Sera Hudson didn't need an invitation to Blue Ridge; she was looking for an escape. The only surviving witness of the Blindfold Killer, Sera wanted to lay low, but when danger found her yet again, she had no choice but to turn to the handsome local sheriff.
Logan may have patrolled a small town, but he had big-city instincts. The object of every woman's desire, he had a soft spot for newcomers and there was no chance he'd allow a murderer free rein over his charge. But he wasn't going to babysit Sera, either. He knew more about her than he let on, and their shared past held clues to the killer's identity. If they could fi nd common ground, then maybe, just maybe, Sera could fi nally stop running away and see that he was her reason to stay....
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September 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Shadow Protector by Jenna Ryan
"You're the psychiatrist, Doc. You tell me what's going on in this guy's pathetic excuse for a brain."
Sig Rayburn pushed on his forehead as if to compress his thoughts. Pain, worry, even a hint of fear had clouded his eyes during the two-day drive from San Francisco. The long, hot drive that currently had them blasting along Wyoming's I25 in his rusty brown Ford.
Sera searched for another vent. "Murderers usually have agendas, but that's not a given. I worked with a man once who liked watching people die. He said it gave him a buzz."
"Probably, although victim gender didn't matter. Neither did age or appearance." She paused, sat back, sighed. "Sig, where are we going?"
He pushed harder. "Tenth time you've asked me that since we left the motel this morning. I'm still not gonna tell you."
"Which says to me you don't know yourself, you think your car's bugged or you're weirdly superstitious. You're too good a cop to drive a bugged car, and you strike me as a man who always has a destination in mind, so I'll go with superstition and point out that wearing the same ratty T-shirt for three days straight at the safe house still didn't help the Giants win their series against the Dodgers."
"Got 'em close, though. Final game, eleventh inning. One little error in the outfield and poof, streak done."
The clouds rolled through his eyes again. Reaching over, Sera squeezed his arm. "I'm really sorry about your partner's death."
"Not your fault, Doc. You didn't fire the bullet that took out the back half of his skull. Didn't slit your friend's throat either." He slanted her a speculative look. "You know who did, though. That's why we're doing this. You need time, distance and a safe place to unlock what's hidden inside that pretty head of yours. No offense," he added gruffly. "I know you have impressive credentials."
"None taken, and they're not as impressive as Andrea's were." Setting aside a twinge of guilt, Sera fanned her face with a Wyoming road map. "I'm pretty sure it won't jinx anything if you tell me our destination."
Sig waved at a buzzing fly. "You're wrong, Doc. Leo carried a lucky rock from Sedona the whole time we worked together. Kept it in his pocket with his loose change. When we found him in that alley, the change was there, but the rock wasn't. Don't talk to me about jinxes."
"My nephew gave him that rock. Gave me one, too. Only time I left it behind, I took a bullet in my right calf."
"Where's your rock now?"
He jerked his head. "Backseat. Jacket pocket." When she didn't respond, he cocked a brow. "You think I'm nuts, don't you?"
"I don't analyze every idiosyncrasy, Sig."
"Uh-huh." But the challenge lingered. "You gonna tell me you don't have a quirk or two?"
"Oh, I have lots." She smiled. "But, no, I'm not going to tell you about them."
A rusty laugh preceded a gruff, "One thing's sure, Doc. Leo's gone, and he shouldn't be. No one better in the country at spotting or shaking a tail than him. Except..." With a glance at the distant Big Horn Mountains, he lapsed into silence.
Sera left him to his thoughts. His partner and friend was dead. Who better to understand how he felt than her? Even though...
She and Andrea hadn't been friends so much as friendly rivals. They'd known each other since they were five years old, but it was circumstance that had truly defined their relationship. Coincidence had also played its wily hand. From where they'd started--not a pretty picture--to where they'd ended up--as psychiatrists who'd obtained their degrees within months of each other--the outcome read like a small universal anomaly to Sera.
She closed her eyes and let the memories in. The murderer had left Andrea face up and staring at the shadowed ceiling. Through a swarm of police and medical workers, she'd looked like a broken doll--her skin chalk white, her features frozen in a mask of astonished horror.
Pain stabbed, swift and sure, and made her open her eyes.
"You're doing it again, aren't you?" Sig demanded. "Trying to smash down that wall in your brain."
She regarded the impressive peaks of the Big Horns. "It's like I'm in an all-black room and there's a strobe light flashing at random intervals. I get split-second glimpses of things I don't understand, then it's back to black, and I want to scream, because no matter how hard I try, I can't make sense of them."
"Could be you're trying too hard."
She slid him a vaguely humorous look. "Your name's Rayburn, right, not Freud?"
"What, you've never said that to a patient?"
"Not any more."
Sig went back to pushing on his forehead while Sera contemplated the landscape. The scenery was magnificent, as was the clear, blue sky. July in Wyoming was all about pine forests, spectacular mountain ranges and wide-open vistas that possessed a beauty all their own.
She felt a tease on the edge of her brain and tipped her head from side to side in an effort to center it. One image, that's all she needed to extract. Unfortunately, research suggested that forcing a resistant memory tended to be as effective as striking a nail with a feather.
She watched a pair of hawks glide in a wide arc beneath a cloudless stretch of sky.
"What's that look for?" Sig asked.
"I have a look?"
"Like you'd rather be riding a cable car."
A smile tugged on her lips. "My face isn't that readable, Detective."
"Hell it isn't. You're sleek, sophisticated and polished. You probably wear high heels to the grocery store. I don't mean to sound patronizing, but I have to warn you, where we're headed, the only place you'll see five stars is in the night sky."
Sera's smile widened. "Putting on your bad cop hat, huh?"
"Doc, you haven't seen anything like bad yet. When we get--aw, hell, what's this?"
"It sounds like a siren."
"Was I speeding?"
"Unless the limit's upward of ninety, yes."
"Crap." He slowed and pulled over.
The officer who approached the car did so with long, easy strides. He rested a forearm on the roof while Sig stretched back to snag the jacket behind him.
"Is there a problem, Officer?"
"Not unless you make one. Got your license with you? "
"Got better than that." Sig fished in the pocket, handed Sera what she assumed was his lucky rock and produced his badge with a flourish.
"San Francisco, huh?"
She caught a trace of humor in the other cop's drawl. His surprisingly sexy drawl, she thought. As for his features, she couldn't see them under the brim of his hat.
She knew he glanced at her before pushing off. "Out of the car, please, Detective Rayburn."
"Have I done something wrong?"
"Depends how fast you get out of the car."
"Don't move," Sig told her. He had to shove twice on the door to open it. "You're starting to piss me off here, Officer. I'm a detective with the San Francisco Police Department, homicide division. Who are you to be ordering me around like a common criminal?"
Sera saw the flash of a surprisingly attractive smile. "I clocked you at ninety-six miles an hour as you flew past Moss Creek."
Sig's balled right fist drew an even wider smile. A second later, her companion went from a short punch on the other cop's shoulder to a backslapping hug.
It figured. Sera breathed out but couldn't bring herself to be annoyed. It was such a predictable male game.
"I'm damn glad to see you, Logan." Sig drew back, grinned. "How'd you know? License plate give me away?"
The taller man glanced from side to side. "This isn't a car, Sig--it's dented metal on wheels. One of a kind." Without looking or pausing, he asked, "Does she know?"
Sig shook his head.
That did it. Shouldering her door open, Sera slid out. "Excuse me, gentlemen, but 'she' has a name. It's Sera, and the reason she doesn't know is because the man with the San Francisco badge refuses to tell her anything."
"It's for your own..."
"Protection. Got that one yesterday, Sig. But six diners, five gas stations and one truly crappy motel later, I think I've earned the right to know not only where we're going, but also why a police officer in another state is better informed than I am." She sent them a placid smile over the roof of the car. "If it's not too much trouble."
Apart from his badge and the lights on his Explorer, nothing about the man in front of her said law enforcement officer. He wore jeans and a short-sleeved black T-shirt. His boots were dusty, his hat was decidedly more cowboy than cop and if he was carrying a gun, Sera couldn't see it.
Sig matched her smile as he turned to his friend. "Handful," he said.
"See that," the man replied. He nodded forward. "Nadine'll be serving dinner about now. Her place is on the edge of town. You can follow me." Although his eyes were shielded, Sera felt his gaze across the top of the car. "Nadine runs her grandfather's diner, Dr. Hudson. You can ask your questions while we eat." Nudging his hat forward so the brim hid the entire upper portion of his face, he added, "Assuming once they're answered, you still want to eat."
She wouldn't react, Sera promised herself. That would be counterproductive. Instead, she let Sig concentrate on the road that wound away from the interstate through a majestic expanse of pines, boulders the size of city buildings and a steady stream of out-of-state trucks.
Five miles in, the truck traffic thinned, the boulders softened and houses began to appear. Farmhouses at first, followed by larger, turn-of-the-century homes that ambled back from tree-lined streets.
A rustic sign with a hand-carved mountain peak rising above a lake welcomed them to Blue Ridge, Home of the Happy Mountaineer. Population five thousand, six hundred and twenty-seven.
Sig glanced in the rearview mirror. "Do you see my smokes back there?"
"No, and I'm not digging through a pile of old food wrappers and napkins to find them. You're a rolling health hazard, Detective Rayburn. Cigar stubs, cigarette butts and God knows how many million bacteria, all alive and thriving inside your vehicle. You inhale coffee like air, pour enough grease into your arteries to kill an elephant and probably haven't gotten eight hours of smoke-free sleep since you joined the force."
He chuckled. "You're a shrink, Sera. What does a head doctor know about high cholesterol, lung disease and sleep deprivation?"
She lifted the dark hair from her neck. "Among other things, my uncle does a weekend medical clinic in Haight-Ashbury. I help out when he needs it, which is often because he tends to be overrun and doesn't like to turn anyone away. How do you know him, Sig?" she asked after a brief pause. "The cop with the..." She started to say sexy mouth but changed it to "...black hat?"
He peered into the setting sun. "Oh, Logan and me go way back." A finger tapped the windshield. "Is he pulling off the road? All I can see is dust."
"Gravel parking lot." She let her hair fall. "My skin hates you."
"Your skin's gorgeous, as, I trust, are your manners. Five stars..."
"Yes, I know. Only in the night sky. As long as the food's recognizable, I'm good."
And more than ready to stop, she realized, stretching her back as she slid from the car seat.
Every article of clothing she wore, from the pale-green linen halter to the white capris stuck to some part of her body. And it was going to be an adventure navigating the unpaved, pothole-filled parking lot in strappy three-inch heels.
A collection of trucks and SUVs sat at odd angles outside the weather-beaten one-story building whose sign read Frank's Diner.
She stopped stretching to do a humorous double take down the side. "Are those horses?"
"The bay's Billy the Kid. The black is Jesse James."
She suppressed an urge to jump when the cop in jeans wrapped his fingers around her arm.
"Nadine's grandfather swears one of his ancestors was related to Jesse."
"So he named a horse after him."
She caught the quirk of his lips in profile. "No one you know's ever been named for a dead relative?"
"Not a notorious one, Officer..."
"Leave it at Logan."
"Evening, Chief. Rain's coming." The man shambling past, sprinkling tobacco in a rolling paper, barely spared them a glance. "It's my night for poker if you feel like letting us win back some of our hard-earned cash. Wouldn't blame you a mite, though, if not. She's a real pretty lady."
Sera would have grinned if she hadn't caught the edge of a rut and almost snapped her ankle in two.
"Horses, poker and holes big enough to swallow small children. I'm charmed..." She cast the man who'd caught her a sideways look. "Chief."
"It's a label. Means nothing."
"Uh-huh. It only signifies that you're in charge of a town containing five thousand, six hundred and twenty-seven souls. Which would make sense at this point in Sig's life. But everything about you screams big city cop to me."
His lips quirked again. "You might want to check your inner voice, Doc. Cities and me don't get along these days."
Meaning they had once? Interesting, she reflected, as they reached the diner's porch. But it wasn't as interesting as the fact that he knew her name and undoubtedly her story.
Several feet behind them, Sig sucked smoke into his lungs at an alarming rate. Because her arm was tingling, Sera eased free and strove for an unimpeded look at the man called Logan.
He was tall and rangy, with sleek muscles, long legs and dark hair that curled well below the back of his hat. He needed a cut and a shave. And she needed distance because not only was her skin tingling, but also her pulse was doing an erratic tap dance.
Food would help, she decided, plucking at the front of her top. "Is Nadine a good cook?"
"Best down home in Blue Ridge."
"He means if you're expecting art on a plate, you won't get it here." Sig studied the black clouds massing over the distant Big Horns. "Those coming this way?"
"Joe says they are. He's usually right."
"Then we should get down to business."
Sera arched guileless brows. "We're doing business? I thought we stopped here for answers and a hearty meal."
"I'm stopping, Doc. Got something different in mind for you."
Where was a control button when you needed one?
"You're not stopping, Sera. You're staying."
Prepared for that response, she met his hard stare and simply asked, "Why?"
"Because I trust Logan. He's the best, and as bad as I wanted that bastard Blindfold Killer before, I want him doubly bad now. He's murdered sixteen people over the years. That includes his most recent victims, your friend and my partner. You saw his face, Doc. I know it, and so do you. Unfortunately--and this is where my faith in Logan comes in--one hell of a vicious killer knows it, too."