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You'll be sorry you messed with me."
Leonard Cultrain's angry words echoed through Samantha Corley's head as she drove up the winding graveled drive to her cabin. His mother, Lou Lou, one of the most bitter, crotchety old ladies she'd ever known, had insisted that her son was innocent of murdering his wife, that he never should have been arrested in the first place.
But everyone in town knew Leonard was out of jail on a technicality, and the residents were on edge.
Gravel spewed behind her as she pressed the accelerator and screeched up her driveway. Normally she wasn't skittish, and could hold her own, but she'd feel a hell of a lot better once she was inside her house with her shotgun by her side.
Usually Sam liked living out here alone in the wilderness, but today the isolation felt eerie.
The thick dense trees rocked with the wind, the branches dipping like big hands trying to reach her, hands like Leonard's.
Hands that could choke her just like he'd choked his wife.
Stop it; you're just being paranoid. You're home now.
But her headlights flickered across the lawn as she braked, and she spotted a strange car parked in front of her house.
An uneasy feeling rippled up her spine. Had Leonard come to make good on his threat?
No, this wasn't Leonard's old car.
The license plate was from Fulton County, the Atlanta area. She didn't know anyone from Atlanta.
Maybe she should call the local police. Chief John Wise's strong masculine face flashed in her mind, and for a brief moment, she wished that he was here. That he'd take charge and make sure she was safe.
But she couldn't depend on a man. She'd learned that a long damn time ago. Besides, John wouldonly fuss at her for going out to Leonard's. He thought she was foolish to go up against bullies like him.
The infuriating man was like most others she knew. They wanted a dainty little female, one they could protectand control.
Sam was none of those things. In foster care, she'd learned to do the protecting and to stand up for herself.
Besides, tangling with the tall, dark brooding cop rattled her every timeand made her want things she couldn't have. Like a man in her life .
No, she'd check this out for herself. Maybe she simply had a visitor.
Yeah, right. Sam didn't have a lot of friends. Acquaintances, yes, but no one she shared her secrets with. No one to sleep over.
Not since Honey had left.
Clenching her cell phone in one hand, she grabbed the baseball bat she kept with her from the backseat floorboard and climbed out.
Slowly she moved up the porch steps, glancing at the windows and searching for movement inside the house, listening for sounds of an intruder. If a car was here, someone had to be around. But where?
Her senses sprang to alert at the top of the steps. The front door had been jimmied. She held her breath and inched forward, then touched the doorknob. It felt icy against her finger, then the door swung open with a screech.
She exhaled shakily. Inside, the house was dark, the smell of fear palpable. But another scent drifted to her. A man's cologne. Heavy. Cheap. Too strong.
She hesitated and moved behind the door. She'd be a fool to go inside. She had to call for help.
But a baby's cry pierced the air. A baby? God, what if the child was hurt? If the parent was here for her help?
It was a small town. Everyone knew what she did for a living, that she was a children's advocate, a guardian ad litem, and sometimes they needed her help.
Her heart stuttered in her chest. If the child was in danger, she couldn't wait.
Still she had to be cautious. She inched into the entryway, but froze at the sight of blood in the kitchen.
Someone was hurt.
Trembling, she slipped into the corner behind the door and punched 9-1-1, then whispered that she had an intruder.
"We'll get someone there ASAP," the dispatch officer said. "Stay on the line."
But the baby wailed again, and she ended the call and slipped up the stairs. Gripping the bat in her hands, she paused to listen, searching for the direction of the noise.
It was coming from her room. She scanned the hall, the extra bedroom and bath at the top of the stairs, but they were empty.
Her eyes had adjusted to the dark now, and she peered into her bedroom. The windows were closed, the bed made, nothing amiss. No signs of an intruder.
She crept inside, then realized the cry was coming from her closet. She eased opened the door and her heart clenched.
An infant was kicking and screaming from an infant carrier on the floor, a darling little girl wrapped in a pink blanket.
She knelt and scooped up the child to comfort her, her mind racing. What was going on?
There had been blood downstairs . Someone was hurt.
The baby's mother?
Police Chief John Wise gripped his cell phone with his fist as his father lapsed into a diatribe about his plans for John's future.
"You know you were meant to do more than work in that hole-in-the-wall town," his father bellowed. "The most serious crime you've solved has been the theft of those stupid Butterbean dolls. And that was just a bunch of kids selling them on eBay."
John silently cursed. "You don't have to remind me." The case had been the talk of the small town. All the parents had been in an uproar, divided on the issue. Some blew it off as boys being boys while others wanted the kids punished for tainting the town's biggest tourist draw.
CNN had picked up the story, plastered photos of Butterville Babyland Hospital on the news, panning the rooms where the Butterbean babies were birthed from their butterbean shells along with a picture of him in uniform as if he were guarding the dolls. Miss Mazie, the doll's originator, had her five minutes of fame.
And he'd looked like a country bumpkin fool.
"You need to move on," his father continued. "We want the political supporters to take you seriously when your name comes up for office."
Sweat dribbled down his jaw. "I know, Dad. But the town needs me now. Leonard Cultrain has been released from prison and poses a threat." Especially to the women.
His phone beeped that he had another call, and he jumped on it. "A 9-1-1 is coming in. I've got to go."
"What this time? Someone's cat up a tree?" his father said in disgust.
His father was probably right. But he'd heard enough for tonight. "Later." He disconnected the call and clicked to dispatch. "Chief Wise here."
"We just got a call from Samantha Corley's house. An intruder."
He scrubbed a hand over his face, scraping beard stubble. "Did you remind her not to go inside?"
"I told her to stay on the line but then the line went dead."
John swore, then hit the siren, wheeled around and raced toward Samantha's cabin. The damn woman was a magnet for trouble. That job of hers was going to get her killed one day.
Not that he didn't admire her dedication to her callingand her killer legsbut he wished she'd choose another line of work. Let someone else deal with the parent abusers and troubled families in the county.
But she'd grown up in a foster home, so he guessed it was her nature. Still, sometimes he worried about the blasted woman.
Why, he didn't know. He'd known her since high school, but she'd never given him the time of day. Except for that friend of hers, Honey Dawson, who'd left town months and months ago, Sam hadn't made many friends. And as far as he knew, she'd never had a boyfriend.
He guessed the morons in town couldn't see past that quiet, independent demeanor of hers. That and the gossip about her father being a bad cop, killed because of it.
Coupled with the fact that she was a tough girl from a foster home and that she could outshoot most men in town, she intimidated the hell out of them, too.
But he actually admired her guts and her skill.
His mind ticked over the possibilities of who might want to harm her. Leonard had just been released today and now Sam was in troublecould the two be connected?
Adrenaline shot through him, and he pressed the gas and sped up. If the son of a bitch had hurt her, he'd be back in the pen tonight. And this time no technicality would get him off.
His heart rate kicked up as he rounded the curve and turned onto Pine Bluff, then raced around the winding road, fighting the curves at breakneck speed. He swung onto the gravel drive leading up the ridge to her cabin on two wheels, bracing himself mentally and physically for what he might find.
He approached the cabin and screeched to a stop, then he grabbed his gun and jumped from the vehicle, scanning the periphery for an intruder, and for Sam. If the fool woman had any sense, she'd have waited outside. But he didn't see an intruder or Sam anywhere.
It figured she'd try to handle things on her own.
He saw a dark green sedan with a dent in the front fender, then noticed the plates were Fulton County and frowned. Why would an intruder have parked in front of the house?
A coyote's wail rent the night, trees rustled in the wind, and an owl hooted. The chill of the night engulfed him, warning him trouble was at hand. Too close by to ignore.
He inched forward, searching the porch, the windows, the doorways for signs of movement, and sounds of an intruder.
When he pushed the front door open, he saw the blood splattered on the kitchen floor, and his chest clenched.
He hoped to hell that wasn't Sam's blood.
Gun at the ready, he crept toward the kitchen but it appeared empty, although the blood trail led out the back door. It looked as if the intruder might have gone into the woods. God, he might have Sam with him.
Then a sound disturbed the quiet. He hesitated, tensed, listening.
A crying baby? He hadn't seen Sam around much; surely she hadn't had a baby without his knowing.
He pivoted to search for the child and realized the cry had come from upstairs. He slowly moved toward the staircase, but glanced in the dining room first just to make sure it was empty. Satisfied the downstairs was clear, he tiptoed up the steps, pausing to listen. If the intruder had Sam up there, he wanted to catch him off guard.
But just as he turned the corner of the staircase, a shadow moved in front of him. He reacted instantly and raised the gun. "Police, freeze."
A strangled yelp made him pause, then an object swung down. He jumped back to dodge the blow, and the object connected with the floor.
What the hell?
He flipped on the light aiming his gun at the source, then Sam screamed.
His heart hammered. "Sam! For God's sake, I could have shot you."
She pulled back, her eyes huge in her pale face. "John?"
He heaved a breath, trying to control his raging temper. She could have killed him with that damn bat.
"Did you see anyone?" she whispered shakily.
Feeling like a heel for yelling at her, he reached out and stroked her arms. Her dark curly hair was tousled, her cheeks flushed, and fear glimmered in her vibrant brown eyes. "No. It looks like the intruder went out the back door."
"There was blood," she whispered. "Someone's blood ."
He pulled her up against him, surprised at how soft she felt when she was such an athlete, was so well-toned. "I know, but it's all right," he murmured. "I'mhere now."
She allowed him to soothe her for a brief second, then Sam suddenly pulled away as if she realized she'd let down her guard and shown a weakness by letting him touch her.
He stiffened. What was wrong with him? He had a job to do, and this was Samantha Corley, Miss Cool and Independent.
Although he had to admit that he'd liked the way she felt up against him.
"I'm sorry, I was just shaken for a moment." Sam blushed and squared her shoulders, chastising herself for acting so wimpy. But the thought that the little baby might have been in danger frightened her.
"Don't sweat it," he said. "Let's go sit down and you can tell me what happened."
She nodded, but the little girl whimpered from the bedroom again, and she whirled around. "Let me get the baby."
"Baby?" his gruff voice echoed behind her as he followed her into her bedroom.
He paused at the doorway as if uncomfortable entering her private room, then cleared his throat and walked on in, following her to the closet.
She opened the door, then knelt and scooped up the whimpering child in her arms. "Shh, sweetheart, it's all right. I'll take care of you."
"Good grief, Sam, what's going on? You have a baby in the closet?"
She wrapped the blanket snugly around the child and patted her back as she turned to him. "Whoever was here, the mother maybe, left her in my room."
Shock strained his features for a brief second, then she saw the wheels turning in his mind. "I see."
She swallowed, cradling the infant to her chest, then gestured toward the diaper bag as the little girl began to fuss. "Can you grab that and bring it downstairs? She might be hungry. I'll give her a bottle."
He gave a clipped nod, then yanked the frilly pink bag up with one hand as if it were a snake, and she almost laughed.
She started toward the stairs, but John reached out a hand to stop her. "Let me go first just in case the intruder decided to return."
Her chest tightened, but she nodded. He braced his gun again as they descended the steps, his gaze scanning the foyer and rooms, but the house appeared to be empty.
She headed to the kitchen, but again he stopped her. "That room is a crime scene now, Sam. You can't go inside."
She bit her lip and jiggled the baby up and down. "But the baby needs to be fed."
He shifted, looking uncomfortable, then glanced into the kitchen, which adjoined the den. "All right. Sit down in the den and tell me what to do. We can't touch the blood or door. I want a crime unit to process the kitchen for forensics."
She nodded, took two steps and settled in the rocking chair, cradling the baby to her and rocking her.
"Let me call for backup first." He phoned the station. "I need a crime scene unit out at Samantha Corley's house along with officers to search the woods." He hesitated and glanced at Sam. "And bring the bloodhounds. We might be looking for a body."
A shudder coursed through her as he disconnected the call. Then he turned to her with a helpless expression as he searched the diaper bag and pulled out a plastic bottle. "No ID or wallet inside. What do I do with the bottle?