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Jessie watched the scenery pass by her window. Night had taken over the sky, leaving it a deep hue of dark blue, the trees in the distance nothing more than nondescript shapes.
They had been driving for hours. And in those endless hours, the man in the driver seat had barely said two words to her, had just kept his eyes on the road ahead of him with a firm set of his jaw. He had every right to be mad at her. Because of her stubbornness, Nathan Benson had been forced to rearrange his life. It didn’t matter. Her goal right now wasn’t to make friends. What she wanted was to get out of that hospital room, to put behind her the realization of what had happened. She knew that she was going to have to deal with it sooner or later. Jessie just wasn’t ready to face it right now. She needed time to adjust to the present before she started delving into the past.
She reached over and pushed the button to roll her window down. Closing her eyes, she welcomed the rush of air, felt the gentle breeze lift her hair. Out of the corner of her eye, Jessie noticed movement beside of her and turned to face Nathan. The lights from the console barely illuminated his features, his own waves blowing in the draft from the window. She watched him reach up and comb long fingers through the front of his hair, pushing the stray tendrils from his face.
Jessie sighed and turned away again, not willing to admit to exactly how handsome he was. She had tried to ignore his striking features earlier, tried not to be distracted by him. Yet, it was hard. In spite of everything, she was a warm-blooded female. Just because she didn’t have time to date, she always had time to appreciate a good-looking man. And Sheriff Nathan Benson was about as fine looking as they came.
She couldn’t quite put her finger on what drew her to him. It could be the obvious strength in his taut muscles, those hazel eyes that sparkled beneath thick brooding eyebrows, or that face of his shadowed in a day’s worth of stubble. He was dark and handsome and everything she usually tried to avoid in a man. She preferred a guy with lighter coloring--the blonde hair, blue-eyed type who dressed with an air of confidence and an eye to impress. Nathan Benson was neither of those things, with ink black hair and the contrasting hazel eyes. He seemed like the kind of man that could be a force to be reckoned with, brute strength and power behind boyish good looks. He dressed for comfort, not to impress, his attire a pair of worn jeans and an old t-shirt. But damn, Jessie thought, he would probably look good in anything… or with nothing on for that matter. That thought made her blush.
Jessie glanced over at him again, allowing her eyes to roam over his face, the veil of darkness hiding her silent scrutiny. She noticed a muscle jerk in his strong jaw, his eyes set on the highway in front of them. Her gaze roamed from his eyes to his mouth, full lips set in a grim line. She remembered what he had looked like earlier when he had grinned at her, straight white teeth set against ample lips and a little dimple in his left cheek. He had been even more handsome when he had smiled, his stern features softening and his eyes glowing with a hint of mischief.
Her eyes traveled over his thick neck, down to his chest and tight abdomen. The loose t-shirt he wore was incapable of hiding the ridges of muscles in his torso, even in the semi-dark. Wandering back to his arms, his large biceps strained against tanned skin, strong arms that she was sure could crush someone easily. His hands were wrapped around the steering wheel, long fingers drumming against brown leather.
“Don’t you think it’s impolite to stare?” he said suddenly, causing her to jump.
Jessie snapped her head around and forced her eyes to the road in front of her. “I wasn’t staring,” she mumbled, completely embarrassed by being caught doing just that.
Nathan grinned, arching one eyebrow as he glanced over at her. “Yeah? What do you call it then?”
“I was just trying to figure you out.”
“Well,” he chuckled, “I’m an open book, sweetheart. There’s nothing to figure out.”
He had to laugh at that, considering he had been thinking the exact same thing about her. “You’re not exactly easy to figure out yourself.”
“What do you mean?” she asked politely and inclined her head to the side to look at him.
“Just what I said. You must have multiple personality disorder or something. One minute you’re high-strung and stubborn as all hell. The next minute you’re apologetic and yielding. I don’t get it. And I don’t know which personality I’m going to get from one minute to the next.”
She digested what he said for a long moment, realizing that she had been moody. But Jessie had a very good excuse, not that it mattered to this man. He didn’t care about her disposition. He was a cop, not a friend, and his number one goal was to prod her until he found out who had turned his peaceful town upside down. She was no more than a commodity to him; one he must contend with until he got what he wanted… her memories.
“So, where are we going?” she asked quickly, wanting to change the subject.
Nathan offered her another cursory glance and smiled. She was quick to change the topic of conversation and he found it amusing that he had inadvertently hit a sore spot with her. “We’re going to my cabin up in the mountains.”
“That’s pretty vague.” She ran a hand through her heavy hair, pushing it off of her face before she gave him another sidelong glance. “There is running water and electricity there?”
“Good. Not that I mind roughing it. It’s just…” Her voice trailed off. Jessie felt like an idiot around him and she couldn’t figure out why. No man or woman for that matter ever left her flustered. But this man… he seemed to have that affect on her. “Your cabin, huh?”
“Yep. I go fishing up there twice a year. It’s out in the middle of nowhere and no one will ever think to look for us there.”
Great, she thought to herself. She was going to be stuck out in the middle of nowhere with this man, for who knew how long. Her day just kept getting better and better.
“Would you mind if I ask you a few questions, something to break up the monotony of this long drive?”
“What kind of questions?” Jessie asked suspiciously.
“Well, I’ve talked to a few of your friends over the last week and I wanted to know what you think of them. Maybe that will help us narrow down our suspects.”
“You think someone I know did this?” she deduced, her voice intense and skeptical.
“Perhaps. The truth is I just don’t know.”
“Fine. Who do you want to talk about?”
“Let’s start with Cameron Demauro.” He heard her groan and stifled a chuckle. “I understand that the two of you are pretty close.”
“Not as close as Cameron would like for us to be,” she moaned. Jessie shook her head and quickly added, “Not that there is anything wrong with Cam. He’s just not very good at taking a hint.”
“I gathered that. How long has the guy been in love with you?”
She cocked her head to the side and stared at him as if he had just grown horns. “Did he tell you…”
“No. But it doesn’t take a scientist to figure it out. Plus, I’ve been a cop for a long time. I’ve got great instincts about people.”
“How long have you been a cop?” she asked without delay, hoping to divert him.
“Uh-unh. I asked you a question.”
“It hardly seems fair that you get to ask all the questions. Don’t you think?”
Nathan shook his head and laughed. She was quite cute. Cute and quick. “Fine. I ask a question, and then you can ask a question. Deal?”
She nodded smugly and sat against the back of the seat, turning her body around to face him. “Cam and I have been friends since the fifth grade. It wasn’t until high school that he started to pursue something more. But… as nice of a person as he is, I just don’t feel anything romantic towards him. We’re friends and that’s all we could ever be.”
“Have you told him this?”
She lifted a finger and wagged it back and forth. “Tsk, tsk. My question first.”
“I’ve been a cop for twelve years. Now… have you told Cameron?”
“A million times. He just has a thickhead, much like most of the men I’ve known.” Jessie stared at him thoughtfully for a moment. “Twelve years? And now you’re sheriff of Deatsville. You seem awful young to be a sheriff. How old are you?”
“Thirty-four,” he answered abruptly. “What do you think of Roger Blake?”
“Roger Blake is a perverted old man who hits on all of the female employees at work and thinks he’s God’s gift to women. He’s married and has a son who’s somewhere around my age, but that doesn’t stop him.” She stared at him for a long moment, trying to think of a question to ask. “You married?” Jessie knew he wasn’t unless he chose not to wear a wedding band.
“Nope. Never have been and never will be.” Nathan offered her a strange look wondering where on earth she had pulled the question from. “What about his assistant, Alan Ginnis?”
“Alan is a sweetheart. He stays late at work sometimes to walk me to my car.”
“That’s what he said.”
“He can be a bit odd at times, but who can’t. All in all, he’s a nice guy.”
“Nice guys are the ones you have to be suspicious of.”
“Okay,” she chuckled. “You have issues with marriage?”
“Not really.” Nathan gave her a winning smile. “I’m just not the marrying kind.”
“Well,” she huffed, “something to be very proud of. I bet you’re not the commitment kind, either.”
“Commitment? What’s that?” he teased.
Jessie rolled her eyes and chuckled. He was definitely charming, she had to give him that.
“What about Steve Marchand?”
“God! How did you know about Steven?”
“He came to see me, said that you thought someone had been following you.”
She lowered her head shamefully. “I had mentioned something to that effect to him. But… I’ve been going on absolutely no sleep, with my term paper coming up and work and everything else. I’m almost positive I imagined it.” She sighed and glanced up at him again. “As far as Steven goes, we went out a few times several months ago but nothing ever came of it.”
“Relationships are not my forte.”
“I see. It seems we’re two of a kind.”
Jessie laughed, a throaty chuckle that filled the confines of the car. “Don’t you dare go comparing me with you. My problem with relationships is brought on by nothing more than lack of time, not lack of want.”
“Is that why things didn’t work out with Josh?”
“How do you know about Josh?”
“I have my sources.”
“Right,” she muttered. “Josh seemed perfect in every way. We got along great, never argued. But… I don’t know. Sometimes the person that should be right for you turns out to be wrong in the end and vice versa.”
“This Josh, does he have a last name?”
“No reason. I just wanted to have him checked out.”
“Oh no. Josh didn’t do this,” she replied confidently.
“How do you know?”
“I know. He is incapable of killing a flea, much less brutally stabbing four people.” Her words hit her at once and she instantly thought of her roommates and the pain they must have suffered.
As if reading her mind, Nathan quickly said, “They didn’t suffer.”
Jessie instinctively reached over and brushed her fingers over his forearm, causing Nathan to glance at her. “Thank you for that.”
Nathan felt his skin tingle from her fingertips, felt his groin throb from her innocent touch. What was wrong with him? She was just a woman, he silently told himself. A beautiful woman, sensual beyond her own comprehension, Nathan amended. And she was one hundred percent off limits. He needed to get that through his thick skull right now. No matter how attractive she was or how attracted he was to her, he couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
Jessie drew back from him, feeling as if her fingers had been scorched. After all of this time, the first man to send shivers over her body couldn’t be this man. She refused to allow herself to be attracted to him. In the end, he didn’t give a shit about her. All he cared about was finding out what she knew… or didn’t know at the moment. There was nothing personal here, just a job for him to do. Jessie had to keep reminding herself that they were two strangers who were brought together by the horrific slaying of her friends, the brutal stabbing of herself.
“I have a question,” Jessie said rather quickly. “Do you think what happened to us was a random act or do you think it was planned?”
“I think there was nothing random about it. Your friends had to know the man or men that did this because there was no sign of forced entry or struggle.”
“Men? You think there was more than one person?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Nathan,” she whispered. “I’m scared.”
“Hey,” he replied in a light voice, instinctively lifting his hand to her cheek and brushing his thumb across her soft skin. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. No one is going to find you. I’ll make sure of that.”
“That’s not what I’m afraid of.”
He dropped his hand to his side and glanced at her. “Then what?”
“I’m afraid to remember.” Jessie swallowed back the tears threatening to spill over. “I know that I have to. But I don’t want to. I don’t want to relive that night in my head for the rest of my life, which is exactly what will happen once the memory returns.”
“Jessie, I know that you’re afraid and you have every right to be. But… I think you’re a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for.”
“How can you have so much faith in me? You don’t even know me.”
He knew her better than he chose to admit. Nathan had studied every detail of her life for the last two and a half weeks, had delved into every aspect of this woman. He knew her better than he knew most. But he wasn’t going to tell her that. Instead, he offered her a half-smile. “I told you. I have great instincts about people.”
“I think this time your instincts are wrong,” she offered dryly.
“Nah. I’m never wrong.”
“What if I can’t remember?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.” Noticing how that didn’t pacify her, he added, “Everything will work out. Okay?”
Suddenly, Jessie felt a pain erupt through her abdomen and moaned, squirming in her seat to get comfortable although comfort was beyond her grasp. The dull ache exploded into a nauseating and agonizing throb, ripping through her in waves.
Nathan noticed the way she twisted in her seat, her hand covering her abdomen as she cried out. Without hesitation, he pulled over to the side of the road, put the car in park, and turned the interior light on. He slid over the expanse of the seat and pushed her back, his hands falling to her stomach and lifting the t-shirt.
“What are you doing?” she asked in a horrified voice.
“I’m checking your wounds.”
She slapped at his hands and tried to push him away. “I’m fine.”
“Would you stop being so damn stubborn and just sit still?”
To his surprise, she stopped fighting him and closed her eyes, allowing him to lift her shirt higher and examine the wounds on her stomach. He could see where the gashes from the knife had been sewn up, and although they looked red and puffy, they didn’t seem infected. He touched one wound with his hand and heard her take in a harsh breath.
“Sorry,” he whispered. He watched her nod and continued prodding gently with the tip of his finger. The lesions looked to be healing just fine. “What kind of pain is it?”
“Shooting pain,” she answered between clenched teeth.
“Just in your abdomen?”
Jessie nodded and let out a strangled moan.
He pushed away from her. “I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
She swallowed hard. “I’m hurting, but I’ll live. I think I’m just getting sick of being cooped up and I’m really, really tired.”
Nathan reached down for the gear and shifted into drive, flicking a gaze over her one more time. He hit the gas, pulling back onto the road as he reached up and flipped the interior light off. “We’ll be there soon.” He pinned his eyes on the road and concentrated on the drive.