Joe Zorn stamped snow off his frozen booted feet as he impatiently jiggled the door handle. Locked. A damn good thing considering that, despite the nationwide manhunt under way, a serial killer was even now finding his way through the storm to this Nowhere, Montana, ranch.
It wasn’t a case of if Dwight Treadwell would show. It was a case of when.
Although he was standing beneath the deep porch overhang, the howling wind whipped snow down Joe’s collar and snuck under the hem of his coat as it flapped around his ankles. He shuddered with cold. Which didn’t bother him nearly as much as finding the place lit up like a damned Christmas tree.
Joe glanced around the porch. His new assignment, party planner Kendall Metcalf, must’ve bought out every Christmas and craft store between Bozeman and Billings.
There was Christmas crap everywhere.
Might as well have a frigging flashing red neon arrow pointing to the house. Here I am. Come and get me!
Damn it to hell.
He kept one hand in his left pocket, fingers loosely clasping the grip of his custom-made HK Mark 23. He would rather shoot a hole through his favorite coat than have someone open the door to find a large, armed man standing on the other side.
It worried Joe only marginally that he hadn’t been able to reach the Camerons before he left the ski lodge, or that he didn’t have their cell numbers. High winds and snow storms frequently messed with the phone lines way the hell and gone out here.
Hunching into his coat, he jabbed at the doorbell. “Get the damn lead out, people.” When that didn’t elicit an immediate response, he thumped his fist on the door a couple of times, making the oversized Christmas wreath dance. “Open the damn d—”
He heard the faint beeps from inside as the security alarm was deactivated. The door swung open, spilling golden light and the hot, unmistakable fragrance of cookies baking onto the front porch. Joe’s heart did a hard thump-thump as he got his first look at the Amazon who was his charge.
Kendall Metcalf was luscious. Every curvy, magnificent inch of her. Her hair, the reddest Joe had ever seen, spilled over her shoulders like liquid fire. Her feet were bare, and black leggings accented every incredible inch of her long, long, long legs. A red sweater proclaimed, in cursive white script across a mouthwatering chest, ho ho ho y’all.
Before he could get on her case for opening the door without checking to see who was out there first, she grabbed him by the hand, practically dragging him inside. “Lord, am I happy to see you.”
Joe would have been ecstatic to see Attila the Hun at this point. His freaking nose was numb. He stepped into the warmth, booted the door shut, locked it, and pressed the reactivate button on the alarm before turning around to face her. The smell of Woman overlaid the smell of pine, vanilla candles, and baking. His temperature shot up in response, warming him much faster and more efficiently than a hot shower. But not quite as fast as his anger that she’d opened the door without ascertaining who the hell was knocking. Jesus.
“Lord. You must be a popsicle,” she said cheerfully, oblivious to his stony look. “Let’s get you defrosted.” She glanced at the control panel, apparently saw the light was on, frowned slightly, then headed across the vast entry hall toward the kitchen. Without turning to see if he was following.
“I just put my millionth pot of coffee on. I’m always addicted when it’s this cold, aren’t you? Here, can I take your co— No, you’re right. Keep it on until you thaw. This way.”
She’d taken her sweet time answering the door, but now that he was inside, she moved at the speed of light and hadn’t yet paused to take a breath. Which suited Joe just fine. He was a man of action and few words. He suspected she wouldn’t like either by the time this was over.
The house was blessedly warm, and smelled mouthwatering. The scent of Christmas was everywhere, but that wasn’t the fragrance making him salivate. She smelled as clean and fresh as . . . he frowned as he followed her into the kitchen. Some kind of . . . fruit? Yeah. Pears or something. Fresh and clean and—Jesus, he was losing it—juicy. She walked over to pour him a huge mug of coffee, bringing it back to the center island where another half-filled mug sat beside a baking sheet of hot-from-the-oven cookies. Joe removed his hat, then unbuttoned his coat. The kitchen was warm, and looking at Miss Metcalf kept his body temperature several degrees above normal.
“Black, I bet.” She handed him the mug. The most bizarre current of electricity passed from her fingers to his, shooting directly to his groin. Her eyes widened in surprise. It sure as hell shocked the hell out of him, and he almost dropped the mug.
Joe tightened his fingers around the heat of the Christmas mug, which still had a $3.99 price sticker from Ross stuck on the side. He peeled it off and stuck it on Denise’s sludge green–black granite counter top. Denise did not shop at discount stores. Never had.
“That’s what I thought,” Kendall said.
He hadn’t opened his mouth. He presumed she was still discussing his coffee choice. “Yeah. Thanks. Where—” “Are Denise and the kids?” she finished for him. Them, too. But he’d been referring to the cops. “She and Adam took them over to Denise’s mother’s for a couple of days. They’ll be back in the morning. It’s been insane here trying to get ready for the party tomorrow night, and all the guests, et cetera. You know how it is.” She laughed, a bright, robust laugh that did ridiculous things to Joe’s stomach before moving lower.
Whoa! Back off, pal.
She sat her quite delectable ass half on, half off a stool, then, without looking away from his face, picked up the spatula to slide cookies from the sheet onto a plate painted with some sort of large brown Christmas animal.
Her hands were pale and slender, her nails long and painted Christmas red. Sexy as hell. What wasn’t sexy were the defensive wounds marring her smooth skin. The obscene scars were thin and silvery, and there were dozens of them. On the back of her hands, on her palms, on her fingers, and on her wrists. Joe sucked back a black rage.
“Help yourself,” she told him, pushing the baking sheet an inch closer to his hand. “I just made them for something to do. The electricity has been iffy with the storm. Good thing they have a generator. I’d go completely ape shi—nuts with nothing to do.”
He’d thought that if the cops couldn’t get to the ranch, he’d at least have Denise’s husband here as backup. He and Adam had been in the Marines together, and Joe trusted his friend at his back. He shouldn’t have trusted his friend with his wife, but that was old news and water under the bridge.
“Are you alone in the house?” he demanded, straining to hear any noise to indicate someone was either upstairs or in any of the other rooms downstairs. All he heard was her sudden indrawn breath over the soft singing of Christmas carols from the battery-operated emergency radio on the counter. “Some of the guests arrived before the storm,” Kendall said, a little more cautious now. “The guys are upstairs,” she told him without a blink. She might as well have added Cleaning their guns.
Since she’d let him instead of one of the local cops he’d spoken to en route, Joe now knew damn well she was alone. Fuck it to hell. So they hadn’t been able to make it through before the storm hit. Which meant he and Kendall were alone in the six-thousand-square-foot house with a killer on the loose. Clearly she wasn’t aware that Treadwell had escaped. No wonder she’d opened the damn door.
If the local cops couldn’t get to the ranch, nobody could, not with the snowstorm raging. But dollars to donuts Treadwell was out there. Somewhere. Storm or no storm. Joe figured they had at least twelve hours before the situation turned to shit.
The fact that Kendall was trying to bluff him into believing she wasn’t alone—now, when he was already inside—made Joe’s blood boil. Not only wasn’t she supposed to be alone. She should be far, far away.
Curling an arm about her waist in an unconsciously protective gesture, she took a sip of her coffee, holding her mug to her mouth as she watched him over the rim. Alone, yet she had on all her warpaint. It was subtle, but . . . there. She didn’t need it, Joe thought, almost mesmerized by large sparkling hazel eyes staring at him unblinkingly. Her lips were a pale pink. He wondered if her nipples were the same rosy color. Jesus. He brought his erotic thoughts back in line.
She took another sip of coffee. “I can’t tell you how great it is that you agreed to do this on such short notice, Don. Really. Thank you. My guy backed out at the last— What?”
The timer went off in a strangely karmic way as he corrected mildly, “Joe.”
Her brow wrinkled briefly. “Yeah, I know,” she shouted over the noise. “Snow was one of Preston’s reasons for not coming. But still, you’d think a guy from New York would know how to drive in a little snow, wouldn’t you?” She slid off the stool, slapped a hand on the buzzer, and grabbed a pair of oven gloves. Every vestige of saliva in Joe’s mouth...