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The cool ocean breeze of summer feathered through the loose tendrils of Jocelyne Baker's hair, caressing her skin and body, soothing the tension away. Sitting with her legs crossed on the mat, her hands flat on the ground beside her, eyes closed, she inhaled, and let it out slowly.
All the tension of being cooped up for the past two rainy days in the inn with her mother melted away.
Maybe coming home hadn't been such a good idea. She could have made it work had she stayed in New Jersey. Somehow.
The flutter of tiny feet in her belly reminded her why she'd returned. Pregnant and alone, she'd needed a better place than the city to raise her child, even if it meant going home.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Nothing had changed. The town was as it had been when she'd left. Her mother was still considered the town kook and everyone stared at her, waiting for her to be just as flaky. Like mother, like daughter.
The only difference was that this time she was more mature, more confident in her own place in life. She refused to let whispering gossips hurt her or her child. Her muscles clenched in her neck and shoulders.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Moving back to Raven's Cliff wasn't a mistake. She repeated this mantra with each breath in and each one out.
Despite the cleansing breeze, other thoughts edged into her meditation. What of the Seaside Strangler? The man hadn't been caught. Would they catch him before Jocelyne brought her child into this world?
Unable to establish the inner peace she so intensely needed, Jocelyne pushed to her feet and stood straight, staring over the edge of the cliff out to the churning sea. Then she squatted, lowering herbuttocks while her hands reached toward the sky, and closed together as if in prayer. Her hamstrings and the muscles in her back stretched, the tops of her thighs tingling with the effort to maintain the pose and tap in on the elusive inner peace she desperately sought.
His feet pounding against the gravel, Andrei Lagios shut out everything but his breathing and the burning sensation in his muscles as he pushed himself harder and faster. He wanted the pain, even welcomed it. Pain reminded him he was alive. Unfortunately, so was the fiend who'd killed his beautiful little sister.
Despite the cool temperatures and the bite of the wind off the ocean, sweat leaked from every pore. Still he ran on, his lungs near bursting, but his attempts to turn off his memories failed. His thoughts mirrored the frothy, wind-tossed seas and the skies laden with heavy storm clouds.
He'd chosen the path along the cliff because no one would bother him here, and he felt closer to Sofia, who'd washed ashore near here two months ago. Her pale, bloated face and the seashell necklace around her throat still churned in Andrei's mind. He'd been the one on duty when the report came across the radio that the two girls who'd been missing since the night of their high-school prom had been found, washed against the rocky shoreline.
He'd been the one to break it to his parents that their only little girl, his younger sister, had died at the hands of the Seaside Strangler. The bitter truth burned in his chest that he had done nothing to stop the killer or keep him from doing it again.
Andrei couldn't run hard or fast enough to escape his failure. Someone in this small community had committed the crime and he hadn't found him yet.
In the distance, he spotted movement near the edge of the cliff overlooking the area where a tourist had discovered the girls' bodies.
Squinting against the wind, he tried to make out what it was. Then it moved again, rising from the ground, straightening. A woman wearing a white flowing skirt sat cross-legged, lifting her face to the sky. The wind whipped bright red strands of hair in Medusa-like fashion around her head.
His heart skipped several beats before shooting the blood through his body too fast for his veins to handle. Adrenaline sped his feet, kicking up chunks of gravel in his wake.
What was a woman doing out on the cliff alone? Hadn't she heard of the Seaside Strangler? And what was with the white dress?
If Andrei never saw another white dress, he'd be happy. To him, white meant death.
She rose to her feet, her posture straight as a pole, the sometimes gale-force winds twisting the ghostly pale skirt around her body, plastering it against her. Her blouse flapped, exposing the creamy fair skin of her hips and back. As though caught in a trance, she stared out toward the waves. Then she bent at the knees, her arms rising above her in the position of someone about to dive over the edge of a cliff.
Andrei's breath lodged in his throat for a brief second, then all the air in his lungs burst out on one word. "No!"
With the length of a football field between them, he knew he couldn't stop her if she chose to dive onto the rocks below, but he had to try. Another woman couldn't die on his watch. He owed that much to Sofia and the people of Raven's Cliff.
The wind caught his words and whipped them away. Lifting his elbows and knees, he pumped harder, working his muscles to a screaming point. He'd never run so fast, nor felt so frustrated that he couldn't run faster.
The woman bent lower, tucking her head between her arms.
"Stop! Don't do it!" Andrei yelled again.
This time, she heard him and turned in his direction, her eyes wide, her mouth opened in an O. Her feet shifted and she stumbled on the gravel, tilting toward the edge of the cliff. The one-hundred-foot drop to the rocky shore below would be the death of her.
Desperation spurred Andrei on. "Don't jump! Please."
She righted herself, her brows knitting over her eyes. "Jump?"
Andrei ground to a stop in front of her, grasping her arms in a viselike grip. "Don't." He gasped, dragging air into his lungs before he could go on.
"Don't jump?" She stared at him, her smoky-green eyes troubled.
All Andrei could do was glance at the edge of the cliff as he hauled more air into his starving lungs.
Her brows lifted and the hint of a smile tilted the corners of her lips. "Oh, I get it. You think I was about to jump." She brought her hands up between his wrists, attempting to knock his fingers loose from her arms. When he didn't let go, her frown reappeared. "I assure you, I have no intention of jumping from this cliff or any other. You can let go of me, now."
He stared at her long and hard before he reluctantly released her. "Then why the hell did you look like you were about to dive?"
"Ah, the Utkatasana." She laughed, the sound like the tinkling bells of a wind chime.
Her laughter disappeared, whipped away by the wind, but her sparkling green eyes continued to reflect her amusement. "Relax, cowboy. I wasn't about to dive, I was relaxing with one of my yoga positions. Utkatasana." Her knees bent and she raised her arms, her hands pressed together as if in prayer. "It's called the chair position. It's good for the arms, legs, diaphragm and heart."
Anger washed away any last trace of fear he might have felt and exploded in words. "Are you crazy?"
She winced, her full, luscious lips tightening into a thin line. "Excuse me?"
"For all I knew, you were about to throw yourself over the edge. And if you weren't out to kill yourself, you are definitely an easy target for the Seaside Strangler." He stepped closer, standing toe-to-toe with the fiery-haired woman. "Lady, go home. Go home and lock your doors." As soon as the words left his mouth, he knew he'd made a mistake.
Her eyes narrowed and she glared at him. "First of all, I don't take orders from you or anyone else. Second, I'm not crazy and I'll go wherever I want. Who do you think you are, telling me or anyone else what they can or can't do?"
"I'm a cop with the Raven's Cliff Police Department." Even to his own ears, his response was a lame excuse to be bossing the woman around.
"So?" She crossed her arms over her chest, a coppery brow rising high on her pale forehead. The stiff breeze lifted the ends of the filmy white skirt she wore, plastering it to her long, slender legs.
The dress reminded him of the dress his sister wore when she'd been found. A white wedding dress, not unlike what this woman wore. All the starch and anger drained from him. "Look, it's not safe for a lone woman to be out here."
"I can take care of myself." Her hand smoothed the dress down over her belly. "I'm not suicidal, and I know what to look out for. I just wanted a little peace and quiet away from the inn."
So she was a tourist. A twinge of disappointment nudged at him. She wouldn't stay long at Raven's Cliff. But with a killer loose, leaving seemed the best idea.
Her determined stance and ability to stand up for herself had intrigued him more than he cared to admit. The way the filmy dress wrapped around her trim calves probably had something to do with the attraction as well.
He straightened, hardening his jaw. "Take a friend with you next time. We don't know who the strangler is and I'd hate to see you washed up on the rocks." Like my sister. He didn't say it, but he felt it with the pain in his chest.
"I've walked this path since I was a tiny girl. I know where all the hiding places are and believe me, there aren't many out here. And if I wanted to jump over the edge, I'd have done it already, and you couldn't have stopped me." She eased toward the edge.
His hand shot out automatically, grasping her arm.
"All right, already. I'm not going to jump. I was just going to show you that there is a path down the side of the cliff. If I wanted to go down, I'd walk."
Together they leaned over the edge and stared at the thin path that surely only a goat could traverse.
"I used to take it down to the water to find shells and starfish among the—" Her face paled to gray and she stumbled back against him. "Holy mother."
Andrei clasped her shoulders and set her behind him before peering over the edge to the rocks below.
Lifted by the waves and pushed into the rocks was the body of a woman dressed in white, facedown in the surf.
Of all the stupid times to pass out, Jocelyne couldn't have picked a worse. But to wake up in the arms of this stranger Shivers rippled over her entire body. And darn it all, they weren't shivers of fear.
A woman was dead at the bottom of the cliffs, for heaven's sake. Why should she be so concerned about being crushed against a man's brawny chest and carried away? They were headed toward town. How dangerous could that be?
She could smell the man's sweat and it was having an entirely unwarranted effect on her, driving her blood to pump faster, her heart to race and her skin to flush.
"Put me down." Jocelyne kicked her feet and pushed with her free hand against the man's well-muscled chest. The other hand wrapped around his neck to keep him from dropping her on the rocks. "We have to notify the police about that girl."
"That's where I'm headed." His feet ate the distance between the cliff and town in long easy strides.
"Look, for all I know you could be the Seaside Strangler." Her breath caught in her throat as his hand shifted, brushing against the underside of her breast. "Why else would you be out there?"
"I was jogging." Okay, calm down. No need in upsetting the baby. On the other hand, what did she really know about the muscle-bound man with the soulful dark eyes? So he was wearing a T-shirt, shorts and running shoes. The strangler could dress the same.
She renewed her struggles. "Put me down before I scream." With the wind blowing and still on the outskirts of town, she doubted anyone would hear her. But she'd give it her best effort. She dragged in a breath.
"If I were the Seaside Strangler, would I be carrying you toward town? To the Raven's Cliff Police Department?"
Her breath released in a huff. "If you wanted to throw people off your trail, maybe." As they entered town, the few cars driving along the road slowed.
Jocelyne groaned. "Put me down. People are pointing at us." She cupped his cheek and made him look at her. "Please?"
Something in her voice must have gotten to the Neanderthal and made him pause. "Are you sure you won't pass out again?"
She raised a hand scout-style. "I promise."
If his frown was any indication, he didn't quite believe her, but he let her feet drop to the ground, while retaining the arm around her waist.
"Look, I'm pregnant, not sick. The reason I passed out was that I haven't eaten breakfast." She patted his chest. "See? Easy fix. Now let me go."
A gaggle of women exiting the coffee shop a block away stopped and stared at Jocelyne and the man in the running shorts.
"I can manage it from here, Officer." Jocelyne's cheeks burned like they had when her classmates pointed and whispered about her mother being a witch, when they made taunts that she was the spawn of the devil. She turned toward the police department, but try as she might, she couldn't shake the cop's hand from her waist. "Really, I can walk on my own."
"Until we get you to the station, you'll have to deal with a little help."
One of the women leaned toward the ear of another, her gaze following Jocelyne's progression down the street, her lips moving fast.
"I don't like it when people stare," she whispered through her teeth.
"I don't care what they think. There's a dead woman back there, you passed out, and I'm not letting go of you until we get to the police station." His jaw could have been carved in granite, ebony eyes staring straight ahead unwavering from his course. That arm was like a steel band, locking her against his rock-solid side.
Jocelyne's heart hammered against her ribs. This man was hard, strong and determined. If he were the Seaside Strangler, she didn't stand a chance. Nor did any other woman. The fact he was a cop, didn't mean anything. There were such animals as renegade cops gone bad. Her instincts told her he wasn't bad and he wasn't the Seaside Strangler, but he also wasn't letting go of her. The fact that he'd carried her for almost half a mile impressed her. Not that she'd admit it to him.
Posted January 13, 2012