “I’m sure we’ll get along just fine,” she said. It also didn’t hurt that her protective custody involved an FBI agent.

   “Good luck with that,” Benjamin muttered under his breath as he turned into the entrance of his ranch.

   They drove past the ranch house and across the pasture. “How’s Edie?” she asked.

   A smile flashed across Benjamin’s face. “Terrific.”

   Edie Burnett had come to town to check on the well-being of her grandfather, Walt Tolliver. She and Benjamin had fallen hard for each other and Edie had moved in with him.

   A fist of loneliness slammed Layla in the stomach. It wasn’t an unfamiliar punch. Sometimes she thought that she’d been born lonely and that she’d never find somebody who might help ease that affliction.

   It certainly wasn’t from lack of trying. She felt as if she’d dated every eligible bachelor in Black Rock between the age of twenty-one and forty.

   She shook her head, wondering if she was losing her mind. Somebody had just tried to kidnap or kill her and she was thinking about her love life. Because that’s not scary to think about, she told herself, because that didn’t fill her soul with terror.

   They drove over a rise and in the beams of the headlights in the distance she saw the small cabin nearly hidden by evergreen trees crowding in on every side.

   A faint light glowed at the front window, but it didn’t add any sense of real welcome to the isolated place. The front porch was bare and the exterior paint was starting to show signs of age.

   “You’ll be safe here. Few people even know this cabin exists,” Benjamin said as he parked the truck in front of the small structure and turned off the engine.

   Layla got out of the truck, a bit unsteady on the uneven ground in the red high heels she’d put on at her house. With her tight jeans and in a new red sweater she felt ready to face whatever life threw at her.

   Benjamin grabbed her oversize suitcase from the back of his truck and together they walked up the stairs to the small porch and the front door.

   Benjamin knocked and a deep voice replied. He opened the door and Layla stepped inside. Her first impression was that the place was downright cozy with a fire crackling merrily in the stone fireplace and a thick throw rug covering an expanse of the gleaming hardwood floor.

   “What in the hell is she doing here?” The deep voice came from a recliner and a stunned surprise fluttered through her as she got her first glimpse of Jacob Grayson.

   His dark hair hung almost to his shoulders and his jaw was covered with a thick growth of whiskers. She could tell from the hollows in his cheeks that he’d lost weight, but his shoulders were still broad beneath the navy sweater he wore and his jeans hugged the length of his long legs.

   It was his eyes that made her breath catch in her throat. Dark as night and filled with the shadows of hell, they bore into her with intensity. He looked at her, her suitcase and then at Benjamin. “What the hell is going on here?”

   A bubble of laughter unintentionally escaped her. “I guess you didn’t get the memo,” she said. “I’m your new roomie.”

Chapter 2

   Jacob recognized her immediately even though the last time he’d seen her Layla West had been about nineteen years old. Even back then she’d liked her jeans tight and her heels high and it looked as if nothing had changed. She’d be about twenty-eight now, definitely not a kid anymore.

   There was some small part of his brain that processed the scent of her sexy perfume in the air, part of him that was drawn to the shine of her long blond hair, but the bigger part of his brain stared at Benjamin through angry narrowed eyes.

   It would be just like his well-meaning brothers to set up something like this in an effort to pull him from his self-imposed isolation. Nothing like a hot, sexy woman to pull a man back into life. Yeah, right, he thought bitterly.

   “Is this some kind of a joke because if it is I’m not laughing.” What he wanted to do was shove both Benjamin and the lovely Layla West right back out the door. Instead he got out of the chair and approached where Benjamin stood.

   “Of course you’re not laughing,” Benjamin replied tightly. “That might make you human.” He dropped Layla’s suitcase on the floor and looked at her. “Layla, would you excuse us for a minute?”

   He grabbed Jacob’s arm and pulled him toward the door. The two men stepped out on the porch and into the cold night air. “This is not a joke,” Benjamin said, a touch of uncharacteristic anger in his voice. “This isn’t about you and any issues you might have, Jacob. We’ve all pretty much left you alone out here for the last six months. We’ve asked damn little of you and hoped to hell you’d pull yourself together.”

   The cold December wind sliced through Jacob’s sweater almost as effectively as the disgust in his younger brother’s voice. He jammed his hands into his pockets and waited for Benjamin to finish whatever it was he wanted to say.

   “Layla was attacked this evening when she got into her car after work. She managed to get away but she didn’t see who was responsible. We need to stash her someplace where nobody will know where she is for a day or two while we figure out what’s going on.”

   “Why don’t you put her at your place? You could hide her there. Edie doesn’t strike me as the loose-lipped kind of woman.” Edie and Benjamin lived at the ranch house up the lane.

   “Edie isn’t, but you know Walt. He means well but he has never met a secret he could keep.” Benjamin jammed his hands into his coat pockets.

   Jacob sighed, knowing his brother was right. Walt Tolliver was Edie’s grandfather, a nice old man who had become something of a local hero after being responsible for bringing to light a scheme involving illegal experiments on the dead of Black Rock. Walt meant well, but Benjamin was right, the old man had never met a secret he could keep.

   “A couple of days at the most,” Benjamin said. “Surely you can force yourself to be civil for that long.”

   Maybe he could pretend she wasn’t there for that length of time, Jacob thought to himself. “Whatever,” he finally said, the cold seeping deep into his bones.

   He stepped back in the door where Layla stood poised for flight next to her suitcase.

   “Take off your coat. Relax, you’re staying,” he said grudgingly as he threw himself back into the recliner where he’d been seated before they’d arrived.

   “Great, this should be fun,” she said with a touch of sarcasm. She took off her coat and draped it over her arm. “Where do you want me to put my things?”

   “There’s only one bedroom,” Benjamin said. “I’m sure my brother would want you to have it.” He pointed to one of the doors off the main room.

   Layla looked at Jacob as if to see if that was okay. He nodded. Most nights he slept in the recliner or on the sofa anyway. Besides, if he was lucky she’d stay in the bedroom and out of his hair until Benjamin came back to retrieve her.

   “We’ll stay in touch,” Benjamin said to Layla as he backed toward the front door. “You’ll be safe here, Layla. Just give me a call if you need anything.”

   With that, Benjamin left. Jacob picked up the remote control to the television and turned the volume up enough that conversation would be difficult. He knew it was rude and he didn’t care.

   He’d stopped caring about anything six months ago when he’d left his job in Kansas City with the FBI and had returned to Black Rock and this cabin. All he wanted was to be left alone with the crushing guilt that never left him and the images of dead women that haunted him.

   “I guess I’ll just get settled in,” she said, raising her voice to be heard above the television.

   He watched as she pulled the suitcase toward the bedroom, unable to help but notice how her jeans cupped her curvy behind. As she disappeared into the bedroom he got up and grabbed a beer from the fridge.

   In the past six months beer had become his best friend. Although he never got falling-down drunk, he drank just enough to dull his senses and aid in a little selective amnesia.

   Hopefully it would take her at least an hour to unpack that suitcase, which had looked big enough to hold a month’s worth of clothes, and hopefully she’d only be in his personal space long enough to wear one of the outfits she’d packed.

   He took a long pull on the fresh beer and tried to ignore the scent of her that still eddied in the air. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d smelled the pleasant scent of a woman or touched warm silky skin in a fevered caress.

   The only women in his life in the last year had initially been faces on flyers who had eventually become bodies in crime scene photos. And their deaths had been his fault.

   He shook his head and took another deep swallow of his beer to dispel any horrible visions that might drag across his brain. He didn’t want to think about those women, knew that dwelling on them would cast him into the darkest of despair.

   As if this personal baggage wasn’t enough, his sister had disappeared almost four months before. He’d used what resources he could in an attempt to find any trace of her whereabouts, but had come up empty-handed, as was the case in all his brothers’ investigations.

   He had a feeling his sister was dead, otherwise they would have found something, heard something by now. It was just a new grief he refused to acknowledge.

   He frowned as Layla emerged from the bedroom and sat on the sofa. He glanced at her and she gave him an overly bright smile. “So, what are you doing here? Are you in hiding, too?” she asked.

   “Something like that,” he replied. The red sweater she wore enhanced the pale blond of her hair and the blue of her eyes. Suddenly his thoughts turned to another woman. Sarah. She’d been wearing red the last time he’d seen her. His stomach clenched tight.

   “I usually hear all the gossip but I haven’t heard anyone mention that you were back in town.” Her voice was raised to be heard over the blaring television.

   Reluctantly he lowered the volume. “Besides my family I’d prefer nobody know I’m here.”

   “Why?”

   “Because I want it that way,” he replied curtly and hoped she’d drop the subject. He didn’t intend to tell anyone what had brought him back here, the culpability he’d had in the last case he’d worked.

   She crossed one long slender leg over the other and leaned back, looking as comfortable as if she were in her own home. “So, what do you do to pass the time?”

   He sighed. She was obviously determined to have some sort of conversation with him. “I drink beer and watch television or I listen to the silence,” he replied pointedly.

   “I’ve never been a beer drinker. I like wine, especially a light blush, and sometimes a strawberry daiquiri is good. But if I’m celebrating something special I love a glass or two of champagne.”

   Shoot me now, Jacob thought as she continued explaining what drinks she liked and didn’t like. She certainly didn’t act like a woman whose life had just been threatened. It was just his luck to be cooped up with a superficial woman hell-bent on talking him to death.

   When she finally wound down her alcoholic drinks speech, she launched into a monologue about how much she liked Christmas. He tuned her out, making her voice white noise in his head.

   “Jacob?”

   He reluctantly tuned back in as he realized she must have said his name several times. “Is there anything around here to eat?” she asked. “I skipped dinner and now I’m starving.”

   He pointed toward the kitchen. “Help yourself.” He breathed a sigh of relief as she got up and disappeared into the next room.

   There had been a time when he liked nothing more than sitting with an attractive woman and indulging in a little flirtatious small talk, and if it led to something more all the better. But, that had been before Sarah, and before the case that had broken him.

   And he was broken.

   As an FBI agent.

   As a man.

   He took another long pull of his beer as he listened to the sounds of rattling pots and pans from the kitchen. Benjamin always made sure he had plenty of groceries so she’d have any number of things to choose to eat.

   His stomach rumbled as the scent of frying bacon filled the air. He hadn’t eaten supper and he’d skipped lunch, as well, opting for a liquid diet of booze.

   Most of the time if he was going to eat he either made himself a sandwich or zapped something in the microwave. Food had lost its appeal, as had most things in life.

   Layla stepped into the doorway. “I’m making a bacon and cheese omelet. Want half?”

   He didn’t want anything from her, but his stomach decided otherwise and he nodded affirmatively. “Okay,” he agreed. Within minutes she called to him that it was ready.

   “I’ll just eat in here,” he replied.

   Once again she appeared in the doorway. “No way,” she said with a hint of steel in her voice. “I’ve got the food on the table and it’s only civilized that we eat there.”

   “What makes you think I’m civilized?” he countered. God help him, not only did he have a chatty woman on his hands but apparently a bossy one, as well.

   “If you want to eat, then you’ll come into the kitchen.” She disappeared from the doorway.

   He stared after her. Who did she think she was to come in here and try to tell him what he should and shouldn’t do? If she thought she was going to run this place while she was here then she had another thing coming. Reluctantly he got to his feet.

   He was starving and at the moment the issue didn’t seem important enough to fight about. He carried his beer bottle into the tiny kitchen where she’d set the small dinette table for two. He dumped the rest of his beer down the sink drain, tossed the bottle into the trash and then took the seat at the table across from her.

   Above the scent of the bacon he could smell the ridiculously sexy fragrance of her perfume. Sitting this close to her he could see the gold flecks that sparked in her blue eyes as she gazed at him and to his stunned surprise a tiny flame ignited in the pit of his stomach.

   “So, what happened to you?”

   The question surprised him, along with his unexpected physical reaction to her nearness. “Nothing happened.” He picked up his fork and focused on the food in front of him even though he felt her gaze remaining on him.

   “You look like hell,” she said.

   Jacob set down his fork and gazed at her balefully. “We’re here together through no choice of mine. I don’t want to share personal feelings and experiences with you. I don’t want to make pleasant little chitchat. I just want to be left alone.” He picked up his fork and began to eat once again.

   “Looks to me like you’ve been left alone too long,” she said as if unable to not be the one who had the last word.

   He ignored her and ate as quickly as possible, ignoring the fact that she continued to look at him as she ate her dinner. When he was finished he carried his dish to the sink, washed it and set it in the drainer to dry.

   He left the kitchen without saying a word and returned to the recliner that had become his second best friend, after his beer.

   Within minutes she’d returned to the room and to his dismay once again positioned herself on the sofa. “So, Layla, what’s been going on in your life for the last couple of years?” she said. “Oh, not much. I own the only realty in town but unfortunately business has been pretty slow lately. I like Chinese food, I’m a Libra and I love to dance.”

   For the first time in months Jacob felt the urge to smile. It stunned him. It felt like an affront to all the blood that stained his hands.

   “Are you always so irritating?” he asked.

   She frowned as if seriously considering his question. “I suppose it depends on who you talk to. My friends don’t find me irritating, but it’s possible some of my old boyfriends might. And just for the record you’re more than a little bit irritating, too.”

   He felt her gaze on him as he stared at the television. “You didn’t used to be this way,” she continued. “In fact you used to be every teenage girl’s fantasy.”

   “Yeah, well things change, and now I’m going to sleep.” He clicked off the television, lowered his chair to a sleep position and then closed his eyes.

   He was acutely aware of her in the silence of the room—her scent, the bubbling energy she brought and the faint whisper of the sound of her breathing. He felt her gaze on him but refused to open his eyes.

   He breathed a sigh of relief as he heard her finally get up, and a moment later the door to the bedroom closed. He opened his eyes and frowned thoughtfully.

   She was going to be a pain in his ass. Beautiful and sexy, she was apparently a woman who was accustomed to getting her own way. Once again he told himself that she certainly didn’t seem to be traumatized by the events of the night that had brought her here.

   A day or two, that’s what Benjamin had said to him. She just needed to be here for a short time. Surely Jacob could handle her presence for forty-eight hours or so.

   He turned off the lamp on the end table and closed his eyes but visions of Layla instantly danced in his head. Even when she’d been nineteen and he’d been twenty-four and home for a visit, he’d been aware of her around town, but she’d been too young and he’d had his job in Kansas City and so he hadn’t pursued anything with her.

   And now she was all grown up and under his roof. Not that he cared, not that he intended to do anything about it. He had enough dead women in his mind. There wasn’t room for a breathing one, no matter how sexy he found her. He just wanted her out of his space.

   His head once again filled with thoughts of Sarah. He’d met her when he’d been twenty-six years old and she’d been twenty-four, and he’d fallen hard. She’d been beautiful and fun, bubbling with the same kind of energy that Layla possessed. She loved to talk, loved to dance and had stolen his heart almost immediately.

   It had taken Jacob months to get up his courage to ask her to marry him and when he finally had she’d laughed at him. She’d told him that she was far too young to get married, that she was just having fun and now that he’d gotten so serious about her it wasn’t going to be fun anymore.

   That had been the last time he’d seen Sarah and his last attempt at a relationship with anyone. She’d devastated him and he never wanted to feel that way again about anyone.

   He must have fallen asleep for the scream awakened him. He jerked up, disoriented for a moment as he realized the scream hadn’t been one of his own that occasionally woke him from a nightmare.

   The fire had burned down to hot coals and the room had grown chilly. He reached out and turned on the lamp next to him. The sound came again, a sharp, piercing scream that sliced through him.

   Layla! Full consciousness slammed into him as he recognized her scream. Had the person who had tried to harm her earlier in the evening found her again?

   He fumbled in the drawer in the end table and pulled out his gun, then jumped out of the chair and raced toward the bedroom door, hoping—praying—that he wouldn’t find yet another woman murdered on his watch.

   “Layla, come out, come out, wherever you are.”

   The familiar voice shot terror through Layla, who was crouched beneath the old front porch.

   “Come on, little girl. Take your punishment like a trouper.”

   Layla’s breaths came in rapid, shallow gasps. Don’t let him find me. Please don’t let him find me. Her heart pounded in her chest so loud she was afraid he’d hear it. Maybe if she stayed hidden long enough he’d pass out and forget that he’d decided she needed a beating.

   She screamed as a hand reached under the porch and grabbed her by the hair. Tears filled her eyes as her scalp burned and her body was dragged across the rocks and dirt.

   She couldn’t breathe.

   Suddenly she was in her car and hands wrapped around her throat and squeezed unmercifully. He was killing her and Layla didn’t want to die. She wanted to live and get married and have babies. She wanted to have lunch with her friends and be happy.

   But she was dying, her throat being squeezed so hard no sweet air could reach her lungs. Inside her mind she screamed for help, but no sound escaped her lips. She knew nobody could help her. She was going to die alone—as she had been all her life.

   “Layla!”

   The deep voice cut through her, familiar and yet somehow frightening. She struck out with her fists, with her legs, desperate to get away from him, fighting for her very life.

   “Hey, hey! Stop! Layla, wake up! It’s Jacob.”

   She came awake with a gasp for air as her heart crashed in a frantic beat. She blinked against the brightness of the overhead light and then Jacob came into focus.

   It was Jacob, not the man who had tried to kill her. It was Jacob, not her father who had been the source of so many of her nightmares.

   Without thought, functioning only with need, she sat up and grabbed him around the neck, pulling him close as the residual fear from her nightmare shuddered through her body.

   “You’re okay,” he said gruffly, not moving away but not engaged in the hug. “It was just a dream. You should be fine now.”

   She shook her head and burrowed her face into the crook of his neck where warmth and the faint scent of minty soap and a spicy cologne comforted her. The dream had been a horrifying blend of past and present and her heart still rocked in her chest with an unsteady rhythm.

   He released a small sigh and finally wrapped his arms around her. She felt the strength of his arms and shoulders, the very warmth of him that radiated through his T-shirt and her silk nightgown. She closed her eyes and reveled in the moment of safety, of complete and total security.

   Even as she began to fully relax she felt the tension that filled him. It was finally he who disentangled himself from her and stepped back, his eyes dark and enigmatic. “You’ll be okay now,” he said and turned and left the room.

   Instantly she was chilled to the bone, bereft with the lack of his presence. She wrapped her arms around her own shoulders, seeking comfort as her mind raced with the images not only from her dream, but from her attack earlier in the evening.

   Just go back to sleep, she told herself, but the idea of falling back into those same dreams was terrifying. What she needed was to talk about something, about anything that might take her mind off her dreams, off the fact that somebody had tried to kill her that night.

   She eyed the doorway longingly, wanting to get out of the bedroom where she was alone with her thoughts. Jacob certainly wasn’t the most sociable creature on the face of the earth, but at the moment he was all that she had.

   Making a decision, she slid out of bed, pulled on the sleek, short robe that matched her leopard print nightgown and went into the living room.

   She turned on the lamp next to Jacob’s recliner and offered him a tentative smile. “I feel like talking. Do you mind?”

   “Would it make a difference if I said yes?” One of his dark eyebrows rose sardonically.

   “Probably not,” she replied truthfully and sat on the sofa. “I can’t go back to sleep right now. I’m afraid I’ll go right back into that horrible nightmare. Can we just sit here and talk for a few minutes?”

   She could tell he’d rather eat nails, but he gave her a weary nod and put his chair into the upright position. “You want to talk about your nightmare?”

   “Absolutely not. That’s the last thing I want to talk about.” She fought against the race of a shiver that threatened to walk up her spine. “I just want to talk about pleasant things.” He frowned, as if he couldn’t imagine anything pleasant to discuss.

   “So, what’s your favorite food?” she asked, desperate to talk about something—anything—no matter how mundane.

   “Pizza, anything Mexican and I like a good steak.” He stared at the blank television screen. “What about you?”

   “I think it would be easier for me to list the kinds of food I don’t like. Brussels sprouts and lima beans. Other than those, I love almost everything.”

   He focused his gaze on her and she couldn’t help but notice the quick slide from her face to the gaping top of her robe. His frown deepened as he once again jerked his attention back to the television screen.

   An uncomfortable silence descended as Layla gathered her robe more closely around her. She knew she should go back to bed, but now she was afraid her dreams would be haunted by his dark gaze.

   “What kind of television shows do you like to watch?” she asked in an effort to keep the conversation flowing. “Personally I love most of the sitcoms that are on now. There’s nothing better than a good laugh after a day of work. I’m also a reality show freak. They’re all so silly but they definitely take your mind off your own problems.”

   Once again he looked at her, a wry lift to his lips. “And what kind of problems do you have? Whether to buy the shoes you want today or wait to see if they go on sale tomorrow?”

   There was a derisive edge to his voice that instantly rankled her. “That’s right,” she replied with a forced airiness. “I’m all about shopping and going out to lunch and good times.” Her voice broke as a sudden wash of emotion gripped her. “I’m sure that’s why somebody hid in the backseat of my car tonight and tried to choke me to death.”

   He cursed silently under his breath. “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. I’ve obviously lost my social skills while I’ve been cooped up here.”

   He offered her a smile and in that gesture she remembered the man she’d once had a major crush on. “I really don’t know anything about you except that you said you owned the realty in town,” he said.

   She nodded. “I opened the business four years ago, just after my father died. I love finding the right home for my clients and business was good for about two years. But it’s been lean lately.” She began to relax as she thought about her work. “Hopefully the economy is turning around now and business will get better again.”

   “What about your mother? Where is she?” His gaze remained fixed on her face.

   “She died when I was seven.” And that was when all the love in Layla’s life had also disappeared. A wave of grief tried to pull her into its clutches, but she fought it, refusing to go there.

   “And you don’t have any brothers or sisters?”

   “No, it was just me. You’re lucky to have such a big family. It must be nice to have people who care about you,” she replied.

   “It has its moments, but it can also be a pain.”

   “Are you still with the FBI?”

   The smile instantly disappeared, as if it had only been a figment of her imagination. “I’m retired.”

   She looked at him in surprise. “You’re awfully young to be retired. What are your plans for the future?”

   “To get some sleep before morning comes.” His voice was clipped, filled with a new irritation as he reclined his chair once again. Layla knew the moment of tenuous peace and conversation between them was over.

   “Then I guess I’ll just say good night.” She got up from the sofa, turned off the lamp next to him and then went back into the bedroom.

   The bedroom was small, the double bed covered with what appeared to be a handmade patchwork quilt. A dresser with a mirror stood against one wall and a nightstand was against the bed.

   It was a nice room and there was a photo of the entire Grayson family hanging on the wall next to the dresser. She moved over to it and studied it.

   Mr. and Mrs. Grayson stood together, looking happy and in love. They were dead now, killed in an airplane crash that had left their adult children alone.

   The Grayson children all shared the trait of rich dark hair. Jacob stood with his arm around his sister, that charming devilish grin lifting his lips. All the Grayson men were drop-dead gorgeous, but they were also known as men who had humor in their eyes and a flirtatious smile on their faces.

   Where was Brittany now? And where were the other women who had disappeared? There had been some speculation that one of the women had simply left town, but the others had seemingly vanished into thin air.

   She moved away from the picture and turned off the bedroom light. Instead of getting into bed she moved to the window. It was a perfectly clear night, the moon a gigantic silver orb in the sky.

   Her thoughts were momentarily consumed by the man in the next room. What had happened to Jacob Grayson? What had brought him to this cabin, living like a hermit with dark shadows bruising his eyes?

   Something had happened to Jacob, something terrible, and she couldn’t help but be intrigued. She also couldn’t help but remember those brief moments when he’d held her in his arms. It had felt so safe and yet had held just a little bit of dangerous attraction.

   And somebody out there in the darkness tried to killyou tonight. Once again the reality of what had happened slammed into her.

   As she finally climbed back into bed, she prayed whoever it was wouldn’t find her again.

   Brittany Grayson awoke suddenly, her heart beating frantically. She remained unmoving on the cot, eyes open to the utter darkness that claimed the shed or whatever structure they were held in.

   How many days had it been? How many weeks or months? She’d lost track of the time that she’d been held captive. There were now four of them, four women held in jail-like cells. The last one had been brought in earlier in the week. Casey Teasdale had hung over her captor’s shoulder like a sack of potatoes as he’d carried her in and placed her on the cot in the fourth cell.

   “Almost time,” he said to Brittany as he’d locked the door to assure Casey’s imprisonment. The ski mask he wore effectively hid all his features, making it impossible for Brittany to identify him.

   He gestured toward the empty cell. “One more and then the real fun begins, and I’ve got a special woman in mind to fill that one. A pretty blonde who is a bit feisty and managed to escape me once. She won’t escape the next time.”

   He’d whistled as he’d strolled out of the shed, leaving her with a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature of the building. One more and then the real fun begins.

   One woman taken was a crime. Two had been a pattern and three made him a serial offender, but four was a collection. The monster who held them was collecting them like fancy figurines and she had a feeling once his collection was complete he’d take great pleasure in smashing his figurines.

   She sat up, unsurprised to hear Jennifer’s sobs. Jennifer Hightower had been crying off and on since the moment she’d arrived.

   Say something to comfort her, a small voice whispered inside Brittany’s head. But, as she reached inside herself for the right words she realized she had no more comfort to give.

   For the first time since she’d been kidnapped she was without hope, her very soul had been depleted.

   Initially she’d been so sure that her brothers would find her. She knew they’d move heaven and earth to find out what had happened to her. But with each day that had passed without rescue, her fear had grown stronger and now it was screaming like a banshee in her head.

   Enough time had passed since her disappearance that her brothers probably thought she was already dead. Maybe they’d even stopped looking for her. She lay back down on the cot and squeezed her eyes closed. No, they wouldn’t stop looking, but she’d lost the hope that they might find her in time.

   One more and then the real fun begins.

   She knew in her gut that the real fun meant death to all the women that were in the cells.

Chapter 3

   Dawn was just beginning to break when Jacob awakened. Instantly his head filled with a vision of Layla. When he’d burst into her room the night before in response to her screaming, he’d been ready to protect her with his life.

   As he’d seen her in the bed, the sheet at her waist and the top of the sleek animal print nightgown barely covering her full breasts, a fist of desire had slammed into his gut. When she’d awakened and pulled him into an embrace, that fist had punched him over and over again as he’d held her in his arms.

   He now got up from the recliner and threw a log and some kindling on the hot coals from the night before. Once the fire was blazing nicely, he decided a shower and a change in his thoughts were in order. Stepping into the bathroom he caught his reflection in the mirror above the sink.

   You look like hell.

   Layla was right. He did look like hell. He scraped a hand across his whiskered chin and then turned away from the mirror in disgust.

   Half an hour later he left the bathroom clean-shaven and dressed in a freshly laundered navy turtleneck shirt and jeans. He made coffee, then carried a cup to the living room window and stared outside, his thoughts still on the woman who slept in the next room.

   She was so full of life and seemed determined to bring him out of his isolation by talking him to death. She probably had dozens of men lined up waiting to spend time with her.

   And somebody had tried to kill her.

   He turned away from the window and wished he’d been paying more attention to what was going on in town. He knew his sister and somebody else had gone missing, but whenever his brothers had talked about it, he’d tuned it out, preferring his own drama to theirs. Now he wished he’d listened more carefully to them.

   He glanced at the closed bedroom door and wondered how late she would sleep. Not that he cared. As long as she was sleeping she wasn’t talking.

   She reminded him of Sarah and that was a time in his life he didn’t want to remember, a time when he’d had hopes and dreams and everything had seemed possible. When Sarah had walked away from him she’d stolen his dreams. The final case in his career had shattered his hope.

   It was just before nine when Layla finally emerged. Clad in her nightgown and a short matching robe and her hair sleep-tousled around her head, she gave him a heavy-lidded glance and a quick smile. “Coffee, then shower,” she said as she disappeared into the kitchen.

   His stomach muscles knotted with a tension he recognized. It surprised him that the first real emotion he’d felt for so long was lust. Her long slender legs had looked sleek and sexy beneath the short robe and he hadn’t forgotten how her full breasts had looked spilling over the top of her nightgown the night before.

   He’d assumed she’d grab a cup of coffee and then join him in the living room, but as several minutes went by he realized she wasn’t coming out of the kitchen.

   Leave her be, he told himself. After all, that’s what he wanted from her. He should be enjoying the fact that she was awake and not talking to him.

   Before he realized what he was doing he was on his feet and headed into the kitchen. She sat at the table, her dainty fingers wrapped around a stone coffee mug and her eyelids still lazy with sleep.

   “You’re obviously not a morning person,” he observed as he refilled his own coffee cup. He sat across from her at the table, wondering what in the hell he was doing.

   Her face wore a slightly pouty expression that he found oddly charming. “Mornings should be banned,” she said, then lifted the coffee mug to her lips. She took a sip and eyed him over the rim of the cup. “Nice to see you have a chin beneath all that hair.”

   He rubbed a hand across his smooth jaw. “It was starting to bug me,” he replied. The last thing he wanted her to think was that he’d shaved for her.

   “You have a nice chin. You shouldn’t hide it under all those whiskers.” She took another sip of her coffee and then lowered the mug to the table. “Did you sleep well?”

   “As well as I always do.” There was no way he’d share with her the kind of nightmare images that haunted his dreams. “What about you? Any more bad dreams?”

   “No. Thankfully I slept like a baby once I finally went back to sleep. Is there a phone in the house? I left my cell phone at my office last night and I need to call Tom to see if he took care of the favorite man in my life,” she said.

   “The man in your life?” He shouldn’t be surprised that she had a boyfriend. What did surprise him was the unexpected sharp edge of disappointment that stabbed him. What was that all about? He sure as hell didn’t want anything from her.

   “Yeah, he’s sixteen pounds of calico fur and his name is Mr. Whiskers.”

   “Any men of the human variety in your life?” he asked.

   “Passing ships, not that I care.” She lifted her chin slightly as if in defense of whatever he might say. “What about you? Is there some woman pining for you back in Kansas City?”

   “Nope, I was too devoted to my work to have any real relationships.” It was the easiest way to reply and it was somewhat the truth. After Sarah he hadn’t wanted anything that might somehow involve his heart. “I’m not a relationship kind of man.”

   He could tell Layla wanted to ask him questions about what had happened in his work, about what had brought him back here, questions that he didn’t want to answer. He stood and motioned to the old harvest gold phone hanging on the wall. “Feel free to make whatever calls you need. Just remember you aren’t supposed to tell anyone you’re here.”

   He got up and left her alone in the kitchen. He told himself it was so she could make her call in private, but the truth was something about Layla West had him off balance.

   From the moment she’d breezed into the place the night before she’d brought a spark of life that had been missing. He felt the spark deep in his soul and he wasn’t sure whether he liked it or not.

   For the last six months he’d been immersed in his self-imposed isolation, bitter with memories and drowning in guilt and remorse. He didn’t want to be rescued from himself by anyone.

   He’d just gotten settled back into the recliner when she came out of the kitchen. “Mr. Whiskers is now in the care of Larry Norwood, so all is right in my world, and I’m going to take a shower.”

   The minute she disappeared into the bathroom Jacob was visited by images of her naked body standing beneath a steamy spray of water. He closed his eyes as he imagined the slide of the soap down the hollow of her throat, across her delicate collarbone and then on to her full breasts.

   He could easily imagine himself stepping into that spray of water next to her and taking her into his arms. A vision of their hot soapy bodies sliding together tensed all the muscles in his stomach.

   He jerked out of the fantasy as his cell phone rang. He pulled it from his pocket and saw from the caller ID that it was his brother, Tom.

   “I just talked to Layla and she didn’t sound too worse for the wear so I figured I’d better check in with you and see how it’s going.”

   “It’s going,” Jacob replied, irritated by where he’d allowed his fantasy to take him. “You have any clues as to who attacked her?” Hopefully the crime would be solved and Layla could get out of here.

   “Nothing. I was hoping to get some DNA off the shoe she used to whack him with, but we’ll have to wait to see what comes back from the lab. Same thing with the hypodermic needle the perp dropped.”

   Jacob felt as if he’d entered an alternate universe. Layla hadn’t mentioned anything to him about hitting her attacker with a shoe or a needle being involved. “Whoa, take it from the top. Layla didn’t tell me much about the attack on her.”

   There was a moment of silence. “Are we talking about the same Layla West? Usually Layla tells anyone who will listen whatever crosses her mind. I imagine you shut her down before she could say much of anything about it to you.”

   Tom was right. Jacob had made it clear to Layla the night before that he didn’t want to talk, that all he wanted was for her to shut up and go to bed. A sliver of shame worked through him.

   As he listened to Tom relating the details of the attack, a grudging admiration for his roommate filled him.

   She’d fought back. It sounded like she hadn’t panicked, but rather had fought back using whatever resources she had at her disposal, in this case her shoe.

   Even though she’d acted unconcerned about the attack, it was obvious from her nightmare that she’d been affected more than he’d initially thought.

   “When you get a chance, I’d like to sit down with you and hear about these cases you’re working on,” Jacob said. He could tell he surprised Tom by the moment of stunned silence that followed.

   “I’d like that,” Tom finally replied. “Maybe a pair of fresh eyes will see something that we’ve all missed. You want to come here or meet me someplace else?”

   Jacob still wasn’t ready for his presence in town to be known. “Why don’t we meet this evening after dinner at the big house? I’m sure Benjamin and Edie won’t mind.”

   “I’ll check with Benjamin and set it up. I’ll bring Peyton and Lilly along. The women can chat while we talk.”

   “Sounds like a plan,” Jacob agreed. “Then unless I hear something different from you, I’ll see you this evening about seven.”

   The men hung up and by the time Jacob had poured himself another cup of coffee and settled back in his recliner, Layla was out of the bathroom. She was clad in a pair of jeans and a royal blue sweater that did amazing things to her eyes.

   “Now I feel more human,” she said as she sat on the sofa.

   As he told her about the meeting with Tom that evening her lips curved in a happy smile. “I adore Peyton and little Lilly and I’ve been looking forward to getting to know Edie better. This will be a perfect opportunity.”

   Peyton and her daughter had been relative newcomers to Black Rock when Peyton’s daughter, Lilly, had been kidnapped. As Sheriff, Tom had been on the case and when Lilly was found alive and well, the two had realized they’d fallen in love.

   All of Jacob’s brothers had found the loves of their lives, although none of them had married yet. They all were waiting for Brittany to return, a study in futility as far as Jacob was concerned.

   “How about some pancakes?” Layla asked as she got up from the sofa.

   “I’m really not hungry,” he replied.

   “Nonsense. Didn’t anyone ever tell you breakfast is the most important meal of the day?” She flashed him a bright smile and then disappeared into the kitchen.

   Jacob released a small sigh. There was no question that he had a strong physical attraction to Layla, but the last thing he wanted to do was follow up on it.

   He didn’t want to get involved with any woman; he still remembered too clearly the pain of Sarah’s rejection. And if that wasn’t enough he had a head full of dead women silently accusing him for botching their case, for being the impetus that had resulted in their murders.

   He was a man meant to be alone and that’s the way he liked it.

   It was what he wanted.

   It was what he deserved.

   Layla was grateful when it came time for them to leave for Benjamin’s place. Jacob had been a bear all day, barely speaking to her and playing his television loud enough that the cows in the distant pasture had probably heard the noise.

   There was a tension in the cabin that palpitated with its own energy. She wasn’t used to being cooped up and after a single long day she was ready to scream. If Jacob had been living this way for the past six months it was no wonder he was half-mad.

   She now gave herself a final check in the bathroom mirror and wondered if Caleb and Portia would also be at Benjamin’s house. Portia Perez was dating Caleb Grayson and she was also Layla’s best friend. Layla hadn’t talked to Portia since she’d been attacked, although she was certain that Caleb had probably told her what had happened.

   She and Portia talked to each other almost every day and at the moment Layla would love to see her friend and tell her about the horror of what had happened. She’d also like to whisper to Portia that despite his grumpy attitude, in spite of his brooding and downright rudeness, she was intensely drawn to Jacob Grayson.

   “If that’s not a heartbreak waiting to happen, then I don’t know what is,” she muttered to her reflection in the mirror. Not that she was a stranger to heartbreak, most of her relationships ended in that state.

   She’d realized long ago that she was a woman who seemed to inspire great lust in men, but nothing deeper, nothing more lasting. She’d given up on finding true, long-lasting love a long time ago.

   You aren’t good for anything, girl. No man is ever gonna want you. Her father’s voice thundered in her ears and she shook her head to cast it out.

   From the time her mother had died when she was a child to the time of her father’s death four years ago, she’d felt inadequate, lacking in any qualities that would make her worthwhile to anyone.

   Her father had been a brutal man, both physically and mentally abusive. “But you survived,” she whispered to the woman in the mirror. “And you thwarted an attack by a madman.”

   “You going to be in there all night or are you ready to go?” Jacob’s voice called from the other side of the bathroom door.

   “I’m ready,” she replied and left the bathroom. He stood by the front door, car keys in hand and a familiar scowl riding his features. She grabbed her coat and pulled it on, then gave him a bright smile. “What are we waiting for?”

   He opened the door and they walked out into the cold night air. “Wait here,” he said and then he walked off into the darkness of the night.

   She stood on the porch, wondering where he had gone, but moments later a black pickup pulled up in front of the cabin with Jacob at the wheel.

   “Where did this come from?” she asked as she slid into the passenger seat.

   “There’s a shed not far from here. I figured there was no way you could walk the distance to the house in those shoes.”

   She glanced down at her blue pumps and then looked at him. “You’d be surprised what I can accomplish in a pair of sexy high heels.”

   He grunted and pulled away from the cabin. It took only minutes to travel the lane that led to the big ranch house that had been the Grayson family home where Benjamin and Edie now lived.

   All the lights were on, creating a welcoming glow as Jacob pulled up beside Tom’s car. Edie greeted them at the door and ushered them inside as Benjamin’s dog, Tiny, danced at their feet.

   The house smelled of evergreen and cinnamon, and Christmas decorations adorned every available surface. Layla shoved aside a wistful twinge as she thought of the little tree she’d intended to unpack and put out the night she’d gotten attacked.

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