Publisher: St. Martin's
Sheriff Archer Tobias has watched the Callahan family struggle to find peace and acceptance in the community—despite the murders that continue to haunt them. But his darkest suspicions grow worse when Anna Corbin, a member of one of the country's most influential families, becomes the next target…
Anna knows she’s in danger. She knows she’s on a trail of secrets and lies that could lead to a dead end. But no matter what, she’s determined to learn the identity of the killer—even if it’s someone she loves…
Torn between duty and desire, Sheriff Tobias cannot allow Anna to put herself in the path of a deranged murderer. But as the investigation pulls them closer together—and deeper into the nightmare—he realizes that he cannot save her from this legacy of blood and vengeance…without putting his own life on the line.
She couldn’t stand it.
She couldn’t stand being around him. Watching him, wanting to rub against the hard corded strength of his body, desperate to taste a kiss from the controlled line of his sensual lips.
He looked like a pirate. Like a desperado pretending to be a sheriff, and he made her want to run even as he made her want to cling to him.
She couldn’t stand it.
No, that wasn’t true, Anna Corbin thought, looking over at the too-handsome sheriff. She loved being around Archer Tobias and had since she was a young girl. The problem was he didn’t seem to see her. But she was eighteen now and she could make him see her, if her grandfather and parents would stop shipping her off, like they were proposing to do once again.
“You’ll love France,” her mother was saying, her smile bittersweet and filled with longing, though she refused to look up at Anna. “It’s beautiful there.”
“Jacques said you can start as soon as you graduate college. Beginning two years early will allow you to begin in an excellent position before you turn twenty-one,” her grandfather, John Corbin, informed her. “His company is really going places, Anna. You’ll be there to watch it grow into a major accounting firm.”
Yippee. Wasn’t that sure to be boring?
Looking up, Anna’s eyes met Archer’s before he quickly turned his gaze back to his meal.
Lifting her glass she sipped her wine, before setting the glass back by her plate. She silently ran her fingers up and down the slender stem.
“Jacques is really looking forward to having you come in as his assistant,” her father said quietly, watching her intently.
“Of course he is.” Her head snapped up as the words escaped her mouth. “It will be so much easier to cop a feel if I’m right under his thumb.”
Silence filled the room as everyone but Archer stared back at her in shock. For his part, Archer simply stared back at her, the ice that suddenly filled his gaze sending a chill up her spine.
“What are you saying, Anna?” Her father, Robert Corbin, frowned, his expression dark and forbidding as he turned and glared at Gran’pop.
“Anna.” Her Gran’pop’s voice was chiding as he stared back at her with disappointment. “Jacques explained that.” Turning to his son he breathed out heavily. “Jacques fell against her while he was here last summer and unfortunately brushed her back end. It was an accident.”
She could feel her teeth automatically clenching at her grandfather’s explanation. When her eyes lifted, she saw that Archer was not looking at her, but was instead staring at his plate, fingers gripping his fork, eyes glaring at his food, his expression hard. Her heart thumped. Was Archer angry at hearing that another man had touched her? Anna shook her head. Even if he was, Archer saw her more as a little sister, so if he was angry it was probably the anger of a big brother. Her shoulders slumped a bit. How sexy.
“It wasn’t an accident,” she said stubbornly.
“You can’t come back here.” That was Gran’pop, cutting right to the chase.
Anna looked defiant. “I’m not going to France.”
John Corbin shrugged. “Then I’ll find you a job in England.”
“Let me be clearer, Gran’pop.” It was now or never. “I’m not leaving the States. I’m not working on the West, East, or Southern coasts.”
“You are not coming back here.” His silverware clattered against his plate.
“Then I will stay in Sweetrock.”
“Over my dead body.” His aged, wrinkled face showed his age and his command.
“I hope not, Gran’pop.” She shook her head as she lifted the napkin from her lap and laid it politely next to her plate. “I believe I’m finished. If you’ll excuse me.”
“No, I will not,” Gran’pop declared as she moved her chair back and started to rise. “We have company for dinner, Anna. You will not embarrass this family.”
Archer was staring back at her now, anger sparking in his gaze as her brow lifted.
“This is probably one of the least explosive arguments Archer’s witnessed over the years,” she assured her grandfather. “Sorry, Gran’pop, but I’m not sitting here and pretending to like how very easily my parents and grandparents are planning my life for me. Especially when every one of you is very well aware you’re breaking my heart.”
“You will not do this, Anna,” her grandfather ordered then.
“Do what, Gran’pop? Have a life? Have something to do with cousins you’ve kept me from all my life? Cousins who are so obviously not the monsters you’ve made them out to be?” Her voice rose, anger, hurt, that odd hunger to know the cousins reviled for so long both confusing and drawing her.
“That’s all—this is over!” he yelled, his fist hitting the table hard enough so that the dishes vibrated with a discordant sound. “Those fucking Callahans.”
“Those fucking Callahans?” she sneered. “One of whom is your only grandson. Let’s lay it out on the table, shall we? For years you’ve been trying to keep me away from my own family. Away from Logan, Rafer, and Crowe and for years I had no choice. You’ve kept me so isolated, I feel like an orphan myself! But I’m eighteen now and I can make my own decisions. You can’t keep me away any longer.”
“The hell I can’t,” he snarled, all but shaking with fury as all eyes turned to him. “I’ll be damned if I’ll allow it, Anna. You will return to college and you will do so immediately, or I promise you, I swear to you by all that’s holy I’ll make damned sure Crowe Callahan pays for it.” Anna felt herself pale. She could see the determination, the certain conviction in her grandfather’s expression and she knew he meant it.
“The day will come that you can’t hurt him any longer,” she said. “When that day happens, Mr. Callahan”—she wouldn’t call him Gran’pop again—“I promise you, I’ll be back.”
Moving from the table she strode quickly from the dining room and then from the house as the first tear fell.
France and the pervert. England and God only knew what kind of deviant. Anywhere but where she wanted to be. In Corbin County with her family.
Archer glared at John Corbin, then at his son, Robert, and daughter-in-law, Lisa.
Anna’s place in Corbin County and on the family ranch had been a heated topic since the year she had been shipped off to boarding school at age nine. As he heard it over the years, each vacation, holiday, or family visit Anna had screamed, raged, begged, and pleaded to come home.
She had bargained for homeschooling or tutors, and swore she’d obey every request, want, need, or command that her parents could come up with. When that had failed, she had become a terror on two legs with pretty emerald eyes.
Each time a school had threatened to send her home, John Corbin had paid them for whatever trouble she had caused and then paid them more for whatever trouble she might cause in the future.
She had for nine years been involved in a war that neither Anna nor her parents had escaped unscathed. And now, it seemed, she was upping the stakes. She was eighteen, they couldn’t force her into the college of their choice, and it seemed she wasn’t going to allow them to force her into the job of their choice.
“She doesn’t understand,” John muttered. “Sorry ’bout that, Archer.”
“Why the fuck do you keep doing this to her, John? Or for that matter, to Crewe?” Archer couldn’t hold back his own anger any longer. “She’s your granddaughter and you do everything you can to disown her without actually doing so. And who is this bastard you keep defending who dared touch her?”
“This is none of your business, Archer,” he began.
“You brought me into this family, John. You made it my business, especially when I learn she’s in danger of being molested by someone you keep trying to throw her at.”
“That’s not it—” John grated harshly.
“Archer, stay out of this.” Robert spoke from the other end of the table, his voice firm. “This is family business.”
It was always family business when they didn’t want to explain their unjust actions toward Anna. He was getting damned sick of it.
“Understood, Robert.” Following Anna’s example he lifted his napkin, wiped his lips, then folded it and laid it next to his plate with icy precision. “Thank you and your family for dinner, John, but it’s time I go.”
John grimaced. “Thanks for coming by, Archer. It’s always nice to see you.”
Fuck, as though he hadn’t just witnessed Anna having her heart torn out and one of his best friends trashed by the Corbins’ determined refusal to allow Anna to know a cousin she obviously ached to know.
It might not make sense, but Anna didn’t have to make sense to him when it was clear her family was making demands that were so blatantly unfair.
Shaking his head as he swept his gaze between the three of them, Archer left the table and strode from the room. Things had always been damned strange in the Corbin household, but now, they were approaching Twilight Zone level.
Stepping onto the wide wraparound porch and closing the door behind him, he let a smile touch his lips at the sight of the curves leaning indolently against the SUV.
Well-worn jeans, and a light gray stretchy top that clung to her breasts, waist, and hips to end at the band of those low-slung jeans.
His gaze lifted to her breasts again.
A perfect handful, he thought, his palms suddenly tingling at the thought of those firm, rounded curves fitting his palms.
He gave himself a mental shake.
Had he lost his fucking mind?
Long black hair, waves upon waves of it, tumbled from her head, over her shoulders and one breast, and down her back almost to her curvy, tempting hips.
With her arms folded beneath those breasts, her head tilted to the side, and those lush, enticing curls flowing around her, she was the image of a tempting, sensual little angel.
One he was dying to touch.
God have mercy on his self-control.
She was a woman now.
Archer felt his breath pause in his chest, felt his entire body go hot, then cold.
Son of a bitch, she was a woman now.
Stepping across the porch he felt the blood suddenly rushing through his body and heading south just as fast as possible.
All for one tiny, tempestuous, trouble-making package.
God help him.
“They’re going to try to make me go back, Archer.” She lifted her head and the sight of her emerald eyes, sparkling with jewel-like brightness beneath her tears, was nearly more than he could bear.
“They’re trying to do what they think is best for you, Anna.” He sighed as he moved beside her and leaned back against the vehicle, crossing his arms over his chest.
He didn’t believe they were, but hell, what was he supposed to say to her at this point?
“Can’t you talk to them, Arch?” Straightening from the car she moved to face him, standing way too damned close as she laid her hand on his forearm and stared up at him beseechingly.
“I tried,” he said softly, dipping his head down toward her before he could consider the need to touch those pouting lips. He straightened quickly, a grimace pulling at his expression. “Your daddy told me to stay out of it.”
She laid her head against his arm, and he wanted nothing more than to return to a time when he could have hugged her and not worried about her feeling the hard-on he was fighting.
“I don’t want to leave,” she said, the pain in her voice so filled with aching loneliness that Archer wanted nothing more than to fix it for her.
“Go to college,” he told her and, unable to help himself, his arms opening for her.
Pulling her against his chest he laid his head against hers. “Do what you have to do first, then do what you want to do.”
“I don’t want to go to France.”
“Good.” He pretended to breathe a sigh of relief. “Protecting you from all those depraved Frenchmen would be hard to do from here, you know.”
A little laugh escaped her.
“Will you miss me?”
“More than sunshine.” He grinned. He’d been telling her that for a lot of years now.
“They don’t have sunshine where I’m going,” she said, sadly.
“California?” He pretended disbelief. “Darlin’, I have it on the highest authority the sun shines there every day.”
Her head lifted and the pain in her eyes, in her face, broke his heart. “My sunshine is here, Archer.”
Cupping her cheek his gaze flicked to her lips.
Awareness suddenly exploded between them. Like a live wire sparking around them, through them, it blazed like wildfire.
His gaze jerked back to hers.
She was too innocent to hide it, too damned young to know what it could do to both of them.
“Are you finally going to kiss me, Archer Tobias?” she whispered, her breathing sharp and heavy, her fingers curled against his shirt as though terrified something, or someone, would jerk her away from him.
“Your granddaddy’s standing in the living room window,” he said. “And I know your daddy’s not far behind. It would look real bad if one of them killed the sheriff his first year in office. Especially considering how hard they campaigned for him.”
But he wanted to kiss her. God help him, he wanted to kiss her.
“Will you call me sometime?” she asked, those emerald eyes so sad, so brokenhearted that, for a moment, he hated her family for forcing her away.
“I’ll call sometime,” he promised, easing her away from him.
“Will you kiss me sometime? I’ve been waiting a long time, Archer.”
“One of these days,” he promised softly, opening the door to the vehicle and getting in as she watched him with tear-filled eyes. “One of these days.”
She was too innocent, too unaware of the evil that existed.
“I had a sister once,” he said, his voice soft.
“I remember.” She nodded. “I heard she had died, but no one ever told me what happened and I didn’t want to bring up bad memories by asking.”
“Dad didn’t know about her until after he married Mom and I was already born. She came to the house a lot, though, after she found Dad. She was always full of laughter, always demanding what was due her.”
“A serial killer in Washington state.” He frowned as he stared through the windshield. “She was only four years older than me. I’d just shipped out to the Marines. The Washington state police contacted Dad weeks after it happened. Her mother hadn’t called him. He called me that night and I managed to get leave.”
Reaching through the open window she touched his shoulder softly. “I’m so sorry, Archer.”
Covering her hand with his he stared back at her, wishing he could make this easier for her.
“You know, maybe that’s why your family doesn’t want you in Corbin County, Anna,” he suggested. “We still don’t believe the Slasher was actually caught. Until he is, no woman is safe here. Especially no woman with ties to the Callahans. If it were me, and you were my daughter, I’d keep you the hell away from here, too.”
“You’d just move, too,” she said regretfully. “You wouldn’t just send your child away, Archer.”
She had him there.
“They love you. I know that for a fact, sweetheart.”
“Not enough,” she said, stepping back from the vehicle. “They obviously just don’t love me enough.”
Starting the Tahoe, Archer slid it into gear before pulling slowly away from her. He’d told her the truth. He didn’t blame the Corbins in the least for wanting her to be protected. It was how she was being protected that he found fault with.
If she were his daughter, he would have gotten her the hell out of Corbin County, too. But Anna had been right as well. He wouldn’t have just sent his daughter away; he would have made damned certain he was with her. Because as bad as the Slasher was, there were worse, far worse, monsters in the world. The brutality inflicted on his sister attested to that fact. Archer didn’t know if he could face losing Anna in such a manner.
At least Anna was safe a little while longer.
She was eighteen, as beautiful as a sunrise, and he had no doubt the day would come when she would return to Corbin County with all intents of staying.
And when she returned, there would be no sending her away again. He only prayed she didn’t become a target.
Six years later
She had only been home for less than a day and the first thing she had done was seek out Archer Tobias. The man she was determined to seduce. But now, as she stood there, staring at him, she started to lose her breath.
Anna could feel her body weakening, a sensual, overwhelming surge of sensations flooding her, whipping through her, tearing across her flesh like an erotic tidal wave.
Dark gold eyes watched her through lowered lashes, his face set in an expression that, even in her limited experience, she knew was filled with hunger.
His lips parted as she licked hers to relieve their dryness, his gaze dropping to them, then lifting to her eyes once again.
She had only wanted to dance.
The music was pulsing through her blood, filling her with energy as the beat wrapped around her, and invisible notes seemed to be dragging her onto the gazebo patio used as a dance floor.
The evening air was turning cooler, but as she began to move—as Archer watched, his gaze caressing her body—heat flooded her. Perspiration dewed across her skin and a fever burned beneath her flesh as she turned to him once again. Her hips swayed, long black hair trailed down her back as she slowly, slowly shed the long-sleeved, Victorian-style velvet shrug she’d worn over a white silk camisole.
The feel of the velvet rasping over her bare arms sent a shiver racing over her, electric pleasure sizzling through her.
Did he see her reaction?
His eyes seemed to flare with some dark emotion or hunger as the muscles of his arms bunched, his fingers clenching where they gripped the support post of the awning he stood beneath.
Dropping the shrug to the top of the bistro table near her, Anna tipped her head back, feeling her hair brush past her hips. Heat surged through her. Her nipples ached, hardened, her breasts swelled in painful need.
Between her thighs the swollen bud of her clitoris throbbed with the need for his touch.
The feel of his fingers—his lips . . .
Oh God, the feel of his lips doing all the things she had ever fantasized of.
She needed his touch.
She needed him like air, like water—
Forcing her eyes open, Anna met his gaze again. Letting her hands caress her hips, her sides, stopping just beneath her breasts before stroking down once again, Anna teased him.
Her hands reaching her thighs, she stopped, stroked back to her hips, then lifted her arms over her head and swayed, moving for him, her hips shifting and swaying—
She lost her breath.
Releasing the hold he had on the post, Archer moved slowly down the steps, striding toward her with slow, purposeful strides as the music slowly changed.
The hard, driving beat slid slowly into an erotic pulse of sensual chords. Couples filled the floor as he reached her, his arms surrounding her a second before he suddenly jerked her against his hard body.
“Archer—” Breathing in roughly, her hands gripped his shoulders, holding tight as she felt the hard length of his erection pressing into her lower stomach.
Sensual heat swept through her. Pounding, fiery sensations burned through her, weakening her knees and her womb before they struck at her clit with such pleasure that her breath caught and new heat flushed through her face.
“You’re teasing a very hungry man, sweetheart,” he growled as he began to move, stroking against her, his arms holding her as she stared up at him, caught, held by the dark hunger in his gaze.
“Or you’re teasing a very hungry woman,” she suggested breathlessly. “And I’m tired of waiting for you, Sheriff.”
His hands tightened at her hips as his dark gold eyes flared with open lust.
“You could be asking for more than you can handle, Anna,” he warned her.
“I’ve wanted you for so long that I feel as though I’ve lived my entire life with this hunger, Archer. I don’t think I’ve lived a day without burning for you.” Such an admission could end up breaking her heart.
And she didn’t care. A broken heart could be a small price to pay for the chance, for just one night in the arms of the man who had held that heart forever.
How many times had her friend, Amelia, warned her that Archer would destroy her heart? That he was the type of man no woman could ever forget? The type of man who might never belong to one woman, forever.
She’d suggested that perhaps Archer wasn’t capable of loving anyone but the law.
Once, though, he had loved a sister. Anna had heard the regret and loss in his voice as he had talked about her that last night she had seen him.
Smoothing her hands over his shoulders to the hard, bunched muscles of his biceps, Anna told herself she didn’t care. She wasn’t going to let herself be afraid of the pain that could come later, when the pleasure was awaiting her now.
Her lashes drifted closed as his head lowered, but he wasn’t moving to kiss her as she hoped.
At least, not on her lips.
Instead, his lips brushed over her closed eyelids, moved to her neck, their rough velvet stroking against nerve endings so violently sensitive she couldn’t hold back the breathy moan that tore past her lips.
“I need you,” she said breathlessly.
Thank God she had slipped out of the house, that her family hadn’t known where she was going. She prayed no one called her gran’pop. Or, Lord forbid, her parents.
“What do you need, Anna?” His fingers pushed beneath the hem of her top to find bare skin, his fingertips rubbing and caressing in the small of her back, beneath the veil of her hair.
“I need you,” she answered, eyes closing, her body moving instinctively against his as she felt her juices spill between her thighs, dampening the lips of her pussy and the silk of her panties. “Touching me.” Forcing her eyes open she stared up at him. “Kissing me. I need your kiss, Archer. You’ve never kissed me, and you did promise.”
“I’ve kissed every inch of your body in my dreams,” he growled, sounding almost angry. “You torment my sleep.”
“So, pay me back for it,” she suggested, her womb clenching so hard it was like a punch to her lower stomach, shortening her breath and weakening her knees.
“You’ve been teasing me since you were seventeen,” he accused her roughly.
“I’ve been teasing you since I was thirteen,” she countered. “You just refused to notice.”
A sense of satisfaction rose inside her at the shock that filled his eyes at her statement.
“I’m glad I didn’t notice,” he breathed out roughly. “Thirteen?”
“I had some very naughty dreams.” She let her nails scrape down the fabric that covered his upper arms. “Dreams of us—”
“Uh, damn, Anna . . .”
“Of you holding me when it was dark,” she whispered, remembering those long, tear-filled nights when she’d faced the dark with no one to turn to. “Dreams of your laughter, and the way you teased me over my hair, or scowled at the older boys who flirted with me.”
“Damn perverts is what they were,” he muttered as his head lowered once again, his cheek resting against the side of her head as they moved to the music, easing further into the shadows at the far end of the patio-style outdoor dance floor.
His fingertips moved farther up her back, beneath the stretchy material of her camisole top as he slowly eased her into position to allow his knee to slide between hers.
“Then my dreams started getting really naughty,” she breathed as his thigh pressed into the soft silk of her skirt, rubbing the material between her clit and the hard muscles of his upper leg.
“Please tell me you were at least eighteen.” He sighed.
Despite the hungry need pounding inside her, Anna had to grin in amusement at the resignation in his voice.
“The night of my eighteenth birthday—remember?—you were there.”
Archer nodded slowly, the hammered gold of his eyes darkening further as he stared down at her.
“I dreamed you followed me to my bedroom and gave me a very special birthday kiss.” Trembling, heat flushing her body further at the memory of that dream and how often it had repeated itself.
His fingers flexed at her hips, pulling her closer as he moved them deeper into the shadows and into one of the small, private grottos, surrounded by fragrant blooms and tall evergreens kept expertly manicured.
“What kind of birthday kiss, Anna?” he questioned, his voice hoarse, rough.
“Do you remember the dress I wore?” she asked, tilting her head back as his lips moved along the shell of her ear.
She ached for his kiss. He had never kissed her. She had never felt his lips on hers, and she needed it.
“I remember,” he growled.
The dress had been white, long and flowing, the soft chiffon a caress against her flesh and falling around her like a waterfall of material.
“You lifted me to my dresser and pressed me back to the mirror. You pushed my gown above my thighs as you spread them, and you kissed me there.”
She couldn’t stop the flush that surged beneath her skin at the declaration.
His breathing was rough and ragged as his fingers flexed at her hips, then slid around to her rear. Clenching the rounded curves and lifting her, he ordered, “Spread your thighs, baby, grip my hips.”
His cock ground against the mound of her pussy, nothing but the silk of her panties and Archer’s pants between him and the slick dampness spilling from her sex.
Anna’s mind froze. For one long moment she couldn’t think or process the sensations racing through her.
“I think I can make that dream come true soon,” he groaned as she felt her rear settling on the top of a table and his fingers speared into her hair and pulled her head back.
The sharp, heated sensation that tugged at the roots of her hair shouldn’t have been pleasure, and it shouldn’t have been arousing. But it was.
Then his hand moved, sliding around to her cheek, her jaw, his fingers cupping it as his thumb glided over her lips. The rasp of his flesh against the sensitive curves had them parting as she drew in precious air.
Eyes narrowed, he watched her, the gold of his gaze mesmerizing her as the pad of his thumb stroked, caressed, building the heat inside her to an inferno.
Finally, he parted her lips, the broad digit pressing against them as she flicked her tongue over the pad of his thumb.
Archer froze, a hoarse growl leaving his lips as she licked, then sucked it inside and loved the feel, the taste, of him. Rubbing her tongue over the pad, she suckled at it. She felt the hard, aching clench of her womb and the heated wetness as her juices flowed from her pussy.
“Damn you, Anna, you’re going to cause us both to get arrested if I end up fucking you here,” he groaned, pulling his thumb free of her lips.
“What’s wrong, Sheriff?” she asked. “Afraid you can’t stop with a kiss?”
“One kiss would never be enough.”
Staring up at him breathlessly, lips parted, Anna waited with adrenaline-laced anticipation as his head lowered and his lips touched hers.
As her lashes feathered closed, sensation began erupting inside her. His lips rubbed against hers, stroked and smoothed until a whimper of longing spilled from her lips.
“Please, Archer, kiss me. Just once.” Trembling, adrenaline and pure hunger crashing through her system as her nails bit into his shoulders, Anna didn’t think she would survive if he didn’t kiss her.
His teeth caught her lower lip, gripping it for a second before releasing it, and then he gave her the kiss she had always dreamed of.
It wasn’t hard and rough. His lips settled on hers with a firm heat and an erotic caress. His tongue licked at the plump curves of her lips, parting them, catching the lower lip between his lips and licking over it before taking advantage of the fact that her mouth had parted for him.
Slanting his lips over hers, his tongue slid over her lips, licked against them, and possessed her with tenderness.
Pure erotic need shot through her senses.
Her lips parted further beneath his, her arms wrapping around his neck as her knees tightened at his hips and he ground his cock between her thighs. The rasp of material, his and hers, over the swollen bud of her clit sent waves of furious need whipping through the oversensitive bundle of nerves and striking to the heart of her womb with burning heat.
Pushing her fingers into his hair, Anna fisted them in the thick strands, desperate to hold him to her. He nipped at her lips, licked the little wound, then came back to take hard, heated tastes of her.
One hand slid from her rear, then his fingers stroked beneath the fabric of her skirt to find the curves of her rear left bare by the thong she wore beneath the frothy material.
Her knees tightened further against his hips, shudders working over her body as he stroked lower, curving between her thighs to find the hot, silken juices gathering at the entrance of her pussy, saturating the silk of her panties.
His fingers eased slowly, so damned slowly beneath the elastic of the thong—
His head jerked up as he found the tightly clenched entrance at the same moment that slick dampness spilled from her again. Anna trembled against him, tiny, whimpering little cries escaping her lips as she felt the violence of the pleasure threatening to erupt into flames inside her.
“Come home with me, Anna.” His gaze locked on hers, his body demanding, the need inside her insisting.
Come home with him?
No one had ever said those words to her before.
She’d never had a home, but the need to leave with him was suddenly as fierce, as strong, as the need to have him. As strong as the need to belong—
“Sheriff, we have a situation.” The voice that came through the radio at his hip was like a shock of ice against the heat raging through Anna’s body.
Archer stilled, stiffening against her, his lips drawing back from hers as she bit back a cry of denial.
Forcing her eyes open, staring up at him as he slowly eased her to her feet, Anna wanted to grab the radio and throw it away. Throw it so far that they could never be destroyed by it again.
“Sheriff, you there?” John Caine, Archer’s deputy, repeated, his voice low but no less demanding.
Pulling the radio from the case at his hip Archer brought it to his lips. Lips swollen by their kisses, sensual, sexy.
“I’m here,” Archer answered, the hammered gold of his eyes slumberous with the need for sex but quickly clearing, as though that hunger had never been there. “What’s your location?”
“I’ll meet you on the western edge of town, out near the Hopkins’ place. I’m on Hopkins Creek Pass, at the clearing,” John answered. “Give me your ETA.”
“ETA is thirty minutes unless you need me faster.”
His gaze didn’t leave hers. He didn’t blink, and Anna felt her throat tighten with the need to scream, to rage, to deny the fact that he had to leave.
It had taken so long to get her nerve up. So long to tease him, to tempt him to her.
“Thirty minutes.” Caine sounded as though the time wasn’t the problem.
Disconnecting the radio, Archer lowered it to his hip and pushed it into the case again.
“You have to leave,” she said, her hands sliding down his hard chest to the clenched muscles of his stomach as she licked her lips, suddenly uncertain.
He nodded slowly.
She waited, staring up at him, knowing, praying she was wrong; praying it wasn’t over.
Surely he would ask to call her? To see her? Perhaps have her wait for him—in his bed?
“I better go,” he said softly.
Her throat tightened and she felt the rejection coming. She was intimately acquainted with being left behind, but this time it had been the last thing she had imagined happening.
“Shhh.” A finger against her lips reinforced the command. “Think about this, Anna. Think about it, and be sure, be very sure, this is what you want.”
Before she could assure him that it was, he had moved away from her and disappeared along the shadowed path outside the small grotto. The protest forming on her lips was left unsaid, and the tears that filled her eyes, as always, were left unseen.
She couldn’t believe this.
Staring into the dark, with music, muted voices, and laughter surrounding her, Anna realized she should have expected it. After all, she couldn’t remember a time that she hadn’t been rejected, in some way.
Blinking back her tears and drawing in a deep breath, she too left the grotto. Unfortunately, she couldn’t leave the memory of what had happened in it behind her.
Pulling into the clearing next to Deputy Caine’s four-wheel-drive Tahoe, Archer turned the engine off and simply sat in the vehicle, staring at where Caine sat on his haunches next to a pale form.
Son of a bitch.
Son of a bitch.
Pushing open the door he stepped from the interior, the chill of the late summer air rushing at him as he closed the door and watched the other man straighten before moving toward him.
“Did you call anyone else?” he asked the deputy as the other man neared him.
“No, sir.” Caine breathed in heavily.
“Who called it in?”
Caine shook his head. “I was driving by when I thought I saw lights out here. I turned in to investigate and saw the same thing you just saw when I pulled in.”
The glow of headlights off a silken, pale body.
A lifeless body.
Pushing his fingers through his hair, he steeled himself for the inevitable. Striding the remaining distance, he hunched down and stared into the expression of pain and horror that twisted her features.
“Fuck,” he muttered as the girl’s identity registered. “Ah, hell.”
What the hell was going on here?
Katy Winslow, one of the waitresses from the Tavern. Her father had reported her missing the night before when she hadn’t returned home from work.
“The wounds are consistent with the Slasher’s.” John sighed heavily. “And it looks like she’s been raped.”
Yes, she had been raped.
Heavy, dark bruises marred the skin of her inner and outer thighs, as well as her small breasts. Her eyes were open, staring out in unseeing horror and pain. A knife had cut into her body in far too many places to count them all in the dark. The most telling cut, though, was the puncture wound to her side and the one across her throat. The Slasher’s trademark wounds.
Blood marred her body.
She hadn’t even been cleaned before she had been deposited in this clearing.
“Rafer Callahan’s place, the old Ramsey Ranch, is just over the rise.” Caine nodded in the general direction.
“Callahans didn’t do this, John.” Archer wiped his hand wearily over his face before rising to his feet. “Call Nash in. See if he can justify that high-ass salary he demanded.”
Callum Nash, Corbin County’s new crime scene investigator, had been hired specifically for crimes such as the Slasher’s.
“Sheriff, Katy Winslow isn’t on the list of past Callahan girlfriends,” John stated quietly, turning to face him. “Hell, Crowe’s the only one not involved with someone right now. He would have told us if he had signed up with someone new, and he makes a point not to talk to any of the women in town.”
“Yeah, I know.” Archer was well aware of that fact, just as he was aware that Crowe deliberately ensured there was no way the Slasher could target another woman because of him.
“Has she been seen flirting with the other two? Talking to them?” Archer asked.
John was a regular at the Tavern and Bar. It was there that most of the gossip and rumormongering began or eventually filtered through.
“As far as I know, Katy doesn’t talk to many men at all. She’s been dating the bartender there since she was in high school.” Confusion filled the deputy’s voice. “Why kill her if she’s not associating with the Callahans?”
“Fuck if I know.” Archer sighed. “Call in Nash and Chayna. Let’s see what we can find, and start praying that bastard hasn’t found a reason totally unrelated to the Callahans to start killing again.”
Turning, Archer stomped back to his Tahoe, rage festering in his gut at the thought of the Slasher striking again.
The Slasher’s attention had seemed to focus on Rafer and Logan’s fiancées, who were now under the protection of Ivan Resnova. There had been some incidents, but he hadn’t managed to seriously hurt either woman. But why had he targeted Katy Winslow? It didn’t make sense. Sliding into the driver’s seat, Archer slammed the door before grabbing his cell phone from the passenger seat and dialing Crowe.
“Sheriff?” Callahan answered on the first ring.
“Crowe, how well do you know Katy Winslow?”
A dead silence came over the line for several seconds.
“I only know who she is, and where she works.” Crowe’s voice was hollow, emotionless. “I’ve never spoken to her. Not to say hello, excuse me, or good-bye.” He paused before breathing out wearily. “She’s dead, isn’t she?”
“It looks like one of the Slasher’s kills,” Archer confirmed his suspicion, his teeth clenching. “When I catch him, Crowe, and I will, I’m not promising I’ll save him for prison.”
Katy was a good kid. She and her boyfriend had been saving up for an apartment together. She was always smiling, always filled with laughter.
And now, she was dead.
“You’ll have to beat me to him,” Crowe informed him, his voice so icy cold it would have sent a chill up a lesser man’s spine. “Are you at the site now?”
Archer gave him the location before disconnecting the call, knowing Callum would have a fit over the interference, but also knowing the Callahans well enough to know that by not telling them he would have been risking the threat of them attempting to investigate or draw the Slasher out on their own.
Leaning back in his seat and closing his eyes, he deliberately brought Anna’s face to mind. He let himself remember the touch of her, the taste of her, the warmth that surrounded him as he touched her.
She was his weak spot.
For far too many years Anna Corbin had been the woman he ached for the most, and the one he knew he couldn’t have.
At twenty-four, she was sweet as candy, as temperamental as a volcano, and just as hot. And she was his.
He’d been claiming her since the evening he’d realized, to his soul, to the base of his hardening dick, that she was a woman.
For six years he’d done everything he could, fought every battle, cursed himself, fought his desires, and ached for her.
She’d haunted his fantasies, invaded his dreams, and tonight, of all nights, had filled his senses with a pleasure he knew he wouldn’t be able to hold himself back from.
He’d told her to be certain what she wanted, because he knew once he got her in his bed, escaping it might not be easy for her if that was what she eventually decided she wanted. He was too hungry for her.
Fuck that, he was too damned horny for her.
The lust that raged through him where Anna was concerned was one that no other woman could assuage. If another could, then he would have ensured it was taken care of before now.
Before he touched her.
Before he tasted her.
Before he allowed himself to become addicted to the feel of her close to his chest, in his arms, and somehow awakening hungers he’d never known he had.
Archer could feel the fact that Anna was home to stay tightening in every bone and muscle of his body. She was a woman now, and he recognized that steely confidence he had seen in her eyes. She was a woman who knew what she wanted. He’d take her into his bed, but he would not let her into his heart—at least no more than she had managed already. Damn it, a man had to draw the line somewhere if he wanted to preserve his own sanity. In the meantime, he was going to ignore the voice in his head telling him that it was already too late.