On a clear summer afternoon, two intruders entered Monica Dupree's life. She was forced to kill the first one, but she knew the second one was far more dangerous. She set her rifle on her shoulder, trying to portray a calm she didn't feel. Her heart continued to hammer in her chest while the sound of the fired shot echoed in her ears. All around her was still, as though a photographer had captured the scene in a picture. The clearing in the woods suddenly felt too silentno birds sang, no creatures scurried past, not even the wind dared to blow. Nothing moved. Her gaze fell on the lifeless dog that only seconds ago had been a snarling, vicious beast out for blood.
"Thank you," a deep voice said, yanking her out of her thoughts.
Monica abruptly turned her attention to the man whose life she'd probably saved. He leaned against a tree with one arm held at an angle. Monica fought back a frown. She didn't want his "thanks." She didn't want him here. She wanted him to be somewhere else far away from this town and this property. Solomon Island wasn't really a complete island, but it was given the name because a large part of its eastern and southern land mass was separated from the main state of Georgia by a river. It boasted numerous independent farmlands, some working and others merely vanity, and its location near the water invited an influx of tourists, especially during the summer months.
For nearly a year Monica had thought of this land and farmhouse as her own. Her seventy-five-year-old landlady lived in town with a friend and had rented the entire property to her because she thought the house had gotten too big for her and she wanted someone to look after it. It was no longer a working farm, and it hadn't been so in decades, but there was still plenty to manage. Monica had thought of it as her private sanctuary after her husband's passing. A place of safety. The past ten months had been heavenly, her own Eden, and now a snake was in her midst.
No, that wasn't fair, Monica quickly corrected herself. She hardly knew the man, but she'd planned to live there alone for the rest of her life. Unfortunately, Nadine Rozan, her landlady, had forced her to alter her plans. She'd said her grandson was coming to the farm for rest and relaxation. So she and her grandson would be sharing the large house for the next several weeks. Roommates. The last thing Monica wanted was a roommate, especially a male one.
Fortunately, the five-bedroom house was spacious enough that she probably would rarely see him. Besides, she spent most of her time in her studio or going for long walks. She didn't need to worry. She was safe. Anton couldn't find her. It had been eleven months, four days, eight hours, seven minutes and ten seconds since she'd escaped him. She'd been careful to make sure to leave her trail cold. She planned never to resurface to her old life.
Monica sighed. That still didn't make having to deal with some overworked businessman any easier.
"You're going to love him, dear," Nadine had said a week earlier as the two women cleaned up one of the extra rooms. It was located directly across from Monica's bedroom, but Nadine had insisted. "All the women do. They can't help it. Once you see him, you'll know why."
Monica plastered on a grin to be polite. She knew that no matter how charming or handsome Nadine's grandson was, he'd have no effect on her. She'd been around men like him all her lifehandsome men, rich men, powerful men. She'd married one who was a combination of all three, and now she was alone. She was fine with that. Ready to be her own woman, something she'd never had a chance to be before.
"He won't get in your way," Nadine continued. "Just make sure he doesn't work too much."
"I'm sure he'll be fine," Monica said, in no mood to be stuck babysitting a grown man.
Nadine hesitated, sending Monica a scrutinizing gaze. "It wouldn't hurt you to get a nice dress to meet him."
"Why?" Monica said with a laugh. "Does he need a welcome committee?"
"A pretty face is always a nice welcome."
"I'm not buying a brand-new dress or changing my hair or putting on makeup for anyone. I'm happy the way I am. There are plenty of women in town if he wants a summer fling."
"But you shouldn't hide yourself away the way you do," Nadine said, unwilling to let the topic drop. "I'm sure you could be a pretty girl if you tried."
"Maybe," Monica said in a noncommittal tone. "Now let's get his room in order." Monica suppressed the urge to laugh. She'd never been called pretty before. She'd always been seen as something more. From the age of four, she remembered the looks and stares from strangers. The way her parents kept her close, as if afraid someone would steal her away.
"What an extraordinary child."
"Have you ever seen such eyes, and that dark hair is gorgeous."
"You could make millions on that face."
"What an absolute beauty."
"Go on, Venus, use that smile. Every woman will want to go out and buy this lipstick."
"You 're a goddess, Venus! No man can resist."
"Work it, Venus, work it!"
But those days were gone. Monica wasn't a vision or an expression of someone else's ideal anymore. She was just an ordinary woman, and that was a privilege she didn't plan on giving up.
Monica quickly sized up the man in front of her. He met her expectations. He wore a tailored dark suit, as if he'd arrived at the Ritz-Carlton for a board meeting instead of a farmhouse for a holiday. He was tall. Few men were taller than she was, but he beat her by several inches. He carried himself well and had clean-cut features that were a little harsh but not off-putting, and sharp assessing eyes. His mouth was a problem, however. It was fuller than she'd imagined. His dark lashes and broad brows softened his features, hinting at both a vulnerability and gentleness she didn't want to see.
Even if she hadn't sworn off men, Monica knew he wasn't her type.
Her husband had been fun and daring. No two days were the same. He could
Monica bit her lip. No, she wouldn't think about him. It was still too painful. Everything would have been different if he'd listened to her. She didn't blame him for dying. She blamed him for living so recklessly, for ignoring her pleas to stop car racing, to stop mountain climbing and taking numerous other risks. But she knew he wouldn't have felt alive if he'd given up those activities. During his last moments, Monica knew he'd felt free. And he ended his life on his terms.
He'd performed his last stunt to celebrate a grand gallery showing called "Living Large." A camera crew was on hand to witness his every move. It was a stunt he'd performed many times beforescaling down a zip line from a large office building to the entrance of another. The act had become his signature performance. But he'd descended too fast and collided with the building at approximately a hundred miles an hour. Some said his reflexes had been too slow, others that he'd rigged the gears himself because of a cancer scare.
Monica was the only one who knew there had been another reason.
Monica angrily pushed the thought aside. She wouldn't let herself ever be that hurt again. Yep, JD Rozan met her expectations. What she didn't expect was the puppy cradled in his arms. The one he'd valiantly protected from the other dog's violent attack. That protective instinct surprised her, because it seemed to contradict the hard image he portrayed.
"I don't need you to thank me," she said in a sharp voice. "You must be JD."
He held out his free hand. "Yes, JD Rozan."
She quickly shook it. "Monica Dulane," she said, careful to use her alias. "You need to be careful. You can't just wander around out here."
Her sharp tone didn't seem to faze him. His gaze scanned the area, a wistful look on his face. "I used to walk around out here when I was a kid."
"Things have changed," she said in a flat tone.
JD's sharp gaze returned to her face. "I can see that," he said, motioning to her rifle. "But I heard this little guy whimpering" he looked down at the puppy "and followed the sound here. I found him tied up to a tree stump by his hind legs. I'd just untied him when that one showed up." He gestured to the second dog lying still off to the side.
Monica walked over to the dead dog and shook her head. It was a shame. He'd been trained to kill. It wasn't his fault. She'd have to bury him. She didn't want to attract scavengers. All she needed was a gang of vultures making this spot their new home. She looked at the dead dog again, measuring its size, then noticed a mark on its paw. She swore. "What?" JD asked.
"This is one of Drent Marks's dogs." Monica looked around and saw more evidence of Drent's presence: the torn tree bark where various ropes had been tied, the flattened ground, and the trash and blood on dry leaves.
JD watched her. "What do you see?"
"There have been dogfights here. They used to have them in the shed before I stopped them. I'll talk to Drent later. He's the ringleader. That's another reason to be careful out here. Some people started squatting on your grandmother's property bringing with them bad behavior. It took me four months to get them off, but it's not easy and, as you can see, some people don't listen."
"Now that I'm here, I'll handle any trouble."
Monica didn't believe him. He was going to be there only about eight weeks. She didn't expect him to be able to accomplish much, so she decided not to reply. "Did he get you?" she asked, noticing JD's torn sleeve.
JD glanced down at his ripped jacket sleeve. "Nearly, but not quite."
Monica nodded. "He wasn't focused on you. He was trying to get to him," she said, gesturing to the puppy, which didn't move. If she hadn't know it was real, she would have thought it was a toyits large eyes terrified and unblinking.
JD frowned. "Bait?" he asked, looking down at the helpless animal.
Monica did the same, and from the many scars covering its head and face, she knew that in its short life the little fellow had been attacked many times before.
"Yes, probably," she said with disgust. "That's how Drent likes to train his monsters."
"Then Drent and I will have a little chat."
Monica looked at JD, startled by the aggressive tone in his voice. "He's not someone to antagonize."
JD flashed a grin as cold as a lethal blade. "Neither am I."
Monica felt a chill go through her and decided to change the subject. "You're early. I didn't expect you for another two days."
JD shrugged without apology. "I just had to get away."
He didn't expand on his answer and Monica didn't try to push him. She wasn't really interested in why he was here. She had to deal with the situation as best she could. "Okay, let's go inside."
JD took the rifle from her and handed the puppy to her before she could protest.
"If this Marks guy shows up," he said with purpose, "I want to be ready."