“You sure you don’t want some coffee?” Sarah asked once Jasper
gave her a second to catch her breath. As they shuffled to
the kitchen in each other’s arms, she accepted his kiss with
a smile on her lips and could feel he still wore one too.
They’d spent their first full night together; she was sore
as hell from how many times they’d had sex, and she’d almost
never been happier. “I don’t mind making it. I promise.”
He pecked a fast kiss to her nose and forehead. “No, thanks.
I need to get goin’, or I’m gonna be late.”
Jasper had one of the Hawkins Ranch trucks parked out front;
last night, he had been bursting with the news that Caleb
was going to sell the older vehicle to him. It never bothered
Sarah that Jasper didn’t always have transportation, but she
knew it sometimes upset him, so she was happy he’d found something
of quality he could afford.
“If I don’t haul ass and push that battered truck as fast
as she’ll go,” Jasper added, “I’ll never make it to work on
“Careful who you say that around, Mr. Simmons.” Jace’s voice
swept across the air, mockingly soft, and tore Sarah and Jasper
apart. He sat at the kitchen table, his face masked by the
shadows of the departing night still hanging around outside.
He looked right at Jasper, his pale eyes almost luminous in
the low light. “Speeding is against the law.”
“For goodness’ sake, Jace,” Sarah said before Jasper opened
his mouth. “What the hell are you doing sitting in the dark?”
She put her hand to her chest and felt the crazy beating through
her thick robe. “You scared the crap out of me.” Narrowing
her stare, Sarah crossed her arms against her chest. “You
aren’t even supposed to be home. What are you doing here?
Jace raised a brow. “I live here.”
Sarah made a face at the infuriating man. “You know what
I mean. When you go out with Shannon” -- she mentioned his
on-and-off girlfriend -- “you always spend the night with
her. I didn’t expect you back this early.”
“Changed my mind last night.” Jace blinked and slid his focus
from Sarah to Jasper, blinked again, and turned one very hard
stare back to her. “Lucky for me. I got such a stimulating
show here instead. An audio one anyway.”
Sarah gasped, and Jasper took a step forward.
“Hey,” Jasper said, his voice sharp, “be respectful of what
you say to this woman.”
Jace’s eyes slipped to icy-cold, light jade in color, and
he looked at Jasper with a hint of the ruthless man Sarah
knew he could sometimes be. “Made her one of those last night,”
he said, “didn’t you?”
Like a mountain lion, Jasper lunged across the table and
grabbed Jace, hauling the bigger man to his feet. He dug his
hands into Jace’s half-unbuttoned shirt and shoved him into
the counter, jamming him over the sink. “You say you’re sorry
to Sarah right now, or I swear to God I’ll throw you through
the window.” Shades of the tough young man Jasper had once
been came out of him in full force. “Do it.”
Jace fought against Jasper’s hold, but Jasper easily kept
him pinned to the sink.
“Get your fucking hands off me,” Jace whispered.
“Not until you say you’re sorry.”
Alarm bells sounded in Sarah’s head as she took note of Jace’s
slowed reflexes and lack of normal strength.
“Okay, okay. Stop it, both of you.” She threw herself into
the fray and dragged Jasper off Jace, grateful when Jasper
raised his arms and let her step in front of him. She didn’t
kid herself that she had nearly enough strength in her skinnyish
five-feet-nine frame to overpower Jasper without his allowing
her to do it.
She held a hand to Jasper’s chest and swung around to face
Jace, even though she itched to smack him right now herself.
“Not that you deserve my help.”
Jace righted himself and attempted to straighten his wrinkled
shirt. “Didn’t ask for it.”
A hint of stale beer assaulted Sarah’s nose. “Are you drunk?”
Rubbing his hand over his unshaven jaw, Jace mumbled, “Not
Drinking too much again. Just what I thought.
“I’ll deal with you in a minute.” She jabbed Jace in the
chest, hard, satisfied when he winced. “Don’t you dare go
anywhere. I’ll be right back.”
She turned back to Jasper and took his hand. “You, come with
me before you’re late for work.”
Jasper let Sarah pull him to the front door without any resistance.
“He should say he’s sorry for what he said to you.”
Sarah’s heart tumbled at the stubborn honor in Jasper. “He
will,” she promised. After he takes a cold shower and
sobers up completely. Her idiot soul still hurt for the
man in the kitchen, a man she sometimes felt she knew better
than any other single person in the world. “Jace won’t admit
he’s wrong in front of you, though.” Gut instinct, and a bond
she could not explain, forced the words to her lips. “He’s
not a bad person, just a pretty typical macho guy.”
“My bosses are all tough men, and they know how to make things
right when they done somethin’ wrong.” Jasper gritted his
teeth. “When they do something wrong.”
Sarah smiled and leaned up to press a kiss to Jasper’s cheek.
“I know, and you’re right. Jace isn’t quite that evolved yet.
It’s okay, though. He’ll find his way quickly enough and make
this right.” When Jasper didn’t look convinced, she took his
hand and squeezed. “I swear.”
“I’m trustin’ you, and that’s why I’m gonna go.”
He stepped closer and slid his hands around Sarah’s hips to
cup her ass. “But if that guy says somethin’ like that to
you again while I’m standin’ close enough to hear it, I’ll
probably hit him.” Jasper’s hands curled into fists against
Sarah’s bottom. “I know you won’t like it, but I might not
be able to stop myself.”
Mirroring Jasper’s hold on her, Sarah looked up into his
eyes. “If Jace says something like that again, I’ll haul off
and slug him one myself before you get the chance.” She squeezed
Jasper and wiggled against his front, reveling in his hard
body riding so close to hers. “It makes my stomach feel like
it has butterflies in it that you want to defend me, but I
can take care of myself.”
“I believe you,” Jasper said. “Remember, I’m around some
ladies at the ranch who could probably kick the butts of half
the guys there, so I know you don’t need protectin’.”
Twin lines of blush swept his cheekbones. “I just feel it,
though, kinda natural, with you.”
“And that’s kind of nice to hear.” She lifted up on tiptoe
and brushed her lips against his. “More than ‘kind of’ actually.”
Jasper’s pupils flared, and he seared his mouth to hers,
stealing every blessed thought from Sarah’s mind. He kissed
her with hot passion, turning her body until her back hit
the open door and he had her sandwiched between him and the
blue-painted wood. Sarah swept her tongue over Jasper’s and
licked at his teeth and the roof of his mouth, all the while
rubbing against him and the erection she could feel growing
against her stomach. Jasper shifted his head and slashed his
mouth across hers, breathing moist air over her lips and into
her mouth with every taste he took. He dug his fingers into
her ass and lifted her up into a rough grinding of his cock,
exciting her pussy with a wash of moisture right where she
Sarah moaned, drowning quickly, but forced herself to tear
her mouth from his and push him a few inches away. “You have
to go to work.” Hooking her fingers in his front pockets,
she kept Jasper close, even though she knew she needed to
let him go. “I don’t want you to get in trouble over me.”
Jasper put his forehead to hers as he struggled to catch
his breath. His eyes lit with gold sparks in the sea of hazel.
“I know.” He closed the lapels of her robe for her and cinched
the loosened terry cloth belt. “But I don’t want to leave.
“Come back tonight, if you can.” Selfishness quickly ate
at Sarah’s conscience. “Don’t push if you’re tired, though.
I know how hard you work.”
“I won’t be sleepin’ if I’m at the bunkhouse anyway; I’m
gonna be thinkin’ of you.”
Sarah’s heart fluttered at the natural, kind things Jasper
always said to her.
Jasper lifted his head, and his gaze drifted behind her into
her home. “You sure he’s not gonna be such an asshole about
my bein’ here that I end up bustin’ up your house in a fight?”
Jace. Sarah hadn’t forgotten about him. He was always
in her life, somehow. “I’ll take care of Jace.” In more
ways than one. “You’re welcome here, Jas, just as you
always have been. His liking or not liking of it has no bearing
on the matter.”
“Okay.” Jasper nodded. “I’ll try to call you before dinnertime,
just to let you know if we’re good, or if somethin’ comes
up at the ranch.” He kissed her cheek one more time and backed
“Bye.” Sarah watched her cowboy tread down the steps, enjoying
the view just as much now as she had four years ago. Jasper
had more hardness, more masculine edges today than he did
back then, and she liked the maturity that had settled on
him. Shoot, she hoped she had changed a bit since then, for
the better too.
Jasper drove away with one last wave. Sarah stepped inside,
closed the front door, and took a series of deep, even breaths
as she walked back to the kitchen.
Jace was back in his seat at the table, and Sarah paused
for a second to switch on the light before taking her normal
place, to his right.
The benefit of proper lighting allowed Sarah to see Jace,
and the sight of the haggard exhaustion taking over his face
twisted her stomach. “How many did you have?” She kept her
“Five.” Jace rubbed at his jaw and grimaced. “Maybe six.”
“Oh, Jace.” Sarah closed her eyes for a moment as she absorbed
the information. She knew Jace understood and accepted he
had problems if he drank more than one beer or glass of wine
or whatever. He had control over it most of the time.
“What brought this on?” She suddenly sat up straight and grabbed
his hand. “Did something happen to Hunter? Did he contact
you?” Sarah had only received sporadic e-mails from her brother
in the last year or so, and it sometimes felt like those came
from a complete stranger. “Was it the army? Is he hurt?”
“No no no.” Jace grabbed Sarah’s hand and clutched it tightly.
“It’s not Hunter.” He looked at her, and a deep sense of loss,
as vivid as her own, reflected back at her. “I haven’t heard
from him since the last time you did.”
Sarah deflated, her heart aching without word from her brother.
“Shannon doesn’t want to see me anymore,” he said, his voice
flat. “We… She ended it last night.”
“I’m sorry.” Sarah pursed her lips, biting the edge of her
lower one. “But I mean, I don’t want to be tactless…”
Jace gave her a pointed look. “You can be worse than me sometimes,
so just spit it out.”
“Fine, I’ll say it. I always thought it was just about sex
between you and Shannon. I didn’t think you had deep feelings
for her, at least not enough to make you drink more than your
limit because she broke up with you.” Sarah’s gaze dropped
to her hand grasped so firmly in Jace’s. Her palm tingled,
disturbingly so. She always felt it all over whenever Jace
accidentally or deliberately touched her. Right on top of
that, her mind flashed with the incredible step she had taken
in her relationship with Jasper last night, and she tugged
her hand from Jace’s hold.
Stop reacting to him.
“That’s all I wanted to say,” she finished.
Jace stood and walked to the refrigerator. “I don’t like
that you gave any thought to my relationship with Shannon,
in any context” -- it sounded like he grumbled the words through
a mouth full of gravel -- “let alone that you figured out
it was purely sexual.”
Sarah gritted her teeth. “You know, Jace, one of our biggest
problems is that you refuse to see me as an adult. If you
thought of me as your equal, then you could come to me when
something happens instead of sitting in the dark drinking.”
Jace came back to the table, a tall glass of juice in hand.
“Trust me” -- he wrapped his hands around his glass in a very
deliberate fashion -- “it’s really not a good idea for me
to bring my problems to you.”
She snapped her focus to him. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing.” Resting his elbows on the table, Jace pushed his
hands through his hair and left them there, holding his head
up. “It just means: don’t worry. I slipped up, but I have
everything back in control. You won’t wake up or come home
one night to find me drunk or fighting off a hangover again.”
He laid a steady stare on her. “I promise you that.”
“Are you okay?” The sun started to shine in through the kitchen
window, but Sarah held off getting up to go take her shower.
“Do I need to tell the sheriff you caught a bug and won’t
be able to come into work today?”
Jace scratched his head and pushed himself into a straighter
position. “No. I don’t need to be in until ten; I’ll be fine
by then.” He picked up his juice, took a big drink of it,
and Sarah watched the olive column of his throat move as he
swallowed. “Let me drink about a gallon of this” -- he lifted
his glass in a salute -- “have a long shower, and I’ll be
“All right.” Sarah forced herself to stand but couldn’t make
herself leave. Instead, she leaned into Jace and pressed a
kiss to the top of his head. “Take care of yourself, please.”
With her lips still pressed in his hair, she closed her eyes
against the burn of tears. “I can’t lose you.” For so many
years, Sarah had felt like Jace was the only rock she had
in her life. She couldn’t shake the connection to this man,
even though she had Jasper to rely on now too. “I won’t lose
After leaning into him for a long moment, Sarah pulled herself
together and stepped away. Jace grabbed her wrist and yanked
her right back to him. Her arm burned where he held her, and
her breath caught at the flash of fire lighting his pale eyes.
“I apologize for my tone before, and for what I said.” Jace
clenched his jaw, and it looked like he swallowed something
nasty. “Your boyfriend was right about that. I shouldn’t ever
talk to you that way, and I’m sorry I did.”
Sarah’s chest constricted, and she cupped his stubbly cheek.
“Thank you.” Her voice came out scratchy, catching her off
guard. Her thumb inched dangerously close to brushing across
his lower lip, and she ripped her hand away. “All right; I’m
going to go take a shower and get dressed before I’m late
for work. Give me twenty minutes and the bathroom will be
“Thanks.” Jace settled back in his chair and took another
swig of juice. “I’ll be human again by then.”
Sarah turned to leave, and her attention zoomed in on the
wall. She moved closer and leaned in. A gashing hole sat at
chest level. She spun back to Jace and pointed. “What happened
Jace gave the hole a quick look. His features bland, he said,
Sarah let it go and moved down the hallway to her bedroom,
but as she gathered her stuff to take a shower, she wondered
what the truth was about the damage to the wall.
Moreover, why Jace felt like he had to hide it.
“Damn, Jas,” Ren said, laughing, “if you were a girl, I’d
say you were glowing. You’ve been grinning all morning. What
the hell is up with you?”
“Nothin’. Just happy is all.” Jasper lay flat on his stomach
and reached his arm down into the frigid water of Willow Stream,
filling a vial of water for testing. He collected water at
measured intervals while Ren snapped photos of the stream.
They regularly tested the water to make sure all its levels
were healthy for the fish as well as Hawkins Ranch cattle.
The photos Ren took were to keep a visual record of the waterway
and would be available should the state ever want to view
“I know what brings ‘happy’ to a man’s face.” Ren shifted
his camera and snapped a picture of Jasper. He took a look
at the display screen and nodded. “Yeah, that’s a telling
shot. How is Sarah doing lately?”
“Perfect.” Jasper capped a vial full of water and put it
in its proper slot in a transport case. He looked at Ren and
could feel his face flaming. “That sounds stupid, don’t it?”
“It sounds nice.” Ren took the lead of his horse and started
walking down the stream, going slowly enough that Jasper quickly
fell in beside him with his horse, Shiloh. “It sounds like
you like her a lot,” Ren said. “And if anyone deserves it,
Sarah does. You do too.”
“Maybe.” Jasper slid a sidelong glance in Ren’s direction.
“I tell ya, Ren; there’s times when I’m with her, it feels
like the stuff that happened in my life before I came here
don’t matter, like maybe I could make enough of myself to
offer her somethin’ more real than a lot of promises with
nothin’ to back them up, you know?”
“It feels good to have something to bring to the table,”
Ren said. “I will agree with that. But don’t mistake having
money or stuff as being the same as being worthy.
You’re still the same kind guy you were the day Caleb hired
you; you just have a job history behind you, some stability,
and some money in your pocket to go with it now.”
They walked the stream at a leisurely pace, letting the warmth
of the late-spring day sink into them and the sun shine on
their faces and bare arms.
“If you turn into a jackass, though,” Ren added, jabbing
at Jasper’s shoulder, “Sarah’s not going to care that you
are now the proud owner of your own truck. She will kick your
ass right out of her bed.”
Heat flamed through Jasper. He knew that, finally, Ren’s
comment was literally correct. I am officially
in her bed. “I know.” Fighting through his natural instinct
to cover up and hide, Jasper stuffed down a drugging wave
of anxiety and turned, looking directly at Ren. “It’s hard
to remember all that some days, though, when I hear myself
talkin’ sometimes, and it makes me cringe. She don’t -- doesn’t
-- correct me, but I know I don’t always catch myself and
make my words right. She’s so much smarter than me, and when
she’s talkin’ to someone, and I’m listenin’, she’s so fast
and she’s clever and she makes people laugh, and I get scared
she’ll get bored with me one day because I can’t be that smart,
and she’ll want someone else.” Images of Jace assaulted Jasper’s
mind, a guy living right in the same house with Sarah, someone
masculine and powerful, who had confidence and authority…and
a man Jasper occasionally caught Sarah watching with hunger
in her eyes. “I don’t know if all the strugglin’ to make myself
better is gonna be enough to hold someone like Sarah, who
is interested in so many different kinds of things and not
afraid to try any of them.”
“You don’t give Sarah enough credit for being able to recognize
and appreciate the great guy you already are.” Ren stopped
and gave Jasper a quick once-over. “Who also happens to be
damn easy on the eyes, by the way. As a gay man with great
taste in men, as evidenced by how fucking sexy Cade is, I
can say that with some authority.”
Jasper’s blood raced with Ren’s praise, and he prayed it
didn’t show in his face. “Thanks.”
“No problem. I bet Sarah only cares that you try,” Ren said.
“She sees you making an effort, in a lot of big and little
ways, and I’m sure she’s proud of you for that, more than
the actual result. Besides which, proper grammar and intelligence
don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Neither of which, if you
were a jerk, would matter one bit to a woman like Sarah. It’s
no crime that your family couldn’t help you with school and
homework and that financially you had to make a choice to
get a full-time job rather than graduate. You don’t have any
reason to be ashamed. You never did, but particularly not
with the life you’ve created for yourself here in Quinten.”
“Thanks.” Jasper dipped his head. “That’s nice of you to
An animal yowled right then, and the sharp cry rent through
“Cat!” Jasper immediately hoisted himself into his saddle
and swung his horse as the cougar yowled again. A flock of
birds burst out of the trees covering the base of the mountains
to the west, flapping their wings and flying in all directions.
“Damn it.” Ren stuffed his camera in a saddlebag and was
astride his horse in mere seconds. “I hope none of the calves
broke free from their mommas.” He made a clicking noise and
put his horse into a fast gallop. “Come on,” he called back.
“Let’s go check it out.”
Jasper put his horse in motion at a good clip, following
a few paces behind Ren’s sprint toward the thickly covered
mountains. They pushed hard in silence for a few minutes that
felt like forever. Then Ren suddenly pulled his horse to a
stop, rearing his animal in a rough manner, something completely
foreign to Ren’s normal care of his horse.
Ren yanked his rifle out of his scabbard and fired a shot
into the air, shouting, “Get away! Get away! Get away!” He
cocked his weapon, fired again, the repeated sound so loud,
Jasper’s ears rang, and his horse shied back, rolling its
eyes and braying.
Jasper dug his heels and knees into Shiloh’s body, fighting
to stay on the horse’s back. Shiloh spun and shimmied in the
direction of Ren and his horse, both of whom remained steady
despite Ren’s firing his rifle.
Calming his horse with the tone of his commands, Jasper trailed
off as he saw what had captured the interest of the birds
and cougar. He held on to his horse with nothing more than
the natural squeeze of his legs as the sight before him curdled
his stomach and nearly made him vomit.
“Holy mother.” Jasper crossed himself even though he hadn’t
been to church since his grandmother died.
Ren slid off his horse and pulled his cell phone off his
belt. “Keep the horses back,” he ordered. “I’m going to call
the station and then take some pictures in case we can’t keep
the animals away.” His lips and face had gone completely pale.
Jasper knew he probably looked equally sick. “You call Caleb
and Jake. They need to know about this too.”
Jasper’s hands shook as he unclipped his walkie-talkie, and
his legs didn’t feel entirely steady when his feet hit the
ground. He put the device to his mouth and made a call to
home base. Jasper steadied his voice enough to ask to speak
to one of the bosses, but he could not keep his eyes off the
horrifying sight some dozen feet away.
In the center of a copse of oaks, three or four feet off
the ground, a naked woman with long auburn hair hung nailed
to a tree. Someone had stretched her arms wide across a long
slat of wood, making her resemble Christ on the cross, and
had secured her hands to the piece of wood with long nails
or spikes. The wood holding her arms open had been attached
to the tall, bare trunk of the tree, and it looked like her
ankles were nailed to the thick base. One ankle anyway. Her
left leg ended at the knee, and Jasper could only guess the
cougar Ren had frightened off with his gunshots had taken
the lower half of her limb with him. Birds -- and God knew
what else -- had picked at her face and body, and she had
large chunks of skin missing.
The crackle of static ripped Jasper out of his trancelike
state. “Jake here.” The complete authority in Jake’s familiar
voice immediately focused Jasper. “What’s up?”
“Boss --” God, Jasper didn’t want to say anything too explicit
over the walkie-talkies, no matter that others working the
ranch would not hear this channel. “You need to get Caleb
and come to the mountain edge of the high north grazing land,
right now. It’s something really bad.”
“We’ll be right there. Jake out.”
Jasper clipped the walkie-talkie back to his belt, swallowing
bile as his gaze automatically went back to the girl nailed
to the tree. Ren snapped picture after picture all around
them, capturing the entire scene as well as the surrounding
land. Jasper forced himself to take his eyes off the horror
of the slain woman and look around the area, studying, just
in case he could be of some help.
* * * * *
Saying a silent prayer under his breath, Jace looked to Cade.
“Do you have any early thoughts about her?” He and Cade stood
on ladders on either side of the murder victim, waiting for
the sheriff’s okay to remove her for transport to the crime
lab in Bozeman.
“Dead before she was nailed to the slat of wood and the tree,”
Cade answered, his voice muffled. His eyes shone dark above
the safety mask covering the lower half of his face. Jace
wore protection over his mouth and nose too. They also wore
“I’d say so too,” Jace agreed. Since they saw no blood flow
from the puncture wounds, nor from areas picked at by animals,
they could take some comfort that her death had preceded her
killer attaching her to this tree. The body was unmistakably
that of a female, but with the damage done to her face by
birds and other critters, Jace didn’t think even her family
members would be able to identify her. “I’m not seeing any
real signs of violence.” He shared a grim look with Cade.
“From what’s left of her anyway. No obvious knife trauma or
“I have some bruising on her wrist here,” Cade said, pointing
as he looked at Jace. “Maybe the perp held her by the arms
at some point and dragged her. If we’re lucky, we might get
“Here.” Jace handed Cade a camera so he could take a picture.
They already had hundreds of photos, but it never hurt to
take one more. He shifted and looked at the woman again, trying
to see past the carnage to the clues. “Wait a minute.” Jace
took another step up the ladder, as a hint of bizarre perfection
lived in the mess. “Look at her hair. See how it’s all precisely
styled at the edges? Kind of curled forward?” It reminded
Jace of how Sarah sometimes did her hair, and he shuddered.
Christ, I would not survive if I lost her. In any way,
let alone like this.
Shaking himself mentally, he returned his attention to the
job. “The top part is wrecked, probably by the birds, but
I wonder if someone styled her before they put her up here?
Or maybe after but didn’t anticipate animals so quickly damaging
the picture he was trying to create.”
“Posing and styling her, beyond the obvious religious conclusions
we’re supposed to draw with the Christlike position of the
“Maybe.” Jace appreciated the ability to share ideas with
an experienced law-enforcement officer like Cade, who had
worked a lot of big-city crime when he lived in Texas. “Caleb
and Jake have cattle grazing in this area right now, so if
it was someone local, they would have known a cowboy would
find the body at some point today when checking on the fence
“Wherever she was killed,” Jace added, “the perp then had
to bring her here and somehow get her attached to this tree.
If she went out last night, I’d think any primping she might
have done at home would be nonexistent by now. I think our
killer had to do it, whether here or somewhere else.”
“Good point.” Cade’s brow furrowed, and he looked off into
the distance. “There hasn’t been anyone reported missing in
Quinten lately, so if she’s local, she lived alone or didn’t
have anyone expecting her home last night.” Cade turned back
to Jace, and Jace could see the wheels turning in his mind.
“You figure you give the guy time to grab her, kill her somewhere
else, transport her here -- let’s assume under the cover of
darkness for the fact that it makes the most sense -- and
then Ren and Jasper don’t find her until nearly noon… She
has to have been gone from her life for ten to twelve hours,
I’d say. Probably more than that. It’s doubtful she would
have gone out at midnight.”
“Yeah. More than likely, she went out dancing or to see a
movie, considering yesterday was Friday. Maybe she had a date.”
“That’s assuming he took her yesterday.”
“That’s why we’re not going to assume anything.” The sheriff,
Duke Boone, broke into the conversation. He climbed up a third
ladder, joining Jace, Cade, and the body. “Robyn can’t get
here, and she can’t send anyone over fast enough to be of
help right now.” Robyn Fallon was the head of forensics at
the crime lab in Bozeman, Quinten’s resource for lab work
and assistance on crime scenes such as this one. “They’re
working that quadruple homicide we heard about earlier today,
and she needs all hands on deck over there. I gave Robyn everything
I could and sent some pictures to her laptop. She has instructed
me to pry our Jane Doe’s ankle and the slat of wood away from
the tree, but to leave her attached to the wood itself. You
two keep hold of her and the slat, and I’ll pry her off.”
Duke climbed down, and another deputy handed him a large
crowbar. Duke looked to Cade, then Jace, and then a dozen
feet away to where Jasper, Ren, Jake, and Caleb remained.
Grimacing, Duke asked, “Everybody ready?”
Everyone nodded, and Duke, quietly and efficiently, worked
the metal behind the victim’s ankle and detached her from
the tree. Silence reigned all around them, and the absence
of sound -- even that of animals -- whispered a shiver through
Duke climbed up the third ladder again and, as with the ankle,
worked without words and pried the nails driven through the
slat of wood from the tree. Jace held tight to the body and
wood, determined not to let their victim fall as her weight
slowly shifted from the tree to Jace and Cade. Men below held
the ladders in place, making sure Jace, Cade, and Duke didn’t
topple under their task.
“Steady.” Cade gritted his teeth, giving the tight-lipped
instruction as the job of holding the dead woman transferred
completely to him and Jace. Both men strained under the weight
but steadily worked their way down the ladders until they
hit a point where deputies waiting on the ground could reach
up and offer assistance.
“All right, we have her.” Deputy Max Stuart gave Jace and
Cade verbal instructions from below. “Slowly, everyone, we’re
going to lower her facedown onto the board.” When Jace didn’t
feel any pressure on his arms, he released his hold on the
body, let the others take over the task of settling her on
the makeshift gurney, and jumped to the ground.
“Okay.” Max’s voice remained authoritative. “That’s good.
Carson!” she called out, gaining the attention of their newest
deputy. “We’re going to shift the board, and I need you to
strap her down for me.”
Jace was in the process of removing his gloves when Carson
said, “Hey, look at this,” and immediately gained everyone’s
attention. “She has a tattoo on her left buttock.” Carson
looked to the sheriff. “A cowboy hat and a boot. That should
help in making a positive ID on her, right?”
Everyone in uniform swooped in on the body to get a closer
look. A commotion erupted behind them, and suddenly Jasper
pushed his way past Cade, right up to the dead woman, whispering,
“Oh my God.”
Swearing, Jace pushed in front of Jasper and strong-armed
him back. “Get away from the scene.”
“But wait.” Jasper wiggled around Jace’s hold. “It’s important.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed as he looked at everyone in the group.
“I know her.”
Jace grabbed Jasper by the upper arms and swung him around,
putting them chest to chest. “What did you say?”
Jasper looked at Jace; his lips were pale, and his eyes were
wide. “Her name is Ginger Carlton. I used to date her.” …