Nick had experienced his own share of tragedy and all he wanted was to be left alone. But refusing the gorgeous and persistent Lexie was tougher than roping cattleespecially once he realized they shared a very dangerous connection. Before long, Nick went from trying his best to ignore the sizzling tension between them to doing whatever he could to ensure Lexie didn't become the town's latest victim.
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Lexie Forbes rarely left her job at the Kansas City FBI field office early, but on this Friday afternoon she knocked off work at three and headed toward her car in the parking lot. There was nothing pressing on her desk, just the usual cons and perverts for her to chase down. But she'd awakened that morning with a vague sense of anxiety that she hadn't quite been able to shake off.
She knew the source of the anxietyher twin sister, Lauren. They were extremely close and spoke on the phone to each other at least once or twice a day, but for the past two days Lexie had been unable to get hold of her sister.
As she walked through the parking lot, the first fallen autumn leaves swirled around her feet and a cool breeze danced unexpected goose bumps along her arms.
She reached her car, unlocked it and then slid in behind the wheel. She'd just put the key in and started the engine when it struck, an excruciating pain that slammed into the back of her head with such force it momentarily stole her breath away.
It was there only a moment and then gone, leaving her gasping for air and holding on to the steering wheel with clenched fingers.
"Whoa," she finally breathed. What was that all about? It had felt like a bomb had detonated in the base of her brain. With a shaky hand she reached up and adjusted the rearview mirror so she could look at her reflection.
She wasn't sure what she expected to see, but the woman who stared back at her looked the same as always. Short, light brown, spiked hair with a vivid pink streak, black-rimmed glasses nearly hiding green eyes and no blood or missing skull from that sharp pain.
Adjusting the mirror back where it belonged, her thoughts once again shot to her sister and the anxiety swelled bigger and tighter in her chest. There had been a time several years ago when Lexie had suffered from inexplicable arm pain for a couple of hours. Later she'd discovered that Lauren had broken her arm. It had been one of those crazy twin things that nobody understood and that only happened occasionally.
Had Lauren hit her head? Had Lexie just experienced her twin's pain? She dismissed the idea. Each and every pain Lexie suffered wasn't tied to her twin sister.
As she pulled out of the parking lot she decided that if she didn't get hold of Lauren when she got to her apartment, then a road trip was definitely in order.
Four months ago Lauren had realized her dream and bought six acres of land in a small town about an hour and a half from the Kansas City area. Over the last couple of years she'd become an established dog breeder and trainer and had wanted enough property to expand her business.
Lexie had helped her move but hadn't been back to visit since that time. It was definitely past time for a trip to see her sister. She had the weekend open and this was a perfect opportunity for a surprise visit.
Once Lexie got home to her small apartment she tried her sister again, both on her landline and on her cell phone. When she still didn't get an answer she packed a bag, locked the apartment door and headed toward the small Kansas town of Widow Creek.
It was a pleasant drive. Traffic was light, and once she left the city she enjoyed the country scenery. Her favorite oldies played on the radio and she sang along until she reached the city limits of the small town.
It was just after five when she pulled up in front of her sister's place. The ranch-style farmhouse looked warm and inviting with pots of colorful flowers and a wicker rocking chair on the porch.
She got out of the car and gazed around. She'd forgotten that the place was a bit isolated, with only one other house visible in the distance. Aware of the sound of barking dogs, she walked to the side of the house where a large fenced area contained four young German shepherds.
They all raced to the fence with youthful pup eagerness, stepping on each other in an effort to get closer to her. She might have laughed at their antics if she didn't see that their food and water bowls were empty.
Lauren would never allow any of her dogs to go without food and water. The disquiet that had simmered inside her for the past two days now roared into full-bloom alarm.
She left the dog pen and hurried to the front door where she knocked. "Lauren? Lauren, are you in there? It's me." She waited only a moment and when no answer came she pulled out her keys and used the one that Lauren had given her on moving day.
Visions of her sister filled her head. Maybe she'd slipped in the shower and hurt herself to the point she couldn't get to a phone. Or maybe she was in bed, deathly ill, and couldn't rouse herself enough to make a call for help.
She unlocked the door and then pulled her gun and held it steady in her hand as she shoved the door open with her foot. Even though Lexie's job with the FBI consisted of her sitting in a small cubicle in front of a computer, she'd been trained to be proficient with her weapon.
As she entered the small foyer the first thing she noticed was that the house smelled slightly musty, as if it had been closed up for too long.
There was a low woof and Zeus greeted her. The old German shepherd ran to her like she was his new best friend. He sat on the floor at her feet and released a low, mournful whine.
Lexie dropped her gun back into her purse. There was no way anybody threatening could be in the house without Zeus letting her know.
"Hey, boy." She crouched down and scrubbed the dog behind his ears. "Hey, buddy, where's your mama?"
Zeus closed his eyes and released what sounded like a contented sigh as she continued to scratch behind his ears. She finally stood up and walked into the kitchen, then worried all over again when she saw that Zeus's food and water bowls were also empty.
She checked the rest of the house and confirmed that nobody was home, then returned to the kitchen and got food and water for Zeus. He attacked the food as if he were starving.
As Lexie watched him eat, her heart beat a rhythm of dread. What was going on here? Where was Lauren? Her dogs were her family and there was no way she'd leave them like this.
When she'd walked through the house she'd seen nothing amiss, no sign of trouble. The rooms were all neat and tidy, just the way Lauren always kept them.
The last time she'd talked to her sister had been Tuesday evening and Lauren hadn't mentioned going anywhere. Lauren almost never traveled because she didn't like leaving the care of the dogs to anyone else.
As Zeus finished his meal, Lexie stared out the back window where there were several outbuildings and beyond them an expanse of thick woods.
Was Lauren out there somewhere? Had she taken a walk, somehow fallen and hurt herself and been unable to summon help? She grabbed the leash that hung on a hook by the back door and then called to Zeus.
If Lauren was out there somewhere surely Zeus would find her. Lauren had gotten the dog when he was eight weeks old and he was now nine. No matter how many other dogs passed through Lauren's life, she and Zeus had always had a special bond.
Moments later, with Zeus on the leash, Lexie stepped out the back door and headed toward the outbuildings. Zeus bounded ahead on the length of leash she gave him as she tried to tamp down the overwhelming sense of dread that grew stronger with each minute that passed.
Her dread increased as she opened the door of the detached garage and found Lauren's truck inside. Where could she be without her vehicle?
Next she checked the first large shed, which held a variety of items Lauren used for her various training sessions. There were poles and jumps, risers and items used for agility training. Unfortunately, there was no Lauren.
She moved to the second, smaller shed and discovered it held only gardening tools. She told herself not to jump to any conclusions, but it was hard not to with the knot of fear that pressed tight in her chest.
The woods. It was the only place she had left to check. She looked at her watch. Almost six. She'd maybe get two good hours in before darkness began to fall and made a search impossible.
She took off with Zeus in tow and within minutes was surrounded by tall trees and thick brush. "Lauren!" she called every few steps and then stopped and listened for any kind of answering reply. But there was nothing except the sound of Zeus crunching leaves beneath his big paws.
"Zeus, find your mommy," she commanded the dog.
He barked and danced in place, as if unsure what she wanted from him. They walked for what seemed like an eternity until she finally reached a rocky creek bed with just a trickle of water running in it. She sank down on the edge, Zeus at her side and looked around with a sense of failure as she rested.
Darkness was slamming down with a swiftness that was disheartening. She'd done a cursory check of all the property and Zeus had never given an indication that his master might be near.
"Where are you, Lauren?" She had a bad feeling. None of this was right and she couldn't imagine any scenario that would allow any of this to make sense.
Lauren was definitely not the type to just take off somewhere with no thought to her dogs, no thought for Lexie. Something was terribly wrong.
She pulled herself up from the creek bank and headed back to the house. Maybe by now Lauren had returned. Or perhaps a friend had picked her up for shopping or dinner out and they hadn't returned yet. Of course that wouldn't explain why she hadn't answered Lexie's phone calls since Tuesday night.
The shadows of night had begun to cling to the house as Lexie reentered through the back door. For the first time in her life she hated to see nightfall. She removed Zeus from the leash and then went into Lauren's bedroom and stood staring at the neatly made bed.
The room breathed the essence of Lauren. It was infused with warmth from the peach and navy ruffled bedspread to the photo of the two sisters hugging on the nightstand. A faint scent of the orange blossom lotion that Lauren loved lingered in the air, intensifying Lexie's overwhelming sense of confusion and worry.
She thought back to the last phone conversation she'd had with her sister but couldn't think of anything Lauren had said that might explain her absence here. Lauren had talked about the dogs, about how excited she was about the growth of her business, but she hadn't mentioned going anywhere for any extended period of time.
There was absolutely no reason to believe that she'd been missing since that phone conversation, Lexie told herself. She might have left the house that morning for some sort of day trip and hadn't realized the dogs were out of water.
The fact that the house smelled like it had been closed up for a couple of days didn't mean anything either. Maybe she was only thinking bad thoughts because of her job. As an FBI agent she was trained to look at the worst-case scenario.
An unmistakable sound came from behind herthe slide and click of a bullet being chambered in a shotgun. She froze as her heart nearly stopped beating.
"Who the hell are you and what are you doing in Lauren's bedroom?" The deep male voice was calm but held a steely edge.
She raised her hands above her head and slowly turned. He stood in the threshold of the bedroom. With his dark hair and gunmetal gray eyes, he was a hot hunk in a pair of tight jeans and a navy pullover. And he had the business end of a shotgun pointed directly at her heart.