Hank "handsome as sin" Tyler is all that stands between Melody Thompson and the wrath of her sister's killer. The lonely widower--formerly a rancher--makes a perfect hunk of a bodyguard but leaves much to be desired as boyfriend material. With a precocious eight-year-old daughter to raise, he's sworn off love and marriage. Which is fine with Melody, who intends to go back to her life in Chicago. Besides, romance would distract them from catching the killer.But as days go by, the leads are few, the danger grave, the desire unforeseeable...until the night Hank guards Melody's body more passionately than either intended!
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August 31, 2008
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Excerpt from Natural-Born Protector by Carla Cassidy
The man was in Lainie's bathroom, cleaning up blood from the tiled floor. Melody Thompson dropped her suitcase, stifled a scream and stumbled backward.
The stranger turned around, his handsome features registering surprise. "Wait...it's okay," he exclaimed as he scrambled to his feet. "I won't hurt you."
He was clad in only a pair of navy athletic shorts that rode low on his lean hips. And his hips were the only lean thing about him. His shoulders were broad, his chest tautly muscled, and his long legs had the athletic appearance of a man who probably jogged.
These first impressions flew through Melody's head as her body tensed with fight-or-flight energy. "Who are you?" she demanded as she backed down the hallway toward the front door.
He followed her at a nonthreatening distance as he wiped his hands on a towel. "I'm Hank Tyler." He reached into his pocket and withdrew a key ring with a single key dangling from it. "I live in the town house next door. Lainie and I were good friends. She gave me a key a couple of months ago."
The fear that had momentarily gripped her eased a bit. He did have a key and it was obvious by the fit of his jogging shorts that he was carrying no weapon.
"What are you doing in here?" she demanded. It was easy for her to translate good friends. Lainie didn't have male friends, but she'd always had plenty of lovers. There was no way she'd have been able to pass up this dark-haired, blue-eyed model of masculinity.
"I knew the sheriff released this place this morning and eventually somebody from the family would come in. I thought it would be easier if the...uh...mess was cleaned up."
The mess. It didn't take a rocket scientist to understand what he was talking about. The mess was her sister's blood. A wave of grief struck her, nearly buckling her knees.
"You're Melody, aren't you?" He didn't wait for her reply. "Lainie talks about you all the time." He frowned, as if aware that he'd used present tense for somebody whose words would now forever be past tense. "Did you just get in from Chicago?" he asked.
"No, I've been here since Tuesday. I've been staying with my mother since then."
He took a step back from her. "Look, if you'll give me just a minute or two, I'll finish up and get out of your hair."
Before she could reply, he turned and disappeared back into the bathroom. Melody stared at the air where he'd stood, trying to decide if she felt threatened by his presence in the town house or not. She decided she didn't, at least not for the moment, and sank down on the sofa.
Over the past four days, since the police had shown up at the school where she taught in Chicago to tell her that her sister had been murdered, her life had taken on a bizarre quality that hadn't ended. The fact that an unfamiliar, attractive man was scrubbing her sister's bathroom floor was as crazy as it got.
The sheriff had called her mother that morning to let her know he was releasing the condo and that the investigation into Lainie's death had so far yielded no substantive clues.
Melody wasn't surprised. Sheriff Jim Ramsey was a lazy, judgmental man who had probably decided that the investigation into Lainie's death wasn't worth any real effort. Melody hadn't even bothered checking in with him when she'd arrived in town.
What she knew about her sister's murder she'd learned from her mother. Rita Thompson had told Melody that Lainie had been killed in her bathroom sometime between the hours of eleven at night and two in the morning.
There had been no signs of forced entry and she'd been beaten to death with an unknown object.A maid who came in once a week had found her body. Nothing had been stolen, so robbery had been ruled out as a motive.
If I'd just answered the phone, Melody thought. The evening of the murder, Lainie had called Melody. But Melody had been tired, not in the mood to talk, so she'd let her answering machine pick up the call.
She couldn't help but think that if she'd just answered her phone, the events of that horrible night might have turned out differently. She closed her eyes and the sound of Lainie's message played in her head.
"Hi, sis. Just wanted to check in. Are you there? Well, anyway, I'm really excited. I've got a date with a new guy tonight and who knows, he might just be the one." Lainie had sounded upbeat and happy, and how Melody wished she'd answered that call. She hadn't known that it would be the last time she'd hear her sister's voice.
She jumped to her feet as Hank came back into the room, an empty pail in his hand and the scent of pine cleaner in the air. "I think I got up all the fingerprint dust and everything else," he finished with a touch of awkwardness.
"You didn't have to do that for us," she said. Yet, as she thought of the horrible task he'd just completed, a wave of gratefulness swept over her.
"I did it for Lainie. She wouldn't have wanted you to have to face that." He walked toward the door. "I guess I'll see you this afternoon at the funeral." His blue eyes darkened. "I'm sorry for your loss."
The words should have sounded like the empty platitude spoken at funerals by sympathetic strangers or distant relatives. But, as he spoke, his startling blue eyes filled with darkness and she sensed the true emotion behind the words. He didn't wait for her to reply. With a small nod of his head, he walked out.
She closed the door after him and locked it, then once again slumped on the sofa. She still hadn't processed that her wild, crazy older sister was truly gone.
The real grief had yet to strike, but the guilt that gripped her was nearly paralyzing. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back, remembering the last time she'd seen her sister.
"Don't go," Lainie had said, her lower lip in the infamous pout that had so often gotten her whatever she wanted.
The two were in Melody's bedroom at their mother's home, where Melody had spent most of the day packing up boxes to take with her to Chicago. "I have to go," Melody had replied. "It's a great opportunity and there aren't any teaching jobs available here in Cotter Creek right now."
"You just want to get away from me," Lainie had exclaimed. She'd scooted across the bed and grabbed Melody's hand. "I know you're tired of cleaning up my messes. I know that I'm an emotional vampire, but I promise I'll do better. I swear I'm going to get it together. Melody, what am I going to do when night falls and I get scared? You can't go."
But Melody had left, and now somebody had murdered Lainie. And she couldn't help but feel that if she hadn't left town her sister would still be alive.
She swallowed against the thick emotion that was like a granite weight in her chest. Glancing at her wristwatch, she realized that the funeral was a mere two hours away.
Wearily, she pulled herself up from the sofa. Lainie had bought the town house five months ago, finally moving out of their mother's home where she'd lived on and off again whenever she was between boyfriends. This building had originally been an old five-story apartment building that had been updated and renovated into town homes for sale.
Lainie had been proud to be a homeowner, although twice in the last four months Melody had sent her sister money to help pay the mortgage and Melody suspected her mother had made at least that many payments and helped with utilities. Lainie had gone through money like she'd gone through men.
The living room was a reflection of Lainie's personality, an explosion of colors and whimsical knickknacks that had probably all been impulse buys. Melody frowned slightly as she gazed at one wall where wild, crazy flowers had been hand-painted. The wall would have to be repainted before the condo was put up for resale.