Flesh & Blood, Book 1
MARRIED TO A STRANGER
One steamy afternoon when the setting sun bled the raging Red Thunder River red, Texas sheriff Chance Conover forgot who he was. A trauma from fifteen years ago resurfaced in his mind, creating muddy images of murder that stirred whirlpools of horror. Worst of all, Chance couldn’t remember the beautiful woman who claimed to be his wife—Taryn Conover. Traveling back up the river to confront his past and the danger that surely awaited him was the only way this lawman knew to protect the woman who loved him—and his unborn child. But would Taryn’s kisses help him remember the life he’d lost in time to save the one he’d found?
Gabenburg, Texas. Present.
The house was cool, cozy and inviting, and a deep sense of contentment filled him as he silently slid the glass door closed.
He was home where he belonged.
The rich aroma of simmering chili tantalized. The anticipated sweet tartness of the cherry pie sitting on the counter made his mouth water. The woman at the stove, adding a dash of cumin to what he already knew was perfection, was more enticing still.
She hummed a tuneless song as she stirred. His mouth quirked in wry amusement. Taryn couldn’t carry a tune to save her life, but if she was humming while she cooked, he knew everything was right. She couldn’t have been home long since she still wore the white T-shirt and white cotton pants that were her uniform at the bakery she owned.
Without taking his gaze off his wife’s back or the pleasing curves that had been on his mind all day, he quietly made his way across the kitchen.
With a groan that was part surrender and part captivation, he wrapped his arms around her waist and dropped a greedy kiss on the side of her neck. She smelled like sugar and flour and roses heavy with dew. The combination never failed to make him hungry.
As expected, she jumped and whirled in his arms. “What are you doing here? I wasn’t expecting you for another half hour.”
The open welcome in her eyes, in her smile, deepened his sense of contentment, allowing him to shed the last of the weariness that had dogged him for the last hour of his twelve hour shift at the sheriff’s office.
Chance Conover grinned and pretended to look around the kitchen as if he’d walked into the wrong house. In truth, he’d tuned everything out, but the woman in his arms. “Don’t I live here?”
“I’m not ready for you.”
Taryn plopped the spoon she was holding back into the pot and frowned her displeasure. But the effect was negated by the fact she stood on her tiptoes to kiss him back. Caught in a ponytail, the ends of her long brown hair tickled his arms. He loved the silky feel of her hair on his skin, of her body against his. After a long day at work, he wanted nothing more than to lose himself in her.
“Well, sweetheart, I’m ready for you.” He kissed her again, long and slow, savoring the heady taste of her, reveling in her ardent response.
Made a man grateful to have a woman like Taryn waiting for him at the end of a long day. She made him feel like a somebody, not the nobody who’d washed up bruised and battered on the shore of the Red Thunder River fifteen years ago. She made him feel real and solid. She made him feel needed.
A man couldn’t ask for more.
“You weren’t suppose to see until I was ready.”
He held her at arm’s length and caged her gaze with his. He loved her eyes, the way they sparkled with life, the way they shone with love for him.
“Well, now, I like what I see.”
She blushed and batted her fingers against his shoulder. “You’re impossible!”
Turning her head, she looked at the small round table in the middle of the kitchen. “It was supposed to be a surprise.”
For the first time since he’d walked into the kitchen, he noticed the scene set for seduction. On crisp white linen, silverware gleamed in the late afternoon light. The fancy cream and gold china that had once belonged to Taryn’s mother scintillated. Red candles in their crystal holders were ready to be lit. The fragrance of pink roses from the garden competed with the chili’s spice.
“What’s the occasion?”
Coyly, she fingered the gold star on his uniform shirt. “It’s Friday night. Do we need an occasion?”
Her soft smile and the deepening blue of her eyes were having their usual combustible effect on him. A wave of craving clawed at his insides. Even though Taryn’s chili was his favorite meal and her cherry pie was to die for, right now he’d skip the food for nourishment of the sensual kind. “You want me to leave and come back later?”
She hesitated, then shook her head. “We can eat later.”
With swift ease, he scooped her into his arms and started toward the bedroom down the hall. “I promise I’ll be hungry.”
“I had everything planned.” A hint of disappointment colored her voice.
She shrugged it away and a Mona Lisa smile soon graced her lips. “I may have a bit of news.”
“What kind of news?” Her full, pouty lips distracted him, so he kissed them and set a sweeping tide of desire surging through him. That he still wanted her this fiercely after seven years of marriage amazed him.
“It’s a surprise. You’ll have to wait.”
But her voice had gone soft and her body molded itself to his with a liquid heat. Her arms twined at his neck and her fingers curled into his hair. And she kissed him back with such passion that his muscles quivered and weakened.
He placed her on the blue and white quilt in their bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed, admiring. Her skin bloomed with need for him. Her sexy blue eyes had gone dark and dreamy.
She reached for the hem of her T-shirt and pulled it over her head. That she still seemed unable to resist his advances after all this time struck him with wonder.
With a finger he traced the lace edge of her bra. The silk softness of her skin was a delight. The speeding of her breath caused an answering gallop of his pulse. He couldn’t resist the invitation of the pebbling of her nipples beneath the satiny fabric. Her soft sigh, the curling upward of her body to meet his touch as he thumbed one hard peak then the other made him acutely aware of the pulsating hardness of his body.
“Dinner can wait?” He hated to ruin her surprise when she’d worked so hard to set the scene.
She smiled at him in a way that told him she was fully aware of his desire for her and reached for him, bringing his face close to hers. In a voice raw and seductive, she said, “Dinner can wait.”
They came together in a kiss that could have melted the polar ice cap.
Taryn was fumbling with the buttons of his shirt when the phone rang.
Both stopped mid-caress. Forehead rested against forehead. Breaths came in short, heated bursts.
“Don’t answer,” she said, clutching his shirt collar with a frantic hold.
“I have to.”
The shrill sound was a counterpoint to their racing pulses. Then suddenly her eyes showed both disappointment and acceptance. “Tad’s on duty.”
“I’m on call.”
He nibbled the lobe of one ear, but the ring of the phone was fast cooling his ardor. “I’ll make it up to you.”
Taryn bussed his cheek with a stiff peck. “I’ll go check on dinner.”
Heart heavy with regret, he picked up the receiver on the small night table beside the bed.
Before he could say anything, RoAnn McGarrity’s cutting voice chimed in.
“Chance? Are you there?”
“I’m here, RoAnn.” Taryn reached for her T-shirt and pulled it back on.
Quietly, she left the room and a sinking feeling settled in his stomach. “If you think you’re sending me anywhere but home, you’d better think again.”
RoAnn acted as the local sheriff’s office dispatcher. Folks kept their band radios tuned to the station frequency just to hear all the local gossip she managed to air over the waves.
“I know it’s been a long day for you and I wouldn’t ask except Tad ain’t got your skill at dealin’ with an incendiary temper like Billy Ray Brett’s and besides he’s yankin’ old Ruby Kramer out of a ditch again.”
“What’s with Billy Ray this time?”
“He’s mutatin’ coyotes into wolves again. Swears he saw one sniffin’ at his herd.” She snorted. “As if his one mangy beast makes a herd. He needs your reassurance there ain’t no wolf release program active in these parts.
Before nightfall–if you know what I mean.”
Yeah, he knew. If he didn’t handle this now, he’d be up handling it in the dead of night, and he had other plans for his evening.
Resigned, he said, “I’ll go soothe Billy Ray.”
He found Taryn in the kitchen. She accepted his arms around her, his kiss, but a skin of cool distance had grown between them. “I’ve got to go talk Billy Ray Brett out of hallucinating wolves. I won’t be long.”
Her smile had a sad quality to it. “I’ll be waiting.”
He jostled her hips against his. “It’ll give you time to finish your surprise.”
She nodded and turned to the chili.
Reluctantly, he stepped into the late afternoon’s skin-drenching humidity and into his cruiser. Keeping Gabenburg safe was his job, and Chance took pride in what he did–just as his mentor Angus Conover had taught him. He owed Angus and he owed Gabenburg for taking him in, but it wasn’t gratitude that drove him to serve and protect as much as a genuine caring for the place and the people.
Still, some days, like today when he was bone-weary tired and wanted nothing more than a quiet evening at home with his wife, he yearned for a simple nine to five occupation.
He shook his head and mumbled, “You’d go stark raving mad inside a week.”
He had a loving wife, a job that fulfilled him, and friends who accepted him as he was. What more could a guy ask for? He and Taryn had even talked of making a baby–which would be the icing on an already sweet cake.
She was the blue sky in his life and his greatest fear was that one day, without quite knowing how, he’d mess up, that the needs of others would take him from Taryn one time too many, that he would lose her and his life all over again.
“Sheriff One.” RoAnn’s voice squawked over the radio. “Chance, are you there?”
As good as RoAnn was at coordinating calls, he could never get her to use the proper radio lingo. Chance keyed the mike. “Sheriff One. Go ahead.”
“Sam Wentworth just buzzed me. He’s out by Gator Park and thinks he’s found the safe that was heisted from Leggett’s Antiques yesterday.”
“Tad can check it out when he’s done with Ruby.”
“You really ought to yank her license. Ruby’s a menace on the road. But does anyone ever listen to me? No. Look, Gator Park’s on your way to the Brett ranch, Chance, and Tad’s way out on the other side of town. Won’t take but a minute of your time. Oh, and since you’ll be going that way, might as well stop by Nancy Howell’s on your way home and pick up that blackberry jam she’s got for Taryn.”
Taryn would want the jam to sell at her little Bread & Butter bakery.
Might as well give her another reason to smile at him when he finally made his way home again.
“All right. Show me en route to Gator Park.”
“Don’t forget the jam.”
Gator Park, the Brett ranch, the Howell farm–then home. He couldn’t wait to watch Taryn’s face light up at the sight of him, to run his fingers through her soft brown hair, to get his arms around her once more.
Heading north, beyond the Gabenburg town limit sign, land rolled into gentle hills and patches of pine forests. To the south, the terrain leveled out into grassy marshlands and drifted into the Gulf of Mexico. Ahead in a field, cattle and egrets clustered around a water tank. Here and there an oil derrick pumped. A flock of geese passed over low and honked as they crossed the highway.
The cruiser’s air conditioning was on the fritz again, so Chance drove with the windows rolled down. The air was sticky and heavy with the odor of pine, cow dung and flood-swollen river. He took it all in and smiled. These sights and smells and sounds were all precious to him. Fifteen years ago, he’d been given a second chance at life and he wasn’t going to waste a moment of it regretting a past he couldn’t remember.
For a while he’d wondered at the blankness of his memory, at his missing childhood. Then, ten years ago when he’d joined the sheriff’s office, he’d run a set of his prints through the system. Nothing had matched. He’d felt a measure of comfort in that.
Chance signaled his exit off the highway. The Red Thunder River ran fast and hard in the spring, calmed enough to harvest tourist dollars in the summer, and turned uninviting again in the fall.
Sam Wentworth claimed he was born on the river and spent most of his time on the water. If the suspects had dumped the safe in the river, it didn’t surprise Chance in the least that Sam would be the one to uncover the fact.
As Chance crested the hill off the ramp, the river appeared. The recent rains had swollen it to the top of its banks and it roared like an awakening giant, churning silt as it rushed to the Gulf. The sun glittered off the racing water, bleeding it red like an open vein. He was half-way down the hill, letting gravity pull the cruiser down, when a flash zapped through his brain.
A picture bolted through his mind. Clear, vivid, horrid.
The sounds, the smells, the sights assaulted him in one overwhelming blow, ripping him from this world and pitching him into another.
Inside this strange realm, everything is tinged red.
Panic surges through him. He’s fighting with everything he has, but something bigger, stronger has hold of him and is intent on destroying him.
The smell of death hangs heavy in the sticky air. The taste of muddy water fills his mouth, makes him gag and sputter. The river surrounds him.
He’s tugged and tossed and tumbled like debris. He tries to swim, but the current is too strong.
“Hang on!” His voice? Someone else’s? Something catches his foot, drags him under. Black, nothing but black. Hands grab at him. His head is above water once more.
Breath, where is his breath? He’s not moving, hanging onto something hard and slippery. A branch. Something bumps into him. He turns. He screams.
A body floats on the water. Bump, bump, bump against his side. Long blond hair writhes on the waves. From a gash on the side of her head pours blood.
Then hands again, tugging, yanking. Pulling? Pushing? Dizzy. Nothing makes sense.
He looks up. Through the water’s silver-red surface, he sees his own shimmering face.
Terror engulfs him. He fights with all his might, but the hands only get stronger around his neck.
Blond hair flails around him.