When Jesse Crane returned to his roots to serve on the Miccosukee police force, he'd hoped to leave behind the violence of the city and the memories of his murdered wife. But bodies start to pile up in Jesse's corner of the sultry Florida swampland
As he probes these crimes, Jesse is drawn to the beautiful Lorena Fortier, a new hire at the local gator farm and research facility. Lorena is a little too interested in Jesse's investigation, but before he can uncover her true motives, they're both pulled into a dangerous web of greed, ambition and animal cunning. To survive, they'll have to decide whether they can trust each other before the hunters become the hunted.
BONUS BOOK INCLUDED IN THIS VOLUME!
The Sheriff of Shelter Valley by USA TODAY bestselling author Tara Taylor Quinn
Six months ago, Beth woke up with no memory of her past, a bruised face and a little boy who called her "Mama." Until her memory returns, the most dangerous thing she can do is to fall for the sheriffthe one man who can uncover the truth and destroy the person she's become.
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About the Author
A USA Today Bestselling author of 80 novels, in twenty languages, Tara Taylor Quinn has sold more than seven million copies. Known for her intense emotional fiction, Ms. Quinn is a five time finalist for the RWA Rita Award and has appeared often on local and national TV including CBS Sunday Morning.
For ttq offers, news, and contests, visit http://www.tarataylorquinn.com/recipe.html!
Read an Excerpt
At first it seemed that the sound of the siren wasn't even penetrating the driver's mind.
Either that, or the Lexus intended to race him all the way across the lower portion of the state to the city of Naples, Jesse Crane thought irritably.
It was natural to speed out hereit felt like one of the world's longest, strangest drives, with mile after mile of grass and muck and canal, interspersed by a gas station or tackle shop here or there, the airboat rides, and the Miccosukee camps.
But after you passed the casino, heading west, traces of civilization became few and far between. Despite that, the road was a treacherous one. Impatient drivers trying to pass had caused many a traffic fatality.
He overlooked it when someone seemed competent and was going a rational number of miles over the limit.
But this Lexus
At last the driver seemed to become aware that he was trailing, the siren blazing. The Lexus pulled over on the embankment.
As Jesse pulled his cruiser off on the shoulder, he saw a blond head dippingthe occupant was obviously searching for the registration. Or a gun? There were plenty of toughs who made it out to this section of the world, because there was enough godforsaken space out here for all manner of things to go on. He trod carefully. He was a man who always trod carefully.
As he approached the car, the window came down and a blond head appeared. He was startled, faltering for a fraction of a second.
The woman was stunning. Not just attractive. Stunning. She had the kind of golden beauty that was almost spellbinding. Blond hair that caught the daylight. Delicate features. Huge eyes that reflected a multitude of colors: green, brown, rimmed with gray. Sweeping lashes. Full lips, colored in shell-pink gloss. Perfect for her light complexion and hair.
"Was I speeding?" She sounded as if he were merely a distraction in her important life.
Yeah, the kind of beauty that was almost spellbinding. But there was also something about her that was irritating as hell!
The soft sound of a splash drew his attention. Her head jerked around, and she shuddered as they both looked toward the canal. A small alligator had left its sunning spot on the high mud and slipped into the water.
Then she turned back to him and gave him her full attention. She studied him for a moment. "Is this a joke?"
"No, ma'am. No joke," he said curtly. "License and registration, please."
"Was I speeding?" she asked again, and her seriousness was well done, especially after her earlier remark.
"Speeding? Oh, yeah," he said. "License and registration, please."
"Surely I wasn't going that fast," she said. She was staring at him, not distracted anymore, and frowning. "Are you really a cop?" she demanded suddenly.
She twisted around. "That's not a Metro-Dade car."
"No, I'm not Metro-Dade."
"Miccosukee. Indian police," he said curtly.
"Indian police?" she said, and looked back to him. His temper rose. He felt as if he might as well have said play police, or pretend police.
"This is my jurisdiction," he said curtly. "One more time. License and registration."
She gritted her teeth, staring at him, antagonism replacing the curiosity in her eyes. Then, every movement irate, she dug into the glove compartment. "Registration," she snapped, handing him the document.
"And license," he said politely.
"Yes, of course. I need to get it."
"Do you know how fast you were going?"
"Um not that far over the speed limit, surely?"
"Way over," he told her. "See that sign? It says fifty-five. You were topping that by thirty miles an hour."
"I'm sorry," she said. "It didn't feel like I was going that fast."
She dug in her handbag, which was tightly packed and jumbled, in contrast to the businesslike appearance of the pale blue jacket she wore over a tailored shirt. He began writing the ticket. She produced her license. He kept writing. Her fingers, long, elegant, curled tightly around the steering wheel. "I don't know what's waiting for you in Naples, Miss Fortier, but it's not worth dying for. And if you're not worried about killing yourself, try to remember that you could kill someone else. Slow down on this road."
"I still don't believe I was going that fast," she murmured.
"Trust me, you were," he assured her curtly. He didn't know why she was getting beneath his skin to such a degree. She was passing through. Lots of people tried to speed their way through, east to west, west to east, completely careless of their surroundings, immune to the fact that the populations of Seminoles and Mic-cosukees in the area might be small, but they existed.
And their lives were as important as any others.
"Fine, then," she murmured, as if barely aware of him, just anxious to be on her way.
"Hey!" He demanded her attention.
She blinked, staring at him. She definitely seemed distracted. And yet, when she stared at him, it was with a strange interest. As if she wanted to listen but somehow couldn't.
"Slow down," he repeated softly and firmly.
She nodded curtly and reached out, accepting her license and registration back, along with the ticket he had written.
Then she shook her head slightly, trying to control her temper. "Thanks," she muttered.
"I'm a real cop, and it's a real ticket, Ms. Fortier."
"Yes, thank you. I'll pay it, with real money," she said sweetly.
He forced a grim smile in return. Spoiled little rich girl, heading from the playgrounds of Miami Beach to the playgrounds of the western coast of the state.
He tipped his hat, grateful that she couldn't know what he was thinking. His sunglasses were darkly tinted, well able to hide his thoughts. "Good day, Miss Fortier."
He turned to leave. "Jerk!" he heard her mutter. He stiffened, straightened, turned back. "Pardon? Did you say something?" he asked politely. She forced a smile. "I said good day to you, too, Officer."
"That's what I thought you said," he told her, turning to go. "Bitch," he murmured beneath his breath.
Or, at least, he thought he'd murmured beneath his breath.
"What did you say?" she demanded sharply.
He turned back. "I said we should both have a lovely day. One big old wonderful, lovely day. Take care, Ms. Fortier."
He proceeded back to his car.
The Lexus slid back onto the road.
He followed it for a good twenty miles. And she knew it. She drove the speed limit.
Not a mile under.
Not a mile over.
The dash phone buzzed softly. He hit the answer button. "Hey, Chief. What's up? Some good ol' boy beating up on his wife again?" He spoke evenly, hoping that was all it was. Too often, out here, it was something else. Something that seldom had to do with his people, his work. The Everglades was a beautiful place for those who loved nature, but pure temptation for those who chose to commit certain crimes.
Over the distance, Emmy sighed. "Nope, just a call from Lars. He wants you to have lunch with him at the new fish place just east of the casino next Friday."
"Tell him sure," Jesse said. "See you soon. Time for me to call it a day."
Clayton Harrison's place was just up ahead. The driveway wasn't easily discernible from the trail, but Jesse knew right where it was. He took a sharp left, turned around and headed back.
He was certain that, as he did so, the Lexus once again picked up speed.
Lorena Fortier set down her pen, sighed, stood and stretched. She left her desk and walked to the door that led out to the hallway in the staff quarters of Harry's Alligator Farm and Museum. She hesitated, looked both ways, then walked down the shadowy hallway. Dim night-lights showed the signs on the various doors she passed.
Her second full day on the job. And her second day of living a deception. She thought about Naples and Marco Island. If only one of those lovely beach communities had been her destination.
She felt herself bristling again as she remembered being stopped the day before by the Miccosukee officer. She had been speeding, and she should have slowed down. It was just that her mind had been racing, and her foot had apparently gone along with it.
And the man who had stopped her.
She felt an odd little tremor shoot through her. He'd just been so startling, and then even a little frightening. For the good or bad, she couldn't remember anyone who had made such an impression on her in a long time. His appearance had been so striking, not at all what she expected from a police officer.
She had apparently made an impression on him, as well. Rich bitch, no care for anything local
She gave herself a shake. Forget it! Move on. Concentrate on the matter at hand!
Large letters on the third door down read Dr. Michael Preston, Research.
She hesitated, then tried the knob. The door, as she had expected, was locked. She slipped her hand into the pocket of her lab coat, curling her fingers around the small lock pick she carried. She was about to work the door open when she heard voices coming from the far end of the hallway.
"So how are the tours going, Michael?" It was her new boss, Harry Rogers, speaking. He was a huge man, with a smile as wide as his belly.
Dr. Michael Preston replied with forced enthusiasm.
"I know that you're a researcher, Michael, but part of my dream here is to educate people about reptiles."
"I don't mind the tours. I think I'm pretty good at conveying what we're doing."
Okay, so what did she do now? Lorena wondered. She was new at this whole secret-investigation thing. Should she run back down the hall and into her own office? Or should she bluff it out, walk on down the hall to meet the two of them and ask some kind of lame question?
Running would be insane. They might see her. She would have to bluff.
"Harry, Dr. Preston!" she called, smiling and starting toward them.
"You're the boss, but she calls you 'Harry,' while I'm 'Dr. Preston,'" Michael said to Harry with a groan.
"She knows she can trust me," Harry said, grinning. "She's the new girl on the blockshe can't tell yet if you're a dangerously handsome devil, or simply an innocent charmer, a true bookworm."
Lorena laughed softly. "Which is it, Dr. Preston? Are you a devil in disguise? Or a man who is totally trustworthy?" she asked. He was a striking man, not bookish in appearance in the least, considering his reputation as a dedicated researcher, completely passionate about his work. The man was actually the epitome of "tall, dark and handsome," with a wicked grin that could easily seduce a woman into trusting him.
She didn't like the sound of her own laugh, or her question. She tended to be forthright; she wasn't a flirt or a tease, and acting like a coquette felt ridiculous.
But, as she was learning, Dr. Preston was aware of his looks, and more than willing to make use of his natural charm.
He turned it on her now, smiling in her direction, even though he directed his questions to their boss. "What about the lovely Ms. Fortier? Our mystery woman, a glorious golden-haired beauty suddenly landing in this small oasis in the middle of a swamp. Can she be totally trustworthy?" he asked Harry. "Or has she come to seduce our secrets out of us?"
"Well, whatever secrets I have aren't too fascinating, son," Harry said apologetically.
"And I'm afraid my mystery life is rather dull, as well," Lorena said sweetly.
"Were you looking for me?" Harry asked.
"Um yes. You told me that you had a small gym for the employees. I thought I would take a look at it. If you could just direct me."
"The gym is just past the holding pens. Be careful in the dark. The pens are walled, but you don't want to go getting curious, try to bend over the walls and fall in, you know. My gators are well fed, but they're wild animals, after all. And even though I've got security out there, the guards patrol, and with gators, help can never come fast enough."
"I know to be careful, Harry. Thanks." She flashed them both a smile and turned away, feeling frustrated. Did Preston sleep in his lab?
She returned to her room and changed into bike shorts and a tank top. When she left her room again, she could still hear Harry and Michael talking. They were in Preston's lab.
Maybe the gym wasn't such a bad idea, after all.
She left the staff area and started across the huge compound. There were hundreds of gators here, in various stages of growth. Then there was the special pen with Old Elijah. He was huge, a good fifteen feet. He was never part of any show; he was just there for visitors to look at. Next to him were Pat and Darien, both of them adolescents, five feet in length, the gators that were wrestled for the amusement of the crowds.
Jack Pine, a tall, well-muscled Seminole, was standing by the pens with Hugh Humphrey, a wiry blond handler from Australia. Hugh had experience with Outback crocs, and Harry valued having him. When she walked over, the two men were talking quietly with a tall, white-haired man and a veritable giant.
The white-haired man said goodbye, starting away before Lorena got close enough to be introduced to him.
The big man followed. He seemed to grunt, kind of like the alligators, but she assumed that was his way of saying goodbye.
"Ms. Fortier!" Hugh called to her, seeing her as he turned away from the pair who were leaving.
"Hi there!" she called back as she crossed over to the western arc of the building complex. "Who was that?" she asked.
"Who was who?" Hugh asked.
"The men who just left. Do they work here?"
"No, no. They do work for Harry now and then, but they're totally independent. The old guy is Dr. Thiessen, a local vet, and the Neanderthal is the doc's assistant, John Smith. I should have had Doc stay to meet you, but I didn't see you, and he's always busy. He just checks in with us now and then. Doc Thiessen is a hero among the local kidshe's the only guy out there who can really treat a sick turtle or a ball python. You'll meet him soon enough, I wager. He's something. Also knows cattle, gatorsand dogs and cats."
"Ah," she murmured. "The big guy is kind of big."
"Creepy, is that what you mean?" Hugh asked with a laugh.
"No, just big."
"And dumb. But he's a good worker. Thiessen needs someone like that. He works with some big animals."
"That's certainly understandable. You guys work with some big animals, too," she reminded them.
Hugh offered a grin. "But we're fit and muscledperfect specimens of manhood. You're supposed to notice that."
She laughed. "You're both in great shape."
"Thanks," Jack Pine offered. "You're welcome to go on about us if you want, but how are you enjoying the work so far?"
"So far, things have been quite easy. I know you need a nurse on staff, but I haven't even had to deal with a skinned knee yet."
"But you like the place all right?" Hugh asked.
"Yes, just fine."
"A lot of women would find it incredibly weird," Jack told her, inclining his head in a way that made her feel special. Like Preston, he was an intriguing man. Unlike Preston, there didn't seem to be anything cerebral about the attraction. His hair was dark and slick, his eyes nearly as black as his hair; he was bronzed and builtjust as he had said. She had liked him instantlybut warily, as well.
He had proudly shown her when they'd met that he'd lost the pinkie finger on his left hand to a gator when he'd learned to wrestle the big reptiles as a boy growing up at Big Cypress Reservation. He seemed to be fearless.
"I like animals," she said.
"These guys are hardly cute and cuddly," Hugh remarked. As if they'd heard him, a number of the alligators set up a racket. They made the strangest noise, as if they were pigs grunting. The cacophony was eerie. She shivered, then thought about the animal's deadly jaws.
She thought about her reasons for being here. Whether she liked the guys who worked here or not, she had to remember to be wary.
She shivered again, suddenly uneasy about being with either man around the prehistoric predators.
Come to think of it, she thought, she didn't want to be here at all, not at all.
But she had to be. It was that simple. She had to be.
"You both seem to like gators a lot," she said.
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