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Mike lifted his hand to the door and knocked forcefully. He heard some rustling on the other side that quickly dissolved into silence. With his anger on the brink of boiling over he knocked again, much louder than previously. The chain behind the door rattled before it opened.
He had to take a step back, the woman on the other side of the door breathtaking. She had light blonde hair pulled up in a tight French twist, a gray business suit that was incapable of hiding her feminine curves, and deep blue eyes that twinkled with mischief. Her mouth quirked into a roguish smile as she tilted her head to the side and gave him a glance over.
“Can I help you?” she asked, her voice a mixture of femininity and sensuality.
Clearing his throat, Mike forced himself to keep his mind on the task at hand. “I’m looking for Isabella Evans.”
“That would be me. Who are you?”
“Deputy Sheriff Mike Taylor,” was his curt reply.
“What brings you by, Deputy Sheriff Mike Taylor?”
“May I come in?”
“Do you have a warrant?” she replied in a teasing voice. Noticing the grim set of his jaw, she threw her hands up in mock surrender and offered him a pleasant smile. “I’m just kidding.” Stepping aside, Isabella allowed the officer to step by her.
Out of appreciation for a handsome man, she let her eyes rake over him from head to toe. He was incredibly gorgeous. His sandy blonde hair was sort of long on the top, looking disheveled and windblown. The man’s gray eyes reminded her of bedroom eyes, the kind that could look sexy half asleep. And his voice was a bit husky, deep and sensual.
“What can I do for you?” she asked, causing him to shove one lean hand through his tousled tresses.
“I want to know where in the hell you get off printing lies?” he bit out angrily, determined to keep her beauty from deterring him from his reason for coming here.
“Lies? What lies would that be?” Isabella returned in an innocent voice.
“The ones you plastered all over the front page of the newspaper this morning about Jessica Porter.”
Pointing one accusing finger at his chest, poking him with her fingernail, she replied in a cold voice. “I’ll have you know that I wrote exactly what I was told to write.”
“Why don’t you ask Nathan Benson? Or should I say, Sheriff Nathan Benson?”
“What does he have to do with this?”
She laughed cruelly, giving him a pathetic look. “You have no idea, do you? He didn’t say a word to you.” Isabella laughed again and shook her head. “I’ll be damned.”
“I’m glad you’re amused by all of this.”
“Yeah. I am pretty amused.” Isabella lifted one hand to his hair, running her fingers through it as she leaned closer to his ear and whispered, “You should talk to Nate. He has the answers to your questions.”
Mike pushed her away, completely infuriated. “I’m talking to you.”
“But you see, I’d be more inclined to give you what you want, say, if there was something in it for me.” Isabella lifted her hand to his chest, began scraping her fingernails over the hard contours of his upper body.
“What do you want?” he growled, his insides burning with something primal and urgent from her seductive touch in spite of his irritable disposition.
She leaned closer, her mouth merely inches from his. “There are a lot of things that I want.” Isabella brushed her lips over his, a simple tease of what he could have. Then, she abruptly pushed away from him. “Unfortunately, nothing you can give.”
Waltzing over to the door, she yanked it open and gave him a go-to-hell grin. “I don’t have to tell you shit. I’ve got Fifth Amendment rights. And you… you’re trespassing.”
Mike brushed past her, glaring into her amused eyes. “You’re a real bitch. You know that?”
She shrugged careless shoulders. “So, I’ve heard.” Without wasting another second, she slammed the door shut on him.
* * * *
Jessie was walking into her house, the den dark with the exception of a few burning candles casting an iridescent glow on the walls. Her eyes widened as she looked down on the floor and saw Maria, Sherry, and Karen lying there, their naked bodies stained with crimson. She backed away ready to run but a cloaked figure took a step in front of her. The light caught the blade he was waving, reflecting back at her, almost blinding her. She stumbled backwards, reaching behind her for anything she could use as a weapon. Her backpack!
The next thing Jessie knew, the vision was gone. She was back in the cabin, her body stretched out across the hard linoleum of the kitchen floor and Nathan hovering above her, cradling her head in his lap.
“Jessie,” Nathan shouted, not understanding what had just happened. One minute she had been fine. The next, she had been clutching her head and falling to the floor. It had been damn eerie and made him wonder if she hadn’t checked herself out of the hospital too soon.
“My backpack,” she muttered, struggling to sit up.
Sitting upright on the floor beside of him, Jessie rubbed her head with her hand. “My backpack,” she said more clearly.
“What the hell are you talking about?” he asked as if she had lost her mind.
“The light caught the blade of the knife and… I don’t know. I guess I had a flashback. I remember walking into the house, seeing Sherry, Karen, and Maria on the floor. Then, a man stepped in front of me. I couldn’t see his face; he was cloaked in black from head to toe. I saw the blade of the knife; the way the light caught it. And I remember taking a step back, looking for something to use as a weapon, anything to defend myself. My backpack! I grabbed it and swung it at him. I know I hit him! I felt it connect!”
Nathan shook his head and grabbed her by the shoulders, forcing her to look at him. “Are you sure?”
Nathan ran his hand over her hair and offered her a slight smile. “That’s good. You did good.”
She laughed, half amused and the other half almost in tears. “Thanks. But I didn’t mean to.”
“It’s okay. Are you all right?”
Jessie nodded, although she knew that she was far from okay.
“I have to make a phone call. I’ll be right back.”
Nathan pulled himself off of the floor and nearly jogged into the living room, reaching into the desk drawer he had hidden his cell phone in. He quickly dialed the number and waited with little patience until the male voice resonated on the other end.
“Taylor,” Mike growled.
“Man, what’s got your panties in a twist,” Nathan teased.
“Just the person I was getting ready to call. Want to explain to me who in the hell Isabella Evans is and what the fuck she has to do with you?”
Nathan took in a long breath, realizing that he had been so busy with Jessica that he had forgotten to fill Mike in on the scheme he had been working on with Is. “Isabella is an old friend of mine. She’s using The Gazette to help me set a trap.”
“What kind of trap?”
“If the murderer knows where Jessica is, then maybe he’ll go looking for her. I have surveillance set up at the hospital, waiting and watching to see if he tries to hush her before she has a chance to talk. Tomorrow, Isabella is going to run a piece saying that Jessica woke up to see if we get any more bites on the proverbial bait.”
“I see. Am I the only one who was left in the dark or was the entire precinct oblivious?”
“I’m sorry, Mike. I thought I told you.”
“So, everyone else knows,” he asked in a deflated voice.
Mike was quiet and Nathan could tell he was fuming mad. In his defense, things had been a little crazy over the last day or so and he thought he had told Mike his plan. Obviously, he had thought wrong. There was nothing he could do about it now.
“To the real reason I called. Jessie remembered something tonight.”
“Yeah?” Mike replied, his usual pleasant voice back in place.
“She said that she hit one of the perps over the head with her backpack. So, I need you to go to her house and retrieve that backpack and take it to forensics. Maybe we can find a trace of blood or… hell, anything to put us even a small step closer to figuring this thing out.”
“I’m on it, boss.” Mike hesitated for a moment. “And in the future, could you try not to let me be the last one to know about, oh I don’t know, important things like using a sexy blonde reporter who has a knack for making a man feel like an ass to help us out on a case?”
“So,” Nathan chuckled, thinking that his description of Isabella matched her perfectly. “You met Isabella?”
“Yep. And it’s not something I want to talk about, so don’t bother trying to pry it out of me. Let’s just say, she is something. What… I’m not sure. But she is something.”
“She sure is. Let me know when you get the forensics back on the book bag.”
“You’ll be the first person I call. By the way, just thought you’d want to know, some mysterious nursing assistant slipped Eugenia Wolfe the morning paper. She saw the article.”
“What the hell!”
“No one from the nursing staff recognized the guy. They all thought he was a newbie. Anyway, I put around the clock protection at the nursing home for her.”
“Good job. And did you get a description?”
“Yeah. But not a good one.”
Nathan held his breath for a long moment before he asked, “How is she?”
“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this. She had another stroke.”
“Fuck!” he whispered. “Is she okay?”
“The doctors are saying it’s not looking so good.”
“Damn it! Just what Jessie needs after everything else.”
“What’s just what Jessie needs after everything else,” her voice echoed behind him.
Nathan turned to face her, the stubborn tilt of her chin and the way her hands rested on her hips making him fully aware that he was going to have to tell her.
“I heard,” he breathed. “I’ll let you go.”
“I’ll be in touch.” He flicked the cell phone shut and tossed it on top of the desk. “Jessie,” Nathan began in a soft voice.
“Why are you looking at me like that? What happened?”
He didn’t know how else to say it so he just said it. “Your grandmother had another stroke.”
“Is she okay?”
Nathan didn’t reply.
Jessie grabbed the front of his shirt, balling her fist around the cotton and pushing him. “Is she okay?” she asked again, her voice filled with panic.
“It’s not looking too good.”
She released him and took a step away, covering her face with her hands. Everything was beyond her control, a feeling she wasn’t used to. Her life was in shambles, she had lost Maria, Sherry, and Karen. And now, her grandmother was in bad shape, had had another stroke. How much more was she supposed to be able to deal with? As it was, she was holding onto her sanity by a very thin thread.
Nathan reached out for her and pulled her to him, offering her the comfort of his arms. He felt her body tremble, could hear her soft cries. Running a hand over her hair, he whispered into her ear, “What can I do for you, Jess?”
She leaned back and stared at him with tearful eyes. “Please, Nathan, let me talk to her.”
He shook his head. “I can’t…”
Pulling out of his arms, she braced her palms on his chest and pushed him away. “You can’t or you won’t?” she bit out angrily.
Nathan knew he wasn’t being fair to her. She wasn’t a prisoner but a victim. And to deny her probably the last time she would ever get to talk to her grandmother would make him a coldhearted bastard.
He reached for the phone and dialed the number he had saved in his speed dial, placing it to his ear and waiting for an answer.
“Stoneybrook Manor,” the feminine voice on the line said cheerfully.
“This is Sheriff Nathan Benson. I need you to connect me directly with Eugenia Wolfe’s room and have someone put the phone up to her ear.”
“Certainly. Right away Sheriff Benson.”
Nathan handed the phone over to Jessie and collapsed on the couch, watching her out of the corner of his eye.
The girl had been through the very worst. Yet, nothing seemed to be getting better for her. He didn’t know how she was coping with the brunt of bad news that was continuously being dumped into her lap. Nathan had to admit; Jessica Porter was a lot stronger than most, much tougher than he could have ever given her credit for.
“Grandmother!” Jessie bellowed. The only response was a raspy breath, a murmur that was unintelligible. “It’s me,” she whimpered. “Jessica. See, I’m fine. Everything is fine. I can’t wait to come and see you.” Still, nothing but the harsh breath. Jessie felt her insides being torn apart, her mind reeling with the reality that she may never see her grandmother alive again. “I miss you so much. I just want you to know that. And I’ll get there as soon as I can.” What was left to be said? “I love you, Grandma.” Jessie felt the tears burning the back of her throat, but forced herself to be strong. “I love you so much.”
Jessie covered her mouth with a trembling hand and pushed the phone back into Nathan’s hand before she tore out of the room.
Nathan flicked the phone shut and tossed it back on the desk before he followed Jessie into the bedroom. He found her sprawled out on the bed on her abdomen, her body shuddering with sobs.
Slowly, he took a seat on the edge of the bed and laid a hand on her back, rubbing up and down with his fingertips. “I’m sorry, Jessie. I am truly sorry.”
She sat up and stared back at him with teary eyes. “I don’t know what I’ll do if I lose her. She’s all I’ve ever really had,” Jessie sniffled.
“She’s all I’ve got,” Jessie reiterated.
He reached out to her, touched her cheek with the back of his hand. “She’s not all you’ve got.”
“What are you saying?”
“You’ve got me. I may not be much, but you’ve got me.”
Jessie stared at him for a long, breathless moment before she fell against his chest.
Nathan didn’t want to get close to her, didn’t want to make this thing between them personal. But at this point, he had no choice because it had gotten personal.
He stretched his arm around her shoulder and pulled her closer to him, whispered soft kisses against the top of her head.
“Do you think she’s going to die?”
“I don’t know, Jessie. Whatever is meant to be, will be. That’s the way life works.”
“I’m beginning to hate life.”
Nathan leaned back and offered her a slight smile. “When sorrow comes, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”
Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, she let out a small chuckle. “Back to quoting William Shakespeare?”
“Of course,” he smiled. “He was a very wise man, you know.”
Sniffling once more, she returned his smile. “All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.”
Nathan lifted a hand to her hair, combing stray tendrils away from her face. “Are you okay?”
“I will be. But…” Her voice trailed off, unsure if she could make such a bold request of this man after everything he had already done for her.
“Will you stay with me?” she asked with bated breath. “Please don’t leave me alone tonight.”
Her voice was insistent, her plea tearful and heartfelt. And despite his common sense, Nathan nodded, laying back on the bed and pulling her with him. He reached over and flicked the lamp off, leaving the room shrouded in darkness. Then, he wrapped one arm around Jessie’s shoulders and pulled her into his embrace.
Nathan could feel her snuggle against his chest, could smell the scent of jasmine and lavender in her hair. Every part of him became instantly alive, immediately aware of this woman. He knew this was a colossal mistake. Yet, there was nowhere else at the moment he’d rather be but holding her and comforting her.
“Nathan,” Jessie whispered.
The sound of her voice made his heart flutter and his body shiver. He had never been so drawn to another human being before, so utterly incensed by a woman that he lacked the ability of rational thought. Jessica Porter was quickly grabbing a hold of his senses and throwing them out the window.
“Yeah,” he almost growled, not wanting to be so affected by her but having no choice in the matter.
“You don’t have to thank me. I’m just doing my job.”
Jessie lifted her head in the darkness, studied his shadowed profile. The sound of his voice sounded curt and strained. And for some reason, she wanted to break down the fierce barrier this man had built around himself, to crumble his defenses and make him open up to her. Nathan Benson’s inner soul was so beautiful, so intense. It was a side of him that she was sure he didn’t share with others often. But she wanted to get to know this man, every last detail of him. There was just something about him that lured her in, made her weak.
She laid her head back against his chest, listened to the rapid beat of his heart. At first glance, Jessie admitted that she felt a strong attraction to this man. He was devastatingly handsome, strong and fierce. But the more she peeled back his layers, revealed the true essence of Nathan Benson, the more she realized her attraction was becoming something more, something of infatuation and actual admiration for the man.
Jessie only wished she could read his mind, know what he was thinking or feeling. Could a man like this ever feel something more for her than just the obvious? Sure, she was his only witness, under his protection. But… he had to feel some of the sparks that was emanating between them.
Testing the waters, being more brave and forward than she had ever been in her life, she lifted her head again and leaned forward, brushing her lips against his roughened jaw. “Good night, Nathan.”
She rested her head back on his chest, feeling the muscles in his arm and chest tighten. Yeah, Jessie thought to herself, she was definitely not alone in what she was feeling.