Sergeant Justin Thorpe has dedicated his life to justice and won't stop until he finds the vicious serial killer who has already claimed ten innocent lives. He works solountil he joins forces with Sheriff Amanda Blair. The Texas Ranger can't let his desire for his coworker keep him from his mission, especially when Amanda's life is threatened.
Ten girls have vanishedone for every year since Amanda graduated from Canyon High. And as she tries to fight her attraction to a man as independent as she is, a trap is being laid to make Amanda the final victim in a killer's terrifying endgame .
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Sergeant Justin Thorpe was a loner. Always had been. Always would be.
It was the very reason he was good at his job. No entanglements to tie him down or distract him.
He stared at the decomposed body of the girl floating in Camden Creek, trepidation knotting his gut.
He had a hunch this was one of the girls who'd disappeared from Sunset Mesa, although the medical examiner would have his work cut out to identify what was left of her. Other girls who'd gone missing from various counties across Texas were possibly connected, as well.
Too many girls.
At first no one had connected the disappearances, but Justin had noted that the women went missing in the spring, and that one fact had raised a red flag in his mind.
So far though he hadn't found any other connection. But he would. He just needed time.
Dr. Sagebrush, the ME who'd also worked a case in Camden Creek involving a serious bus crash that had killed several teenagers a few years back, stooped down to study the body as two crime techs eased it onto the creek bank.
Thick trees shaded the area so the ME shone a flashlight over the corpse while crime techs searched the water and embankment with their own.
A tangled web of hair floated around the young woman's mud-streaked face, bones poked through the already decaying skin and there were bruises, scratches and teeth marks from animals that had picked at her marred body.
She was still clothed, her thin T-shirt torn and tattered, her jeans full of holes and layered in dirt.
The CSU team snapped pictures while Dr. Sagebrush adjusted his glasses and examined her.
"How long do you think she's been dead?" Justin asked.
"Hard to say yet," Dr. Sagebrush replied. "The temperature of the water could have slowed down decomp, but I'd guess a while. Maybe a couple of months."
Two young women had disappeared within that time frame.
Justin eyed the creek, scanning the terrain up and downstream with his flashlight. "You think she was dumped in the creek or floated in from the river?"
"Don't know." Dr. Sagebrush shrugged, his eyes narrowed as he pushed strands of wet hair away from the girl's face. "Look at this." The ME pointed to the bruises on her neck.
"She was strangled," Justin said, frowning at the angry, inch-wide red lines cutting into the woman's throat. "Looks like the killer used a belt."
Dr. Sagebrush nodded. "Probably the cause of death, but I can't say for sure till I get her on the table. If there's water in her lungs, she might have been alive when she was dumped."
Justin's stomach knotted as an image of the girl fighting for her last breath flashed in his eyes. The current in this part of the creek was strong, the rocks jagged. Kayakers and raft guides trained on the wider, rougher sections as practice for the river. If she was alive, she'd probably been too weak to fight the current and save herself.
But the doctor lifted the girl's eyelids, and Justin saw petechial hemorrhaging and guessed she'd died of strangulation.
One of the crime techs dragged a tennis shoe from the muddy bank, then compared it to the girl's foot. "Could have belonged to her. We'll bag it and see if we find anything on it."
Justin nodded. "I'll look around for forensics although, like you say, she probably wasn't killed here."
Justin knew the drill. He'd been working homicide cases, hunting serial killers and the most wanted, for ten years now. Nothing surprised him.
Yet a young woman's senseless murder still made sorrow fill his chest.
He walked over to the edge of the river and studied the foliage, then dipped deeper into the woods to search for any sign that the girl had lost her life nearby.
If they found hair or clothing, even a footprint, it might help track down the killer.
Anxiety twitched at his insides. Only two of the girls who'd gone missing in the past few years had been found. One dead; the other had run away.
But there was no sign of the others. No notes goodbye. No phone calls or ransom requests.
No bodies, making the police wonder if the girls were alive or dead.
So why had this woman's body been dumped where it could be found?
Were the cases connected? And if so, were any of the other young women still alive?
Sheriff Amanda Blair sipped her umpteenth cup of coffee for the day while she skimmed the mail on her desk. An envelope stamped with the high school's emblem and a sketch of the canyon for which the school had been named, Canyon High, caught her eye, and she ripped it open.
The invitation to her high school class reunion filled her with a mixture of dread and wariness.
She'd moved away from Sunset Mesa after her senior year when her father had been transferred. Having grown up with a Texas Ranger for a father, she'd known she'd wanted to follow in his footsteps and work in law enforcement. And there had been nothing for her in Sunset Mesa. No best friend. No boyfriend.
No one who'd missed her or written her love letters or even asked what her plans were for the future.
Truthfully she'd been glad to move. She'd always been a loner, a tomboy, more interested in her father's cases than joining the girly girls at school with their silly obsessions with makeup, fashion and boys.
She'd chosen softball and the swim team over cheer-leading and dance competitions and had felt more comfortable hanging out with guys at sports events than having sleepovers or going shopping with her female peers.
The one event that had colored her entire high school experience was her classmate Carlton Butts's death.
Juniors in high school were not supposed to die. They especially weren't supposed to commit suicide.
Regret, that she hadn't been a better friend to him and sensed how deep his depression ran, taunted her. She'd had nightmares about him plunging to the bottom of the canyon for years. In fact, most people in town now referred to the canyon as Carlton's Canyonsome even called the high school Carlton Canyon High.
Occasionally she even thought she heard Carlton whispering her voice in the night. Calling to her for help.
Begging her to save him from himself.
Only she'd missed the signs.
Guilt had driven her to search for answers, only none had ever come. Then young women had started disappearing across Texas, two from Sunset Mesa, and she'd felt her heart tugging at her to return to the town. To find out what was happening to them because she'd failed to help her own friend.
When the deputy position had come available in Sunset Mesa, she'd requested it. Sheriff Lager had been a friend of her father's and had handpicked her for the job.
Then she'd realized that he was suffering from dementia. He eventually admitted he knew he had issues and told her his plans to retire.
Sighing, she stuffed the invitation to the reunion back in the envelope, doubting that she would attend. There was no one from her class she particularly wanted to see.
But what if one of them knew something about one of the missing women? It was her job to find the answers.
What better way to get the scoop than at an informal gathering where everyone was supposed to be friends?
Intrigued by the idea, she tucked the invitation into the calendar on her desk, then added the date to her phone calendar. Plans that week included a family picnic on Friday, then a cocktail party and dance on Saturday night.
No family or husband for her.
Memories of watching Julie Kane and Thurston Howard sharing the prom king and queen dance drifted back, reminding her how much of a wallflower she'd been.
You're not an eighteen-year-old geeky kid anymore, Amanda. You're sheriff.
And a stupid high school reunion was not going to turn her back into the shy awkward girl she'd once been.
The door to the front of the sheriff's office suddenly burst open, and Amanda looked up.
Larry Lambert, the manager at the local bank, rushed in, his normally friendly face strained with worry. A younger man, probably in his late twenties, stood beside him, his hair spiked as if he'd run his hands through it a dozen times. Tension vibrated between the men, a chill in the air.
Amanda stepped from behind her desk. "Mr. Lambert"
"You have to help us, Sheriff Blair," Mr. Lambert said. "My daughter Kelly " The six-foot-tall man broke down, tears streaming from his eyes. "She didn't come home last night."
Amanda's heart clenched. Spring was supposed to be a time of renewed life. Instead, a woman had gone missing just as one had every spring the past few years. A woman she'd gone to high school with. A woman close to her own age.
Which broke the pattern. Kelly was older than the teens who'd disappeared.
Still, could she have met foul play?
Was Kelly dead or could she still be alive?
Justin was anxious for the results of the autopsy and crime scene findings, but his early-morning phone call had gone unanswered. Suspicious that the girl was one of the missing ones from Sunset Mesa, he decided to visit the sheriff and give her a heads-up.
He'd spoken to her after Sheriff Camden from Camden Crossing had conferred with her about the disappearance of his own sister and Peyton Boulder, two girls who'd disappeared after a fatal bus crash seven years ago. At first they'd thought the cold case might be related to the string of missing persons from Sunset Mesa, but they'd discovered it wasn't.
Dry farmland and terrain passed by him as he veered onto the highway toward Sunset Mesa. He'd heard that the town had gotten its name because of the beautiful colors of the sunset.
Radiant oranges, reds and yellows streaked the sky, painting a rainbow effect over the canyon that was so beautiful it made him wish he was here on vacation, not hunting down a killer. But he never stayed in one place more than a few days and wouldn't get attached to this town either.
He navigated the road leading into Sunset Mesa, wondering about the new sheriff in town.
He'd met her once and she seemed okay, but he hoped to hell she wasn't some flake, that she had a head on her shoulders and would cooperate with him. Police work was his life, and he couldn't tolerate a law officer who wasn't committed to the job.
A small ranch pointed to the north; then the sign for Sunset Mesa popped into view. Like every other small town he'd been in, the town was built on a square. The buildings looked aged, a Western flair to the outsides, a park in the middle of town with small local businesses surrounding it.
The sheriff's office/jail/courthouse was housed at the far right, an adobe structure painted the same orange that he'd noted in the sunset.
Early-evening shadows flickered along the pavement as he parked in front of the building, climbed out, adjusted his Stetson and strode to the front door. When he'd first spoken to Sheriff Blair, he'd formed an image of her in his mind.
Her voice had held a husky note, a sign she was probably mannish. Then he'd met her briefly once and realized she was nothing like he'd pictured.
Even the sheriff's uniform hadn't disguised her curves and beauty. Not that it mattered what she looked like. He was here to do a job and nothing else.
The dead girl's face taunted him, and he straightened and opened the door. Getting justice for that victim was his priority.
Once he'd failed at his job and it had cost another young girl her life. He wouldn't fail this time.
No one would stop him from finding answers.
Wood floors creaked with his boots as he entered, the pale yellow walls and artwork reminiscent of days gone by. A row of black and white photographs of the town and the canyon lined one wall, rugged landscapes on another.
A noise echoed from the back and he frowned. Heated voices. A man's.
No, two men's.
He rapped on the wall by the door leading to the back. A minute later, a woman appeared wearing the sheriff's uniform.
A petite woman with lush curves and hair the reddish-brown color of autumn leaves. Amanda Blair. RatherSheriff Amanda Blair.
Her looks sucker punched him again.
Eyes the color of a copper penny stared up at him, a strained look on her pretty face.
"Hello, ma'am." He tipped his Stetson. "I don't know if you remember me, but I'm Sergeant Justin Thorpe with the Texas Rangers."
She looked him up and down, and for the first time in his life, he wondered if he came up lacking. Not that he usually cared about a coworker's opinion of him, but something about her made him want her admiration.
But her look gave nothing away. "Yes, I remember."
He couldn't tell from her tone how she meant the comment. But it didn't sound good.
"Did someone call you about coming here today?"
He frowned, confused. Maybe she'd already heard about the body they found. "No, I needed to talk to you about the missing-persons cases."
"You heard about Kelly Lambert?"
"Kelly Lambert?" Justin tried to remember the names of all the women on the list so far, but hers didn't ring a bell. Had she received word about the identification of the body before he did?
Her expression clouded. "The girl who just disappeared last night. Her father and fianc are in my office now."
Justin's gut clenched. That explained the raised voices. But Kelly Lambert wasn't the woman they'd found in the creek because that woman had been there for months.
Which meant Kelly Lambert might still be alive.
Dammit, he and Sheriff Blair needed to find her before she ended up dead like the poor woman they'd just dragged from the water.
* * *
Amanda fought the fluttering of awareness that rippled through her at the sight of the tall, dark handsome Texas Ranger. She'd met him briefly once when Sheriff Camden from Camden Crossing had asked them to confer on the case involving his sister, and had finally managed to get his sexy image out of her head.
Now he was here. Back. Planning to work with her.
And dammit, she needed his help.
She couldn't help but stare at him. He towered over her, his massive shoulders stretching taut against his Western shirt, his green eyes a surprise with his dark coloring and black hair.
She sized up his other featuresa chiseled jaw, a crooked nose that had probably been broken and a cleft in his chin. By themselves his features didn't stand out, but the combination made him look tough, rugged, a man not to be messed with.
But that silver star of Texas shining on his shirt reminded her that he was here on business.
Amanda never mixed business with pleasure.
She'd worked too hard to overcome the stigma of being a female in a man's world and couldn't backtrack by getting involved with a coworker.
No one would respect her then.
"I think we'd better start over," Sgt. Thorpe said. "You said that another woman has gone missing?"
Amanda nodded. "Kelly Lambert. She didn't make it home last night and her father and fianc haven't heard from her."
"So it's been less than twenty-four hours," Justin said. "Too early to file a report."
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