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Deputy Liam McKenna hit the flashing lights the moment he saw the woman limping down the dark Montana road. It was just past midnight on Friday night, and although the small town of North Star, Montana, was fairly peaceful, he'd arrested more than a few adventurous prostitutes who saw fit to travel from Helena on the warm summer weekends to be closer to the ranch hands looking for company. Not to mention stumbling upon a few druggies and drunks over the years, as well. Question waswhich one was she?
The woman turned at the blink of red and blue, automatically lifting her hand to shield her eyes from the bright beams of his headlights. In an instant, he took in snug jeans and a shiny black halter top, wild red hair that had fallen out of its neat twist.
"Ah, crap." He'd know that hair anywhere. And he could only imagine what Sheriff Taggert would say when he heard about this.
What was the sheriff's daughter doing way out here at this time of night?
The fact that Caroline "Carly" Taggert wasn't hysterical or bleeding helped calm the kick of adrenaline surging through him. But it did nothing to quell the mix of fear and anger that put thoughts in his head he didn't want to consider.
She was alone, walking, with no car in sight. And since he knew for a fact her shiny, red Rav 4 was parked in the driveway outside her house because he'd noted it as he'd driven by twenty minutes earlier, that meant someone had left her out here.
Liam stopped the cruiser and got out. "Carly?"
She winced as though hoping she wouldn't be recognized, her full lips pulling away from her teeth in a telling grimace before she managed a weak smile. "Yeah, hi. Pretty night, isn't it?" She turned her face away from the lights and made a show of looking up at the sky. "I mean, look at those stars."
He didn't take his gaze off her. "Are you all right?"
Liam approached, searching for clues and signs of what had taken place. She smelled like a brewery.
Carly flashed him a look from beneath her lashes, as though he'd asked the stupidest question on the face of the earth. Maybe he had. But all right didn't leave a woman abandoned on a dark road or smelling the way she did.
"I'm fine. But I, uh, don't suppose there's any way you won't mention this to my dad?"
Her father had spent a full hour that very morning ordering his menLiam especially, since Jonas had chosen Liam to head things up while he and Mrs. Taggert were on a cruiseto keep an eye on Carly and make sure she stayed out of trouble. The answer to her question? He wasn't sure yet. "What happened? Why are you out here by yourself?" When she didn't immediately respond, he followed those questions with, "Why are you limping?"
She shifted her weight and shrugged. "You'd be limping, too, if you were wearing four-inch heels."
Her toes peeked out of the front of her bright red shoes and Liam noted how her jeans didn't quite cover the spike in back. Sexy or not, he'd never understand why women did that to themselves. God knew she didn't need the height. At least five-seven in her stockinged feet, Carly met him at eye level in those stilts. "Those aren't exactly walking shoes."
She didn't seem drunk, even if she had obviously gone out for a dateor a partyand something had gone wrong.
Liam angled himself in front of her since she refused to face him completely and that's when he noticed her halter top was misshapen, as if it had been yanked and stretched on one side. So much so the material gaped instead of lying flat against her skin where it roped around her neck and tied.
"Stop that right now, Deputy. I can see what you're thinking but you're wrong. I'm fine!''
But she wasn't. What did she expect him to do? Take her home and not say a word? For the next two weeks, her safety was his number-one priority. "Have you been drinking?"
"No." She rolled her eyes. "My date was, though, and after he dumped half a bottle on me, I left. Want me to take a Breathalyzer test?"
Up close and able to see into her eyes, he knew it wasn't necessary. Her gray eyes were clear and heated with aggravation, her cheeks hot with embarrassment. "No. Let's go."
She looked as though she wanted to argue but the pain of her footwear spared him the hassle. Liam reached out and grasped her elbow in a gentle grip, her freckled arm cool beneath his hand. "Do you need a doctor?"
"No, I twisted my ankle a little ways back, but once I get off my feet it'll be fine. And you can stop staring at me like that. Nothing happened and there is absolutely no reason to tell my father. It's not like I'm sixteen or something. Blisters and a sprained ankle do not warrant a report to the sheriff."
"You're sure that's it?" He glanced at her blouse and hated himself, because the sight of her cleavage was an instant turn-on.
He'd always had a soft spot for Caroline, first because she'd been nice to him from the day he'd met her in high school, then because she was so gullible and he couldn't help but watch out for her. He'd also always known she was out of his league. She'd grown up the town sweetheart, while he was the badass kid from the wrong side of the fence.
But for the past year, whenever Carly had stepped foot inside the station he'd noticed her more and more. For some reason he found himself staring at her mass of curly hair, smiling whenever she smiled. And the way she crinkled her nose?
Man, he had it badnot that he could or would do anything about it. Even he knew not to mess with his boss's daughter. The fact the sheriff carried a gun for a living merely hammered home the stupidity of his thoughts.
But whoever had messed with her tonight. .the guy would answer to him. The sheriff could wait his turn. "You're sure?"
She paused again, her gaze smoky and sensual-looking, accented by her makeup and the full moon.
"Positive." She tilted her head to one side and sized him up. "Wait a minute Did Dad give you orders pertaining to me?"
Liam saw the spark in her eyes. Not a good sign. "Your father left a lot of instructions before he left."
"Oh, no. No, you know exactly what I mean. Did he tell you to babysit me?"
She didn't give him time to respond.
"Oh, for the love of Are you serious? He didn't trust that I could handle myself for two weeks?"
It wasn't only the sheriff.
Liam chose not to mention the betting taking place at the station. The firehouse. Even the diner.
Carly was as smart and intelligent as anyone could be but her big heart overcame her common sense more often than not and she had a propensity for getting herself into scrapes. Just look where she stood. "Let's get you home."
"I have no doubt Dad ordered you all to call him if I break a nail, but don't you dare. It took Rissa years to talk Dad into taking this cruise. You wouldn't really ruin their vacation because I sprained my ankle?"
Liam opened the passenger door of the police cruiser and held her arm while she dropped into the seat. He saw her wince as she lifted her injured ankle inside.
Swearing softly, he checked their surroundings for any sign of whoever had left her there before he turned on the brighter work lights inside the car and squatted, his back against the open door for support. "Let me see."
Not giving her a choice, he gripped her calf and gently removed the ridiculous shoe, surveying the damage.
"Definitely swollen." He ran his thumb over the bone and pressed gently. "That hurt?"
"Just a little. It'll be okay."
She leaned toward him and the position left him with a prime view down her top. Despite the shadows cast by the lights, he saw black lace and seductive cleavage, more than she'd had in high school. He'd looked then, too, fool that he was.
Focusing on something guaranteed to get his mind off her as a woman and on the present. He fastened his gaze on the stain he could now see mucking up the front of her blouse. The stain and the ripped seams. "What happened to your shirt?" When her lips formed a thin, firm line, he added, "You either tell me, or you tell the sheriff when I call the ship."
The other thing he'd learned about Carly after sharing science labs and classes with her in high school was that she had a tendency to be a regular chatterbox when she was nervousor on the hot seat. He'd been more interested in getting by and getting out, whereas Carly had been all about her grades. On test days, she'd driven him insane with all her fretting. And the one time she'd wound up sitting beside him in the principal's office?
He smiled at the memory. Taking the blame for her screwup in setting the classroom on fire had made sense. It wasn't as though he hadn't done other things like it and not been caught.
Carly leaned back in the seat and clutched the shoe he'd handed her. She'd painted her nails some dark, mysterious color that had a gleam of purple, and out of nowhere came the mental image of her stroking her nails down him.
Swearing silently at his lack of control, Liam shoved the temptation away. "Well? What's it going to be, Caroline?"
"I had a date."
As if he hadn't already figured that out? Liam narrowed his gaze. He wanted a name. Details. So he could take the guy down for ripping her shirt and leaving her here this way.
What if he hadn't been the one to find her? What if some pervert had come along and snatched her? It happened. On a long stretch of road like this one, anything could have happened and the thought made his hands shake like a boy's.
"It went badly. He spilled his beer on me. I left. End of story."
"Why do you date losers?"
"Ever hear the saying about kissing a few frogs? You can't tell who's who just by looking at them."
He didn't want to think about what she'd done with the guys she'd dated. "All I'm saying is that there are nice guys in this town. Why don't you ever pick one of them?"
"What do you think I'm trying to do? People roll their eyes if you say your biological clock is ticking, but you know what? Tick-tock," she stated, her temper getting the best of her. She slammed her head against the padded seat. "Dating sucks."
"Only because you're picking the wrong guys," he repeated.
"So who should I pick? A deputy? One of the firefighters? Are those the guys you mean?"
He thought of her with one of the men he had to work with and see every day on the job and shook his head. Bad idea.
"No way," she continued, closing her eyes. "I lived with a cop for over twenty years. No way would I give myself a life sentence, always wondering if he will come home at the end of the day."
Couldn't get much clearer than that. Not that he was thinking of himself. "Who was the guy who left you here?"
Time to get back to the problem at hand. "Ooh, nice try, but I'm not about to share that information."
She crossed her arms over her chest, the move emphasizing the cleavage he was trying so hard to not see. "Caroline, who was it?"
She rolled her eyes. "It's Carly, remember?"
He ignored the reminder that she preferred the name she and her stepsister had cooked up in an effort to change what Caroline considered her "boring" image. Any more exciting and he'd not make it through the next fourteen days.
"Can we just go?"
"Not until you tell me who left you out here."
A rough huff left her chest. "Then I guess we'll be here all night."
He couldn't allow himself to consider the possibility and waited patiently, barely breathing, because with every inhalation he got a combination of her perfume and the guy's beer.
"I won't tell you," she insisted, beginning to fidget and squirm. "I mean, why would I tell you? Do you know how hard it is for me to date in this town with everyone watching my every move? All my life I've been the sheriff's daughter. I've had to deal with guys who are afraid of ticking off my dad, or else wanting to. Dad might have said for you to watch out for me, but I refuse to tell you, when I know you'll go after the guy like some Old-West posse."
He didn't acknowledge the statement, unwilling to lie and say it wouldn't happen, when they both knew it would.
"Look, I took care of the problem myself. He isn't out drinking and driving, so all you have to do is drive me home, okay?"
No, it wasn't okay. His brain cycled through what she'd said a second time, focusing on the hint of quiet satisfaction that shadowed the disgust in her tone. "How did you take care of it?"
She hugged her arms around her front and squeezed. And damned if he didn't notice. Again.
Liam rubbed a hand over his mouth. Pavlov's dog had better manners.
Carly groaned. "You are impossible. What is it with cops? You all have alpha complexes that are borderline cavemanish. I don't know how Rissa puts up with my dad sometimes."
He wasn't about to be outmaneuvered. "How did you take care of it? Am I going to find a body somewhere?"
She glared at him before she blinked twice and gripped her shoe tighter, as though she wanted to conk him over the head with it. "I wasn't allowed to date until Dad taught us self-defense. He insisted Skylar and I be able to protect ourselves. Knowing that, how do you think I took care of things? If I had to guess, I'd say right now the guy is using his cooler of ice on his crotch."