The Innocent… Chapter One

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Just a note… I’ve notified the reviewers who were going to receive an ARC. 🙂

Due out March 11th

Innocent-The72web

Jay Roberts never expected to fall in love with a man from Hell.

But she had.

And now he’d up and cut her off. Out of the blue.

She’d met Lincoln Dawson online and it hadn’t been at one of those hokey, online dating sites. She didn’t mess with those.

What was she supposed to put down?

Hello. I’m a security specialist who works for a think tank/security group/troubleshooter group known as the Oswald Group and I’m psychometric. It causes some issues with intimacy because when I touch people, I pick up on what they think and if you compare me to a former lover, I’m going to know. I’m five three, I hate walks in the rain, I kind of enjoy dirty movies, I love dirty books and I’m still a virgin. I’m kinky as hell and I’d love to find a way to get laid, but I don’t see that happening…

Yeah, it led to problems.

It had been pure accident that she met Linc.

She was online, incognito, naturally. Almost any time she went online, it was related to work. She had been investigating the disappearance of a teenager in Florida and he’d been smacking down somebody who had been preying on a couple of preteen girls.

Granted, the predator had acted like he was a girl.

She had seen through it, just as Lincoln had.

It was a long and convoluted path, but they’d been talking online for almost a year.

He’d asked more than once if they’d ever meet.

She wanted to tell him yes, so badly.

And she’d been really, really close.

Despite the fact that she’d been, well, misleading him from the beginning. Despite the fact that she had been hiding some huge secrets.

She needed to come clean with him because if she didn’t, they had no chance at all.

And she had been this close.

Planned her entire vacation around coming down here too.

But then, nearly three months ago, he’d stopped talking to her. Stopped answering emails, cut off contact completely.

Sadly, one of her jobs had come up that had pushed her off the grid for nearly three weeks. She’d reached out to him as soon as it was over and he’d finally called her back, only she’d been in a meeting.

I don’t have time for this, Jay. It’s not working out. Good-bye.

When her boss, Oz, offered her another short-term, off-the-grid job, she took it. It lasted five weeks and when it was done, when she could think past the all-consuming urgency of that job, she’d known, in her gut, something had been wrong. With the way Linc had cut her off, the way he’d pushed her away. Wrong with everything.

Lo and behold, she was right.

Now she was here.

In Hell. Literally, and maybe even in the biblical sense of the word.

Jay had done a double-take the first time she’d seen the name of the little town and she’d asked Linc twice if he was joking. But as she’d driven by the little bank and saw the digital display of the temperature—a balmy ninety-six in June—she had to admit, Hell was aptly named. She’d spent the past ten years living in Texas. She was intimately acquainted with hot.

This place, though, took the idea of hot and cooked it up and deep-fried it for good measure.

But before she hunted down her man and asked how they’d gone from dirty little sexts in the middle of the night to the cold shoulder and I don’t have time for this, she needed gas. She needed a cold drink and maybe five minutes in the bathroom.

The A/C on her car was questionable at best, and she’d been slowly baking for the past hour. It was coming up nine and still boiling hot outside. This place had to be pure torture come August.

The gas station looked like it hadn’t been updated any time this millennium. The gas pumps were slower than her great-grandmother had been on seniors’ day at Kroger back home in Louisville, and she was sweating by the time she finished. Pushing inside the store, she was greeted by a cool blast of air so welcome she wanted to cry.

She was damn glad she always traveled with some cash on hand because there was a sign taped to the door: Plastic is no good here. Cash only. Yeah, definitely stuck in the last century, because there was no ATM, either.

The guy behind the counter looked like he might be stuck in the nineties, maybe even the sixties, because he was staring at her like she was some alien life form. Jay was used to that. She actually kind of liked the odd attention she received over her pink- and blue-streaked hair and the little gold hoop that pierced her right eyebrow. The gloves tended to catch a lot of notice, but she’d give almost anything to not need them. Her physical appearance was weird enough that the gloves just went with everything else, but they were a necessity.

Everything else was just preference.

She’d go crazy without her gloves. She couldn’t function. Not for long, anyway. One touch against the wrong anything was enough to put her into a state of shock, something she knew from experience.

Those innocent little touches, the things people took for granted, were the very things that could drive her insane. A brush of a hand, even if she was shielded, could flood her with all a person’s fears, anxieties and secrets. If the person was having a bad day, it got even worse.

And if the person was in pain, physical or mental, the effects were so much worse.

Psychometry wasn’t picky when it decided to wreak havoc on her life. Her gift tied in to emotions and she didn’t have to take off the gloves to know the guy behind the counter was a mess.

His thoughts were…dark.

She approached him with more than a little bit of caution, wishing she’d thought to strap on her weapon, but it was a pain in the ass, even if she did have a concealed carry permit. Although, hey, she was kinda sorta involved with the sheriff.

Well, she thought she was.

Maybe.

It didn’t matter, though.

This kid was more involved in whatever was twisting up his mind than anything else.

She pulled her money out of her pocket and peeled off three twenties, putting them down on the counter.

The kid just stared, rocking back and forth on the stool, staring at nothing.

“Ah, hey. Can I get my change?”

His gaze skittered over to hers.

A chill raced up her back.

The lights aren’t exactly on. Nobody is home, she thought.

The door opened behind her and the kid went stiff, his gaze bouncing to the men behind her and she shifted, turning so that she had them in her line of sight and could still see the kid.

Sweat beaded along his lip and, abruptly, his body relaxed and a sigh shuddered out of him.

He blinked and looked at her. “Ma’am, that will be fifty-seven dollars.”

She gestured to the counter, focused on the men who moved to fill the empty space between the counter and the door.

Rednecks, she thought. And not the hardworking kind she’d come from. Her daddy had been a redneck and he’d busted his ass from dawn to dusk to make sure she never wanted for anything.

These guys, though, weren’t rednecks in the nice sense of the word. Already, the one in the middle was eyeing her in that way that made her feel dirty. Trouble, trouble, trouble.

Some people just gave off a certain vibe. Most women eventually learned to pick up on that vibe. It was that vibe that had them crossing the road when she saw a certain sort of guy, the one that made her realize she didn’t want to be anywhere alone with him, the guy that set off every internal alarm she had. He was the guy who stood too close, stared too long, and generally just creeped her out.

There were three of them standing in front of her now, and the one in the middle was the worst.

The biggest problem of them all was that he had a rough psychic skill.

In her line of work, she’d come to learn that psychic ability wasn’t as uncommon as some might think. It was estimated that one percent of the population had some sort of psychic ability—it sounded like a low number, but that added up to one in a hundred. With billions of people on the planet, that wasn’t as low as it seemed.

The abilities varied, though, and the typical “homegrown” psychic, like this guy, was weak. Most of them just had better than average instincts. Some were going to be sensitive to things—might feel really uncomfortable in a house where a lot of violence had happened, while another might be really good at guessing a winner at the Derby or occasionally picking four or five lottery numbers. The lucky sort of bastard.

He really had no idea what he was dealing with, either. Knowing her luck, he’d picked up something just odd enough about her to keep him intrigued, but he was too stupid to be scared.

She shifted her attention back to the boy and waited for her change, using the mirror mounted in the corner to watch the newcomers. If she was lucky, she could get out of here without messing with him.

When he whistled in her direction, Jay ignored it.

She was good at ignoring things.

All she had to do was get out of there and everything would be good.

She scooped up her change, careful not to make contact with the kid behind the counter, careful not to let him touch her, even with the gloves. Tucking her cash into her pocket, she turned to go and wasn’t surprised to see all three men blocking her way.

“Excuse me.”

“She looks like a piece of candy. Look at that pink hair.” It was the one with the mild psychic ability and the leer in his eyes made her skin crawl. His gaze raked over her from head to toe and then zoomed in on her chest. She wore a tank with a fishnet top stretched over it. It fit close. Most of her clothing did. Once upon a time she’d hid behind baggy clothing, cowered in her room, convinced she was going crazy. Her dad’s death, the emergence of her ability, it had all hit at once. Sanity had been a touch-and-go thing for a while.

She might be a little crazy but hiding hadn’t helped.

So she’d stopped hiding and she’d learned how to deal. With everything, just about. Including guys like this.

As he continued to stare at her tits, she said again, “Excuse me.”

A wide, unpleasant smile spread across his face.

She steadied herself and bolstered her shields. She could only keep everything locked out for short periods of time. More than ten or fifteen minutes and she felt like she was going through some sort of serious bout of sensory deprivation. That didn’t help her state of mind.

Touching thugs like this? That wasn’t going to help, either.

She’d have to touch one of them, probably several of them.

The ringleader stepped up and reached out.

She didn’t react as he trailed a finger down her cheek. “You lost there, sugar?” She felt nothing but the physical contact, his finger rough against her skin. She could almost imagine a slimy after-trail. Dirty—he was so dirty and he contaminated everything he touched.

“No.” She lied through her teeth and did it with a smile as she angled her head away, breaking contact. Keeping her shields up kept her from feeling too much, but she still caught enough—too much—lust and greed and a need to hurt. She wanted a shower. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to go. I’m meeting somebody.”

“Why don’t you tell me where you’re heading? I can give you a hand.”

“I don’t need—”

The bell over the door rang.

She didn’t look away from the men in front of her.

“Lloyd. Why don’t you step away from the lady?”

A shiver raced down her spine. That voice. Familiar.

The man in front of her curled his lip, a slow, smirking sort of smile. It was the smile of a man she wouldn’t trust at her back. She didn’t even trust this man at her front. “Well, hey there, Sheriff… Oh, wait. You ain’t the sheriff no more. You know what? I think I’ll stay right here. I’m talking to this pretty little piece of candy here.”

Sheriff—

She tore her eyes away from him and stared at the man she’d come to find.

Sheriff Lincoln Dawson, the man she’d found herself falling head over heels in love with over the past year.

The man who, according to this thug, wasn’t the sheriff anymore.

Okay, that could wait.

“I think you’ll step away.” Lincoln’s voice came a little closer and she took a deep, steadying breath.

His eyes cut to hers.

She watched as his gaze passed over her and then immediately came right back.

Cocking her head, she said softly, “Hello, Lincoln.”

 

 

The very last person he’d expected to see in Hell was Jay Roberts.

As she turned around and gave him a slow smile, he was hard-pressed to do anything but stare for almost a minute. Her hair, a pale, almost white blonde, was colored in streaks of blue and pink here and there. It might have looked silly on some, but it suited her.

Half-way down her neck, he could see where her tattoos started and, just like the first time when he’d see her—only in a picture, of course—he wanted to peel her clothes away and learn each and every one of those tattoos, each and every curve. Killer curves, deadly attitude.

And the attitude he’d sensed in their online communication, and picked up on even more in their phone and Skype sessions, was every bit as sharp as he’d suspected.

A slow smile curved her lips and he wanted to cross the floor, grab her and cover her mouth with his. Taste her, like he’d wanted for almost a year.

He’d waited that long to finally meet her.

Now his life was in shambles and Lloyd Pritchard was threatening to put his hands on her.

Lloyd was an idiot.

But then again, he always had been.

He might be an idiot without arms or legs if he touched Jay.

His heart, so bitter and broken over the past few months, gave a slow, ragged beat in his chest. Part of him wanted to go to his knees in front of her and wrap his arms around her waist, press his face to her belly. She would listen. She would talk him through this and he wouldn’t hear any of the false sympathy, the false hopes—there was no hope. He was a cop. He knew what was going on.

The other part of him just wanted to tell her to get her ass in the car and go back to her nice, safe little job in Dallas.

He had no place for her in his world now.

Although he had to admit, she didn’t exactly fit into the safe little picture he’d had in mind. She’d sent him a few pictures and they’d Skyped, but she didn’t quite fit the images. The blonde hair was right, but it was done through with stripes of pink and blue. Her face was the same—heart-shaped with the most fuckable mouth ever—and he wanted to grab her up against him, lose himself in her.

The look in her eyes, somehow both wary and challenging, had him keeping his distance.

She was trouble in a pair of combat boots. He’d figured that out even as he’d caught his first glimpse of her through the plate glass window. He hadn’t recognized her from outside.

The soft, throaty voice—a little too rough, a little too raspy—stroked against his senses like a caress and he wanted to kick everybody out of the gas station and ask her why she was here.

Instead, he forced his mind away from the skin-skimming clothes and shifted his attention to Lloyd and his pack of ass-kissing hyenas.

She’d been about five seconds away from a whole world of trouble and he suspected she knew it. The new sheriff wouldn’t get off his ass to scratch it and city police force consisted of exactly two full-time cops and one part-time. None of them were worth the price of two postage stamps.

The best thing Linc could do was get her out of here. It seemed like the rest of the world had forsaken this town. Maybe God had too. He’d had a hard time during his tenure as sheriff, dealing not just with the assaults, but also with the disappearance of several local girls, a handful of unusual suicides but he hadn’t let that deter him.  He’d had a job to do and he’d see it through.

Over the past two months, ever since his daughter’s disappearance, an even darker pall had settled itself over the place.  Since the last night he’d seen DeeDee, a local hunter had gone missing, as well as a pretty high school junior and a kid from the basketball team.

He no longer cared.  All he cared about was finding justice for his daughter.

The oppressive weight was just getting worse. This town was plagued by a dark curse.

This wasn’t any place he wanted Jay to be.

He didn’t want anybody here. If he could build a wall to keep everybody out, he’d do it.

That wasn’t an option, but one thing he could do…beat the shit out of Lloyd if he so much as touched Jay.

Lloyd eased closer to her and Jay watched him impassively, her hands hanging at her sides, loose and ready.

Linc shot out a hand and grabbed the back of Lloyd’s thick neck. “You don’t want to go messing with her, son,” he said levelly.

Lloyd jerked away and swiveled, driving a fist into Linc’s gut. Or, that was the intention. Linc was already spinning away. From the corner of his eye, he saw Jay, and what he saw was such a distraction that Lloyd managed to sucker punch him. He didn’t get another hit in, though.

A wet, cracking sound filled the air and Lloyd screamed, going down after Linc took his leg out.

Linc turned just in time to see Jay balance her weight on the edge of the counter and drive her booted feet solidly into the skinny chest of one Johnny Hutchins.

Willy Lee was the last one standing and as he wheeled around, Linc smashed his fist into the bastard’s thick neck, watched as he went red. Gasping for air, he stumbled into a stand of chips and jerky and then crashed to the floor.

Jay looked back at him and the vivid, intense green of her eyes laid him low.

“Jay.”

She cocked her head at him. “Hello, Linc.”

He would have said something else, anything else, but Bryce Atkins came barreling around the counter, his face pale and strained, eyes wide. “I called the cops.”

Jay shifted her attention to him, her eyes a wide and vivid shade of green, focused on him.

Arching a brow, Linc said levelly, “I’m sure the lady appreciates it.”

Bryce blinked. “I called because of you. You broke his leg.”

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

“He was hassling her.”

“She shouldn’t be dressed like that,” Bryce said, jerking his chin up.

Linc ran his tongue along his teeth and then closed the distance between them, eyeing him narrowly. “You might want to watch it, kid.”

Bryce’s eyes widened and then he jerked his gaze away, staring at the men on the floor. “Ya’ll tore up the store. The manager is going to kick my ass. You know how Dave is.”

“I do.” He shrugged and turned away. “You can tell Dave that these guys were harassing a woman in here.” My woman.

His…

He sighed and dragged a hand down his face, then turned to look Jay. Yeah, she still felt like his. Never mind that he had never actually laid eyes on her, in person, before today.

She felt like his and if she’d come to him any time other than now…

Abruptly, anger surged inside him and he shoved past her, storming outside the doors.

Why now?

Why couldn’t she have come to him back when he still had any sort of life left inside him?

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