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BECOMING THREE
Loose Id
Ménage/Suspense
November 2009

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Deputy Jace Maxwell has fought an attraction to Sarah Tennison for far too long. Jace looks out for Sarah while his friend is overseas. While Jace has always wanted the fiery woman, he knows he can’t have her. For Jace, as much as he craves Sarah, he also lives with a secret, fierce attraction to other men.

Sarah has suppressed her love for Jace, knowing he will never see her as anything more than a chore. Enter cowboy Jasper Simmons. Jasper is as sweet and gentle as Jace is hard. As much as Sarah tries to keep both men separate in her mind, fantasies of all three of them tangled and sweaty in bed together are never far away.

When Jasper finds a dead woman nailed to a tree, he is thrown into contact with Jace...and the proximity draws out an attraction the shy, awkward cowboy has only felt once before.

Seeing the men together in an emotion-filled situation has Sarah wondering if Jace is keeping secrets. Then Jasper admits to Sarah he once had a crush on another man, and Jace suddenly kisses her in a shocking lapse of control.

Sarah sets out to get her men, realizing the only path right for them is becoming three.

   
 

"Strongly-defined characters…intense, multi-dimensional and flawed which seems to make them come to life and leap off the pages…Ms. Dane does a superb job of creating the bond of the three lovers by showing the emotions of passion, love and tenderness Jace, Sarah and Jasper have for each other… The spicy sex scenes are smoldering in heat, rocking in wickedly daring delights and dark, sexy thrills of the ménage kind… Yet throughout the sexual desires there is always a sense of balance to the connection… The explosives suspense and multiple twists and turns to the murder are spellbinding leaving the reader guessing until the very climatic ending….This riveting tale filled with sensuality and a depth of emotions is compelling and truly impossible to put down."
-- Shannon from The Romance Studio, A 5 heart review, and winner of the 5 heart review of the week

 

“…If someone asked me why I can’t get enough of Cameron Dane’s work, I’d tell them they need look no further than Becoming Three. Cameron Dane’s stories are always filled with memorable characters, passion, sensuality, and a wealth of emotion seething just beneath the surface, to create gripping romances that are truly unforgettable. Becoming Three has all of these and more… Action and intrigue that come from the hunt for a serial killer add an element of danger to Becoming Three, and that aspect of the story was every bit as fascinating as the romance… I loved Becoming Three and can’t wait to read it again and again and again.”
-- Shayna, a Joyfully Recommended read from Joyfully Reviewed

 

“…I enjoyed the personalities of the three lovers and despite the differences in their backgrounds, characters and life experiences, they fit together well…when these three finally come together, the only words to describe it are sizzling hot and explosive…I love a good suspense and the secondary murder plot of this well written story was just what I needed…I didn’t have a clue of the identity of the villain until it was revealed near the end…I can’t wait for the next release in this keeper series."
-- Mystical Nymph from Literary Nymphs Reviews Only

 

“If you’re looking for an exciting murder mystery mixed with off the charts HOT love scenes, then you need to read Becoming Three. The characters are wonderfully developed with each having a distinct personality making them living breathing individuals in my mind. I found myself deeply involved in the who-done-it aspect with the mysterious murders as I would in any good murder mystery, and I have to say the action between our two heroes and heroine are not for the faint of heart! I look forward to more of Cameron’s works.”
-- Sasha, a 5 diamond review from Got Erotic Romance

 

“…Three strong characters, a murderer on the loose, and the opportunity for a committed relationship, make this a story you won't soon forget. Ms. Dane does a fantastic job balancing the elements of Hawkins Ranch: Becoming Three so that nothing is overshadowed or left unclear. The erotic scenes are spicy and sensual…Pick up a copy and enjoy."
-- NeNe, A 5angel review from Fallen Angels Reviews

 

“…Let me just say that I loved this book!... sense of completeness and commitment to the story. The suspense element of the story is great…The sex scenes are very well put together and are very hot…Cameron Dane is a very skilled author and she does a great job of presenting a sizzling hot story that is suspenseful and unforgettable. I recommend this story…”
-- Anthurium, a 5 cherries review from Whipped Cream reviews

 

“…This was an in-depth look into the development and evolution of a committed threesome. No strangers to one another, each step done with clarity…These weren’t people who picked one another up in a bar and decided to go with it…The mystery of the murders and the development of the love triad had me glued to this book. Highly recommended.”
-- Chris, from Night Owl Reviews

 
 

Excerpt Rating: PG-13 for language and violent images

 

This excerpt takes place the morning after Jace has accidentally discovered that Sarah and Jasper’s relationship is more intimate than what he thought.

 

Chapter Two


“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 time.”

“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? At all?”

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 anymore.”

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 stood.

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. Not today.”

“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 away. “Bye.”

“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 voice soft.

“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. “Then what?”

“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 fine.”

“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 you.”

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 yours.”

“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 here?”

Jace gave the hole a quick look. His features bland, he said, “I tripped.”

Liar.

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.

Chapter Three

“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 them.

“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 say.”

An animal yowled right then, and the sharp cry rent through the air.

“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 latex gloves.

“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 bullet wounds.”

“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 some prints.”

“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 body?”

“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 and animals.”

“True.”

“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 Jace.

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.” …

 

Copyright Protected Work.
Cameron Dane, Author. Loose Id, Publisher.

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