Read an Excerpt
Sheriff Sean Taggart-Tag, as he was commonly known- had eaten, showered and was sprawled naked and exhausted across his bed when the phone rang.
"Forget it," he muttered, not bothering to lift his head. He didn't have the energy. God, he needed sleep. He'd been up all night helping a neighboring county sheriff chase down a man wanted for two bank robberies. Then this morning, before he could so much as think about sleep, he'd had to rescue four stupid cows from the middle of the highway. He'd also wrestled a drunken and equally stupid teenager out of a deep gorge.
Then he'd delivered a baby when the mother had decided labor pains were just gas so that she'd ended up stranding herself thirty-five miles from nowhere.
Now, though it was barely the dinner hour, he just might never move again. He lived alone on a hill above town. Not on Lilac Hill like the rich, but in a nice, comfortable, sleepy little subdivision where the houses were far apart and old enough to be full of character-aka run-down. His place was more run-down than most, which was how he'd afforded it.
Renovation had come slow and costly, so much so that he'd only gotten to his bedroom and kitchen thus far. But it was his, and it was home. After growing up with a father who ruled not only the town with an iron fist but his kid as well, and no mother from the time she'd left for greener pastures when he'd turned eight, having a warm, cozy home had become very important to him.
Truth be known, he was ready for more than just a home these days. It wasn't his family he wanted more of, as he and his father had never been close. How could they be when they didn't share the same ideas, morals or beliefs, and to the older Taggart, Tag was little more than a disappointment. Regardless of the strained relationship with his father, Tag felt he was missing something else. He was ready for a friend, a lover, a wife. A soul mate. Someone he could depend on for a change, instead of the other way around.
But right now, he'd settle for eight hours of sleep in a row.
The phone kept ringing. Turning his head he pried one eye open and looked at it. It could be anyone. It could be his father, ex-sheriff, now retired, calling to tell Tag how to do his job. Again.
Or it could be an emergency, because if life had taught Tag any lesson at all, it was that just about anything could happen.
"Damn it." He yanked up the receiver. "What?"
"Dispatch," Annie reported in her perpetually cheerful voice. Off duty she was his ex-fiancée and pest extraordinaire. On duty, she was still his ex-fiancée and pest extraordinaire. Not long after becoming engaged, they'd decided they were better co-workers than co-habitors, and they'd been right. Tag could never have taken her eternal cheerfulness in bed night after night.
"Heard you didn't even kiss Sheila good night after your date," she said. "I'll have you know I went to a lot of trouble to set that up. You've got to kiss 'em, Tag, or you're going to ruin your bad-boy rep."
He groaned and rolled over. "God, I hope so."
"I just want you happy. Like I am."
She was getting married next month to one of his deputies, which was a good thing. But now she wanted him as almost married as she was. Sighing would do no good. Neither would ignoring her-she was more ruthless than a pit bull terrier. "If it's any of your business, which it's not, I didn't kiss Sheila because it wasn't a date. I didn't even want to go in the first place-" Why was he bothering? She wouldn't listen. Rubbing his eyes, he stared at the ceiling. "Why are you calling?"
"Know why you're so grumpy? You need to get laid once in a while. Look-" As if departing a state secret, she lowered her voice. "Sex is a really great stress reliever. I'd give you some to remind you, just as a favor, mind you, but I'm a committed woman now."
Tag wished he was deep asleep. "Tell me you're not calling me from the dispatch phone to say this to me."
"Someone has to, Tag, honey."
"I'm going back to sleep now."
"Why not?" He heard the rustling of papers as Annie shifted things on her desk. He pictured the mess-the stacks, the unfiled reports, the mugs of coffee and chocolate candy wrappers strewn over everything-and got all the more tense. "Look at the computer screen in front of you," he instructed. "Read me your last call."
"Oh, yeah!" She laughed. "Can't believe I forgot there for a moment. There's a stranger downtown, driving some sort of hot rod, causing trouble. We've received calls on and off all day, complaining about the loud music and reckless driving."
He opened his mouth to ask what had taken her so long to say so, but bit back the comment because it wouldn't do him any good. Back on duty whether he liked it or not, he rubbed his gritty, tired eyes and grabbed for his pants. "Theft? Injuries?"
"Nope, nothing like that. Just the music and speeding."
"Speeding?" He'd given up sleep for speeding? "Why didn't hell, who's on duty right now Tim? Why didn't he take care of this earlier if it's been a problem all day?"
"Seems Tim stopped off at his momma's for some pie after lunch and got sick. Food poisoning. He's been bowing to the porcelain god ever since. Poor guy, bad things like that don't usually happen here in Pleasantville."
Since he'd had plenty of bad things happen to him right here in this town, the least of which was caving in and hiring his ex on dispatch, Tag just rolled his eyes. "If nothing really bad could happen, why can't I manage a night with some sleep in it?"
"Because we all love your sweet demeanor too much. Now get your ass up. Oh, and careful out there, okay? Don't do anything I wouldn't."
Which was damn little and they both knew it. "Yeah, thanks," he muttered, looking for more clothes. He jammed on his boots, yanked on his uniform shirt and grabbed his badge.
With one last fond look toward his big, rumpled, very comfortable bed, he shook his head and left.
Halfway to downtown Pleasantville, his radio squawked. "Got the license plate and make for ya," Annie said, and rattled it off.
"Sunshine-yellow Porsche." Tag shook his head at the idiotic tourist who'd probably taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in Pleasantville. "Shouldn't be hard to find. Owner's name?"
"Let's see, it's here somewhere Cassie Tremaine Montgomery."
Not a tourist. Not a wayward traveler lost by accident. Not by a long shot.
Cassie Tremaine Montgomery.
She'd belonged here once. Though now, as a famous lingerie model, she was as far from Pleasantville as one could get.
He might not have ever met her personally since he'd been several years ahead of her in school, but her reputation preceded her. A reputation she'd gotten-according to legend- by using men just like her mother.
If he remembered correctly, and he was certain he did, Cassie had been tough, unreachable, attitude-ridden and hot. Very hot.
And she'd been practically run out of town after her high school graduation by rumors. They'd said she was pregnant, on drugs, a thief. You name it, someone in town had claimed she'd done it. Hell, even his loser cousin Biff had plenty of wild stories, though Tag had no idea how much of it was true given Biff's tendency toward exaggeration. He'd never expended any energy thinking about it.
But now he was sheriff and she was back, stirring up trouble. Seemed he'd need to think about her plenty.
He saw her immediately, speeding down Magnolia Avenue in her racy car, with a matching racy attitude written all over her. Blond hair whipping behind her, her fingers tapping in beat to the music she had blaring.
Knowing only that things were about to get interesting, Tag turned his cruiser around and went after her.
Get what you can, honey. Get what you can and get out.
Cassie Tremaine Montgomery smiled grimly as she remembered her mother's advice on life and took Magnolia Avenue at a slightly elevated speed than was strictly allowed by law. She couldn't help it, her car seemed to have the same attitude about being in this town as she did.
In other words, neither of them liked it.
As she drove downtown throughout the day, running errands, people stopped, stared. Pointed.
Logically, she knew it was the car. But the place had slammed her into the past. People recognized her. People remembered her.
Had she thought they wouldn't? Hadn't Kate warned her after she had been back in town recently to close up her mother's house? Good old Pea-ville.
There was Mrs. McIntyre coming out of the Tea Room. The Town Gossip hadn't changed; she still wore her hair in a bun wrapped so tight her eyes narrowed, and that infamous scowl. She'd maliciously talked about Cassie and Flo on a daily basis.
But that was a lifetime ago. To prove it, Cassie waved.
Mrs. McIntyre shook her finger at her and turned to a blue-haired old biddy next to her. That woman shook her finger at Cassie, too.
Well. Welcome home. Cassie squashed the urge to show them a finger of her own. She couldn't help it, this place brought out the worst in her.
But she wasn't here to reminisce and socialize. God, no. If left up to her, she'd have never come back. There was nothing for her here, nothing.
Kate was gone. She'd marched out of town hand in hand with Cassie all those years ago, each determined to make something of themselves.
Kate had done spectacularly in Chicago, with her specialty ladies' shop, Bare Essentials.
Some would say so had Cassie. But that she could afford to buy and sell this sorry-ass town was little satisfaction when just driving through made her feel young and stupid all over again. Two things she hadn't felt in a very long time.
Everyone in Pleasantville had assumed she'd grow up the same as the trouble-loving Flo. Destiny, they'd said. Can't fight it.
And if you counted going off to New York and becoming one of the world's most well-known lingerie models following her destiny, well then, that's what Cassie had done.
Now she was back. Not by choice, mind you. Oh, no. She passed the library. And yep, there was the librarian standing out front changing the sign for tonight's reading circle. Mrs. Wilkens hadn't changed a bit, either. She was still old, still had her glasses around her neck on a chain and was still frowning at Cassie.
Cassie had spent hours at the library looking for an escape from her life, devouring every historical romance novel she could find.
Mrs. Wilkens had always, always, hovered over her as if she was certain Cassie was going to steal a book.
Oh, wasn't this a fun stroll down memory lane. With a grim smile, Cassie drove on. She passed the old bowling alley, the five-and-dime, the Rose Café.
Pleasantville had a scent she'd never forgotten. It smelled like broken dreams and fear.
Or maybe that was just her imagination.
There was sound, as well. Other cars, a kid's laughter the whoop of a siren-
What the hell? Craning her neck in surprise, she looked into the rearview mirror and saw the police lights. Her heart lurched for the poor sucker about to get a ticket. A serious lead-foot herself, Cassie winced in sympathy and slowed so the squad car could go around her.
No problem, she'd just pull over to give it more room. But the police car pulled over, too.
And that's when it hit her. She was the sucker about to get the ticket.
"Damn it. Damn it," she muttered as she turned off the car and fumbled for her purse. She hadn't been pulled over since prom night.
All those unhappy memories flooded back, nearly choking her. She hadn't given thought to that night in far too long to let it hit her like a sucker punch now, but that's exactly what it did. Her drunken date. Then dealing with the sheriff, who'd been one of the few men in town she'd figured she could trust.
She'd been wrong, very wrong. No man was trustworthy, hadn't she learned that the hard way? Especially recently.
But after all the terror she'd been through in the days before she'd been forced back here, Cassie wasn't going to get stressed about this. She'd find her wallet, explain why she was in such a hurry, and maybe, just maybe, if she batted the lashes just right, added a do-me smile and tossed back her hair in a certain way, she'd get out of here ticket-free.
Please, oh please, let there have been a new sheriff in the past ten years, she thought as she finally located her wallet in the oversize purse that carried everything including her still-secret vice-a historical romance. Pirates, rogues, Vikings the lustier the better. She hadn't yet cracked the spine on this latest book, but if the sheriff saw it she'd well, she'd have to kill him.
No driver's license in the wallet. Oh, boy. Her own fault, though. In getting ready for the club she'd gone to several nights ago with friends, she'd pulled out her license and stuck it in her pocket so she wouldn't be hampered by her heavy purse.
And she hadn't returned it, not then, and not in the shocking events since. "Damn it."
"You said that already."
Lurching up, Cassie smacked her head on the sun visor, dislodging her sunglasses. Narrowing her eyes at the low, very male laugh, she focused in on not Sheriff Richard Taggart, thank God.
No, Richard Taggart would be in his late fifties by now. Probably gray with a paunch and a mean-looking mouth from all the glowering he'd done.
The man standing in front of her wearing mirrored sunglasses and a uniform wasn't old, wasn't gray and certainly didn't have a paunch. In fact, as her eyes traveled up, up, up his very long, very mouthwatering body, she doubted he had a single ounce of fat on his tall, lean, superbly conditioned form.
Not that she was noticing. She worked with men all the time. Fellow models, photographers, directors and while she definitely liked to look, and sometimes even liked to touch- on her terms thank you very much-this man would never interest her.
He wore a cop's uniform and a sheriff's badge, and ever since prom night she had a serious aversion to both.
Not to mention her aversion to authority period. "I don't have my license," she said, dismissing him by not looking into his face. Rude, yes, but it was nothing personal. She might have even told him so, if she cared what he thought, which she didn't.
"No license," he repeated.
What a voice. Each word sent a zing of awareness tingling through her every nerve ending. He could have made a fortune as a voice talent. His low, slightly rough tone easily conjured up erotic fantasies out of thin air.
"That's a problem, the no-license thing," he said. Having clearly decided she was no threat, he removed his sunglasses, stuck them in his shirt pocket and leaned on her car with casual ease, his big body far too close and male.