Book: Telling Tales



Telling Tales
Telling Tales

Shiloh Walker


Telling Tales

Prologue

Made her fucking sick.

Absolutely sick…look at her.

She thought she was so damned special. Skinny, pale-faced, evil bitch.

Watching Darci Law walk down the street made her belly feel all tight and hot with disgust. Little slut. That was what she was, an attention-getting little slut.

Men looked at her, like the Sheriff was doing, thinking nobody noticed how he watched Darci’s ass. And Darci…acting like she didn’t know.

Everybody knew. She was a whore. They all knew it.

And she thought she was so damned special, with her surreal photographs. Everybody called them that…surreal. Extraordinary.

Bitch.

She should get what was coming to her.

A slow, mean smile curved over her lips as she watched Darci. Yes, she should definitely get what was coming…

Chapter One

Darci stood staring at the school board members in a state of shock.

“Ummm…excuse me, what?” she asked. She hadn’t heard what she thought she had heard…had she?

Daniel Sommers leaned forward, crossing his hands in front of him. “So are you denying it?”

“Hell, yes, I’m denying it. Joe is married,” she snapped, rising from her chair, walking over to the Superintendent’s desk and slamming her hands on it.

“Yes. That is part of the problem. This is a small town, Darci. We can’t have our schoolteachers carrying on with married men, or even carrying on indiscriminately with unmarried men. People talk and parents don’t want an immoral woman teaching their first graders.”

Darci fought the urge to grit her teeth. Instead, she just took a deep breath and said softly, “I am not immoral.”

“So…you’re telling me you haven’t been promiscuous?” Cathy Travers asked, flushing and shifting her eyes aside as though she couldn’t look at Darci while she asked.

Darci barely managed to stifle a hysterical laugh. This was so unreal. Damn it, she hadn’t had sex in nearly two years, and she was getting dragged on the carpet…for what? Her voice shook as she said, “My sex life is none of your business. None. But I do not sleep with married men, and that’s the bottom line.”

The board members looked at each other and sighed. Daniel studied her thoughtfully, maybe she was just desperate but she thought she saw a shred of belief in his eyes. “Darci, I try not to put a lot of stock in rumors.”

She watched as he slid his glasses off and rubbed the bridge of his nose. When he looked back up at her, it was with a slight smile and Darci felt her knees wobble with relief. “Let’s just forget about this, okay?” he said softly.


***


Darci sat on the stool behind the counter at Becka’s gallery, Dreams in the Mist, staring morosely at Becka. The woman, just a few years older than she, listened sympathetically as Darci repeated the incident with the school board.

“I just don’t get it. Where did they get that story about me and Joe?” she said as she finally finished explaining what had happened.

Becka glanced away.

If she had just looked away, Darci might have thought she just didn’t have an answer, but she bit her lip. Becka bit her lip when she was nervous.

Narrowing her eyes, Darci said, “What?”

Becka swung innocent eyes to Darci. “I didn’t say anything.”

“You bit your lip,” Darci accused, coming off the stool. “You do that when you’re nervous. What do you know?”

Becka forced a smile, shaking her head. “Nothing, baby. I promise. I’m just as shocked by this mess as you are.” Her face crumpled as Darci just stood there, crossing her arms over her chest, tapping one sandaled foot impatiently.

“Oh, hell.” Becka turned around and said, “It’s Carrie. I had to go to Wal-Mart to get my daughter’s prescription-she didn’t know I was standing an aisle over. You know how her voice carries. I don’t know who she was talking to, but she said she’d seen you and Joe go into the Golden Inn together Wednesday.”

Darci’s jaw dropped.

Now that was low. Carrie had pulled a lot of stunts, made a lot of innuendoes, but this…this was outright lying. “Damn it, I was at a birthday party Wednesday,” she gritted out.

Her hands opened and closed into fists, her nails biting into her flesh.

“I know,” Becka said, making soothing noises. “I knew it was bullshit, that’s why I didn’t say anything. It’s just like all the other…”

“Other?” Darci asked as Becka’s voice trailed off.

Becka’s round face flushed and her dark brown eyes looked absolutely miserable. “Darci…”

“What others?”

Becka sighed, moving around Darci to take the stool she’d vacated. “Honey, she likes to tell tales. You know that. She can be very malicious to people she considers her enemy. And you…well, you didn’t hate me the way she wanted you to.”

Darci heard the regret in Becka’s voice, even through her own anger. Sighing, she shoved a hand through her spiked, black cap of hair as she turned around, staring at Becka.

“There was no reason to hate you, Becka.”

Becka scowled sourly. “Can’t tell by me. Half of my old friends don’t even talk to me anymore,” she muttered, folding her hands together and tucking them between her knees.

“That’s because they are stupid.” Darci forced a smile. “We always knew that.”

Becka didn’t even try to smile back at her. Soberly, she studied Darci, sighing tiredly. She brushed the corkscrew curls back from her face and said quietly, “There are other stories. I guess I should have told you, but I…hell, I didn’t want to see you hurt. Didn’t want to see you angry.”

Darci caught her lower lip between her teeth, shaking her head. “Oh, I’m not. I’m beyond angry. But it’s not your fault, Becka. I know whose fault it is, and you can bet she’s going to hear from me about it.”

Darci turned to go, but Becka’s voice stopped her. “Honey, there was something I was going to tell you. I just heard about it this morning…planned on telling you when you came in today. I hate making this worse for you.”

A sick knot formed in her belly. Slowly, she turned back to Becka and asked, “What?”

“It’s about Della. And…Max.”

“Max?”

Becka licked her lips, reaching up to pat her pocket, then her hand fell away. “Keep forgetting that I quit smoking,” she said with a slight twist of her lips. “Times like this, I wonder why.”

Sighing, Becka met Darci’s eyes squarely and said, “Della called earlier, looking for you. She’s pissed. I couldn’t make out most of it, but I think she thinks you’ve been fucking Max.”

Just then, the phone on the counter jingled. Slowly, Darci reached out and picked it up, lifting it to her ear as she said by rote, “Dreams in the Mist, this is Darci.”

Della’s voice blasted in her ear and Darci just closed her eyes, slumping against the counter.

That was just perfect…


***


If ever a more pathetic, sad creature existed, Darci hadn’t met her. Studying Carrie Forrest as she sat at her desk, Darci wondered why in the hell some people were just so damned unhappy with life. Carrie was one of those people who liked to play martyr. Somebody who liked to play a mother figure, liked to pretend that she was everything to everybody, and she was damned good at it.

She had even pulled Darci in for a little while.

Just for a while, though. Darci had started watching things, listening to people talk…to the stories Carrie told, comparing her stories to the people she was supposedly so worried about.

Just lies. Almost everything that came out of her mouth was lies.

The problem was that this last one could damage somebody’s career, either Darci’s or Joe’s. Worse…it could wreck a marriage.

Generally, Darci didn’t give a damn what anybody else thought. It wouldn’t matter…if it weren’t for Joe, and for her job.

She taught art at an elementary school…in the Bible Belt of America. The parents wouldn’t tolerate the teacher of their kids being a tramp.

And Joe…he was a married man, a new daddy. They didn’t need this.

All Darci wanted to do was to take her pictures and be left alone.

All some other people wanted to do was cause trouble.

And damn it, some people believed what they said.

Della believed it. Della actually believed Darci was going around fucking every man she could get her hands on, including Della’s current man-one she was moon-eyed in love with. Max was the first man to come along in a long time who made Della want more than just a quick fuck.

Never mind the fact that Darci and Max didn’t generally even like each other.

Hell, she believed the bullshit that Darci was at a hotel in the middle of the afternoon fucking somebody else’s husband, believed she had fucked everybody she could…from the head of the city council to the boy who was delivering pizzas.

Darci knew, because Della had just finished shouting that garbage in her ear.

So far, Carrie hadn’t even noticed that Darci was in the room.

Darci, smiling an evil smile, lifted her heavy purse high over her head and let it fall to the glass table. The purse clattered loudly, keys jangling, digital camera falling out, coins rolling and jingling merrily. Darci smiled angelically as Carrie jumped and shrieked, whirling around in her chair, her chubby face white and pasty with shock, her eyes wide behind her glasses.

“A little jumpy?” Darci asked in dulcet tones.

Carrie had one hand pressed to her chest, and she swallowed, glaring at Darci. For one second, malevolence flashed in her muddy brown eyes before she pasted a smile of false sympathy on her face and said, “My, you gave me such a start. You need to be more careful, tossing your things down. You know how easily startled I am. How are you doing, love?”

“Don’t call me ‘love,’ Carrie. And you know damned good and well how I’m doing with the bullshit you started,” Darci said coldly, flicking her short, spiked hair away from her face. “I’m surprised Kim didn’t buzz you and tell you I was on my way up. Give you warning and all.”

“I asked not to be disturbed,” Carrie said, smiling her patented mother-earth smile. “I’ve been trying to…well. I’m trying to understand what is going on, why you would do what you’ve done.”

“Cut the bullshit, Carrie. You and I know who started this, and why I was called into my boss’s office today, and why I received a very nasty, angry phone call from Della Bennett,” Darci said quietly, sitting down on the suede couch, crossing one leg over the other. “Why Joe is having to defend himself against a bunch of slanderous rumors that he was seen at a hotel…with me. Why Della thinks I spent the weekend fucking her man.”

Darci saw the flicker in Carrie’s eyes, watched the tiny smile on her face. But Carrie only arched her brows and shook her head, heaving that patented martyred sigh. “What are you doing, Darci? Why are you lying to yourself, to everybody, like this?” she asked mournfully. “Don’t you understand how destructive this behavior is?”

But Darci could sense the crafty glee in her voice. Hear it there. And she knew. Any doubt she might have had that somebody else was behind this was gone. Gently, Darci said, “Maybe you don’t understand how destructive this behavior is, Carrie. I don’t take shit lying down. Never have, never will.”

Darci stood up, running a hand through her short, spiked cap of black hair before focusing her green eyes on Carrie’s face once more. A small, cold smile danced on her lips as she moved closer to the older woman.

“It’s one thing when you try to make my life miserable, Carrie,” she said, circling to lean her hip on Carrie’s table, studying the work in progress there.

Carrie just sat there, glaring at Darci, her small mouth puckering in an ugly scowl.

“But it’s another when you start messing with my job, when you start dragging my friends into it.”

Carrie opened her mouth, sputtering, but Darci just slashed at the air with her hand and snapped, “Shut the fuck up. Got it? You totally fucked up this time. You fucked with my job. Bad enough you have to try to smear my name, but you had to go and smear the name of a good man and try to ruin his marriage. You’ve probably ruined friendships, but they can go to hell, because if they believe a word that comes out of your mouth, then they’ve got rocks for brains. But you hurt people this time. And not just me. That totally, totally pisses me off, and me pissed off is a very, very bad thing.”

Carrie’s face was florid now and her mouth opened and closed. Something not quite lucid passed through her dark, muddy eyes as her hand closed around a cutting tool and Darci narrowed her eyes. “Try it, babe. Just try it. I dare you.”

Carrie’s hand fell away, fisting in her lap as she stared at Darci, hatred lurking in her eyes.

“Why did you have to drag Joe into it?” Darci asked quietly. “Why him?”

Bitingly, Carrie said, “I didn’t drag him into it. He did it himself. Maybe he should have thought of the consequences before he broke his wedding vows.” She folded her hands primly in her lap and forced her mouth into that proper, mothering smile.

Darci rolled her eyes and muttered, “You’ll be like that at St. Peter’s gates, won’t you? But Peter will know the truth. And so do I. So don’t waste my time.” Narrowing her eyes, she asked, “Is it a hobby? Do you enjoy ruining people’s lives? Is yours so pathetic that this is what you have to do for kicks?”

“She’s been doing it a long time, I’d say the answer is yes,” a deep voice, full of anger, said.

Darci looked up just as Joe walked in, his eyes on her and Carrie, his face cold with disgust. “Tell me something, Carrie, do you really think you can keep this up and get away with it?” he asked.

“Joe, I really don’t know what you are talking about. But maybe you should be at home, trying to repair your marriage, instead of here, trying to blame me,” Carrie said, her voice waspish. But her eyes darted away from him, her hands quivering just slightly.

“Now Darci here, Darci is, naturally, very upset. Bad enough she can’t seem to keep her indiscretions quiet, and with single men. But she’s tried to interfere with a man and his marriage. Of course, if she had learned to think before acting…well, she wouldn’t be in the hot water she is in,” Carrie said, her eyes taking on a kindly glow as she moved to pat Darci’s hand. “I understand that she could lose her job-”

Darci caught the older woman’s hand before Carrie could touch her and, pressing her thumb on the nerves in Carrie’s wrist, watched as Carrie’s face paled and her eyes darkened with pain. “Haven’t I told you about touching me?” she warned. “Haven’t I warned you before to stay away from me? Very, very far away from me?”

Carrie gasped and Darci threw her hand down and stepped back. She cut her gaze to Joe, arching a black brow at him. “I imagine you’ve been hearing the same tripe that I have?” Darci drawled.

“Oh, yes. Missy is the one who called me this morning, told me how her phone line had been burning all night, people wanting to know if it’s true, am I getting a divorce? Are you and me getting hitched…” Joe’s voice trailed off as he paused by a shelf, reaching up to pick up a blown glass ball, shot through with threads of red and gold. Tossing it from one hand to another, he turned and met Darci’s eyes. “Sorry, sugar. It’s not that I don’t respect you…but well…”

Darci smiled slightly. “A divorce, huh? That was quick.”

Carrie said sweetly, “Now, Joe, I’m sure you and your wife can work it out.”

Joe’s eyes narrowed. “Cut the crap, Carrie. We all know the truth here.”

Joe propped his hips against one of the numerous work counters, staring at Carrie with glacial eyes. “I grew up in this town. I may be twenty years younger than you-but I’ve been watching your machinations since I was a kid. Reporters are very good observers. After forty plus years of living, well, let’s just say, I know you. No acts, please. Otherwise, I’ll go front page tomorrow with the phone call I got the other day. How you know information that Becka hasn’t shared with anybody, other than Darci and her assistant. One has to wonder how you know that. And I just may write that article anyway.”

Carrie blinked and the mask fell away. Slyly, she said, “You can’t prove anything.”

A slow smile curled his mouth and he said simply, “Miz Forrest, I don’t have to. Words are everything, as a gossipmonger should know. And people are going to have to wonder what you were up to, what kind of trouble you were trying to cause…when they have proof you were lying. Just how many people did you tell that story to?”

Carrie just smiled cattily. “Nobody knows I lied. And people just love a scandal.”

“Well, now that’s true…which I’m going to assume means you told quite a few people. But you should have picked a different night.” Joe grinned and Darci had to smile at the satisfaction she saw in his eyes. He continued, his voice level, eyes direct. “Because you see, Darci was at a skating rink for a birthday party for my niece. It was thrown together at the last minute because my brother-in-law had to go out of town for the next few weeks.”

“And Missy spent the morning getting her pictures from the party developed. She’s going to hit the entire town with them, if I know my sister.” Joe smiled, reaching up to scratch his chin. “You know how fast she talks, how much she likes to talk. By nightfall, damn near everybody is going to see those pictures-time-stamped pictures-of Darci at the party last night.”

If Darci wasn’t mistaken, Carrie growled. A low, furious sound under her breath before jerking her eyes away and focusing on her mangled leg, rubbing it with both hands.

“I’ve got to wonder-some people will brush it off, I know, but others? Well, I wonder, are they going to start to ask why in the hell you’d tell such an obvious lie?” Joe moved over to where Carrie was massaging her leg and he leaned down, a sardonic grin on his grizzled face. She lifted her gaze, staring at him with hatred as Joe said, “You should really try to get your story straight and make sure the lady you’re spreading rumors about is actually at home, alone, before you start telling stories about her.”

Darci felt the knot that had been present in her belly since last night loosen just a bit. She breathed out a silent sigh of relief and slid Joe a look of gratitude.

Of course, pictures weren’t going to mean a thing to Della. Her ears still stung from her friend’s furious phone calls. All the pictures in the world wouldn’t mean anything to Della.

Darci lifted her eyes and stared at Carrie, at the smirk in her muddy eyes. The old bitch knew what was circling through Darci’s head. Even though the story was falling to shreds around her, Carrie had at least succeeded in one thing. She had cost Darci a dear friendship.

Softly, Darci voiced the words that had crossed her thoughts earlier. “You have got to be the saddest, most pathetic creature I have ever met in my life,” Darci said, shaking her head.

Carrie froze, her eyes wide. For a brief second, naked pain shone in her eyes.

Joe chuckled. “Nobody’s ever called you out before, have they, lady? Does the truth hurt?”

“Get out!” Her pasty face turning florid with rage, Carrie glared at them hatefully as she shouted, “Get out! Get out! Get out!

Smirking a little, Darci said, “Now maybe you have an idea of just how angry I am, Carrie.” Pacing back over to where Carrie sat, Darci snarled down into her homely, hate-filled face. “I’ve told you this before,” Darci said, her voice soft and low. “You didn’t listen. I’ll tell you once more and I’d advise you to pay attention this time. Stay away from me. Stay very, very far away from me.”


***


Kellan Grant looked up as Darci Law stalked away from Carrie Forrest’s house, her face white with fury, twin flags of color riding high on her cheeks. Her head was down so she never even saw him parked just a few yards away from her.

But he saw her…hell, he saw her in his dreams.

Sleek, slender with subtle curves and an ass that drove him crazy, the woman drew eyes everywhere she went.

Damn, but she was a cute thing.

He had thought so from day one when she had moved into town more than five years ago, all big eyes, gamine features and sharp tongue. Pretty mouth. Nice plump little breasts, sleekly rounded hips, nice ass…damn, he really liked that ass. He had been going through a messy divorce at the time and still didn’t care to be involved with a woman for more time than it took to get her naked and bury his dick inside her for twenty minutes or so.

His ex had taken him for a ride and he wasn’t interested in getting back on that particular roller coaster.

And he knew Darci wasn’t about unattached sex, uncomplicated fucks, or a quick lay. There was little about Darci that was uncomplicated.

He ran a hand through the thick, deep auburn hair he had been born with, and hated, most of his life. What in the hell was he doing here? He rested his hands on the steering wheel and told himself he really didn’t want to get involved in whatever mess this woman was trying to create.

“I need to have a word with you, Sheriff,” Carrie had told him when he’d called her back this afternoon. “It’s rather important…but very private. Just some information that you should know.”

So what in the hell was going on in her deluded mind now?

Knocking on the door, he waited for Carrie’s personal assistant to answer. Or her slave, as she was also known. Kim was basically Carrie’s bitch, and everybody, including Kim, knew that. Carrie said jump and Kim would only ask how high. Once upon a time, Kellan had seen slavish devotion in Kim’s quiet green eyes.

Now he just saw weariness.

She opened the door and said softly, “Carrie really doesn’t want visitors, Sheriff Grant.”

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that. But she called for me, and if she wants to talk to me in the next few days, now is the time,” he said politely. Maybe she’d say, that’s fine, another time…and he could go about his job without listening to the complaining of the tired old shrew.

Kim swallowed and Kellan felt his heart break a little for her as he glimpsed the unhappiness in her eyes. What in the hell did Carrie have over her? Or was Kim still convinced that Carrie was the woman she pretended to be?

Kellan knew better. Hell, he suspected half the town knew, but they were so used to the status quo that they didn’t say shit. Carrie and Beth…as he followed Kim up the stairs to Carrie’s studio, he imagined what the town might have been like if those two hadn’t hooked up. They had never really interacted, until the gallery, and life had been sweeter then.

If they hadn’t gotten together, maybe people would actually trust each other. Maybe they wouldn’t automatically assume the worst of each other.

Kim walked away after pointing to the closed door at the end of the hall, folding her arms around herself, her head down. Kellan walked on, dark auburn brows arched over his hazel eyes as he listened to the stream of hostility coming from the room.

A regular tapping interspersed heavy steps. Carrie was pacing. She had been in an accident when she was a teenager, sitting in the backseat of a car when the friend who was driving ran a red light, and didn’t see the oncoming car in time to stop. One friend had been thrown from the car and had died instantly.

Carrie’s leg had been pinned and broken in three places, and as a result, she walked with a limp.

“…bitch. I can’t believe…damn it, get over here. I don’t care what you’re in the middle of,” she was saying.

Kellan arched a brow, hardly able to believe the harsh, angry voice was Carrie’s. Oh, he knew the stoic mother figure she presented to the community wasn’t her real nature. But he’d never before heard such clear evidence of it.

He lifted his hand and knocked loudly, right in the middle of her next sentence, and had the honor of hearing superb acting skill as her voice went from shrewish bitch to suffering martyr.

What Kellan wouldn’t have given to have been able to see the transformation taking place, and not just hear it.

“Just…just one moment, please. I need a moment,” Carrie said, and he heard a very loud, very dramatic sigh. A moment passed and then the door opened, revealing Carrie with a pale but composed face. He wasn’t surprised that she still managed to suck people in. She looked entirely too motherly to be the person he knew her to be.

“Sheriff Grant.” She stood still, her eyes wide behind the thick lenses, her black plastic frames perched on her nose. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t really expecting any visitors-I told Kim I needed some time alone.” She smiled that sweet mother’s smile before she added gently, “I just…had a falling out with Darci. It’s been some time coming, and I don’t think we’ll be able to repair the rift this time.”

Kellan arched a brow and said, “I was under the impression that you two were never friends anyway. What rift would there be to mend?”

His sharp gaze caught the hot fury that flashed for the quickest second in her eyes. But he had to wonder, how bad had Darci pissed her off? Jibes generally weren’t enough to faze her.

“Now, that just isn’t true, Kellan,” she said, her smile dimming a bit. “Just because there’s been some strife lately between our gallery and Becka’s…well…you know she’s never been entirely right in the head.”

Kellan arched a brow. “I hadn’t paid much attention. But it’s never really been my concern anyway.” He shrugged as he moved over to the couch and settled down, watching Carrie with waiting eyes. “Exactly what did you need to talk to me about?”

Carrie’s eyes clouded for the briefest second, and Kellan watched, wondering if she had forgotten.

Finally, she nodded. With a downward glance at her hands, she heaved a deep, tired sigh.

Twenty minutes later, Kellan was stomping out of her house, aggravated beyond all belief.

Carrie had wanted to let him know that she suspected Darci was guilty of a crime that hadn’t even been reported yet. What an absolute fucking waste of time.

Becka had supposedly had money stolen.

And lo, Darci gets a fancy new camera that sells for thousands. Not only that, Carrie had seen her skulking around the gallery hours after it had closed.

“Wednesday. Around seven. Then I heard rumors that she was at the Golden Inn with Joe,” Carrie had said, her voice rougher, deeper than normal. For once, it wasn’t that annoying nasal twang.

“Are you sure you want to go on record with that statement?” Kellan had asked, reaching up to rub his neck. She’d called him here with an obviously contrived story, and now stood there, lying through her teeth. “Sure you want to tell me that she was seen at the gallery? Because if something comes up, I’ll be reporting your statement, as you tell it now. And you could be called as a witness.”

With her martyr’s sigh, Carrie had nodded. “I know that. But right is right, wrong is wrong. It will hurt to stand against Darci, she’s such a unique individual, and I do quite like her a lot. But I have to do the right thing.”

Kellan had arched a brow at her and suggested, “Then tell the truth. I really don’t think it’s wise for you to be telling an officer of the law that you saw a woman skulking around an office when twenty other people saw her at the skating rink. Myself included. And I’d really like to know how she could have possibly been at the Golden with some guy. When she was supposedly at the gallery skulking around, and at a skating party. Not just in two places at once, but three. Now, that’s impressive.”

Carrie’s mouth had gone tight as he continued, “Daisy is my cousin, you know. Well, second cousin. Her daddy and I are first cousins and he is going out of town this morning on business. He didn’t want to miss her party, so Missy threw one together Wednesday. And Darci met Missy around 5:30 that evening to help get stuff together. They went to the Wal-Mart in Madison for cake and stuff. They even have receipts, with Darci’s signature on them. Missy made damn sure that JT, down at the office, saw those. JT is a tad bit upset as well-she is pretty fond of both Joe and Darci. And that’s how I know all of this. I had no more than stepped foot in the station this morning when JT was all over me with this information. Took a few minutes to figure out what receipts and pictures had to do with the Golden Inn, but then I figured it out. Of course, this is the first I’ve heard about her skulking around the gallery.”

So what in the hell was going on? he wondered, dragging his mind back to the present. Some bitchy old loon calling him up to tell him obviously fabricated tales. Willing, even, to lie about it on record, it seemed.

And the rumors…hell, the rumors. There were so many, it was a wonder any of them knew what the truth was.

Hell, he knew who had started most of the rumors.

Her name was Carrie Forrest and, in a fit of fury, she had thrown him out of her house after he had informed her that her story-which was really rather pointless, since no crime had been reported-was full of holes. Holes large enough to drive a school bus through.

So what in the hell was going on with Carrie now?


“I hate that whey-faced, bratty little bitch,” Carrie whispered, as Beth walked back and forth across the room.

“If you had just made sure she was home,” Peggy murmured, shaking her head. “It’s a delicious little rumor. She could have lost her job. Nobody wants a tramp teaching schoolchildren, after all. But nobody will believe what’s being said about her, after the last one was such a bold-faced lie.”



Kim sat curled on the chair, biting her nails nervously.

Tricia Casey sat in the corner, sipping tea, her neatly styled gray hair swept back in a chignon, her eyes watching the tableau before her with great interest. “You told too many tales,” she said, shaking her head. “I know we’d rather just see Dreams die-” she smirked a little at her own personal joke. “And Becka losing Darci would do a lot of damage to her emotionally. She might not be able to handle it. But gossip is one thing. This wasn’t gossip. It was bold-faced lying. You’re not as good at that as I am.”

Beth scowled at Tricia and said, “Nobody would have listened to you. You’re too new here. They like Darci.” Beth’s lined face looked much older than it really was. Casting a bitter look at Carrie, Beth said harshly, “You caused this mess, Carrie. Damn it, you shouldn’t have done something so damned huge. Not with Darci. Too many people like her and she’s too damned outspoken. She doesn’t take things lying down. You should have figured that out by now.”

Carrie slammed her charcoal pencil down and glared at all of them. “Would you shut up? I don’t need to hear this from you. Not from any of you,” she shouted. A startled look crossed her face and she swallowed. “I-I’m sorry. This is giving me such a headache.”

She muttered, “How in the hell was I supposed to know Darci wouldn’t be going home? She said she was going home. And I’m not about to just let her get by with the snipes she makes at me. How she treats me like shit, like I was just like anybody else… I’m better…” As she spoke, her voice started to take on a little singsong quality, drifting up and down. Lowering herself into her chair, she smiled, and those who saw it took a minute to wonder. That smile was…wrong. Her eyes started to gleam as she whispered, “And that damned gallery. I hate it…I hate all of them.”

“Carrie, you need to get hold of yourself,” Tricia said quietly.

Carrie blinked, looking confused. Looking from one woman to another, she didn’t like the looks she saw, disgust, worry, fear. Nothing to worry about, she told herself, turning back to her desk, lowering herself into the chair. Nothing to worry about.

Aloud, she said, “I know what I’m doing. I’m doing what’s best for all of us, for the gallery.” Taking a charcoal pencil in hand, she started to sketch.

“Don’t go acting like this had something to do with the business,” Beth said flatly. “This was personal. Which means if anybody has problems from it, it will be you. Not us. You.”

“There aren’t going to be problems,” Carrie muttered, her hand moving rapidly over the heavy paper. Her eyes were wide and feverish, locked on the work in front of her.

“I hope not.”


Darci was kicking back at the café when Kellan crossed the street, carrying a white sack in his hand.

Dotti’s.

His work day was over and he had gone to Dotti’s again for dinner. Like he did most every night.

Darci knew, because any time she was in town, she looked for him. And at this time of day, he was usually heading out. Over the past couple of years, she had spent a lot of time studying him.

And the first thought that drifted through her mind was Damn, but that man has one fine butt.

The strong columns of his thighs, that firm ass, his back, everything from the back view added up to one fine piece of man-flesh. Yep. There was just one thing to say about him.

Damn, he was fine.

His eyes… She loved those eyes. And his hands-she hummed under her breath as she thought of just what she’d like to see those hands doing.

Darci bet he hated that hair. It was deep, deep dark red, worn a little longer now than he used to wear it, past his collar, brushing his shoulder. His skin was a warm mellow gold, not the pale white she normally associated with redheads. Against that golden skin, his hazel eyes gleamed, glowing green-gold one minute, then amber the next.

You are obsessed.

In response to her silent, self-directed comment, she muttered, “Yep,” and chuckled.

Tipping back the cappuccino, she took another savoring sip, humming in appreciation as she swallowed.

A low humph reached her ears and she arched a brow as Clive sent her a narrow look. “Listen, you skinny little white girl, you planning on going home soon or are you going to keep sitting here lookin’ purty?” he razzed. “Or better yet, go have some fun. Pretty thing like you needs to be out having fun on a night like this. Not sitting there brooding.”

She pursed her lips. “I think I’ll just sit here and brood,” she drawled, tapping her cup. “I want another, and a biscotti. A chocolate one dipped in white chocolate.”

Clive grinned at her and said, “Girl, don’t you think you should be out combing the woods and pointing that camera at things? You need to be taking photo-graphs, dontcha? We need some photo-graphs.”

She rolled her eyes and said, “I don’t feel like taking photo-graphs,” drawing the word out the same way he did, mimicking his deep Southern accent. “I’m taking a break. Is that okay with you, buddy?”

He smiled, his teeth white inside the grizzled salt and pepper of his beard. “Sure thing, lady. You’re a pretty knickknack to have sitting around my shop, that’s for sure.” Then his eyes sobered. “I was wondering, though, are you mebbe tryin’ to avoid being by yourself, tryin’ to avoid doin’ any serious thinking? Serious thoughts tend to hurt some when somebody has struck out at ya, somebody who was a friend.”

Her eyes drifted away and she sighed. “I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts, that’s for sure. I figure when I’m less likely to brood, I’ll get some work done. I’m too good at brooding though. I don’t need the headache it’s going to give me.”

Clive set her mocha down in front of her, the biscotti on a plate with a lace doily. After patting her shoulder with an arthritic hand, he hobbled away. “Take your time, girl. You just take your time. Like I said, pretty face like yours around here ain’t gonna hurt my business none,” he told her over his shoulder.

She eventually moved to the padded window seat and pulled out a book, reading until she had a crick in her neck and her hands were shaky from excess caffeine.

Even then, she didn’t go home. Closing her eyes, she daydreamed, her mind drifting, chasing itself around in circles. The low hum of conversation around her lulled her, and eased her even farther into her daze.

When Clive came up later and patted her shoulder, his eyes were dark and thoughtful as he studied her. “Girl, I’m almost tempted to just stay open all night. I can tell you don’t wanna go home and be alone wit’ yourself. But it’s late, and I’m tired,” he drawled, pulling a chair up. “You know, sooner or later, the people who caused this mess for you are going to get what’s comin’ to them. What goes around does indeed come around.”

“Yeah, well, a couple of these people have been causing this kind of shit for years. And nothing’s ever come of it,” Darci said wearily. “And they aren’t even the worst of it. They aren’t the ones who bothered me the most.”

“Oh, I know…it’s Della. You admired that woman-imagine you still do. It’s hard to shut down what’s in your heart when ya look up to somebody as much as you did her. I do know that she’s got plenty of people who aren’t very happy with her.”

Her mouth curled up in a sad smile. “I don’t want anybody mad at her. That doesn’t solve anything.”

“No. And it doesn’t make you feel any better. Nothing is gonna do that. Nothing changes the fact that she believed somebody’s lies,” Clive said, his low, soothing voice lulling her frazzled nerves. “Now you listen up. I’m going make you up a special drink, and you don’t be tellin’ nobody about it. And you can’t give me money, cuz I ain’t allowed to sell alcohol. But I’m gonna fix it. And then I’m gonna drive you home. You can drink it there.”

He patted her hand and stood up. “Once you get there, you’re going to go up, get in bed and finish drinking it. And sleep. And put this mess behind you-however you have to do it.”

Chapter Two

Kellan’s hands moved over smooth, ivory flesh. Silken and sweetly scented, eyes that sparkled green under slanted black brows and a cap of short, black hair. Damned exotic little fairy.

Her mouth tasted like wine under his, addictive and sweet, and her hands moved over his body like butterfly wings, light and feathery. Against his chest, he could feel the hot stab of her nipples, the pounding of her heart.

Rolling her onto her back, Kellan pushed her thighs wide and spread her open, piercing the wet folds with his tongue. She was sweet, spicy…ripe. Ready for him-damn it, he was ready for her, too.

Vicious need pulsed through him and he groaned as she arched up against him with a shriek.

Now …the word circled through his mind. Now…had to have her now.

Moving up her body, he wondered why in the hell he had waited so long-

The buzzing of his pager had the dream falling in tatters around him.

Fuck.

He opened his eyes, his cock throbbing and aching like a bad tooth, Darci’s name lingering on his lips. Damn it, he could still feel the echo of the dream as he reached for his pager. Her scent seemed to cling to him and he had to remind himself that it was just a dream.

The most realistic dream he had ever had, but a dream all the same.

But the message on his pager was like a bucket of ice water thrown in his face and his body froze as he finished reading it.

Swallowing, he reached for the phone and called the office, hoping this was some sick joke.


Twenty minutes later, he was standing in Carrie Forrest’s house, over the bloodied remains of her body. It was no joke.

This was as real as it got, and about as bloody.

He hadn’t seen this much hatred in a long while.

Somebody had a powerful lot of rage built up inside of them, and whoever it was, had let it all loose on Carrie last night.

Beth Morris was downstairs wailing on Peggy Ralley’s shoulder and Kim Samuel was sitting on the couch, sipping coffee and staring into the distance, as though she wasn’t really there.

Carrie had been beaten to death.

The murder weapon was still in the house. Carrie’s cane. The victim’s face was hardly recognizable. The cane had broken by the time the perp was done.

Damn it. He felt pity move through him as he knelt beside her body and studied the pitiful mess that had been made of it.

She had wreaked a lot of hell, on a lot of lives.

But nobody deserved to die like this.

“Ms. Morris, you can’t- Damn it, this is the scene of a crime-”

“Take your hands off of me, unless you’d like to be talking to me and my lawyer in court,” Beth Morris said coldly.

Almost everybody in town had heard that line before. Beth loved to throw it around. Mostly, it was an empty threat, but enough people had actually received papers that most didn’t want to push it. The judges at the small county courthouse had tired of seeing her face and had thrown many cases out, so Beth had taken several of her cases to the next level.

It was still a threat powerful enough to evoke fear in some people’s hearts.

But Deputy David Morelli wasn’t about to let her intrude on a crime scene.

“I don’t care if the Almighty Himself summons me to appear in court. I’m not going to let you intrude on a crime scene,” Morelli snapped, placing himself between Beth and the studio when the other officer let her go. “Now if you don’t take yourself back downstairs, I will. We’ve already asked you several times. Please don’t make us go through this again.”

Beth started to sniffle. “How can you talk to me this way? I’ve lost my best friend.”

“And I’d think you’d want us to do what we can to make sure her killer is caught. Including not damaging possible clues,” Morelli said levelly.

“I just want to speak with the Sheriff,” she said, her voice high-pitched and whining.

From where Kellan crouched, he could almost hear the sigh in Morelli’s voice and he figured he owed the man a drink or ten.

“He just got here. He hasn’t been on the scene for more than five minutes. Give him some time, Ms. Morris. Now go back downstairs and let us work,” he said firmly.

“She did it! I know she did! Everybody loves Carrie but her,” Beth sobbed, burying her face in her hands. “Arrest that bitch. You can’t let her walk the streets while Carrie lies dead in the ground.”

Kellan lifted his head and stared out into the hall as Beth shrieked out, “You put Darci in jail, damn it. She threatened Carrie, just yesterday. Make her pay!”


***


Kellan left the house some time later, tension settling inside his gut like a leaden fist.

“What’s your next step?” Morelli asked quietly.

Turning, Kellan met the older man’s dark eyes, scowling. “I’m going to go question Darci Law.” And the thought ate at him, like acid in his belly.

Morelli sighed, rubbing his thumb across his lip. “She didn’t do it, Sheriff. You know that. Question her, get it out of the way…and when this is over, you really ought to quit mooning over her and just ask her out.”

Kellan felt the blood rush to his cheeks. Turning away, he thought sourly, Well, damn. Been hiding it real well, haven’t I?

Unable to think of a damn thing to say to that, he just scowled at Morelli and stomped away.

This, he decided, just downright sucked.


***


Darci rolled onto her back, her hand between her legs, a sigh tripping out of her as she dreamed. Oh, she suspected damn good and well it was a dream, but still…

If his hands felt as good in reality as they felt in the dream-shoot, even half as good-she’d climax before he even touched her breasts.

In the dream, his lips were fixed firmly around her nipple, drawing deeply, as his hands palmed her butt, lifting her up against his cock. His hair had fallen free of that short, stubby tail he kept it confined in and it teased her shoulders, her neck. She locked her hands in it, smiling with delight as it turned out to be every bit as silky as it looked. It was the color of mahogany, deep dark brownish-red, shot through with streaks of pure bright red-women would kill to have hair like his.

Damn, a lot of women just might kill to be where she was, spread out underneath that long, sleekly muscled body, that clever mouth moving over her hungrily, that hair wrapped around her fists.

Kellan kissed his way down her belly, pushing her thighs apart. He rose to his knees, reaching up to untangle her hands from his hair before he stroked his finger down her slit, from her clit on down, opening her thoroughly. He moved past the tender patch of flesh between her vagina and her anus to tease the tight pucker of her ass before he lowered his head and placed a full openmouthed kiss against her wet flesh.

“Damn, you’re sweet,” he murmured, lifting up to blow on her before turning his head to the side and plunging his tongue inside of her.

“Sweet, sweet, sweet…”

Those words were echoing inside her head as she was jerked out of sleep by the persistent knocking on her door.

Darci sat up, her chest heaving, her nipples burning, a throbbing, lingering ache in her pussy…while she played with herself. Her face flushed as she pulled her hand away from her aching cleft and whispered, “Now that was one hell of a wet dream.”

She rolled out of the bed and stumbled to the bathroom, washing her hands and then splashing water on her face before she went downstairs, flicking a glance at the clock. Ten o’clock. Damn, what in the hell had Clive put into that drink?

She never slept that late.

But she felt-good.

Very good, actually. Of course, that could be the wet dream she had just had. A wicked smile lifted up the corners of her mouth as she opened the door. But heat suffused her face when the open door revealed Kellan Grant. The object of her wet dream.

Slowly, she slid a hand through her hair. Parking tickets paid…and I don’t think Carrie would be stupid enough to press charges for yesterday.

After all, what can she say? I yelled at her? That I told her to leave me alone?

The dream echoed through her head as she met his eyes and her cheeks heated.

“Good morning, Sheriff,” she said slowly. Trying to shove the dream aside, she nibbled on her lower lip as she prayed to God that Kellan couldn’t tell what thoughts were running through her head.

“Morning, ma’am,” he said, nodding at her. Behind him stood one of his deputies, and the younger man also nodded politely, his eyes moving away from her face.

“I’m afraid I need to ask you to come down to the station, Ms. Law,” Kellan said, his voice tight, a muscle ticcing in his cheek. “I’ve got some questions I need to ask, and I’ll need to take a statement. If you wouldn’t mind getting dressed…”

Darci glanced down at her nightshirt, confused. No, she couldn’t wear the cotton nightie down there. Licking her lips, she looked back up at Kellan and asked, “What do you need to talk to me about? I’m afraid I don’t understand, Sheriff.”

Kellan glanced at the deputy before he reached up and rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. “Ms. Law, look, this is a pretty…hmm. Why don’t you let us come inside? Maybe you can run upstairs and get dressed?” he suggested, his eyes flicking to the front of her nightshirt again.

She nodded slowly as her heart started to quiver in her chest.

Something was wrong.

Bad wrong.


She didn’t do it.

Even though he had been pretty certain of it before coming here, the confused look in her eyes only confirmed his gut instincts. She didn’t do it.

Okay, yes, he’d known that, in his gut. But another part of him-the cop part-knew that sometimes people did some very out of character things and he just couldn’t help but…

But she didn’t.

Relief made him slightly lightheaded as he stepped inside. Grady followed behind him and closed the door.

As her pretty little butt disappeared up the stairs, he dragged his eyes away from her and found his deputy grinning at him.

“You should really just ask her out, Sheriff. You’ve been panting over her since before your divorce. Just do it,” Grady said, shaking his head at him.

“Wonderful idea. While I’m asking out a murder suspect, would you like to do anything else damaging to my career? I know, maybe you’d like to plant rumors that I’m selling drugs on the side?” Kellan whispered out of the side of his mouth.

“She’s no murderer,” Grady whispered back, shaking his head. “I dunno who is responsible, but it’s not her.” He clammed up the minute he heard footsteps on the stairs and Kellan jerked back around.

But what he saw on the steps wasn’t much better than what she had been wearing.

All she had done was draw on jeans and tuck the tails of her nightshirt in. That fine white cotton was much too thin to disguise a damn thing. It clung to the full white globes of her breasts, and the dark shadow of her nipples was outlined clearly.

Darci was too damned sharp not to realize something bad wrong was going on. He could see the nerves dancing in her eyes.

And when a woman got nervous, well, it had similar effects sometimes as that of arousal. She was cold, her skin covered with goose bumps and she kept chafing her arms with her hands, licking her lips as her eyes darted from Grady to Kellan, back to Grady, then focused on Kellan.

And her nipples…they had gone stiff and hard, peaking against the soft white cotton of her nightie and all Kellan wanted to do was drop to his knees and take one of them into his mouth, then the other and see if she tasted as sweet as he suspected.

He suppressed a groan as she seated herself in the emerald green papasan chair and folded her hands in her lap, staring at them. “What’s going on, Sheriff?” she asked quietly.

“I need you to tell me where you were last night,” Kellan said, lowering himself to the couch and watching her face closely.

“I was at Clive’s,” she said, lifting a shoulder and staring at them, her peaked brows puckered with confusion. “I usually would have gone out to the park and shot pictures. It was a clear evening, gorgeous…would have been great for some sunset pics, but I didn’t feel like being alone with my thoughts. So I went to Clive’s.”

“So you had some coffee and came home?” Kellan asked, pulling out his notepad. He drew out a pair of glasses with dark gold wire frames and put them on, then just tapped his pen against his notepad, studying her face.

That wasn’t enough to alibi her. He already had a good idea of time of death, just from looking at the body. Rigor hadn’t set in, there wasn’t any smell, and blood had already settled in her body. A little over twelve hours, the way he figured. Carrie had died probably between seven and nine.

“What time did you go to Clive’s?”

“I got there around five,” she said, frowning.

“And after you had your coffee, you left?” he asked, keeping the urge to swear violently behind his teeth. Not good enough. Not even good to keep from arresting her if they found even the slightest bit of circumstantial evidence.

She shook her head. “I was there until he closed. I didn’t feel like being alone.” She moved her eyes away, staring out the window over Kellan’s shoulder. “Been a long week.”

Damn it, she looked like she had been kicked. Like somebody had slapped her. He wanted to go over there and cuddle her, stroke her hair and buss that pretty mouth. And once she was smiling again, he wanted to see how long it would take to make her moan, and make her sigh, and sob with pleasure.

“I heard you’ve had a rough time-also heard some rumors that Carrie was behind that little ordeal,” Kellan said. Bile rose in his throat. He usually loved his job. Enjoyed it. Keeping the peace, seeing justice done when what little crime happened in this quiet town occurred.

But now…self-disgust rose bitterly as he started to set her up and he would have done almost anything if somebody else could have done this.

Anger flared in her jewel-bright eyes and she sneered. “Rumor, my ass. If she’s not the bitch behind it, then I’ll eat cardboard. She started it, I know it as well as I know my own name.”

“She’s caused you trouble in the past, hasn’t she? Accused you of having liaisons, stealing your photographs from online, a number of things,” Kellan said.

“Is that all of it? Hell, I would have thought there was more by now,” Darci snorted. “I’ve no idea what kind of lies she’s told about me. I do know that she mentioned to damn near every woman in town that I really am not a wise person to befriend because I’ll steal away her man the minute she turns her back. And I’ll do everything possible to ruin her life in the process,” she said, flicking her spiky bangs back from her face with a silver-ringed finger. “Something’s not right in Carrie’s head. If she can’t have you under her control, she hates you.”

“I take it that you wouldn’t comply with what she wanted,” Kellan said.

Darci shrugged. “I don’t kiss ass very well. And I don’t tolerate patronization. So no, we never really got along well, if that is what you want to know. I don’t like Carrie, I never have. But she’s really been jerking my chain a lot lately,” she said, shaking her head. She looked back at Kellan and cocked a brow. “You still haven’t explained why you are here, what exactly it is that has you wanting to take me in for a statement.”

Kellan slid Grady a look. “You got home around nine or so?” he asked, deliberately fudging the time. Clive’s didn’t close until eleven in the summer. Tourists seemed to think the town should keep big-city hours. So, they kept big-city hours. At least the restaurants and diners did.

“No. I told you,” she said patiently, lifting her eyes to the ceiling. “I stayed at Clive’s until he chased me out-until closing. Later than that actually.” She frowned. “Damn it, my car is there. Shoot. Anyway. I just kept drinking cappuccinos-shoot, I really have to go pee.”

Kellan lifted a brow at her and smothered a grin. Damn it, that was one of the things he liked about her. She had to be one of the most open women he had ever met in his life.

She rambled on, unaware of his amusement. “I had been sitting in the window seat, that thing is soooo comfortable. I was reading and then just daydreaming for a while. He let me keep on zoning while he closed up and he told me…”

Then she locked her lips together and her face went red.

Kellan sighed and lifted his eyes patiently to the sky. “Look, Darci. I’m perfectly aware that Clive has a nice little recipe that he hands out every now and then. I don’t know what all is in it, and I’ve never been given one, so while I’m offended that you got one, after only living here for five years, and I was born here, and I’ve never gotten one, you aren’t going to get him in trouble.”

She arched a brow and whistled I Wish I was in Dixie.

“He didn’t accept money for it, did he?” Kellan asked, suppressing the urge to laugh.

She stopped whistling and laughed. “Damn it, and here I was thinking I was special.”

“You are. He only gives that out to a handful of people,” Kellan said sourly. “So you got one of Clive’s miracle drinks and he drove you home…what time you think that was?”

She shrugged. “He closes around eleven and it was all clean and tidy before he even interrupted my nice little daydreams. Probably quarter after, maybe eleven-twenty. I guess I got home a little before midnight,” she said, nodding toward the sparkling river view just beyond the window over Kellan’s shoulder. “We talked on the porch, while he made sure I drank my ‘goodnight cocktail’ as he called it.” She slid Kellan a look and said, “He wouldn’t let me drink it until we got here, and I can understand why. I had no sooner gone upstairs and gotten into my jammies than I started feeling sleepy. Don’t know what he puts in that thing, but it packs a punch. And I haven’t slept that soundly in years.”

Kellan felt the knot in his belly loosening. “So basically, you were at Clive’s all evening. I’m sure other people besides him saw you?” he asked, leaning back and staring at her face. Her brows arched higher as she tilted her head, studying him.

“Yes, I’m sure plenty of people did.” Drawing her knees up to her chest, she rested that elfin chin on them and pinned him with a direct stare, one that was totally at odds with her whimsical looks, and that lazy, almost childish pose. “So, tell me, exactly what is it you’re worried I did last night?”

“Now you need to be advised that I haven’t read you your rights. You’re not under arrest, and I don’t suspect you of any crimes. However, some people probably do.”

Across the room, Grady closed his eyes and just shook his head.

Darci nodded slowly. “Okay,” she said softly. “What crime exactly?”

Setting his notebook aside, he leaned forward and said, “Sometime last evening, somebody Carrie Forrest knew was inside her house. They had coffee and she got out cookies, which were left untouched in the sitting room.” Kellan stood up and crossed the room, kneeling in front of Darci, not touching her, just watching her face as he finished. “They went upstairs to her studio and then this person killed Carrie.”

Darci’s mouth dropped open.

She blinked.

Her legs slid down and she shifted on the chair, reaching up to rub a fist across her chest. “What?” she repeated in a soft, weak voice. “I’m sorry. What?”

“Carrie is dead,” Kellan said levelly. “She was murdered.”

Darci fell back against the chair as though all the energy had drained out of her. The light in her vibrant green eyes dimmed and she swallowed. “You think I could have done it,” she murmured, still staring at him.

Yes, one of the most open women he had ever met. She didn’t hide a damn thing. Kellan replied as honestly as he could. “I don’t think you could have done it. But you are a suspect. Carrie liked to snipe at you, Darci. She did her damnedest to cause you trouble, and you never backed down, especially this last time,” he said softly.

In the corner, Grady lifted his eyes to the sky, shaking his head.

“I have reason to dislike her,” Darci said coldly. “I don’t have reason to hate her. I don’t have reason to want her dead.”

“Some people might think, after what has happened between you, that you would have every reason to want just that,” Kellan said. “She was out to ruin you. Ruin your career.”

“Get serious,” Darci said, rolling her eyes. “Hatred requires too much energy. And frankly, she’s not worth it.” Then she paled. “Oh, man. That sounds terrible. She’s dead, and…oh, man.” She tugged a gold chain from underneath her shirt and worried the charm on it with her fingers, mumbling under her breath. “I didn’t like the lady, but my mother didn’t raise me to speak ill of the dead. That was mean of me.”

Kellan closed his eyes and shook his head. This woman was…unusual. To say the least.

“Ah, I think under the circumstances, your mother would understand,” Kellan said softly.

She flashed him a wry grin, her eyes sparkling brightly through the tears. “Ummm, you don’t know Mama,” she said, her voice thick. “Speaking ill of the dead is just something you don’t do. Even of Hitler.”

Kellan waited until she took a shuddering breath and her eyes met his once more. “I need you to come down to the station. I need a statement,” he said softly.

Her lashes lowered and she sighed, her slim, sleekly muscled shoulders rising and falling beneath the lacy straps of her nightie. “My life seems to be going to hell in a handbasket,” she murmured.



Kellan couldn’t help it. “Well, it’s a vast improvement over the path Carrie’s life took last night,” he said.

Her eyes widened. Then she slowly agreed, “Well, you do have a point. Although Carrie chose her path a very long time ago.”


Well, he might believe she wasn’t a killer, Darci thought sourly as she ran her wet fingers through her short black hair. She made a face in the mirror. “It’s still not keeping me from having to go down and make a statement,” she muttered.

Part of her felt guilty.

Carrie was dead. Apparently pretty brutally. Kellan wouldn’t say anything, but she was really good at picking up vibes. And she sensed a terrible rage within him. A terrible rage.

Maybe she was wrong, she thought as she tugged her nightshirt off and searched for a bra in the dresser drawer. Spying one, she tugged it out and pulled it on, then jerked open her closet and grabbed the first shirt she could find-a waist-length, black sleeveless vest-styled shirt. She stuck her arms in it, buttoned it up and stuck her feet into a black pair of thongs.

Maybe any unjustified death angered him. It would her. Hearing about anybody dying before their time made her mad.

But…still. She couldn’t help but think something about this was off. Or maybe she was just letting her emotions toward Carrie affect her. Hell, she thought as she grabbed her purse and keys from the table beside her door and jogged down the steps, she’d been letting her animosity toward Carrie skew her thinking for months.

Why should this change anything?

Except she had decided earlier that she was going to get over this. She wasn’t going to let Carrie and Co. matter anymore.

Meeting Kellan at the bottom of the stairs, she looked into his eyes-soft, warm, hazel eyes. He had taken his glasses off. He had looked awfully good with them on, like a sexy scholar.

Of course, he looked good without them too.

He just looked damned good.

She just loved his eyes. She’d love to photograph his eyes, those wide-spaced, heavily lashed, warm, hazel eyes.

Was it her imagination or did they look just a little warmer as he stared at her?

“Let’s get this over with,” she said quietly.


Her attorney of record wasn’t exactly equipped to defend her against a murder charge, but Darci wasn’t a fool. As she rode in the back of Kellan’s cruiser, she pulled out her cell phone and called Brittany Daugherty.

“Darci, I was just getting ready to come over. I don’t know if you’ve heard anything but-”

“Britt, I’m in the Sheriff’s car, riding over to the station,” she interrupted. “I think it would be a good idea for you to meet me down there.”

“Oh, shit. I was afraid this would happen. Don’t say anything, don’t tell them anything-”

“I already have told them some stuff, but it was just where I was last night. I was at Clive’s all evening. But they want to take my statement, ask some official questions,” she said. As she spoke, she glanced up and met Kellan’s glance in the rearview mirror.

He was studying her with an arched brow.

She flushed and licked her lips and dragged her gaze away, but she could still feel him staring at her.

“I’d like you to meet me there, Britt,” she said, lowering her voice. “The whole damn town knows that Carrie and I had some bad history between us. And half of the town is still convinced she was a saint…”

“The Wicked Witch is more like it,” Britt interjected. “But we can’t let anybody hear you talking like that. Don’t say anything else. And I mean anything. Not until I get there. So zip it.”

Once Brittany hung up the phone, Darci sighed and flipped hers closed, tossing it into her purse.

“So, what does your lawyer have to say?”

Arching a brow at him, she drew an imaginary zipper across the seam of her lips and turned the lock, before leaning her head back. Damn it. She needed to think.

Because if she thought long and hard enough, surely she’d come up with the reasons she had moved to Vevey to begin with.


At least she’d taken that white nightshirt off. If he had been forced to question her while she had been wearing that nightie, the hint of her nipples teasing him, he was certain he would have gone mad.

He was about to lose it anyway.

Damn it, this was too much.

Kellan had avoided her like the plague for the past few years. And just for this very reason. The scent of her skin drove him insane. The thought of being close enough to touch all of that smooth white skin, yet resisting, was enough to make him want to drag her by the hair to the closest private place and just throw her to the ground and mount her. To see the sparkle of her emerald green eyes and hear the low husky caress of her voice as she spoke-

Damn it. He was going to drive himself crazy.

And they hadn’t even gotten started yet.

This was the longest time he had ever spent in her company. And the closest. The scent of her skin was permanently embedded on his memory and he was certain that her mouth would be every bit as sweet and soft as it looked.

Fuck.

He had kept his attraction to her from becoming an obsession just by keeping his distance.

And now that distance had been totally smashed. How could he stay away from her now?

But how could he do anything with a woman who was involved in a murder investigation?

Hell, she hadn’t done it. He knew that as well as he knew his own name. But she was involved in it. Somehow. Something Carrie had done had pissed somebody off so much that the person had snapped.

And lately, all her tricks and bullshit seemed to revolve around Darci, Becka, or the gallery.

As Britt sailed in, her bouncy blonde curls secured in a ponytail, she grinned sunnily at Kellan and asked easily, “How’s Michaela doing?”

He smiled and said, “Fat and pregnant, last I heard.”

“Shouldn’t be calling your sister fat. She’s just…plump. A baby can do that, I’ve heard,” Britt said as she settled onto the hard chair, flipping open her briefcase and drawing out a yellow legal pad and a pen. After perching a pair of wire-rimmed glasses on her nose, she flicked Kellan a glance and said, “I’ll need a moment to speak with my client, if you don’t mind.”

Kellan sighed and said, “She’s not under arrest. I just need to take a statement, ask her some questions.”

Brittany smiled serenely. “That is all well and good. But I really should know a few things before you ask her those questions.” She arched her brows and waited.

Kellan scowled and tossed his pen down on the table. He pushed his glasses up on top of his head and left the room, shaking his head as he closed the door behind him.

He made a beeline for his office and went straight for the coffeepot, pushing the button, knowing JT already had it ready to brew. She had seen him come in and had huffed her way in here, mumbling about overtime and how a body just couldn’t get any sleep.

And she had the pot waiting for him, so he could have coffee as soon as he wanted it.

Loveable old biddy.

As soon as there was enough for a cup, he grabbed the pot and poured one, wincing as footsteps came down the hall, hoping it wasn’t JT. If she knew he was letting coffee splatter on the warming unit again, she’d have his hide. But the footsteps went on past, and he sipped at the hot brew and sighed with pleasure while coffee hissed and bubbled on the heating unit.

Oh, yeah, JT would skin him.

But as long as he cleaned up his mess, they’d be fine.


Darci toyed with the cross at her neck as she repeated, almost word for word, how she had spent her night. “Okay,” Britt finally said, smiling with satisfaction. “Clive is almost gold around here. If he says you were at his place, then nobody will doubt him.”

“Gee, thanks,” Darci said sarcastically.

Britt laughed. “Honey, you know by now how things are here. They like you, a lot. But you’re still the new kid. Hell, you’ll be new after you’ve lived here fifty years. But Clive, well, he wasn’t born here, but his daddy was, and he’s been here since he was a kid and around here, he is a fixture. And he likes you. All in all, that is a damned good thing. You’ve got plenty of witnesses and an unimpeachable alibi.” Patting Darci on the knee, she said, “Small-town life, babe. Don’t you love it?”

Darci groused through the rest of the questions, twisting her rings ‘round and ‘round on her fingers, replaying yesterday through her mind. You have got to be the saddest most pathetic creature…

It was the truth. She knew that.

But all she could see was the bright flash of pain that had appeared in Carrie’s eyes for the quickest of seconds. The moment of truth.

It was truth.

For a second, Carrie had been forced to stop hiding from it. And she had hated Darci for it.

“Darci.”

Jerking her head up, Darci stared into Brittany ’s eyes, her own dark and bruised-looking. “She was a horrid, pathetic woman who was getting old before her time,” she whispered to her friend. “But she didn’t deserve to die before her time.”

Britt leaned forward, taking Darci’s hand and wrapping her hands around Darci’s cold ones. “Listen, honey, and listen good. Malcontent breeds malcontent. Though most people in this town believed Carrie’s lies, and few knew the truth, she didn’t deserve what happened to her. But unfortunately, the way Carrie liked to live-telling tales, breeding ill will-sooner or later, she was going to set off the wrong person,” Brittany whispered. “What goes around does indeed come around. Sometimes, in spades.”

Inexplicably, Darci’s eyes filled with tears. Britt leaned forward and wrapped her arms around her, rocking her slightly. “Shhh…shhh, don’t cry, Darci. She’s cost you too many tears already.”

Darci forced a deep, somewhat shaky breath into her lungs and then she nodded, pulling back, looking up, letting the tears dry before they fell. “No crying. None. Can we get this over with? I really want to get out of here,” she said fervently.


***


Darci was walking down the two steps that led to the sidewalk when she heard Britt’s indrawn breath. “Don’t say a damn thing to her,” Brittany warned under her breath. “I mean it. Don’t get drawn into something with her. Your alibi checks out, you couldn’t have done it, we know you couldn’t have done it. Don’t let her-”

“They are letting you walk out of here?” Beth demanded. Her eyes were bright with anger, her mouth twisted and snarling.

“Beth.” The deep voice came from over their heads and froze Darci in her tracks before she could say anything.

And she sure as hell was going to say something, even though Britt’s fingers were digging into her arm, about to cut her circulation off.

“Why are you letting her walk out of here? She killed Carrie! Everybody knows it!” Beth spat. A tiny bit of spittle clung to the corner of her mouth and disgust curled in Darci’s belly.

“She couldn’t have killed Carrie. Not unless she’s able to be in two places at once. She’s got an alibi for a solid six hours,” Kellan said as he came down the two steps, not looking at Darci. “I’m heading out to speak with said alibi and take his statement. But it’s pretty much ironclad.”

“She probably fucked him to get it,” Beth snarled, reaching up and shoving at Darci’s chest. “Hell, she’s fucking everybody in town.”

Darci batted her hand away and said, “Don’t touch me again, Beth. I’ll make allowances because you’re angry and upset. And I’ll make allowances because I know you’re probably hurting over Carrie, but do it again, and I’ll get mad.”

She heard a muffled snort from Kellan and Britt snickered. Beth’s eyes flamed. “Are you threatening me?” Beth gasped.

“You’d like that,” Darci said. “Something else for you to give your lawyer to work on. I’m not saying another damn word to you.”

Yep, he was trying not to laugh, she was sure of it, as the odd smothered cough came from Kellan again. Beth lifted her chin, trying to look arrogantly proud. “You think you’re going to get away with it,” she rasped. “It doesn’t matter what alibi you’ve come up with. You killed Carrie. You’re the only one who could have. You’re the only one who hates her.”

Darci lifted her chin. “Bullshit. Not everybody in this town is blind. She had some people fooled, but there are other people who know exactly what she was.”

Then she moved around Beth and headed on down the sidewalk.


“How can you let her walk?” Beth demanded.

“Because she’s got a damned good alibi. If it turns out she lied, I’ll pick her up. But that’s unlikely,” Kellan said, moving around her. “Now let me do my job, Ms. Morris.”

“You’ve been fooled by that pretty face,” Beth snarled. “I’m not surprised. She’s got everybody wrapped around her finger.”

Kellan compressed his lips together and continued on down the sidewalk, following in Darci’s footsteps.

“See? See? You go following after her, right in front of me,” Beth shrieked.

“No. I’m going to talk to Clive. He was her alibi. She spent the evening at his café,” Kellan said over his shoulder. “And I thought I’d follow this up with checking with damn near everybody in town, since three-fourths of the population seem to enjoy stopping by his shop for ice cream or coffee on a Friday night.”

Kellan didn’t see when Beth whispered, “Clive?” or the way her lips tightened afterward.


***


“Damn it,” Beth mumbled.

“It had to have been her. It had to. Doesn’t make any sense. Nobody else would have wanted to do it,” she swore as she paced around and around her studio.

Her gray hair was messy, oily from many restless passes of her hands. She had never allowed herself to look so unpresentable, but she hadn’t been prepared for the sudden knock on the door, and she had been too shaken by what had happened at the police station to go upstairs and try to make herself look as she felt she should.

Her house, damn it. Her house. If she wanted to look a mess in her own home, that was her right.

“It just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t rightly know why Clive would lie for her, but Darci is the only one who hated Carrie,” Beth said, turning and staring at her visitor, her eyes bright and burning with passion.

“Well, I don’t exactly see that as being true.”

Beth’s eyes widened as she saw the heavy glazed urn come crashing down, but she couldn’t move in time.


***


“I guess I should thank him one more time,” Darci said quietly, casting a look across the street at Clive’s.

“Not now. The Sheriff is about fifteen feet behind us and he needs to get his statement from Clive. Let’s let him get it. We can go across the street to the Ice Cream Shoppe. I want a cone-a double, I think-chocolate, with sprinkles. Then I want you to tell me about what happened yesterday when you went to see Carrie,” Britt said, hooking her arm through Darci’s and leading her across the narrow street.

So, over cold, creamy vanilla-chocolate for Britt-Darci told her. “She pushed me. Too far. But I wouldn’t have done this,” Darci murmured, her eyes taking on a far-off look. “I might have decked her. But this…” she sighed and shook her head. Then she took a thoughtful lick of her ice cream. “Beth seemed pretty convinced.”

“Beth is a woman who is so full of hatred, it’s easy for her to think that everybody around her hates as much as she does,” Britt said with a shrug.

The bell chimed over the door and a woman with a group of kids came in. Two of them darted toward Darci and she smiled at them, stroking her hand over a towheaded boy, tugging on a red braid. Their mom came up, smiling hesitantly. “Hey, Darci. I heard about Ms. Forrest, glad to see you…well, you know.”

Darci arched a brow. “Do I? Do I want to?”

The mom-what was her name…Janna, Janna Harton-leaned over and murmured quietly, “Beth Morris was going around telling everybody you did it. She hadn’t even made it home before she was making calls and telling everybody.”

Britt’s eyes flared. “That’s slander.”

Darci’s lips flattened out and she glanced at the kids. Shaking her head minutely, she told them with her eyes, not now. Then she brightly said, “I had the best night last night. Spent it over at Clive’s. Went over there around five or so, and did nothing but eat biscotti and drink mochas and cappuccinos until he chased me out when he closed.”

Janna’s brows rose and she nodded in understanding. “He’s got the best chocolate mochas,” she murmured.

Her six-year-old twins, Macy and Alan, poked out their lips accordingly. “We can’t have them,” they wailed in unison.

Macy said, “Mama says we’re hyper enough.”

“We have to drink steamers,” Alan chimed in, his eyes big and pitiful.

“If I remember correctly, hyper doesn’t cover it. Maniacal, overactive, bouncing bundles of supercharged energy just might work,” Darci said, smiling widely. “I can see why Mama said no mochas.”

Macy rested her chin on the table and said, “Mama promised me ice cream, too.”

Alan grinned. “Yours looks really good. Can I try a taste while Mama gets mine?”

Darci took another lick. “Hmmm. It is really good,” she said. Then she winked at Alan. “Nope. No sharing.”


Kellan had Clive’s statement, as well as three other customers who had stopped in today for a cup of coffee. They had also been in the mood for some caffeine last night, and recalled seeing that pretty art teacher, as one had called her, perched in the window, just reading away.

“She’s a talented thing-taking pictures and teaching kids,” Clive had said. “I can’t help myself. I keep buyin’ stuff from her, even when I tell myself I’ve bought enough.”

Clive had a number of framed photographs decorating his café, most of which Kellan had recognized as Darci’s work the moment they had appeared.

He was halfway back to the station when he stopped, blew out a breath and scowled.

If he went over there, it just might save him from having to deal with her later. Head it off at the pass, so to speak.

But damn it.

He really didn’t feel up to handling Beth yet.

He turned and headed down Court Street, going left onto Main, then right onto Primrose. Beth’s house was a work of art, and she took great pride in that. She preened every time somebody asked to list it on the Christmas Home Tours, but she never let a soul she didn’t know inside. And there were very few of those.

He knocked on the door, his eyes studying the woodwork and the molding that was probably over a century old.

While he waited, he studied the woodwork on the door, slapping his hand against his thigh. A minute passed and he knocked again, but still no answer.

He scowled, and glanced at the driveway. That damned pink car was in the driveway, so he knew she was home. Unlike more than half of the population living within the city limits, if Beth was going somewhere, even if it was two doors down, she drove. High gas prices be damned.

If it was in the driveway, she was home.

He turned the knob, and when it opened under his hand, a dread suspicion grew in his gut. He pulled the sidearm out, telling himself he was going to feel awfully stupid when he scared Beth Morris in the shower.

Stupid and scarred for life.

He was turning the corner into her kitchen when he smelled it. Rich, coppery death.

Yeah, scarred for life.

Every death left a scar. But violent death was worse.

And two within two days…in his town.

Something very wrong was going on.

Very wrong.

Beth lay on the floor, her head crushed in. The weapon was most likely the heavy glazed urn that was lying on the thick, pile carpet under his feet. Kneeling, he touched his fingers to her throat.

Her body was just now starting to cool.

Her murderer had gotten away no more than an hour ago.

“What in the holy hell is going on?” he murmured.

Then he stood and reached for the radio at his belt.

Chapter Three

Well, at least this victim didn’t have such a good reason for Darci to want her dead. While Darci didn’t like Beth, Beth hadn’t made it her life’s mission to make Darci’s life hell.

Kellan worked through the interview gently, aware that Darci was more than a little shell-shocked.

Britt said quietly, “You know she didn’t do it, Kellan,” after Darci just sighed when Kellan went through the round of questions one more time. She rubbed soothing circles on Darci’s back, feeling the tension mounting as Darci breathed in and out in harsh, shaking motions. “Her time is alibied, most of it with you.”

Kellan gave Brittany a narrow look. That didn’t matter. What mattered was that he had a murderer in his town, and he had to find the bastard.

But yeah, he knew she didn’t do it.

Didn’t change what he had to do, though. He sighed as he studied the river outside Darci’s window. “It wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to hang around tonight,” he said to Brittany.

He was planning on driving by a few times himself.

Britt arched a brow and said, “Already taken care of, my friend. Why else would I be here this late?”

Darci mumbled from the circle of her arms, “Would you two stop talking as though I’m not here? And I don’t need a babysitter.”

The words sounded loud in the silence of the brightly lit kitchen. What was it about the midnight hour? When words were spoken at such a late time, it just made everything seem so much more vivid, so much louder.

By the time he had finished at the crime scene, it had been after eleven. After taking care of notifying the family and dealing with the paperwork, he had started home.

But then he’d turned, driving past Darci’s house and he had seen lights blazing, and Britt’s car. So he had stopped.

Maybe it had been more to unravel this knot of worry in his gut, though. Not police business. Technically, he should have done this interview at the station, not in her house. She had given him permission to do it, as well as record it-although he suspected she really wasn’t too connected right now. She was in shock, plain and simple. The pupils of her eyes were dilated and she kept rocking back and forth, holding herself.

He had been scared, coming here, worried he might find something he wasn’t ready to handle. He knew, deep in his gut, that these killings had something to do with Darci.

Somehow.

Once Darci had opened the door, and he had seen her weary, shell-shocked face, he had felt…better.

Still battered, still enraged, but better.

“Do you have any idea who would have done this?” he finally asked, pulling his glasses off and tucking them inside his jacket.

Darci looked up at him, resting her cheek on her arm. “I don’t understand hatred, Sheriff. You’re probably asking the wrong person. Whoever did this had a lot of hatred. I think we kind of discussed that about Carrie. This takes more hatred than I’d give anybody.” She lifted a shoulder in a weak shrug. “I’m lazy. I don’t want to give anybody that kind of energy. I get angry fast, I’ve got a short fuse, but it burns itself out pretty quickly. Just don’t like to waste my time with it for too long. I just don’t understand hatred. It’s too…violent. Too dark.”

“You don’t strike me as being somebody who’d be afraid of violence,” Kellan said, quirking a brow as he lifted a cup and sipped at his steaming coffee. He was remembering how she’d batted Beth’s hand away, that angry threat in her eyes, in her voice.

“Just because I’ll use force to defend myself doesn’t mean I like violence,” Darci said, resting her chin on her hands, staring straight ahead. “And understanding hatred and not being afraid of violence are too different things.”

“Point taken,” he said, inclining his head. “So you’ve never hated anybody? An old boyfriend? Ex-husband? The cheerleader in school who stole everybody’s guy?”

A tiny smile tugged at her lips. “No. I don’t think I’ve ever expended the energy to hate. I might hold grudges, and I hold them well. But old boyfriends weren’t worth the time, otherwise, they’d not be old boyfriends. They’d still be in the present. And there are no ex-husbands. As to the cheerleaders, well, I was one, but I didn’t need to steal boyfriends.”

He grinned. “I bet they probably flocked to your door,” he said, a grin cocking up the corners of his mouth.

She shook her head. “No. I was the tomboy cheerleader. Boys weren’t worth my time back then,” she said. “So there was no reason to hate the cheerleaders who did steal the boys.”

“Okay. So you don’t have a clue who might have done this,” Kellan said, blowing out a sigh. “Maybe there’s a lady who believes some of the rumors that she’s heard about you. Thinks you might have been sleeping with a man she’s involved with.”

“So she kills two women just to try to get me in trouble? It would make more sense if she just came after me.”

“Murderers don’t always understand logic,” Kellan said, shrugging. “I’m just trying to understand why I have two women dead-and one of them is somebody who has a history of causing you a lot of grief.”

Darci shot Britt a look. Britt shrugged, her lips pursed.

Spreading her hands wide, Darci said, “I just don’t know… I just don’t know,” she repeated, closing her eyes and burying her face in her hands.


She was so tired.

Achingly tired.

But she couldn’t sleep.

Rolling onto her side, she stared through the floor to ceiling windows just inches away from her bed. The river was no more than a hundred yards away-usually watching it roll by made her feel a little more peaceful than she felt now.

There was no peace inside her tonight.

What was going on?

Darci closed her burning eyes.

There were no answers in the river. No answers inside her throbbing head either.

Two women dead.

And her last words spoken to both of them had been in anger.

It was with a heavy heart that she finally fell asleep, hours later.


***


Restlessness plagued the small town of Vevey, Indiana over the following weeks.

Carrie was laid to rest, and then Beth, two days later. Carrie’s house was sitting empty, but already people from the State Registry were in town making noises about trying to get Beth’s house.

Darci couldn’t quite believe it. The lady hadn’t even been resting a week when the first call came, from what she could tell.

Now they had people in town, all but ambushing anybody who so much as walked by. But Kellan had finally put a stop to it when he strode up to the small group of people who had practically camped in front of it. Britt had gone into great detail about it, her eyes sparkling with laughter.

“Well, sir, you see, we’re from the Historical Society and this house is of great interest to us-”

Kellan had cut off the pompous, florid-faced geek of a man who’d spoken with a thick Southern drawl. Darci had dealt with that man when he had come into the gallery and she had wondered if maybe some people took historical reenactments just a little too much to heart.

From what Britt had repeated, Kellan had interrupted him by saying, “It’s of more importance to me. A lady was murdered there and until I’ve decided I’m done with it, nobody can do a thing with it anyway. Now stop badgering everybody who lives here before I get annoyed. Do any of you have homes? Jobs? You’ve been here nearly two weeks, almost around the clock and the house isn’t even for sale.”

“Now see here-”

Kellan had lifted a straight auburn brow, and Britt’s imitation of him had Darci giggling. Britt said, “The guy shut the hell up. They cleared off the street although they passed out their cards and some of them offered money to the neighbors to contact them if so much as a For Sale sign went up.”

Darci scowled. “Hell, I’m tempted to buy the house to keep those idiots from getting it,” she said. “He came into the gallery. I don’t think I’ve ever met a bigger idiot in my life.”

“Well, I have,” Britt murmured, her eyes rolling. “He’s on his way in here.” She ducked behind the counter and slid into the back room as the door opened. Bryce Bishop came in, his dark eyes roaming over Darci’s face as he handed over a handful of mail.

“This came to Dark Destinies instead of here,” Bryce said, dumping the pile on the counter, missing Darci’s outstretched hand like he hadn’t even seen it. “You all getting back in the swing of things?”

Darci lifted a brow. “We never got out.” Raising her voice, she called out, “Becka!”

Bryce looked toward the beaded curtain that hung over the door to the private part of the gallery, a small smirk on his mouth. “Oh, yeah. Guess y’all didn’t see much point taking time off to mourn some old friends.”

Darci coolly said, “If they had been friends, that would have been different. Lives violently lost will always be mourned. But prostrating myself on the sidewalk doesn’t change anything.”

One of the more vocal ladies who had art displayed at Dark Destinies had done just that-dropped to the ground wailing, tears running down her face as she screamed and lamented as Carrie’s casket was carried out. Her miniskirt had revealed her lace thong to everybody around.

And she’d repeated the performance the next day.

Bryce snickered. “No. That’s true. Although I wouldn’t mind seeing you flash some skin,” he said, his eyes dropping and lingering on her neckline.

Becka came through the curtain, followed by Brittney, and when she saw Bryce, her mouth twisted down in a frown. Ignoring him, she looked at Darci, impatience in her eyes. “What?”

Darci reached for the pile of mail and held it out to Becka. “You really do need to make that call to the post office. Destinies received some of our mail again.”

Becka rolled her eyes and said, “All right…all right. I’ll go call them now.” Without even speaking to Bryce, she turned around and moved back through the curtain.

“Well, isn’t she in a good mood,” Bryce smirked.

Flashing him a brittle smile, Darci said, “Hmm. Thanks for the mail. You can go now.” Dismissing him, she looked back at Brittney and said, “So has there been anything new?”

Britt made a noncommittal response, not wanting to talk in front of Bryce, Darci guessed.

The silence stretched out for a moment while Bryce’s eyes lingered on her. Then he murmured, “Be seeing you around, sweet thing.”

As the door closed behind him, she whispered, “I certainly hope not.”

“That guy is such a jerk,” Britt muttered as she came around the corner. “How many times has that place gotten your mail?”

“Three that I know.” Lifting her shoulder in a shrug, she said, “Probably nothing to it.”

“Complained?”

“Becka has to,” Darci said. “I tried. They took the information down, but since I’m not the owner, they aren’t going to take me too seriously. Becka needs to talk to them, and I’ve reminded her. A number of times. Today was probably the tenth. Dunno if she’s listening to me.”

“Hmmm…” Britt said, that noncommittal sound that could say everything and nothing. Then she waggled her eyebrows at Darci, her voice teasing as she said, “Soooo…are you aware of the fact that the Sheriff can’t keep his eyes off of you?”

Darci’s hands stilled and she froze. Studying Britt through the veil of her lashes, she asked, “What?”

Britt smiled a cool little cat’s smile. “He’s got the hots for you. I can tell. And you watch him like he’s a hot fudge sundae and you’ve been on a six-month carb diet.” Fluttering her lashes, Britt said, “Too bad you’re a suspect.”

“You bitch,” Darci said, groaning and falling back against the wall behind her. That was so not what she needed to hear-not when she had been fantasizing about the sexy sheriff for years, ever since she’d moved to Vevey.

Britt laughed. “Well, it’s not like it’s a forever thing. And if it was such a serious thing, you could have done something about it before now. And maybe you’re not really a suspect. Maybe he’s already found the person,” she offered, trying to be helpful. “Maybe he’s arresting him even now. Then you two can celebrate with dinner and an all-night fuck fest.”

With a narrow glance, Darci muttered, “You are messed up.”

With a snicker, Britt said, “Well, maybe you should go see a movie first.”

They both jumped when Becka hollered out from the back, “Forget the movie. Just get laid.”

Britt and Darci looked at each other and started to giggle.


Bryce Bishop had his eyes on that little bitch. Staring down her nose at people, twitching that tight little ass of hers and then expecting people not to comment. Hell, she was sharing it with half the men in town-he’d be damned if he was going to miss out.

He sauntered into his house and came up short when he caught sight of a familiar head bent over the newspaper spread out on his table. The house had been picked up, too. And unless he was mistaken, there were cookies in the oven.

“What in the hell are you doing?” he snapped, kicking his shoes off and tossing his wallet down.

“Just wanted to see you.”

“Yeah, well, have you forgotten? I kicked your ass out a long time ago,” he reminded her.

Her eyes filled with tears and she sighed, shakily saying, “Okay, I’ll go.”

She was on her way out when he caught her hand. “Hey, why don’t you hang around a few minutes?” he asked, as he reached for the zipper of his fly, pushing down on her shoulder and smiling as her mouth closed around him.

He started to pump his cock in and out of her mouth, shuddering as her fingers cupped his sac. “You always did know how to suck cock, sweet little bitch,” he muttered. “I’ve missed that.”


She wasn’t there in bed wrapped around him like a lamprey when he got up late that night. That was pretty odd. She usually clung, hanging on him like a little puppy. Hell, even her eyes were puppy-dog eyes, watching him soulfully.

He sat up in bed and reached for the pint in the bedside table, swigging down a few drinks, waiting until he felt the familiar buzz before he took a few more. Once he was in that warm, pleasant haze, he sighed, took another sip and sat up.

The room danced dizzily around him and he grinned. Should have gotten drunk before he fucked her earlier. Would have helped a little.

Climbing out of bed, Bryce scratched his chest as he left his room. Bright light flashed in his eyes and he flung his arm up, squinting through the glare to see her standing by the front door, wearing his shirt, staring at him. Whiskey splashed on his arm and chest from the bottle he had thoughtlessly tipped sideways as he blocked the light.

“You called me Darci,” she said, her voice husky.

Bryce scowled. “So what? It’s not like I’m taking you back,” he muttered, raking his hand through his tumbled hair. “You’re a good fuck, but you’re too damned clingy.”

She swallowed, a sound so loud he heard it from several feet away. “Well, I’m sorry I’m so clingy,” she whispered. “I’ve gotten a lot better. But I guess it isn’t good enough.”

He flopped onto the couch, lifted the remote, and stared at the tube as he took a swig from the bottle. Tuning her out, he settled on the porno channel, his hand closing over his semi-rigid cock. Behind him, he heard her moving around and he just wanted her out of there. Maybe he’d dig out a few of the pills he’d hidden away and…

“Bryce,” she whispered as she leaned over him.

“Wha-” Something cold, icy…then a hot liquid spill. He saw red fountaining out from him… What was…

Behind him, she watched as Bryce’s head slumped, blood pumping from him with thick, liquid gushes of crimson red. His hands lifted, trying to close over the gash in his throat. She laid the knife down on the table behind the sofa before she walked away. In the bedroom, she knelt down and reached for the case under the bed. Pulling it out, she studied the labeled tapes closely. She’d watched them, unwillingly, a hundred times. She took the two that were stacked haphazardly on the top. One she needed. The other, she hadn’t seen before. Better make sure he hadn’t been running the video camera some night when she hadn’t realized it.

Then she carefully wiped the box clean and pushed it back under the bed, grabbing her purse and tucking the tapes inside it before returning to the living room. She eyed the knife for a long moment before she picked it up, staring over the edge of the couch at Bryce’s still body.

“Later…bitch,” she whispered as she wiped her fingerprints off the knife before tossing it down. She’d already wiped the room down and with quick, economical motions, she shed his shirt and got dressed. Dropping the shirt by the door before she slid through, she tucked her head low as she headed down the alley behind his house.

Chapter Four

Darci’s heart stopped.

Somebody was outside her house. She had lifted her lashes, just barely, and stared at the window, trying to wake up.

It was unnaturally silent outside and her mouth went dry with fear.

The moon shone silver, reflecting off something white-something that didn’t belong there.

A face.

But before Darci could take a closer look, the person was gone.

She jerked upright in bed, her heart slamming in her chest, breath rushing out of her shakily. “Damn it…”

The house was quiet-too quiet. Darci couldn’t tolerate that sort of silence. Slowly, she swung her legs around and put her feet on the cool wooden floor. The chill in the air raced up her back, tightening her nipples, her skin roughened with goose bumps. Her heart slammed against her chest as she walked across her darkened room and reached for the light switch. Nothing.

Her breath started to wheeze in her chest as she rushed out to the hall and tried the light switch there. Nothing. With her back pressed flat against the wall, she walked along it back into her room, closing the door silently behind her. Licking her lips, she reached for the phone by her bedside, suppressing a sob as it came up dead.

Nothing. Damn caller ID-why in the hell had she ever replaced her regular land line with a portable? Because she liked knowing who was on the other line, liked being able to carry the phone with her to the basement as she developed her negatives.

My cameras-

Get a grip, there’s probably somebody in the house. Call the damned police , her common sense demanded before she could fly out of the room to run and check on her equipment.

Okay. Cell phone. Where is the damned cell phone…purse ! The purse was lying on the chaise lounge under the window where she had thrown it as she slid out of her shoes. With shaking fingers, she turned it on, and then she stifled a cry as she couldn’t remember the number she wanted to call. Swallowing, she pushed the buttons 9-1-1 and hit send, sinking down into a darkened corner and waiting, staring at the door with unblinking eyes.


As the call came through, Kellan was just waking up from a sweet, hot dream…and the call was like a splash of icy water, clearing his head and tightening his gut with fear.

Rolling out of bed, he grabbed his jeans and shoved them on, stepping into an untied pair of work boots on his way out of his room. The T-shirt he had tossed aside the night before was still hanging on the doorknob to the laundry room and he grabbed it with one hand as his other hand scooped up his weapon, which he had left hanging on the back of the barstool at the breakfast bar.

Under his breath, prayers he didn’t even realize he still remembered were being spoken. Damn it. Not her. Don’t let me find her…

As he sped down the highway toward her house on the river, he cut off that train of thought. In his rearview mirror, a pair of headlights appeared, and sirens flashed on top of the patrol car. He heard their distant wail. One of his deputies. God, please let somebody already be there…don’t let her-

Snarling, Kellan slammed his fist on the leather seat, rasping out, “Stop it!”

The sirens behind him went silent just as they turned onto her road. He slammed on his brakes in front of her house and jumped out, running up to the house as he drew his gun, swearing and praying from one breath to another. The front door was unlocked. Gritting his teeth, he pushed it open, some subtle tension inside him relaxing as he breathed in the soft, vanilla-scented air, like potpourri-or candles.

And paint?

But there was a distinct smell that simply wasn’t there… Thank You, God.

“This is Sheriff Kellan Grant…”


Darci heard his voice and sobbed in relief, rising from the floor and stumbling out into the hallway. She swallowed a scream as she came against a hard, hot body. Big hands came up to cup her arms as she slammed her foot down on his, hearing a muffled grunt, followed by…

“Damn it, Darci, why in the hell do you need the police? You’re dangerous.”

“Kellan!”

“Is there anybody still here?” he asked, moving up against the wall and pulling her with him.

“The lights are out,” she whispered, stuttering, her body starting to tremble. “I woke up…saw somebody…”

“Okay…okay. Take a deep breath. Calm down, listen to me. We have to check out the house. I want you to go back in your room and stay there,” he said, his voice changing to a firm, no-nonsense tone as he guided her back into her room. The broad band of light from his flashlight moved over the room and he checked the entire area out before he urged her down on a chair, snagging the blanket from her bed and wrapping it around her shoulders. “Stay here, sweetie. Okay?”

And then he was gone. She muffled the sob that rose in her throat as the door clicked shut, then the doorknob shifted a little as he checked the lock.

She couldn’t take her eyes off that door. The brass glinted ever so slightly in the dim light of the room and she stared at it, fascinated.

If it moved…was the person still here? What if he killed Kellan? What if he was waiting…a frustrated, frightened sound escaped and she pressed her hands to her eyes. “Damn it, stop! He’s a fucking cop, he knows what he is doing.”

But an odd little whisper in her head kept repeating, So does the killer…

Darci jumped as the lights flashed back on. A few minutes later, outside her door, Kellan said, “Darci, it’s me.” She watched as the doorknob started to turn. “Unlock the door.”

Swallowing, she forced herself to stand up and walk over to the door. Her hands shook uncontrollably as she turned the little latch, unlocking it and stepping back from the door.

As he came inside, she rubbed her arms, violently cold.

“Somebody tripped the power in the garage, and came in through the front door,” he said, lowering himself to sit on her bed, his eyes watchful. “No signs of forced entry. But we can see signs that somebody stood outside your window, where you said you saw someone as you woke up. A few other things… And the perp left a note.”

Darci read the script through the clear plastic he had tucked the note inside. Her heart tripped as the words started to make sense.

Don’t worry, Darci.

I’m not coming after you-even though he gave me a good reason to kill you tonight.

“You have any idea what that means? Who he is?” Kellan asked, once she had dragged her eyes away from the note and looked back at him.

“No,” she whispered, her throat tightening, vising down until swallowing was nearly impossible. She stared at the note again, until her eyes ached from the strain.

“Kellan,” she murmured, her heart slamming painfully against her ribs. “What is going on?”

Tears started to burn their way down her face and she lifted a hand to wipe them away. “Damn it, look at me, I’m shaking so badly,” she muttered, dashing the tears away. “Crying…and nothing even happened.”

“That’s bullshit,” Kellan said, reaching out and taking her hand, rubbing it between his hands. “You could have been hurt tonight. Worse. We’ve got a maniac on our hands, and most likely he was the one in your house.”

“She…” Darci murmured, remembering the writing.

“What?”

She jumped, startled at how close his voice sounded. Turning her head, she looked into his eyes, only inches away from her face. Sweet heaven, those eyes… Licking her lips, she concentrated and said, “She. The handwriting looks kind of feminine to me. Although I’ve seen men who do write prettier than women. And vice versa. But it’s not just the handwriting. It’s the note itself. A man isn’t very likely to want to kill a woman because of something another man did.”

“Unless he thinks you’ve been doing something with that man that you shouldn’t,” Kellan said, but a brow rose and he smiled in approval. “So…you sure there aren’t any jealous boyfriends?”

Her heart slammed against her chest as his eyes dropped to her mouth. Running her tongue over her lips, she whispered, huskily, “No. No boyfriends.”

He muttered something under his breath and then he reached out, cupping his hand over the back of her neck and drawing her close. Darci went, hypnotized by the look in his eyes. His head started to lower and she could feel his breath on her lips as he whispered, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

As his mouth slanted across hers, Darci gasped, reaching up and curving her fingers into his neck, feeling her nipples tighten as he pushed his tongue deep inside her mouth, one hand coming up to cradle her face.

A moan caught in her throat.

Seconds later, he had pulled away, his eyes dark, turbulent. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he murmured, reaching up and rubbing his thumb across her full, damp lower lip.

“I kinda wish you’d done that long before now,” she said quietly, leaning down and pressing her lips to his, this time sliding her tongue into his mouth, seeking out that sharp, unique taste of man. She closed her eyes in appreciation as she slid off the lounge to kneel in front of him.

One heavily muscled forearm wrapped around her waist, bringing her flush against his body. Her breasts flattened against his chest, her nipples drawn into tight, hard little buds that seemed to ache and throb for his touch. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she dipped her fingers into his hair, delighted to find it hanging loose and free, nearly to his shoulders. Thick, silky, it twined around her fingers, just like she had thought it would.

He tipped her face up, slowly drawing back and moving his lips along the line of her jaw, her ear, and her neck. “Damn it, you smell so good,” he whispered gruffly, and his low, heated voice sent shivers down her spine. “Taste so sweet… I’ve driven myself crazy wondering.”

Against her belly, she felt the long, rigid length of his cock and she whimpered as one big hand cupped her butt, holding her still as he pumped his hips against her, his cock cuddling into the softness of her abdomen. “Maybe you shouldn’t have just wondered,” she teased, pulling her head back slightly, staring into his eyes.

He chuckled. “Darci, babe, you’re a bit more than I know how to handle,” he mused, staring into her eyes.

Footsteps sounded out in the hall and her body cried out in disappointment as he pulled away, easily lifting her to the lounge before he settled back on the bed, linking his hands between his knees, staring at her with brooding, unreadable eyes. The door opened just as he lifted the note from the floor, studying it through the plastic cover. “A woman,” he said quietly, his eyes thoughtful.


Darci pulled a robe on over the thin, white chemise before following them out into her home. “You sleep pretty soundly, Darci,” Kellan murmured, sighing as he studied the walls and the ugly red paint that smeared them.

“The paint is still tacky. She must have done it right before she went outside. I wonder what she was doing,” Kellan muttered, reaching up to run his fingers through his hair. It floated loosely through his fingers and he absently told himself he needed to get it cut.

“Maybe she wanted to scare me,” Darci said softly.

Her eyes were locked on the wall, at the stain of red that smeared it. No words…just an erratic line, right down the middle, and palm prints pressed to each of the matted photos that adorned the wall.

“Well, that’s a given,” Kellan sighed. “You find out somebody opened a door you’re certain you locked, and slid inside your house…you’re going to be scared.”

“I’m starting to get pissed as well,” she said, lifting her shoulders restlessly, a muscle ticcing in her jaw as she stared at the ruined pictures.

Kellan suspected he knew what was going through her mind. Certainly, she could throw the frames away, get new ones-the glass over the photos had protected the pictures she had shot. But he knew, even if she did that, they were ruined for her.

As if in echo to his thoughts, she quietly said, “Some of these are the first photos I ever took. More than fifteen years of my life invested in them. And now they are ruined. I can’t ever look at them again without seeing those bloody handprints.”

“I’m sorry, Darci,” he said quietly, dipping his hands into his pockets to keep from reaching out to her.

A dry laugh escaped her. “Yeah. Me, too. But maybe not for all of it,” she replied.

And the look she sent him from under her lashes had his blood pounding heavy and hot through his veins.


No fingerprints.

None. The handprints on the glass and the walls were smooth, like a mannequin. They discovered why later as a deputy searching the grounds had found a pair of vinyl gloves lying beside the mailbox, stained red with paint.

“Who in the hell are you?”

“Sheriff?” one of the deputies asked from behind him.

As he tossed the bag containing the vinyl gloves onto his desk, he muttered, “Nothing. I’m just talking to myself.”

Grady finished reading the report and asked, “Think it’s the same person?”

“Almost has to be. This town is too damned small. You don’t go all this time with hardly any crimes and then suddenly have two nutcases show up at once,” he said, rubbing his eyes. He hadn’t slept, not even for twenty minutes, since the night before…when he had kissed her.

And then she had kissed him.

The echo of her taste still lingered in his mouth. She had been so sweet, so hot…the scent of her arousal had flooded the air and he had wished he had more time…time to push her back onto the ground and find the source of that hot, musky scent, ripe and female.

Nearly thirty-six hours had passed.

And he still couldn’t forget the feel of her satin skin under his hands.

“What in the hell are we going to do?” Grady asked, sighing and leaning back in his chair. “We don’t have the men to watch her full time. And this all has something to do with her. Doesn’t it?”

“’Fraid so,” Kellan replied, turning to stare out the window. The small sheriff’s office had more traffic in it than it usually saw on a weekend. Late Sunday, yet the small parking lot was full. Those who weren’t there because he had called were there because they wanted to know what in the hell was going on.

Even the police got curious.

He’d love to be able to tell them something. Anything.

Anything more than, No, we don’t know what’s up…

He was getting pissed.


***


Kim stared at Tricia Casey with tired eyes. “Bryce will be in sooner or later-you know how he is. Why-”

“We need him here now,” Tricia said icily. “I’ve lost two of my best artists. I’ve got business to do. I do not have time to stand around the gallery. That is why I hired you two and I’m tired of him not doing his job.” Her eyes narrowed shrewdly and she added, “You make an art of avoiding him-why is that?”

Why don’t you go and find him? Kim thought nastily. But she didn’t dare say that aloud. Not to Tricia.

Kim really didn’t want to go looking for Bryce. His golden boy blond looks, the way he stared at her, it all made her feel tight and itchy. But Tricia wasn’t going to go looking for him.

And the only person left was Peggy. Not likely she’d do anything. Even though she was part owner of the gallery, she never did anything beyond work in the small studio in the back. Kim wondered if she even knew who Bryce was.

Kim trudged down the steps, turning to the right. She could always drive over there-it was nearly a half mile to his apartment, but she had no desire to hurry back to the gallery.

Resentment brewed in her belly as she remembered the look in Tricia’s eyes. She knew. That knowing, disdainful look… Kim wanted nothing so much as to knock that look off her boss’s face. Like that was really going to happen.

She had to keep getting her paychecks, didn’t she? Carrie was no longer there to run interference. For the longest time, Carrie had made sure Kim would be around because she liked having a lackey. But Tricia couldn’t care less about Kim. And there was no reason to worry about keeping Carrie happy now.

Turning right on Main Street, she jogged across the intersection before the light could turn green, muttering under her breath.

Kim do this…Kim do that…

Cutting across Preservation Park, she hit Lyle Street, scowling as she saw Bryce’s black truck parked in front of his apartment. Jerk. He was home, likely hung over or stoned. Just ignoring the phone.

As she plodded up the stairs to the small apartment he rented from Letty Miller, she mumbled under her breath. “One of these days, I’m going to get extremely tired of doing everything I’m told,” she groused, banging on the door.

She realized he wasn’t going to answer. It was too quiet in there. Even when he was hung over, he didn’t sleep that soundly. He should have already yanked the door open.

Kim was even braced for him to yell at her. But there wasn’t a sound in the apartment.

Pulling up the doormat, Kim grabbed the key and unlocked the door.

The smell struck her like a fist.


Kellan settled down across the table from Kim, studying her pale face. “He’s been dead a couple of days,” he said quietly. “It will be a few days before I know for certain. But there’s nothing you could have done.”

She nodded jerkily. “That smell…” Lifting her eyes, she said softly, “I still feel sick.”

“Were you and Bryce friends?” he asked gently, steering her mind away from that. He’d found her kneeling in the grass after Letty heard her stumble down the stairs and the old woman had gone to investigate.

Now, Letty was fine, her bright eyes snapping almost joyfully. Oh, she’d be infamous now, he knew. She’d had somebody murdered in her apartment. Nothing like that to get people to talking.

People were weird. Some of them had a morbid fascination with death. Letty was one of them. She followed every murder story that happened in the local area, from Louisville, to Madison, to Indianapolis and back. She knew more about local murders than a news reporter could ever hope to dig up.

And now one had happened on her property.

Kellan imagined it would affect her differently if it had been somebody she liked. And she had taken the time to bring Kim a cold rag and a glass of lemon-lime soda to wash the taste of vomit from her mouth, patting her back kindly before she led Kellan to the apartment.

Letty wasn’t a bad person, just…unique.

Kim’s hesitant words snapped Kellan back to attention, listening as she slowly said, “No. We weren’t really friends. I knew him, but he didn’t like me.” She gave a humorless laugh. “I honestly don’t think he liked women at all, if you want the truth.”

“You mean, you think he was gay?” Kellan hazarded, a little confused by her words.

“Oh, no. I don’t think he is gay. He loves…ah, using? Maybe that’s the word. He loves to talk about all the women he’s slept with, and he can be pretty demeaning toward them. Never around Peggy or Tricia-or anybody else who might try to make him eat his words. Tricia would cut him down without blinking…and Peggy could fire him,” Kim said. Then she gave a watery laugh. “I’m still talking about him as though he’s alive. Damn it.”

Kellan gave her a minute, watched as her hands closed into tight fists and she took a deep breath. Once she had settled, he asked, “You mean an authority figure? Both Peggy and Tricia were his bosses.” Kellan scratched his head. He had known Bryce Bishop, distantly. And the guy was definitely down on the female race, a chauvinistic pig if ever he’d met one.

“Maybe,” Kim said, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “He likes-I mean, he liked-to push around the women he knew he could push around. But he never seemed to try it with those he couldn’t intimidate.”

“Was he seeing anybody that you know of?”

Kim chuckled. “Sheriff Grant, you seem to think he actually thought me worthy of confiding that sort of thing,” she said, forcing a tremulous smile. “I wasn’t anything to him. I know how he acted around women just because I saw him at work all the time. But he wouldn’t talk to me about his life. Wouldn’t talk to me about anything.”

Sighing, Kellan pressed his fingers to his brow. This wasn’t adding up. Darci’s break-in, this latest murder… Even though he gave me reason to kill you last night…

Through his lashes, he studied Kim’s face. “Where were you, Kim, on Friday night?” he asked softly.

She blinked. “Friday night?” Shrugging, she said quietly, “Same place I usually am on Friday nights-home alone.” He heard the bitter acceptance in her voice and stifled a wave of sympathy for the girl.

Running his tongue across the inside of his teeth, he ran the idea through his head. “What are your thoughts on Darci Law?”

Now she cocked her head, staring at him with a line of puzzlement between her brows. “Darci? We’re not exactly friends…” her voice trailed away and she shrugged. “She doesn’t much care for the people I work for. And Darci has a funny set of rules. She won’t talk to people she doesn’t trust. And since I work for people she doesn’t trust, well, that means she can’t trust me.”

“Rather astute observation,” he drawled.

Kim flushed red, her eyes turning sad. “Not an observation,” she mumbled. Licking her lips, she looked down at the table, scratching at the surface with a nonexistent nail. “Darci told me that. Every once in a while, when I worked at Becka’s place, we’d go out for lunch. I tried to get her to go grab a bite with me, once, after I started working for Peggy and Tricia. That’s when she told me that.”

“How did you feel about that?” he asked. Was there something here?

“Kind of down,” she admitted. “Darci is…well, she’s Darci.” She flashed Kellan a smile, her nose wrinkling. “You know her. She’s…”

“She’s Darci,” Kellan finished, chuckling, nodding. “Yeah, I know her. She’s Darci, all right.”

Kim nodded, rubbing at a small nick in the table. “I was pretty hurt at first. But I wasn’t really surprised. Darci’s got a way of looking at things-black and white.” She swallowed, and when she spoke, her voice was softer, a near whisper. “Beth and Carrie did some kind of underhanded things to Becka.”

“If it was underhanded, why did you go with them?”

“Carrie. She…she went. Carrie is how I got my job with Becka in the first place. When she told me, I guess I felt I had to,” Kim whispered.

“Did you have any reason to be mad at Carrie? Or Beth?”

Kim sighed. “I don’t know. Carrie wasn’t the nicest of people, I know that. But she got me my job, helped me get the apartment after I got divorced,” she said, frowning. “But she could be kind of mean.”

Hell…Kim wasn’t stupid, Kellan thought, leaning back and sighing. If she had killed any of these people, she would be protecting herself. Not leaving herself wide open like this.

“I’d like to do a formal interview, Kim. Just procedure,” he said, studying what few notes he had made in his notepad. “Is that okay with you?”

She shrugged. “Whatever you think is best, Sheriff,” she said quietly.


***


Damn.

Helluva lot of blood, Kellan thought, surveying the blood pattern. It had sprayed from Bryce’s neck in a geyser before the man had reached up, trying to staunch the blood flow. No defensive wounds…didn’t see it coming?

He’d died pretty quickly.

An empty whiskey bottle lay on the floor, splattered with dried blood. How much had he drunk before she cut him?

He paced into the bedroom, and studied the rumpled blankets. The air was stale. Couldn’t recognize any particular scent beyond that of death. Using his pen, he tried to edge back the sheets a little. Stains…maybe recent. The coroner would be able to tell him if Bryce had had sexual intercourse before he died.

Was this the he who had been referred to in the note?

Maybe.

Bryce had liked to watch Darci. Kellan knew that because he liked to watch Darci and tended to notice when other guys were doing the same. But Darci wouldn’t go for Bryce, Kellan suspected. Not her type. She’d cut him to shreds with her tongue, especially knowing Bryce’s penchant for chauvinistic remarks.

This might be the he , he thought, nodding slowly. Made sense. Darci was something Bryce had wanted. Would make a woman jealous. But why hadn’t the woman killed Darci?

And if it was the same killer…why kill Beth? Carrie?

Those were people who had caused Darci problems. Killing them, then Bryce, just didn’t make any sense. Bryce hadn’t really caused Darci problems. He wasn’t worth her time, Kellan suspected.

So why had he been worth the killer’s?

“This doesn’t make any sense,” he muttered, shaking his head.

The formal interview with Kim hadn’t yielded anything.

Kim was a lonely, fairly simple woman without a lot of friends. No, she didn’t know if Bryce was seriously seeing anybody. Yes, she knew a lot of people who could be mad at Bryce, but Bryce had been pretty much a bastard. He’d pissed off almost everybody he met at some point in time. Yes, she was at home Friday night, all night, alone. No, she didn’t have a boyfriend.

Kim didn’t have the spine to do any of this. Wouldn’t have the spine to sneak into Darci’s home, try to scare her…hell, Kellan doubted she had the brain.

Or the fire. Although the murders had been quick, there was something…heated about them. Kellan couldn’t get past the thought that whoever had done this had some deep hatred inside of her.

Kim didn’t seem to have that kind of passion.

Somebody with heat inside them…he ticked through the people in his head whom he knew were acquainted with all the victims. Well, Darci had heat, but he knew she hadn’t done it.

The murders had left her sick.

Plus, he also believed what she had said… I’m too lazy…hatred requires energy.

Yes, it did. A lot of energy.

Tricia? Hell, that woman was an icicle. She didn’t have heat inside of her. Hatred was heat.

Maybe Peggy…but he dismissed that idea before it even formed. She was a listless, lifeless being, the only heat he’d ever seen from her was in the paintings and sketches she sold.

Della.

He couldn’t think of a reason for her to kill Bryce, but maybe if he looked… There was certainly reason for Della to be angry with Carrie, if Della had finally figured out how badly Carrie was using her, how Carrie had lied. Somebody unbalanced would have a hard time dealing with anger in a logical manner.

Was Della the type to fly over the edge with her rage?

Possibly. She had certainly lit into Darci, from what he had heard, when she thought Darci was screwing Max. And he’d seen signs of her temper, knew she could sometimes react…irrationally.

Maybe it was time to talk to Della a little bit.

Chapter Five

“Where was I?” she repeated, staring at him with flat, dark eyes. Della Bennett ran a hand through her dark, curly hair and lifted a cigarette to her mouth, puffing twice before blowing out a stream of smoke through her nostrils. “Here. In bed, with Max,” she said, shrugging. “Why, you think I killed Bryce? That worm?”

“I didn’t say anything of the sort, Della,” Kellan said, tapping his pen against his thigh.

“Mmm. Maybe not, but you’re trying to pin down my whereabouts for the night he was killed. Can’t think of any other reason why you might be asking,” she drawled. “Max is at work, but you’re welcome to check with him.”

“Oh, I will,” Kellan said.

She shrugged. Couldn’t care less…he read the body language, the look in her eyes, and even though he finished running through his questions, he added everything up to one simple fact. She couldn’t care less about Bryce.

She wasn’t his killer.

His killer had cared, maybe obsessively so.

“What about the day Carrie died?” he asked.

Her lips curled up in a wry smile. “Max can tell you about that, too. I was busy ripping him a new asshole for daring to mess with another woman,” she said, tapping her cigarette against the ashtray. “He told me I was crazy and he didn’t know what in the hell I was talking about.” An odd look passed through her eyes and she added softly, “He was telling the truth. I didn’t admit that to myself until just a few days ago. He wasn’t messing around on me, not with Darci, not with anybody.”

“So you know Carrie was lying? Mad about that?”

“Of course, she wasn’t lying.” Della frowned at him. “Hell, I don’t know who started the rumor. Carrie was just telling me what she thought was going on. I don’t know where she came up with the story. Can’t ask her, either,” she said sadly.

“You don’t think Carrie made it up, to cause trouble with you and Darci?”

“Hell, what’s the point in that?” Della asked.

Kellan shrugged. “Darci admired you. A lot. Liked you,” he said, watching as she flinched at his words. Losing that seemed to bother her some. “That’s changed now. Hurt you a little…but I think you hurt Darci a lot. And that’s what Carrie was after.”

“Why in the hell would Carrie want that? She likes…liked Darci. Damn it, it’s still too hard to believe,” she muttered, rubbing her temple. “But she liked her. She’d tell anybody that. Even if Darci did run her mouth a lot.”

Kellan laughed. “Della, I never thought you were naïve enough to believe everything somebody tells you. Now…I know people pretty well,” he said, tossing his pen on the table. “And I can assure you, Carrie didn’t have fond feelings for Darci. She hid it well, but she did not like Darci. At all.”

With a brittle laugh, Della demanded, “How in the hell do you know?”

He shrugged. “Same way I know Carrie didn’t like you either. You two women are things Carrie wasn’t…vibrant, passionate women. Everywhere you two go, people like you. People want to be like you. People flock to you,” Kellan said. “In order for Carrie to get people to like her, she had to lie, make them think she was something other than what she was. She was a tired, bitter old woman.”

Her hands started to shake. Minutely shaking her head, drawing on her cigarette. “That’s not true,” she finally snapped, her voice rising.

“Yes, it is,” he said, cocking a brow at her. “And you’ve suspected it for a long time. You just don’t want to admit it-because then you’d have to admit why Carrie went out of her way to befriend you from the get-go. She wanted to use you. Now, that, normally, wouldn’t be unusual-I think a lot of people have tried to use you-you’re famous, talented. But you’re also smart, and quick. Usually you can spot a user from ten miles away. But not with her-you let her use you. That must really burn.”

“Fuck. You,” Della said coldly, enunciating each word slowly and carefully. Smashing her cigarette down into the ashtray, she stood and stomped out of the room. “Let yourself out.”


Strike two, Kellan thought wearily, rubbing his eyes.

He headed down River Road, telling himself to stop getting so antsy.

Darci was fine.

She had a deputy there watching the house, and she’d call if anything seemed the slightest bit odd.

No reason for him to go by the house.

Except for the fact that he had to see her. Touch her.

It was close to seven-thirty, which meant the deputy would maybe want a bite to eat.

But Kellan hadn’t planned it that way. Well, not completely.

As he pulled into the driveway, he ran his tongue over his lips, remembering the way she tasted, how she felt. How she had burrowed against him and pressed her breasts up against his chest, so that he had felt the hard nubs of her nipples stabbing into his flesh. The way her belly had cuddled his cock. The hungry little moans in her throat.

He paused by the deputy’s car and knelt down. “I’ve got to talk to Miss Law some more. You want to go grab you a bite to eat, Hank?”

The older deputy slid Kellan a telling glance, but he didn’t say anything, just lifted his stooped shoulders in a shrug. Nodding at Kellan, he started the car and shoved it into reverse, an odd smile dancing on his mouth.

“I’m as transparent as glass,” he muttered, straightening back up and pushing his hand through his hair.

Kellan glanced down at his clothes and then scowled as he realized what he was doing. The button-down and blue jeans were standard work clothes for him, topped with a blazer when he absolutely had to. If it was good enough to wear to work, then it should be good enough to go and talk to somebody related to his case.

Related, my ass. You just want to get your hands on her body again. Well, yeah. He knocked on the door and tucked his hands into his pockets so that he wouldn’t grab her the second she opened the door.

Still, when she glanced through the window and he saw that smile bloom on her face, he still had to fight not to grab her. She was too damned adorable for words, so soft and sweet and sexy. All big eyes, kissable mouth, and soft skin.

All he wanted to do was bite her.

“Hey,” she said quietly, leaning against the doorjamb, folding her arms under her breasts. Kellan’s eyes lingered on the smooth swelling mounds, the little nubs of her nipples pressing against the thin, white fabric. His mouth was watering. And if he didn’t do something or say something, he was pretty sure he’d be drooling in a few more seconds.

“Hi. I let Hank go get a bite to eat. Mind if I come in?” he asked. He even managed to keep his voice halfway level.

“Sure. Don’t suppose you’ve got anything new, do you?” she asked, standing aside and letting him move past her. Heat sizzled up his arm as his biceps brushed against her breasts. Her eyes flew up and met his. Electricity flew between them.

Reaching behind him, Kellan closed the door, watching as she braced her back against the wall with her hands tucked behind her. His eyes dipped once more to her breasts and he swore roughly. “If I tell you that I’m not here about anything related to the case, are you going to kick me out?”

One black brow rose and she shrugged. “Well, that depends. On exactly why you came. If it’s because I didn’t pay a couple of speeding tickets, then yes, I’ll probably kick you out.”

He grinned at her as her lids drooped low over her eyes, a cat’s smile dancing on her lips. “A lawbreaker, huh? Always knew there was something shifty about you, Miss Law,” he murmured, bracing a hand on the wall beside her head and leaning down to stare into her eyes.

She widened her eyes and gave him an innocent stare. “I’m really sorry, officer. If I promise not to do it again, will you be gentle with me?” she teased, her pretty green eyes sparkling at him.

He smiled as he lowered his head, slanting his lips across hers and pushing his tongue into the sweet cavern of her mouth. As she moaned, he breathed the sound in, reveling in the soft female pleasure it implied.

Pulling her against him, he pivoted so that his back was braced against the wall and the soft weight of her body was leaning into his. Pulling back just a little, he whispered, “I don’t know. Hardened criminals emerge all the time because somebody decided to be gentle with them, instead of giving them their just punishment.”

Sharp little teeth nipped his lip. Kellan groaned as he buried his fingers in her hair and whispered, “I think that’s assaulting an officer of the law, Darci.” All playfulness left him then as he brought her mouth back to his and feasted on the soft silk of her lips, drowning in her sweet taste.

His cock throbbed like a bad tooth, aching and sore. The scent of her rose in the air, hot and female. Running his hands down her back, he cupped the round curve of her ass in his hands. She moaned-a broken, hungry little sound that echoed in his ears.

Moving his lips to her ear, he whispered, “I’ve been driving myself crazy, wanting you the way I do. I’m tired of fighting it.”

Darci laughed as she pulled back just a little, running her widespread palms down his chest, toying with the buckle of his belt. “Well, I’d hate to be responsible for driving anybody crazy.”

With a chuckle, he murmured, “Now why don’t I believe that? I think you enjoy knowing you drive people insane…” He caught the hem of her shirt and pulled upward slowly, keeping his eyes on hers, watching as he slowly bared the pale skin of her torso. That hot female smile lingered on her lips and she stepped back, lifting her arms over her head and letting him tug the shirt away.

Her breasts lifted and fell as she breathed, her hands hanging relaxed at her sides. Small, round little globes, topped with deep pink circles. Lowering his mouth, he traced his tongue over first one pink nipple and then the other, smiling against her flesh as she trembled.

“You taste good,” he whispered.

“So glad to hear that,” she said, her voice trembling as she reached up and cupped the back of his head in her hands, holding him against her.

He arched her back over his arm, suckling the beaded bud deep in his mouth as he swirled his tongue across it. Cupping one knee in his hand, he drew her leg up, opening the soft folds between her thighs. Through the soft cotton of her pants and the sturdy denim of his, he felt the heat of her pussy, hot enough to scald him.

“You’re hot,” he groaned, straightening up and spinning around, pinning her against the wall. He cupped her other leg and guided it around his hips, shuddering at the damp heat there between her thighs. “Are you planning on calling a stop to this? Because if you are, do it now. Wait much longer and I think I might have to arrest myself later.”

His teeth closed over her nipple and he heard her breathless laugh just before she asked, “Why would you have to do that?”

“Well, I just don’t know if I’m going to be able to stop.” He slid his hands inside her pants and cupped her ass, the naked skin feeling like silk in his palms. “You taste so fucking good.”

“Hmmm…I don’t want you to stop, so don’t worry,” she murmured.

“Fuck,” he groaned against her breast. Dropping to his knees, he tore her pants away, finding her naked underneath. Staring at the lips of her pussy, a soft growl escaped him and he pressed his mouth against the smooth, naked mound, stroking his tongue down the slit and groaning as the hot, spicy taste of her exploded on his tongue.

He pushed her thighs wider apart, angling his tongue so that he could fuck it in and out her tight sheath, feeling her hands bury in his hair as she screamed. Her knees buckled and he caught her against him, easing her down to the floor. Kellan wedged himself between her thighs, draping one thigh over his shoulder.

He stroked one finger down the dew-slicked flesh of her pussy, spreading the lips apart before he leaned back and studied the glistening pink folds with hungry eyes.

“Since you don’t plan on calling a stop to this, you don’t mind if I spend some time-right here.”


Darci sobbed out his name as he pumped two fingers in and out of her pussy while he teased her clit into aching readiness with his lips and teeth. Fisting her hands in his hair, she arched up against him, wrapping her thighs around his head and holding him against her.

Holy hell, his tongue was magic. Breath locked in her lungs and she fought to breathe past the fire that burned in her belly. She whimpered and finally the band around her lungs unlocked and she sucked in air. His fingers slid wetly over the flesh of her pussy and she shuddered. His hands cupped her ass and she shrieked as he pulled the cheeks of her ass apart, letting the cool kiss of air dance over her body.

As the orgasm ripped through her, he shifted lower, pressing his mouth against her as though he was drinking her up. Her back arched and she pumped her hips against his face, whimpering, feeling tears spill out of her eyes, leak down her cheeks.

Her eyes drifted closed as he lowered her hips back to the floor. She felt the cool tile of the foyer under her ass, her body feeling boneless and limp.

“Darci?”

She forced her lashes to lift, fighting the languid feeling that had saturated her entire body. “Hmmm. In a few more hours, I might be able to breathe and respond, Kellan,” she murmured, watching as he levered himself up over her. His mouth and chin were wet, his eyes hooded, hungry.

“Well, I’m not waiting a few hours,” he whispered, a devilish grin curving his lips up. “You can just lie there…and think of England.”

Her heart bumped against her chest as he straightened up, reaching for the buttons on his shirt. Her heart bumped again, slamming just a little harder as renewed lust stirred in her belly. She pushed up onto her elbow, interested in the broad wedge of muscled chest he was revealing.

She stroked her finger across the muscles of his belly, watching as they rippled under her touch. “I think I can find something more interesting than England,” she whispered, smiling as he hissed out a breath between his teeth.

His body crushed hers into the floor and she sucked air into her lungs, digging her fingers into the thick muscles of his shoulders. His hand moved between them and she whimpered as she felt him tugging at his belt, unbuttoning his jeans.

His cock brushing against her belly, and as he moved lower, brushing against the naked mound of her pussy. The broad head pushed against her and Darci groaned, arching up against him, feeling one large hand cup her ass, tilting her hips upward. Big, thick…she sucked air in as he pushed deep inside the tight clutch of her body, pulling back and surging deeper inside.

“Damn it, you’re tight as a fist,” he groaned.

Darci squeezed her eyes closed, feeling a burning pressure that bordered on pain arc through her as he flexed his hips and pushed deeper. Tears stung her eyes and she sobbed.

His mouth covered hers just as she started to push against his shoulders, certain she couldn’t take any more. His tongue stroked across hers, one hand coming up to cup her breast, rolling the nipple between his thumb and finger. At the same time, he shifted position, moving higher on her body so that he brushed against the swollen bud of her clit with each slow thrust.

The sensations had her gasping, making her body relax the tension that she hadn’t realized had flooded her. As that happened, he pushed deeper inside and the head of his cock stroked over the notch buried in her pussy by the mouth of her womb. Heat sizzled in her belly and she screamed against his mouth as he pulled out, pushed back in.

His hair felt cool and silky under her hands as she clutched greedy handfuls of it. Sweat slicked his flesh as he drove inside her, the thick pillar of his cock tunneling through her pussy as she clenched around him. Dizzying bursts of color exploded before her eyes as he raked his teeth down her neck. As his teeth closed around the swollen bud of her nipple, she threw her head back, not even fazed as it slammed into the hard tile beneath her.

“Kellan, oh, please…right there,” she whimpered as he shifted again, working a hand between them and circling his thumb over her clit.

It felt like a tight band had been strung between her clit and her nipples. Every stroke of his tongue on her nipples, and every circling caress of his thumb on her clit drew that band tighter and tighter, while the slow, purposeful strokes of his cock had her lifting up against him with each stroke.

“You like that?” he growled against her lips. “What else would you like?”

She shivered at his words, at the low, sexy growl, the sensual threat she heard in his voice. “Hmmm…from you? Just about anything,” she whispered.

His fingers dug into the soft flesh of her ass and she sobbed out his name as he traced his finger down the seam between the cheeks of her bottom. “Anything?”

The orgasm hit her with the force of a lightning bolt, setting every last nerve ending to sizzling as he circled one finger around the tight pucker of her ass.

“Kellan-”

His mouth covered hers and swallowed down the scream as he started to probe the small hole, pushing just the tip of his finger inside. The muscles in her pussy started to convulse around his cock and she cried out as the burning heat inside her swelled, pushing the air from her lungs, making dark pinwheels and rainbows flash behind her eyes.

The slow, thorough probing of his finger inside her ass had her arching against him, unable to decide if she liked it or not. Just as she was deciding that she did like it, though, he pulled away and she groaned in frustration, reaching for him.

His hands caught hers and she twined her fingers with his, trying to hold him to her as he pulled away. His hands went to her hips, guiding her over onto her hands and knees. Darci felt the punch of need explode through her as he jerked her hips back against him. She felt his cock cuddle between the cheeks of her ass, felt his hands stroke down the rounded flesh, and she whimpered as one broad palm smoothed over her rump. Her body tensed in anticipation as his hand left her flesh.

When it slapped down on her ass, Darci all but jumped out of her skin. She pushed back against him, and sobbed as he spanked her again. And again, until the flesh of her ass burned and she was so damned aroused-her clit aching, her pussy weeping.

“Such a pretty ass,” he purred roughly, stroking one hand down the curve of her rump, before slapping again with the flat of his hand. “Look at how pink your skin gets…you like that, Darci?”

Sobbing, she barely had the breath to answer. “Yes…” And then his hand landed on her butt again, striking first one cheek and then the other. He teased the sensitive folds of her pussy, stroking back and forth over her.

“Damn it, Kellan, please…” she whimpered.

“Please what?” he asked, his voice dark and low.

“Fuck me!” she wailed, pushing back against him, feeling just the tip of his cock breach her folds.

She heard a low, rough growl from Kellan and then he slammed into her with one long, bruising stroke and she arched up, ecstasy ripping through her with violent intensity. She threw back her head, screaming, the tissues of her pussy clutching at his cock as he pulled out and worked back inside, fighting the tense muscles of her sheath as she climaxed. Her hair fell into her eyes, wet with sweat, limp, as she lowered her head to the floor, gasping for air as he tunneled back inside of her.

“I’m not done yet,” he rasped, reaching down and taking her hands, guiding them into place at the small of her back. “You aren’t done yet, either, Darci. You’ve no idea how long I’ve wanted you, how many times I’ve dreamed of fucking you until you screamed yourself hoarse. No, it’s not done yet.”

Her wrists secured at her back, his big body crouched over hers, Darci shook her head. Every muscle in her body felt as limp as spaghetti. The hard, brutal digs of his cock in her pussy left her body shaking and tense, and she didn’t know whether she wanted to beg for more.

Or beg him to stop. “Kellan,” she whimpered. “Kellan, please…”

“Hmmm. You’re not screaming,” he teased, pulling gently on her arms, reaching around and brushing the sweaty hanks of hair away from her face. She felt his eyes on her-blood rushed to her cheeks.

Then his fingers trailed between the globes of her ass and she bucked. His hand came around her hip, gathering the slick cream from her pussy and then returning to smear it over her asshole. “I wasn’t planning on this,” he whispered. “Not exactly. But if I had…I think maybe I would have been more prepared. Fuck me, I’ve dreamed about burying my dick inside this sweet little ass of yours.”

His finger pushed inside and she keened, a low rough sound, her back arching, tension slamming into her. She wanted to brace her body on the floor, but he still held her hands. Tugging against the hold he had on her wrists, she whimpered, couldn’t decide whether she wanted to fight harder to get away from him or come just from how damned hot he was making her.

He started to fuck his finger inside the snug confines of her ass, letting go of her wrists with his other hand. He stroked that hand down her butt and she screamed as he spanked her again, that light slap on the flushed, tender flesh of her ass closing a fist of agonized pleasure around her that wouldn’t let go.

Kellan slammed into her, harder, harder. His hand went back to grip her hip, holding her steady for the double penetration of his cock in her pussy, and his finger in her ass. His strokes picked up and she pushed back, sucking air into her lungs past the tight fist of lust.

She exploded around him, her pussy clutching around his cock as she screamed out his name. Black dots exploded behind her eyes and she felt the hot splash of his seed deep inside her pussy.

His hands clutched at her hips as he pulled out and burrowed back inside with one final thrust.

With her arms sprawled limply beside her head, Darci groaned. “I think I’m dead,” she whispered hoarsely.

He bent over her and she felt his head come down and rest between her shoulder blades. “Ummm…no. Not dead. Most definitely alive,” he said. Little tremors rippled through her pussy as his cock jerked. “And when I can breathe again, I plan on enjoying…this…again.”

This was accompanied by his hand reaching around and cupping her pussy as he eased back and urged her to the ground, cuddling her up against him. His body was hot, damp, his heart slamming against her back where he held her tight against him.


***


Anger boiled in her belly as she lingered outside the window.

Bitch.

Whore.

Damn it, how could she be in there getting laid when Bryce was dead? His own fucking fault, calling her Darci again, but damn it, didn’t the bitch have any compassion?

She should be sobbing, crying, sad at least that Bryce was gone. The whole world should be mourning him.

But she wasn’t mourning. She was getting fucked within an inch of her life.

Darci’s screams were audible even through the windows. With her hand pressed against the glass, she listened, rage and a twisted form of greedy desire lurking in her belly as she watched.

He’d turned the light on. She watched as the sheriff rose up on his knees, looming over her as he cupped her slender hips in his hands.

She couldn’t see well enough. She wanted to see his cock, wanted to watch as he pushed inside Darci’s pussy.

With a whispered curse, she turned away, sliding through the bushes and the trees until she got down closer to the river. Then she headed west to Cole’s Landing where she’d parked her car.

Her feet moved silently over the ground, barely stirring the branches and the leaves as she passed.

Not right. The bitch shouldn’t be enjoying life so much when Bryce was dead, his body forever cold. She wanted to hurt Darci. So much she could taste it.

But damn it, this wasn’t about Darci.

Shame and grief rose in her belly as she remembered Bryce’s hands on her, his gruff voice in her ear as he barked out orders and insults, the feel of his hands on her flesh as he fucked her, as he punished her. Nobody had ever made her feel the way he had-hot, depraved, the humiliation and hunger twining inside of her until she couldn’t tell one from the other.

She’d never feel that again. But it was his fault. Damn it, his fault.

“You got distracted,” she muttered, digging her keys out of her pocket. “Distracted. And see what it did? Remember the plan. Keep the plan in mind.”

Chapter Six

A week of uneasy silence passed. Bryce’s messy apartment had shown them nothing but that he was definitely a bachelor, with empty pizza boxes cluttering the kitchen, empty beer cans and a stash of uppers. With a wry twist of his lips, Kellan studied the small assortment of pills and wondered why he hadn’t figured Bryce as a user.

Of course, he hadn’t really seen Bryce as somebody who would be involved in bondage games either. But the porn mags in his house were all of the darker variety, and the box under the bed had revealed an assortment of chains, handcuffs, and ball gags.

And videos…the videos sent a surge of excitement rushing through him. This was personal. Very personal. And there was nothing in the world as personal and intimate as sex.

Would those videos show anything?

Licking his lips, he counted them and recorded them on the inventory list. Well, he had been planning on a movie tonight, but he had hoped to get Darci to meet him in Columbus and maybe catch one together. Then maybe find some secluded area to park and fuck her brains out.

They couldn’t risk being seen together right now. Not with this investigation going on, but he wanted her so badly that he couldn’t breathe.

“Better this way,” he told himself, plowing a hand through his hair before gathering up the videos. I’ll spend the night watching a bunch of videos and then I’ll go jack off in the shower and get some rest.

And hopefully, these videos would yield a clue. Some sort of clue.


***


Darci moved through the gallery in a daze. Her mind didn’t want to realign with her body. All she could remember was that night. He’d left sometime before ten o’clock.

“I wish I could stay,” he had whispered, brushing her hair back.

“Me, too.”

“This damned case…damn it. When I get this thing solved…” then his voice had trailed off as he’d jerked her against him, pressing a ravenous kiss against her lips, his hand fisting in her hair. Before she could start to kiss him back though, Kellan had pulled away and left without another word.

Her lips buzzed now, just thinking about that kiss. Pressing her fingers to her lips, closing her eyes in memory, she was caught by surprise when the door opened.

Turning, she found herself staring into Tricia Casey’s bland green eyes. Arching a brow at the older woman, she said, “Well, I usually don’t get to see you in here.”

Tricia laughed, her eyes twinkling as though she knew what sort of things were running through Darci’s mind. With a shrug of her shoulders, she said, “I don’t have much time for visiting. Not with running the gallery, hunting down new artists…and it’s terrible, but we are busier now than we ever have been. Violent death has done wonders for Carrie and Beth’s sales. Peggy and I can hardly keep up.”

“People are a macabre bunch.” Folding her arms across her middle, Darci asked, “What can I do for you, Tricia?”

She smiled, causing the few lines in her face to deepen. One wasn’t likely to guess her age. For a woman of sixty-two, she looked remarkable. Reaching into her purse, she drew out a small stack of envelopes. “We keep receiving your mail,” she murmured, holding it out to Darci.

Darci arched a brow. “I’ll have to complain again. Tiresome, never knowing where your mail is going. Especially since one or two times the letters looked like somebody had tried to open them. Not the bills, of course, but the ones that come from customers.”

A cool smile curved Tricia’s lips and she shrugged. “Bryce was always terribly nosy, I’m afraid. Wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear he was reading other people’s mail.”

Folding her hand around the envelopes, Darci took them and sauntered back behind the counter. Calmly, she said, “Well, that being the case, I assume I don’t need to worry about people looking at my mail anymore. Seeing as how he’s gone.”

Tricia sighed, a sad look crossing her face. “Indeed. Such a tragedy. He was so young. I just don’t understand what is going on,” she murmured.

Darci lifted a shoulder. “Probably the only person who does understand is the one behind it,” she finally said, idly flipping through the envelopes. No sense…Beth…Carrie…Bryce… Hell, Bryce wasn’t connected to her at all. Hadn’t ever done more than check out her ass when he thought she wasn’t looking.

The only thing they had in common was Dark Destinies.


***


Kellan had reached the same conclusion, although he would have disagreed with Darci’s thoughts on Bryce.

He was connected to her. Because the man had wanted her. A near obsessive want, judging by how many times he had fucked a woman and told her she’d answer to Darci’s name if that was what he felt like calling her.

Dark Destinies…and Darci… Well, there was one other thing they had in common.

Kim.

Bryce had his own little harem, and Kellan was a bit surprised over some of the faces he had seen. Married women, dumpy women, women he would have pegged as being too smart to want anything to do with Bryce.

But he knew what it was like to have a need for something dark. He had dark, obsessive fantasies of his own, all centered around Darci. These women who had been with Bryce wanted the pain and the humiliation and the sex he doled out with a fair amount of skill.

He liked to spank them, cane them, tie them down.

Often he would gag them, or pull a hood over their heads before applying the whip.

The blonde who was currently chained to the floor and giving Bryce a blowjob was one who took him by surprise.

Another link between the dead people.

She’d been Beth’s fetching girl. Carrie’s whipping girl…

“Say it, Kim, say you’re my fuck slut,” came Bryce’s voice from the TV as he pulled his wet dick from the woman’s mouth.

She stared up at Bryce with rapt hunger, whispering obediently, “I’m your fuck slut.”

And she had been the lover of one of the murder victims. Well, Kellan had to amend that as Bryce backhanded her across the face before jerking her by the hair and forcing his dick halfway down her throat. Maybe lover wasn’t the right term.

Casting a glance at his watch, he vacillated. Did he really want to go and question Kim about this? At seven p.m. on a Saturday?

No. He didn’t.

But that didn’t keep him from climbing into his car and flipping through his notebook to find her address.

As he pulled out of the drive, he tried to turn it over in his head.

Could she have done it?

Damn it, he just didn’t know.

She was so quiet, so timid. Had she just been pushed too far?


***


Kim screamed, throwing her hands up over her face as the poker came crashing down toward her. With desperation, she kicked out and knocked her attacker’s feet out from under her.

She hit the floor with a crash and Kim scuttled backward on her hands and feet, grabbing hold of the coffee table and shoving herself up. Had to run…had to get out, get away…

The pain in her ribs and in her chest was ungodly. Breathing was torture.

“Damn it, you bitch.” The words were rough, ugly with hatred. And getting closer.

Kim grabbed the door to the balcony and jerked it open, stumbling through and slamming it on the arm that came through behind her. A furious howl lit the air and she could have sobbed with relief as a voice from above called out, “Damn it, what’s going on down there? Kim? Is that you?”

“Going to fucking beat the shit out of you, bitch.”

She flinched away from that voice, backing away as the door slid open. The poker raised and she screamed.

“Damn it, what the fuck? I’m calling the cops, damn it…”

Lights glared in the front of the apartment parking lot. Kim turned her head, time slowing down to a crawl as she saw the familiar car pass under the lights, then the door flew open…the blue of the swimming pool just below her…

Turning, she blinked, waiting for the poker to fall one more time. But her attacker had frozen, eyes locked on the car pulling into the lot. With a whispered prayer, Kim gripped the railing and swung one leg over. As she moved the other, those malevolent eyes swung her way.

Taking a deep breath, she leaped just as the poker started to come swinging down.

The cold water closed over her and then oblivion.


Kellan nodded as Grady finished reading off the witness reports.

Somebody wearing black. A hood.

But nobody had seen the attacker’s face. Nobody could tell if it was a woman, a man, or a seven-foot Martian with green skin. Pressing his fingers to his eyes, he tried to tune out the antiseptic smell of the hospital, tried to forget about the blood on his hands.

Pulling that broken, battered body from the swimming pool had filled him with shame and anger.

He had gone there planning to question Kim, but he had all but laughed at himself halfway there. Too weak. Too timid. Too stupid.

And her plunge off the balcony had probably saved her life. While he’d pulled her still body out of the pool, the assailant had gotten away. Only moments later, deputies had arrived on the scene in response to the calls from several of Kim’s neighbors, but their search hadn’t turned up anything.

“Damn it, what in the hell is going on?” he muttered.

The waiting room doors swung open and the doctor stepped out, her face weary but satisfied. “She’s going to be fine, I think… I was worried about head trauma or possible spinal injury, jumping into six feet of water, but God was smiling on her,” Dr. Winter said. “The MRI looks okay.”

Her blue scrubs had blood smeared on them and her shoulders were slumped with weariness. “She’s got some internal bleeding. Broken ribs. But she’s responding, at the moment, and right now just needs to rest.” She glanced down at herself before flicking Kellan a look. “And so do I. I need a shower, a new change of clothes and a nap. I usually don’t have trauma cases like this show up in my hospital, Sheriff. But I figured you wouldn’t leave until you heard something.”

He nodded, and forced himself to smile slightly. “I’m putting a deputy on her door.”

Dr. Winter said shortly, “Good.”

He left soon after talking to Grady, reassuring himself that Kim was still alive.

Grady was a good cop. He’d do his damnedest to make sure the girl stayed that way.

Which meant allowing nobody in that room. She had been the best suspect, even if she was the most unlikely. And she’d almost died.

So he still had a killer out there. Somebody who was striking out in an irrational manner. No sense. Damn it, it made no sense.

None of it. He stalked outside, jerking open the door to his car and dropping into the seat. He left the door open, leaving the dome light on as he stared at his hands. Blood stained his clothes, and he couldn’t get it out from under his nails. The bastard had caught her across the chest with the business end of the poker. Not all of her injuries were from blunt force trauma. The pointed end had torn open a nasty gash diagonally across her torso.

“Damn it,” he muttered. Closing his hand into a fist, he slammed it against the steering wheel and rasped out, “Who the fuck are you?”


***


Kim slept through the day.

Everywhere he went, Kellan heard the same damn thing. “Who could have done that? Kim is harmless.” A hundred different variations of the same question.

In the county hospital cafeteria, Kellan poured himself another cup of bitter, overly strong coffee.

“That stuff will eat the lining out of your stomach.”

Turning around, he stared into Darci’s wide green eyes. “Hey,” he murmured.

She smiled slightly, arching a brow at him. “Hey,” she whispered. Heat flooded her eyes and Kellan felt that look as solidly as if she’d reached out and touched him. Her eyes looked bruised, sleepless. And the sigh that shuddered out of her sounded terribly defeated. “I heard about Kim. Came by, but Grady says he can’t let anybody in.”

He sipped at the coffee, his eyes widening as the caffeine started to sing in his system from the first sip. The minute it hit his empty belly, he winced. “Damn. Probably will eat the lining away,” he muttered before taking another sip. “Kim can’t tell me who it was. Nobody can give me a description, other than dark clothes and a hood. And since we don’t know…Kim is in a lot of danger.”

“I don’t get it.” She moved away from him, dropping into one of the chairs, resting her elbows on the round table as she massaged her temples. “Maybe this is why I’m not a cop, but I don’t see much connection between any of these people. The only thing they have in common is they all worked for the gallery.”

Kellan took the seat across from her, arching a brow. “I imagine Tricia is getting pretty desperate. Peggy spends more time working in her studio than in the gallery, her two employees are gone, and two of her artists.”

She shrugged a shoulder. “Apparently, Beth and Carrie are more popular now than they ever were. Talked to Tricia recently-she says she’s never been so busy.”

In the act of lifting his coffee to his lips for another stomach-searing drink, Kellan froze, lowering the cup back to the table. “People love a scandal. And the bloodier, the more notorious, the better,” he murmured. “Three murders… I imagine her gallery is hopping.”

He kept his voice level, but his mind was buzzing as the pieces finally fell together. Stupid…stupid…stupid, he said to himself silently. Money. Not Darci… But Bryce…that didn’t make any sense.

The videos from the past night flashed through his mind. Yes, Kim had been there, but then so had a number of other women. Jealousy. Somehow, that was how Bryce played into it, and the fact that he worked for the gallery, increasing the already notorious reputation.

Three murders. Would have been four, except Kim had gotten away. Had it all been about money? Had the scene just been staged so that it looked personal? He felt eyes on him and he looked up, seeing Darci staring at him with a confused, curious look.

“What?” she asked softly.

He shrugged. “Nothing.” He pushed his cup away and forced a grin. “You’re right. That coffee will tear up a belly. I’ve got to get back to the station, go over a few things,” he said. Leaning forward, he put his mouth by her ear and said, “Go home. Stay there. Don’t talk to anybody.”

Arching a brow at him, she opened her lips to ask a question and he reached out and pressed his finger to her lips. “Don’t ask questions. I can’t answer them. But do this for me. I’m going to advise the deputies to be extra careful, but you do not go anywhere.”

Chapter Seven

Tricia ignored the knock on the door.

Bryce’s chauvinistic attitude aggravated the hell out of her, but he knew how to get the paperwork done. Kim could do it, screwed it up in the process, but at least Tricia didn’t have to deal with it.

So until Kim got out of the hospital and was able to come back to work, Tricia had to do it herself again.

But the fist pounding on the door just banged again. And again. Finally, she tugged her glasses off and left the office, staring through the door at the grim outline of the Sheriff.

Opening the door, she stepped aside. “Hello, Sheriff Grant. Gallery isn’t open on Sundays. And I’m behind now,” she said wearily. “So much paperwork. I’ve got a million things to get done, including trying to hire some more employees.”

“I’m going to have to intrude for a while,” he said.

She sighed and let him enter, pushing the door closed behind him before she walked back to her office, his feet soundless on the plush carpet behind her.

“I don’t have much time, Sheriff. Can we make this fast?”

The Sheriff’s hazel eyes looked blandly back at her through the lenses of his glasses. “I can try. I need to know where you were last night and when Bryce was killed. Then where were you three weekends ago.”

Air trapped in her lungs and she blinked once, frowning at him, “Excuse me?”

“Can you answer the question, Ms. Casey?”

“You’re trying to get my whereabouts for the nights my friends were killed,” she said, amazed, staring at him with wide eyes. She dropped down onto the chair just inside the door, the strength leaving her legs as she stared up at him. “You’re serious.”

“Ms. Casey…”

She passed her glasses from one hand to another as she hollowly said, “Last night, I was home. Alone. But the night Bryce died…well, I’ve told you that. I was in Columbus for a dinner meeting with several other gallery owners. I’ve been thinking of expanding and…” her voice trailed away and she realized she wasn’t going to be able to do that right now. All of her plans-this would ruin her. Having a gallery where her employees and contract artists were being murdered was one thing.

But nobody would want to do business with somebody accused of murder.

“And I was with Beth the night Carrie was killed,” Tricia whispered. “But you can’t ask her, can you?”

No. But Kellan did have the reports from the deputies who had done the questioning of Carrie’s friends. Fuck. He flipped his notebook open and jotted down a few notes. “You heard about Kim, right?”

He watched as she nodded slowly. For once, she actually looked her age. Normally, she never let a line show on her face, but right now, she looked totally shell-shocked. He left the gallery a few minutes later, plowing a hand through his hair.

He couldn’t focus. First, he had thought it was Kim. Then Tricia. Oh, he’d check her story out, verify it. But already he had a bad suspicion that her story would check out.

Idiot. He was letting Darci skew his thinking. Worrying about her, so convinced it was about her. “It’s not, is it?” he muttered as he returned to his car.

Totally unaware of the eyes that watched him.


Tricia was still sitting there, staring dumbly at nothing when the door opened. Sliding Peggy an evil look, she said waspishly, “Well, your plan is working. We’ve got more business than we could ever dream of, Carrie is out of the way and she can’t cause us any more trouble. Beth’s constant bitching is over with and we’ve made buckets off of the works of our artists who were so tragically killed. But now he knows.”

“He doesn’t know. He may suspect, but if he knew, you’d be on your way to the station,” Peggy snapped. Her salt-and-pepper hair hung in careless ringlets around her face as she tossed her head, rolling her eyes at Tricia.

“I want to know about Bryce.”

Peggy arched a brow, her mouth flat. “Excuse me?”

“Why did you kill Bryce? And Kim? That’s what is causing the trouble. Damn it, if you had just stopped-”

Peggy sneered. “Oh, don’t go acting like you had nothing to do with any of this. Don’t forget who killed Beth. You’re just as much involved in this as I am. And Kim, hell, she’s a whiny whelp. Useless. What does it matter?”

“What about Bryce? He wasn’t in the plan. And he was just as annoying as Kim is,” Tricia snapped, control fading fast. She wanted to shout and scream and pummel Peggy’s face. Damned irrational bitch had gotten her into this mess.

“Bryce was not annoying.”

Tricia lifted her head, studying Peggy’s face. “Damn it. You were fucking him,” she whispered, narrowing her eyes.

Peggy moved away, her motions jerky and stilted. “Bryce and I were lovers for a time.”

“Then how could you kill him?”

Tears rolled down her cheeks as she collapsed to the floor. “I wasn’t going to. I missed him-he pushed me away, told me I was too clingy. I went to his house that night and we…we…”

“You fucked,” Tricia said snidely.

Peggy’s face flushed and she snarled, “I loved him. It was more than just fucking.” Her eyes took on a glassy look as she stared at her hands. “But then he called me Darci again. I hate it when he does that. Hate it. I saw the knife. And he was just sitting there with his back to me, ignoring me…always ignoring me. He’d started fucking that bitch, Kim. I saw them together, damn it. Fucking her as though she actually was something special. She didn’t appreciate him. She just wanted somebody to fuck her sorry ass.”

Tricia closed her eyes, shaking her head. “Damn it, you let emotions get in the way. You attacked Kim because you’re fucking jealous.”

Peggy sneered at Tricia. “No. I did it because it was good to keep going and because I didn’t like her. Sooner or later, I’ll finish the job.”

Tricia pressed her fingers to her temples and muttered, “You’re nuts.”

She never heard Peggy stand up as she herself rose, walked around the small office, and tapped a finger against her lips. “We have to get everything hammered out. Kellan knows I was home alone. I think he believes me. You need to come up with an-”

She stopped in mid-sentence as the cold pain sliced through her. She stared down at the silver glint of the knife piercing her chest. Blood bubbled out of her lips as the knife was withdrawn and she slowly sank to the floor.

“I’ve already got it hammered out,” Peggy said to the still body at her feet. She nudged her ex-partner with her foot and said, “I’m going to be remembered. I may not be the best artist in the world. But at least my art will be remembered.”

Chapter Eight

Kellan parked at the station, drumming his fist on the steering wheel.

His cell phone rang and he tugged it off his belt, recognizing Grady’s number and frowning. Kim was stable. He’d made sure of that.

“This is Grant.”

“You need to get down here,” Grady said shortly. “Peggy Ralley just walked in and she’s got blood all over her.”

“She’s been attacked?”

“Ahhh…boss, I don’t think it’s her blood.”

Understanding dawned in his mind and he threw the car into drive. Peeling out of the parking lot, he said, “I’m coming, but County is about twenty minutes from me. She got a weapon?”

“Can’t tell. The nurses are talking to her…she looks kind of weird in the eyes.”

Shit. “Keep her out of that room, Grady. Do not let her in there,” he snapped.

“Well, gee, I kind of figured that out,” Grady drawled and Kellan could almost see the sarcastic roll of his deputy’s eyes.

“Son of a bitch.” Not Tricia. Peggy. The quiet, colorless woman who faded into the background, except for her art. He punched the gas and shot through the red light, hitting the lights and sirens, swerving to go around the pickup in front of him. The two-lane highway opened up ahead of him as he sped for the hospital.

“Boss. I think I should get off the phone. She’s heading my way.”

The cell phone went silent and Kellan threw it down, swearing viciously. Blood… A snarl escaped his lips and he grabbed the phone again, punching in Darci’s number. Three rings…four rings…five… A sick fear bloomed in his gut, duty warring with the need to make sure Darci was safe.

The relief that flooded him when Darci answered the phone on the seventh ring was unlike anything he had ever felt.

“Damn it, what in the hell took you so long to answer the phone?” he demanded. “Are you okay? Where is Hank?”

Her voice, low and amused, came over the line. “Nice to talk to you, too. I was in the studio, developing some negatives. I’m fine and Hank is sitting in his car, singing along with some cry in your beer music.”

“Thank God.” Damn it, he wanted to see her, touch her. Kellan hadn’t ever been that afraid before and he suspected his heart wouldn’t start beating normally until he had touched her, held her close against him and felt her heart beating against his, the way it did when he had her naked and wrapped around him.

“Listen to me. Do not let anybody in your house other than me or Hank. Nobody, you understand me?” he said intensely. “Stay away from the door, stay inside. Got it?”

She was silent for a long moment and then she said, “What’s going on, Kellan?”

“No time. I’ve got to go.” His hand clenched around the phone and he bit back the words that were dancing on his tongue. “Do what I said, okay?”

“Sure. Are you-”

He took the turn into the hospital at fifty miles an hour, tires squealing. “I’ve got to go… Darci, I think I’m in love with you.”

Then he hit the end button and tossed the phone down, slamming on the brakes in front of the emergency room. He ran through the automatic doors, down the hall that led to ICU, fear and anger a metallic taste in his throat. Whose blood?

Grady’s voice rang out down the hall. “I will not tell you again, Miz Ralley. Step back or I will shoot.”

The laughter that came from her was unlike any he had heard before. High, maniacal, and wild. He slowed to a stop as he veered around the corner, staring at Peggy’s back. No blood… But then she turned around and he saw the chilling smile on her face. Bright red blossoms stained the front of her paint-splattered shirt.

“Peggy.”

She smiled at him, a brittle smile. “Things are all messed up. I should have killed Darci that night, and then maybe Bryce would have stopped thinking about her all the time. I wasn’t going to kill him. Not until he called me Darci again. The bastard.”

He flicked Grady a glance, but then looked back at Peggy when he saw that the deputy was slowly moving closer to the woman’s back.

“Bryce?”

Peggy laughed. “I thought you were smarter than this,” she said, shaking her head. “Took you long enough to figure it out. I thought you might put it together after Beth, but you were too busy fucking Darci. Della was going to be next. But then Tricia started to freak out…” her voice trailed off and she wiped a hand down the front of her shirt, lovingly caressing the blood splotches. “Well, she made me mad.”

“Mind if I ask why you did all this?”

Grady was just a few feet away now, gun raised. “Well, not for money. I know that’s why Tricia did it. All the great artists died tragically,” she said with a wide smile. She started to reach inside her shirt.

“Keep your hands where I can see them!” Kellan barked out.

But she didn’t stop and when he found himself staring down the business end of a Beretta, he finally figured it out. All of it. She wanted them to kill her. She wasn’t here to kill them, but to force them to kill her.

Suicide by cop, the coolest way to kill yourself… He drew his gun because he sure as hell wasn’t going to let some crazy-ass self-important artist kill him.

“Put the gun down, Peggy.”

She laughed, but whatever she was going to say died as her eyes went wide and then fluttered shut. There was a thud as Grady’s gun came down on her skull, a soft thump as her body crumpled to the floor, and then all fell silent.

Kellan sucked in air, blood roaring in his ears as he lowered the gun, watching as Grady kicked her Beretta away and knelt down, tugging out his cuffs and securing her hands before touching his fingers to her throat. He rose and blew out a breath, his mahogany skin gleaming under a thin coat of sweat, his eyes wide.

“Son of a bitch. This woman is nuts,” Grady whispered, shaking his head.


***


Tricia’s body was already cool by the time Kellan and two of the deputies broke down the door to the gallery. Peggy Ralley had had some fun before she left. None of the art in the gallery that wasn’t done by her hand had survived her rampage intact. Sculptures lay smashed on the floor. Canvases sliced by a knife, and a few, the two closest to Tricia’s body, had bloody splotches.

“She used the knife she killed Tricia with,” Kellan murmured quietly.

Grady knelt by the door, studying the shattered pieces of a rich purple vase. “Why didn’t we see it before now?”

“No rhyme or reason. We were looking for something that made sense.” Kellan shook his head, straightening over Tricia’s still body. He met the coroner’s gaze as Drake Stillman stepped inside, looking around the gallery with vague surprise in his eyes.

Things like this didn’t happen in their county.

Kellan suspected that this past month had been the busiest of the county coroner’s life. He gestured to the bagged knife lying on the table.

“I’m fairly certain that’s the murder weapon,” he said. “I think she used it to slice up the paintings. We found it on the floor by Tricia’s body, like she’d tossed it away before she walked out. Then she showed up at the hospital with blood on her clothes.”

Drake’s question was cut off by the ringing of Kellan’s phone. He checked out the number and said, “It’s the hospital,” as he thumbed the talk button. “This is Grant,” he said, turning away from the curious gazes.

He listened to the low murmur of the nurse on the other end of the line and then hung up the phone, turning back to meet Grady’s eyes. “She’s awake. I’ve got to get back there.”


***


Darci paced the floor, shooting evil looks at the silent phone. Four hours had passed since Kellan had called and she hadn’t heard another thing from him.

She stood at the window in the dining room, staring out at the silvery moonlight reflecting off the river. I think I’m in love with you…

“Jerk. How in the hell can you say that and hang up, and not call back?” she muttered, running a hand through her already tumbled hair. It stood up in messy spikes and curls from a hundred nervous passes of her hand. She rested her forehead against the cool pane of glass, closing her eyes and murmuring, “Where in the hell are you?”

Worry was a gnawing thing in her belly, making her gut churn, tightening her shoulders, aching in her head. Her fingers itched to pick up the phone and call, but she forced herself not to. Calling him, interrupting him…what if he was finding out who the killer was?

What if…if…what if the killer had gotten to him?

Panic blossomed in her mind and she turned around, bypassing the phone and heading out the front door, jogging down the steps. She heard Hank’s door slam and he met her on the sidewalk.

“What’s going on, Miss Law? What’s wrong?”

“Where’s Kellan?” she demanded.

“Darci, he wants you to stay inside,” Hank said flatly, taking her arm and trying to guide her back up the walk.

She jerked her arm away and planted herself in Hank’s face, poking him in the chest as she demanded, “Tell me where Kellan is. What in the hell is going on?”

His face softened and she felt a flush rise in her cheeks as the sympathy darkened his faded gray eyes. “He’s probably back at the hospital. Talking to Peggy Ralley.”

Darci’s jaw dropped and she felt her shoulders slump. “Not another one. Damn it, what is going on?”

Hank patted her shoulder. “Maybe I didn’t make that clear, Miss Law. He’s questioning Peggy Ralley. She showed up at the hospital this afternoon, blood splattering her shirt. Pulled a gun on the Sheriff. Turns out the gun wasn’t loaded. Possible that she wanted him to shoot her. They disarmed her somehow-I don’t know the details. But I’d say it’s over.”


The phone finally rang. Five and half hours after he’d told her that he thought he was in love with her, and then hung up on her. Oh, it had rung a few times before, just shortly after Hank told her about Peggy.

But it had been everybody but Kellan. Becka, Clive, Brittany…each time, she’d gotten off the phone with a curtness that bordered on outright rudeness, not wanting to talk to anybody but Kellan.

The phone rang again and she grabbed it, the strength leaving her knees as Kellan’s low voice murmured in her ear, “Wasn’t sure if you’d still be awake.”

She laughed shakily and said, “Well, I could have tried to go to bed. But I doubt I would have gotten any sleep, considering what you said right before you hung up on me.”

“Well, everything kind of went down pretty fast,” Kellan said softly. “I need to talk to you…but I know it’s late.”

She stared at the clock as the hour hand finally ticked to midnight and she shook her head. “I don’t care how late it is. I want to talk to you, too.”

Moments later, she lowered the phone, the dial tone sounding. Softly, she whispered, “I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you, too.”

Spinning around, she went to the bathroom, and stared at her reflection. Her hair stood up in wild spikes and she winced, grabbing some hair goop and slicking it through her hair, taming the wild tresses, smoothing the sides, fluffing the top a little.

Darci licked her lips nervously. Maybe I should go put on something…well, something more than a tank top and boxer shorts. But lingerie was so predictable. And she wasn’t sure she wanted to wait for him naked.

Makeup?

No. Not when it was past midnight. She turned away from her reflection and stomped out of the bathroom. Food. Food was good. Chances are, he hadn’t eaten, and come to think of it, she was kind of hungry.

There was stuff for lasagna, but that took so long. Spaghetti? No, not in the middle of the night.

Sandwiches. That would work. She grabbed the bread and tossed it on the counter. Roast beef, tomatoes, cheddar cheese, mayo, spicy mustard. Did he like spicy mustard?

She stared at the ingredients spread out in front of her for a long moment and then buried her face in her hands.

“I’m in love with a guy and I don’t even know what he likes on his sandwiches.”

Blowing out a breath, she washed her hands and then grabbed a couple of plates and a butter knife. If he liked spicy mustard, then he could add it to the sandwich himself. Right?

Right.

Her stomach screamed noisily at her as she finished the sandwiches and stood at the counter, eating hers. Maybe her belly would stop jumping if it wasn’t so empty.

She hoped.

But then the knock came on the door and she pressed a hand to her belly, the butterflies still raging. Nope. Didn’t work. But at least she wouldn’t pass out from hunger, right?

Nerves, embarrassment, panic…but not hunger.

Dropping her half-eaten sandwich on the plate, she left the kitchen, muttering to herself, “Why am I so nervous?”

Because she hadn’t once thought about what would happen beyond today. Hell, with all the insane things happening right now, and the nocturnal visits from nameless people, she had thought a time or two that maybe she wouldn’t have a tomorrow.

And this was much more nerve-racking than the memory of that pale face in her window. After all, she knew what that person had basically wanted. To scare her to death.

But Kellan…what did he want?

She opened the door slowly, staring at his face with wide eyes, catching her lip between her teeth. He looked exhausted. Stepping aside, she asked quietly, “Have you eaten anything?”

He grimaced. “No. Haven’t had time to think about it,” he said, shrugging.

Catching his hand, she led him into the kitchen and took the second sandwich, pushing the plate into his hand. A surprised look entered his eyes, a smile slowly edging up the corners of his mouth. “Thanks,” he murmured. He dropped into the chair and for a moment, just rested his elbows on the table, weariness in every line of his body.

Her heart clenched when he lifted his head, meeting her eyes as she stared at him from across the room. Something dark and hungry entered his gaze and then he looked away, reaching down to pick up the sandwich.

She spun away, that look striking her to the core, heating her belly, tightening her nipples. Flipping open the fridge, she grabbed a bottle of wine. “I’m going to have some wine. You want a glass? Or a soft drink?”

Kellan studied her bent head, his eyes running over her and settling on the fine tremor of her hands. “You seem a little nervous,” he murmured, lowering his half-eaten sandwich to the table and leaning back in the chair, watching as she pressed her hands to the counter, her shoulders rising and falling as she took a deep breath.

“Ummm…maybe a little.” She tugged the cork out of the half-empty bottle of wine and he was silent as she poured herself a glass and upended it, drinking half of it and then topping her glass off before she poured a second glass and turned around.

Kellan rose from the table and met her halfway across the room, taking it from her, lifting it to his lips, holding her stare all the while. He could see the pulse in her neck fluttering wildly. The wine slid down his throat, warm and smooth as liquid gold, and he took one more sip before setting it down and taking hers away, putting it on the table as well.

“Why?”

She blinked, staring at him owlishly, licking her lips. “Why what?” she whispered huskily.

“Why are you nervous?” he murmured, lowering his head to brush his lips against the pulse in her throat.

“I-” her voice squeaked and then a shaky sigh slipped out of her.

“Because of what I said on the phone?”

“A little.”

He trailed a gentle line of kisses up her neck, nuzzling the sweet-smelling hair just behind her ear before he asked, “Good nervous? Or bad nervous?”

“I haven’t decided yet… I’ve never done this before.”

“Done what?” he asked before he brushed his lips over her mouth. The scent of her skin flooded his head, making it hard to think beyond the scent and the feel of her.

“Been in love with anybody.”

His heart beat a rapid tattoo in his chest but he kept his voice level. “Are you in love now?”

“I think so…and I’m scared to death,” she said shakily.

Lifting his head, he smiled slightly, cupping her face in his hands as he stared into her emerald green eyes. “Me, too. I tried pretty damn hard to stay away from you, Darci. You are more than I’m prepared to handle,” he said quietly. “I knew this would happen.”

She scowled at him, a frown drawing her brows low over her eyes. “Well, I didn’t exactly force you into anything,” she muttered.

Kellan laughed. “No…and I was losing anyway. You sneak into my dreams, haunt my thoughts,” he whispered. “This was inevitable.”

Her body melted against his as he added, “I feel you with me even when you’re not around. And I ache…I want you with me all the time.” Slanting his mouth across her, he pushed his tongue into her mouth gently, sipping at her lips until she opened for him, wrapping her arms around his neck and arching against him with a soft moan.

Trailing his fingers down her spine, he caught the hem of her shirt, raising it slowly, flattening his palms against her sides, stroking them upward, letting the movement of his hands draw the shirt up.

He stepped back just a little, pulling his mouth from hers just long enough to slide the shirt off completely. He felt the soft mounds of her breasts flatten against his chest, her nipples tight little beads, as she wrapped her arms around his neck, her mouth pressing eagerly, hungrily to his.

“Shhh…this is going to be slow. I want to take my time with you right now,” he said. Taking her mouth again, he slowly danced her over to the table. He slid his hands inside the waistband of her boxers and slowly stroked down her hips, letting the silk fall to her ankles in a puddle of blue. Then he boosted her hips onto the table, stepping back to stare down at her body.

Skimming his hands up her sides, he cupped the pert little mounds of her breasts, bending low to catch one between his teeth, smiling against her flesh as she arched up against him with a rough moan. Her hands moved restlessly over his shoulders, dipping into his hair to pull him against her, roaming down his arms. Her nails dug into his biceps and he grunted at the sharp little pain.

Lifting his head, Kellan stared down into her dazed eyes, smiling as she stared blindly back at him, licking her lips. Her breasts rose and fell unsteadily as she gasped for air. He trailed one finger down the center of her torso, circling around her navel, skimming lower to trail between the dew-slicked folds of her pussy.

He watched her face as he circled the tender opening, pushing just a little inside that tight passage. Her lids drooped low and her upper body went boneless as she collapsed back against the table, hands curled into loose fists at her sides. The satiny tissues resisted his slow caress and he gritted his teeth, remembering how hot and tight she had closed around his cock.

The organ in question jerked demandingly, trapped in the tight confines of his jeans and underwear. Throttling down the urge to tear his clothes away and drive his dick deep inside her, Kellan leaned over her, bracing his hand by her head, staring into her eyes as he slowly pushed his finger inside her pussy, withdrawing as she arched against his hand. He added a second finger, watching as her eyes flew wide open, harsh pants falling from her lips.

“Come for me,” he whispered gruffly, shuddering as the creamy heat tightened around his fingers.

She sobbed aloud and he circled the tight little bud of her clit with his thumb and repeated, “Come for me. Come on, Darci, let me feel it.”

Her entire body bucked under the touch of his hand, pearly white teeth sinking into the full lower curve of her lip. The scent of her arousal was heavy in the air and he couldn’t breathe without it flooding his head, couldn’t close his eyes without her image flashing behind his lids. She climaxed into his hand with a rush, the hot cream wetting his palm.

Catching her hips, he dragged her to the edge of the table, sinking to his knees before her and pushing her thighs wide. As he pressed his mouth against her, she screamed and he plunged his tongue inside her folds, using his thumbs to spread the lips of her pussy wide. Her sheath was still convulsing and he groaned against her, his entire body hardening, clamoring with the urge to fuck her hard, fast, deep.

She tried to draw her knees up, but he shifted his grip, keeping her thighs pressed flat against the table as he fucked his tongue in and out of her pussy, drinking down the hot, musky cream, nuzzling his nose against her clit. Darci screamed out his name and at the sound of it, his control started to snap. Slowly, he rose, staring down at her hungrily. He reached up, removing his jacket and shoulder holster, tossing it on the floor, and laying the holster and gun on the table.

Her eyes locked on his hands as he unbuttoned his shirt. A hot, hungry look entered her eyes as he shrugged the shirt off. Pride rippled through him as she stared at his torso and arms with an almost drugged fascination. He unbuckled his belt and freed the buttons at his fly as he kicked off his shoes.

His cock sprang out as he shoved his jeans and shorts down to just past his hips. Her eyes dropped to linger on his sex and Kellan shuddered as her tongue appeared, slicking across her swollen lips.

Her heart slammed against her ribs as she stared at his cock, the ruddy head jerking under her gaze. It curved up thick and straight, nestled in a bed of dark, springy curls. Her mouth watered but before she could shift position and slide off the table, he bent over her. She pouted, poking her lip out as she reached down and trailed her fingers across the iron-hard length of his cock. A pearly bead of fluid dampened her fingers and she lifted them to her lips, sucking the pre-come with a satisfied smile.

“Witch,” he growled, nudging her thighs wider and stepping between them.

Darci chuckled huskily but the sound died away as he pumped his hips, dragging his cock across her wet folds, burrowing against her. Her clit throbbed as he rubbed against it. Bringing her knees up, she gripped his hips and arched into him.

The blunt head nudged against her entrance. Digging her nails into his arms, she shifted the angle of her hips, groaning as he slipped just the merest fraction of his cock inside her. Hunger pulsed in her belly. Tipping her hips higher, she tried to draw more of his length inside her.

His hands, hot and hard, cupped her hips, stilling the frantic movement easily as he slowly pushed deeper.

“Slowly,” he teased her.

“Damn it, Kellan,” she cried out, clenching her muscles around him. A smile spread across her face as he stiffened over her, dark flags of color appearing high on his cheekbones, his lids drooping low over his eyes.

She did it again, clenching and then releasing the muscles in her pussy until he growled and plunged deep, burying his cock completely inside of her. She screamed out his name, staring blindly up at the sky as he pulled out and pushed back inside with one long, hard plunge. Her womb throbbed. Her clit burned.

His weight crushed against her, pressing her into the table as he moved higher on her body, one hand cupping her ass and lifting her. Now each stroke of his cock had his pelvis rasping across her clit. Desire, need, and hunger built inside her with every thrust of his cock into her pussy.

“Look at me,” he growled.

She met his gaze, staring into his eyes, the stark burning hunger in his face adding to the hot, burning hunger in her gut. He moved lower down on her body, so that his mouth was only a breath away from hers. Caught in the hot, hungry depths of his hazel gaze, she sobbed out his name as he started to shaft her slowly, with short, powerful digs of his hips.

“I love you, Darci,” he rasped just before his mouth caught hers. The words I love you were trapped in her throat, smothered by his mouth as he plunged his tongue into her mouth, mimicking the rhythm of his hips.

The driving hunger in her body finally exploded and she shuddered as the muscles in her pussy seized around his cock, clenching at his flesh as he pulled out and worked his cock back inside. She screamed into his mouth as he started to pound harder against her, his cock swelling within her pussy. A roar rumbled out of his chest, the sound of it mingling with the short, staccato sounds of her cries as she worked her hips against him. Her skin felt too hot, too tight to contain everything that was exploding inside of her.

Bright pinwheels of light exploded in front of her eyes, and her breath felt trapped in her lungs. The hot splash of his seed spurted within her pussy and she whimpered as the convulsions in her sheath finally started to slow. Her body went limp under his and her hands smacked into the table as her muscles went lax.

His body collapsed against her, his weight crushing her into the table. Kellan’s chest rose and fell like a bellows, his breath moving the hair just behind her ear. Stroking one hand up his side, she whispered, “I love you, Kellan.”

His head lifted and he stared sleepily down at her face, a slow, hesitant smile creeping across his face. “You do, huh?”

She grinned at him. “Well, why else would I be nervous? If I was just using you for sex, this would be easy. I can handle easy. Don’t handle more complicated stuff very well.”

A cold chill raced across her flesh as he pushed himself up, straightening over her body and tugging his jeans back up. He stroked his finger down her cheek, his eyes soft and gentle. “I guess we’re going to have to fumble our way through it together, then.”

Chapter Nine

“Peggy.”

One brow cocked up over his hazel eyes as he said, “You know that’s the fifth time you’ve said her name.” They lay in her bed, her hand pressed against his heart, his cupped over hers.

“I can hardly believe it. She’s so…well, Peggy. She fades into the background. Okay artist, but nothing spectacular. That’s just her…she just-blends.”

“I guess she was tired of blending,” he murmured. She shivered as he lifted her hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss to her palm.

“Why?” Darci asked, staring out the window.

“She wanted to be famous. And she never stood out. In any way. This was her way of making sure she stood out from the rest,” Kellan said, lifting one shoulder in a shrug.

“Umm…maybe she should have dyed her hair purple or something. This was kind of extreme.”

Kellan turned his head and brushed his lips across her forehead. “That’s the sanity in you speaking. Her and sanity had a breakup a while ago.”


***


In the silence of the cell, Peggy’s hand raced over her sketchbook. A giggle escaped her as she added the finishing touches to the sketch, Kellan and Darci, wrapped around each other, his back arched as he drove inside her, Darci’s eyes wide, her mouth open in a silent scream.

And a knife, long and wicked, pierced his flesh, entered through his mid-back, exiting through his belly and impaling Darci. Though the sketch was in pencil, she could see the gleam of sweat on their bodies, the bright emerald of Darci’s eyes, the copper and red strands of Kellan’s hair.

And the bright red of the blood that puddled under them.

“I’ll be remembered…” Peggy whispered, a smile lighting her face.

“I’ll be remembered…”

About the author

They always say to tell a little about yourself! I was born in Kentucky and have been reading avidly since I was six. At twelve, I discovered how much fun it was to write when I took a book that didn’t end the way it should have ended, and I rewrote it. I’ve been writing since then.

About me now…hmm… I’ve been married since I was 19 to my high school sweetheart and we live in the midwest. Recently I made the plunge and turned to writing full-time and am looking for a part-time job so I can devote more time to my family-two adorable children who are growing way too fast, and my husband who doesn't see enough of me…


Shiloh welcomes mail from readers. You can write to her c/o Ellora’s Cave Publishing at 1337 Commerce Drive, #13, Stow, Ohio 44224.


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Telling Tales

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