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"I'm sorry, miss. But as you can see from the yellow police tape, this area has been restricted." The young, fresh-faced officer's voice rang with practiced conviction. "No one's allowed access."
Lainey Maxwell took a step closer to the cop, who was stubbornly standing his ground at the top of the wooden staircase that hugged the jagged cliff face, the deep blue of the roiling Pacific spreading out behind him. In another lifetime, she could have cleared out her savings account, bought a boat and simply sailed into that endless blue, leaving this nightmare behind. But she didn't want to run away from her problems. She just wanted to get down to that blasted beach.
"I swear I won't go snooping around." Lie! "All I want is to take some snapshots for my scrapbook." Another lie! "Pleeease," she begged, holding up the pink camera that hung around her neck as she gave him her brightest smile. But it was probably too strained to be believable. She never had been able to lie worth a damn, and this past week had pretty much zapped her dishonesty reserves to the point where there were only scraps lingering at the bottom of the bucket.
"Just one little picture," she pressed, wondering if she'd have better luck if she were one of those toothpick-sized girls instead of her too short, curvy self. "My father proposed to my mother on this beach a long time ago," she fibbed, "and it would really mean a lot to me if I could have a photo of it."
Shaking his head, the cop said, "I'm sorry. This is a crime scene. No photography is allowed."
She lowered her hands, letting the camera dangle around her neck again, resting against her colorful halter top. "Could you maybe just go down there with me?" she asked. It wouldn't be ideal to have him with her, but at this point she'd take what she could get.
"My boss would have my badge if I took you down there," he replied, though she could tell he was tempted. Surprise swept through her system in a rush. She should have been flattered, considering he was pretty cute, but she wasn't here for a date. She just wanted to search the caves on that damn beach. And because of the cliffs, this was the only way to get down there.
"Can you at least tell me what happened?"
Sandy hair fell over his brow as he shook his head again. "No, ma'am." Puffing up his chest a little, he added, "But there's nothing on that beach you need to worry your pretty little head about. We've got everything under control. You just enjoy your vacation."
Ha! Nothing to worry about, her ass. She felt like one of those poor beachgoers in the movie Jaws, listening to Mayor Vaughn tell them it was perfectly "safe" to go back in the water.
Yeah, right. And Godzilla was just a cuddly little lizard.
Despite the late afternoon California sunshine, the wind was brutal today, gusting over the cliffs with a vengeance. Lainey held her sun hat on her head with one hand, the hem of her top down with the other, and racked her brain for a way to get past Dudley Do-Right here. The police officer was trying to play it off like the local law in Moonlight Bay knew exactly what they were doing. But it was a crock. This beautiful little romantic getaway nestled on California's northern coast was about as far from "fine" as it could get. In the past four months, more than six people had gone missing while vacationing here, and another three had been found murdered, their bodies so mutilated it had been impossible for the coroner to determine the cause of death. A few sources had cried rogue shark. They claimed the victims had been swimming in the ocean and ended up a great white's snack before their remains washed up into the seaside caves with the tide. And the missing persons, they said, were simply eaten whole. But there were too many holes in that gruesome theory. She knew, because her brother had told her all about them.
Three weeks ago Lainey's big brother, Ryan Martin, one of Los Angeles's most respected crime journalists, had come here to blow the top off this story. But a few days after checking in to one of the local hotels, he'd gone out one night and never came back. No one had heard from him since.
Six days ago Lainey had shown up in town herself, ready to get some answers about Ryan's disappearance because no one else seemed capable of providing any. Even the paper he worked for had decided not to send another reporter until the police had a lead on what had happened to Ryan. So she'd left her job managing a bookstore down in San Diego, caught a flight into the local airport and registered at one of the cliff-top inns under the pretense of being a vacationing tourist. Every instinct she possessed told her there was something fishy going on in this town, and until she knew what it was, she trusted no one. Which meant she hadn't told a single soul what she was really up to. Not her grandmother or her friends or anyone in the town. As far as they knew, she was here to do nothing more than enjoy herself. But she was getting damned tired of faking a smile when inside she was worried as hell about Ryan.
Since her arrival, Lainey had been on three different group hikes, two wine-tasting trips and a boat cruise around the bay. Without being obvious, she'd asked as many questions as she could about the reporter who had gone missing and the strange things that had been happening in town, but no one was willing to talk. This was a community that made its bread and butter from the tourist trade. The last thing they wanted to discuss with a client was a missing journalist and the chilling case he'd been investigating.
Determined to make one more try for access to the beach below this cliff, Lainey gave the officer what she hoped was a good sympathy-inspiring look. She knew that parts of the three murder victims had been found on this particular stretch of beach (the third one just two days ago) and that, based on the information Ryan's editor had grudgingly given her, her brother had spent a lot time snooping around here. She'd avoided coming here for as long as she could because it quite frankly freaked her out to be in a place where some whack job had dumped pieces of his victimsbut she was getting nowhere fast. Something told her that if she wanted to know what had happened to Ryan, she needed to get her backside down the staircase this cop was blocking and onto the beach, where she could take a look around the caves that cut into the cliff.
"I know I'm being a pain, but this is really important to me," she murmured to the officer before casting a quick glance over the surrounding area. She suddenly had the unnerving feeling that they were being watched, but there was no one else around. Shaking it off, she forced her attention back on the cop. "Could you please just let me take a quick little look around? My parents are both gone now and it would mean so much to me if I could see the place where my father proposed."
He swallowed, looking pained, color marking his cheekbones. "Miss, really. I'm so sorry, but just can't."
She rubbed the back of her neck, her breaths starting to come a little faster, her pulse racing. The officer was looking at her kind of strangely, as if wondering what the hell her problem was, but she didn't know herself. Didn't have a freaking clue! Was she having a panic attack? Now? What was happening toWhoa! She blinked like crazy, hearing herself make a soft little wheezing sound, like a gasp. Oh wow. Just holy-freaking-wow!
Lainey actually felt the force of a physical presence, like a warm jolt of electricity coasting over the surface of her body, before she heard a deep, deliciously rugged voice behind her say, "You need any help here, Casey?"
Spinning around, she came face-to-face with a man whose short dark hair had been disheveled by the wind. He was incredibly tall, incredibly sexy and incredibly good-looking. As her best friend, Bailey, back in Alabamawhere Lainey had spent her childhoodwould sometimes say, the guy looked "good enough to lick like a Popsicle." But it was freaking weird, how he'd come up on them so fast. Had he been spying on her and the officerCasey?from the trees? There was a copse of pines off to their right, the winding dirt path that cut through the underbrush probably leading to one of the gorgeous, rustic cliff-top homes that dotted the coast. Had he been standing there listening to their conversation? Was that why she'd felt as if someone was watching her but hadn't been able to spot anyone when she'd looked around?
"Who are you?" she demanded, more sharply than she'd intended.
But her voice was overshadowed by his own as he said, "You should listen to Officer Munn, Miss Maxwell. You have no business down on that beach."
She glared, ready to tell the stranger to mind his own damn business, when the cop cut her off. "Mr. Santos," he gushed as he moved to Lainey's side, looking ready to ask the guy for an autograph. The young man's Adam's apple bobbed in his throat when he gave another hard swallow. "It's good to see you, sir."
A pair of dark sunglasses shielded the man's eyes as he turned toward the officer, his tone low but friendly. "Would you mind letting me speak to Miss Maxwell alone for a moment?"
"Of of course not."
"Thanks, Casey. And tell your dad hi for me."
"Sure thing," the cop called out, waving as he backed away.
Huh, she thought, crossing her arms over her chest. So this is the infamous Nick Santos. Lainey had heard whispers about him all week long. The guy was like some kind of local legend. From what she'd gathered, he worked as a pricey private investigator. The kind she would have loved to hire but could never afford. If he'd looked at all friendly, she might have tried appealing to his sympathy and asking for his help in her search for answers about what had happened to Ryan. But there was nothing nice or soft-looking about this man. He was She tried to think of how to describe him, but words failed herand if that wasn't strange, she didn't know what was. According to Grandma Kate, since the moment she'd made her first sounds as an infant twenty-six years ago, Lainey had never been at a loss for words.
Determined to fight past her stunned reaction and pull her mental foot from her mouth, she decided the first thing that struck a person about Nick Santos was his height. The guy was freaking tall as hell. Probably six-four or six-five. The fact that he was jaw-droppingly gorgeous was the second. The kind of good-looking that probably had women turning their heads to look at him on the street. But he wasn't pretty. Just raw and hard and masculine. Every feature was cut in sharp, rugged detail. Blade of a nose, sensual slash of a grim mouth, high cheekbones and iron jaw. And then there were the muscles. The guy was lean but ripped. Like, seriously ripped. The sleeves of his black T-shirt were strained by the power of his biceps, his olive-toned skin stretched tight over long, lean lines of sinew and heavy veins that had been forced to the surface by all those mouthwatering muscles.
She hadn't seen how well the pair of worn-in jeans cupped his ass, but based on the front view, Lainey was pretty sure it would be a killer sight.
As soon as "Casey the Cop" had walked away, heading toward the small parking lot that stretched north of the trees, Santos turned his attention on her. Even with the dark aviator glasses, she could feel the force of his gaze as he looked her over, taking in the beach-bunny getup. She noticed a slight curl to his upper lip as he asked, "Why are you so desperate to visit this particular beach, Miss Maxwell?"
She felt ridiculous, like a kitten going up against the big bad wolf, and the feeling chafed. He was treating her like she was an irritating ball of fluff, and she wanted to tell the arrogant jerk where to stuff it but knew that wasn't going to help her cause. And she was irrationally hurt by his attitude. She was used to guys seeing the blond hair and colorful clothes and instantly judging her, thinking they knew every damn thing about her. Over the years, she'd gotten good at blowing off that particular kind of jerk-wad. But for some inexplicable reason, she felt a nearly uncontrollable fury that this man would act so shallow.
Nearly biting her words out through a tight smile, she said, "All I wanted was to take some photographs."
His sensual mouth twisted into a smirk. "Just another vacationer, huh?"
"What else would I be?" she muttered, knowing damn well he wasn't going to let her past him. Another thought occurred to her, and she narrowed her eyes. "And how do you know my name?"
She'd have given anything to be able to see the look in his eyes when he said, "Everyone in town knows your name. You've been asking some interesting questions for a tourist." He gestured with one of his large hands toward her camera. "And most of the tourists around here aren't looking to add morbid crime scene photos to their vacation pics."
Heat rushed into her face, the "Southern" in her accent getting thicker with her temper. "I wasn't aware that curiosity was a crime," she snapped.
He took a step closer, invading her personal space. A frown curved her lips as she craned her head back to hold his stare. "It might not be a crime," he said in a low rumble, "but it could land you in a serious amount of trouble."
Overwhelmed with frustration, Lainey tossed her hands in the air. "What's the big freaking deal? You're all acting like I want to go traipsing through a minefield. It's just a beach!"
The hard set of his mouth got even harder. "Even if it wasn't a crime scene, the stretch of beach down there is too treacherous for sightseeing. So pull your head out of your ass and forget it. You aren't setting foot on it or anywhere near those caves, and that's an order."
Oh whoa. He was giving her orders now? "Exactly who do you think you are?" she demanded hoarsely, getting the strange feeling that they were having some kind of bizarre secondary conversation without any words. One that went along the lines of Get the hell out of here, little girl, before you end up getting hurt by things you 're too fluffy to handle, while she shot back,
I'm not setting foot out of this town until I know what happened to my brother! I'm worried sick about him and I'm freaking terrified he's already been killed!
Taking a deep breath, she added, "You have no right to tell me what I can and can't do."
"Actually," he replied in a low, brutally controlled voice, his accent impossible to place, "I have every right."
Wow. Talk about arrogant! "And how do you figure that?" she scoffed.
"Because I own it," he ground out.