Desiree Holt | USA Today & Award-Winning Author

Stripped Naked

Naked Cowboys, Book 3

Jinx Malone didn’t expect her first story as publisher of The Hill Country Herald to be a murder. She thought moving from New York to Rowan Country would mean an end to hearing those kinds of calls on the police scanner. The story also puts her up close and personal with the know-it-all new sheriff in town—a man who has more of an effect on her than she’d ever admit to.

Rowan Country was supposed to be a quieter job where Sheriff Dillon Cross could get over a bad case of burnout. But after only a few weeks on the job, someone finds a dead body in a ditch, and Dillon is butting heads with the sexy local reporter.

They get on like two angry hornets trapped in an upturned glass, but soon it’s more than heated barbs they’re exchanging. Of course, their new beginning could be overrun with past mistakes coming back to haunt them both.

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Chapter One

Why in hell did I ever agree to do this? Am I out of my mind?

Jinx Malone looked around at the newspaper’s small break room, a far cry from what she was used to, asking herself the question for the tenth time since she’d said yes. But she already knew the answer. She needed a major life change, and after ten years she’d come home to Rowan County, Texas to find it. The place she’d been in such a hurry to get away from.

She refilled her coffee mug from the pot and sipped at the bitter brew. The first thing she needed to do as the new publisher and editor of The Hill Country Herald was buy a better brand of coffee. Or maybe get one of those Keurig machines where every cup was brewed fresh. It would probably be the most modern piece of equipment in the building.

“Miss Malone?”

She looked up to see Lew Donato standing in the doorway to the tiny break room. What now? she thought. She’d only been here an hour, yet the list of problems already filled two pages of a lined yellow pad.

She reached down and dug up a smile. It wouldn’t do to antagonize Lew, who at twenty-three was one of the few full-time members of what was laughingly called a staff.

“What is it, Lew?”

Lew shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans as if he had no place else to put them. Would he always be this nervous talking to her? Sheesh.

“Uh, your father’s getting ready to leave and he wanted to see you first.”

Of course. Dennis Malone was handing over the reins and getting the hell out of Dodge.

Jinx sighed. Well, she’d asked for it, right? Although at the moment she’d forgotten why. Carrying her mug carefully so she didn’t spill any, she made her way through the big open space where the work desks were set up and into her father’s office, a glassed-in cubicle in a corner of the area. He rose from his chair and waved as she walked toward him.

“All yours.” He grinned as he dangled a key ring in front of her.

Jinx groaned. “Maybe I should have looked before I leaped here. I didn’t know you and Mom were going to beat feet out of town the day I took over.”

The man had been the owner, managing editor and sometimes chief cook and bottle washer for The Hill Country Herald for the past thirty years. He had taken over the reins from his father and now he was ready to hand them over to her. He and her mother already had their big travel trailer loaded, ready to start out on their fifty-state odyssey.

“Honey, you’ve been in and out of here since you learned to walk,” he told her. “I don’t think there’s a thing about this place you don’t already know.”

“I’ve been gone for ten years,” she reminded him. “Things change.”

He laughed. “Not around here. You should know that.”

“Dennis, aren’t you ready yet?” Linda Malone’s voice floated across the newsroom. “I’m finished getting the groceries. We need to get home and get this stuff in the camper.”

Jinx turned to see her mother waving at her from the doorway.

“Come say goodbye to us, Jinx,” Dennis said. “Wish us luck.”

“You’ll need it,” she mumbled under her breath.

The thought of her father driving that monster machine all over the country gave Jinx a huge stomach ache. She followed him to the front where she gave her parents a goodbye hug and kiss.

“Drive carefully,” she told them, “and text me every night when you stop so I won’t worry.”

“We’ll be fine, honey.” Her mom squeezed her hand. “And I know you’ll do just great with the newspaper. Your daddy is so happy you’ve come home to take it over.” She winked. “Me too.”

Taking over wasn’t exactly why Jinx had come back to town with her tail figuratively between her legs. But she should be grateful for the opportunity. She’d have more to do than just sit around feeling sorry for herself. And how hard could it be to put out a weekly newspaper? After all the years in New York as a reporter, she knew the mechanics and she sure didn’t think she’d have to worry about any late-breaking news around here. Of either the personal or professional kind.

As she followed her parents out the front door her heel caught on the metal threshold and she tipped forward.

“Careful.” Dennis caught her by the elbow. “Darlin’, you’ve been in New York for too long.” He dropped his gaze to her high heels, frowning. “You need to put those stilts away or you’ll break your fool neck. Around here women wear stilts in court or on a date, not to work.”

“She grimaced. “And still chauvinistic too, I see.”

“Around here we come to work in jeans and boots.” He grinned. “What about the ones you dug out of your closet?”

She made a face. “They’re older than dirt and look like it. But don’t worry, Daddy. I’ll take care of it first thing.” The heels not only gave her much needed extra height but were also part of her professional persona. She had to keep reminding herself though, that what was professional in New York wouldn’t work here. Except, of course, for special occasions. “You all go on now. Get on the road.”

She stood on the sidewalk, watching as they pulled away, her emotions a swirling mixture. One the one hand, she was glad they had the opportunity to do what they wanted. On the other, she had just returned home and had hoped to have more time with them.

Suck it up, kiddo. Be happy for them and get your own life on track.

Inside, she nodded to Sheila Bradbury, who was back at the front counter. The woman was the general everything in the office—receptionist, secretary, writer of obits and classifieds and anything else that fell on her desk. She was the lynchpin that held the newspaper together, and Jinx planned to take full advantage of her. She wound through the desks to her dad’s office—no, her office—and dropped into the chair her father had occupied for years. Staring at the screensaver on her computer, she wondered if she was out of her mind.

No one had ever been able to understand why she took off for New York as soon as she graduated college. But the printers ink in her blood had told her that was where the action was. Her road to fame and glory. And for a while, after cutting her teeth on neighborhood newspapers and small magazines, it had been. She’d finally gotten a job with one of the top wire services, her life filled with deadlines and Max.

Oh, yeah. Max. Gorgeous Max. Hot-shot sports reporter. Darling of the sports world and of many, many women. Several of them after she and Max were married. And in their bed. The worst part was he’d become so enamored of himself he didn’t even understand why she was so upset. He’d argued with her about the divorce right up until the day she’d bid him adios, had a truck pick up all her belongings while he was out and flown to Nevada. Six weeks there in a motel to establish residence and she had her divorce. And Max was out of her life for good.

She figured he was pretty busy with his harem since he’d never bothered to track her down after that. Good riddance. But the whole ugly episode had dealt a blow to her self-esteem and sent her running from the New York high life to the quiet life of the Texas Hill Country. Sanctuary that, she told herself, she badly needed. But now she had to decide what to do with the rest of her life. Taking over the newspaper would work for now, but she couldn’t see herself doing it forever. She just didn’t see what she’d be doing after that.

Pushing those thoughts aside, she turned to her computer and was about to pull up the next week’s schedule when a familiar voice made her look up. Amy Stark Montgomery stood in her doorway, grinning at her.

“Jinx!” The petite brunette threw her arms around her in a big hug. “I heard you were back, but you’ve been hiding in that big old house of your parents’. What’s up with that?”

Jinx hugged her back. Amy had been two years behind her in school but in a county where one high school served everyone the age lines became blurred. Although the two of them had never been close friends they’d been friendly. For a while Jinx had even had a crush on Amy’s older brother Matt.

“Hi, Amy.” She studied the radiant younger woman. “I have to say marriage agrees with you.”

“You bet.” Amy flashed her dimples. “Wait until you meet my hunk.” Then her face sobered. “I wanted to call you, but your mother passed the word you really wanted some time to yourself. You doing okay?”

Jinx shrugged. “As well as someone who found her husband in the sack testing the new king-sized marriage bed with not one but two other women.”

“Oh, honey.” Amy put her hand on Jinx’s arm. “I am so sorry.”

Jinx found a smile from somewhere. “As they say—whoever they are—this too shall pass. Got time to come in for a cup of coffee?”

Amy glanced past her at the entrance to the building. “I heard you were going to take over the paper for your dad. That’s great. It’s all he could talk about.”

Jinx sighed. “Yeah, well, it will keep me busy and that’s what I need. For now. I don’t want to spend any more time thinking about the bastard than I have to. So, coffee?”

“I wish.” Amy checked her watch. “I have a committee meeting for the Cattleman’s Association in fifteen. But soon? In fact, why don’t you come out for dinner? Like tonight?”

“I’ll probably be working late today, making sure I know what I’m doing. But can I have a rain check?”

“How about this weekend? Saturday. We’ll grill some steaks. I’ll invite Reenie and Matt too. You haven’t met my sister-in-law but you’ll love her.”

An evening out when Max and his sins wouldn’t be the topic of conversation? How could she resist?

“Sounds good. I’ll bring dessert.”

“Let me give you the directions to our place.” Amy reached into her big purse to pull out some paper. “I’m dying for you to see the ranch and meet my hunky husband.”

Jinx held up her hand. “I’ve got it. One of the things Dad did was give me a map of the county with all the important places marked. Yours is one of them.”

Amy laughed. “Figures. Okay. Seven sound good to you?”

“I’ll be there.”

She watched Amy hurry off down the street then headed back inside.

Lew was sitting at his desk, working diligently at his computer. Two of the other desks were occupied by stringers, freelance reporters who were paid by the column inch. Thank God, this week’s edition would run in the morning and be bundled for Friday delivery. That gave her until next Wednesday to get the first edition ready all on her own. She’d have time to really dig in and get a sense of everything.

But before she buckled down to work she really had to do something about getting decent coffee in the place.

Dillon Cross signed off on the latest paperwork in front of him and tossed it into the wooden box on his desk. Terrie Molina, his secretary, would fetch it after a while and finish processing it. Leaning back in his chair, he placed his booted feet on his desk and crossed his hands behind his neck. Through the open door to his office, he could see the activity in the bullpen. Two deputies were filing reports. Cheryl, his dispatcher, was on her headset with someone. Another deputy was just coming in from the break room with coffee. His entire staff as sheriff of the county was four office employees and twenty deputies. For a county the size of this one that was more than enough.

This was a far cry from his last job as a homicide lieutenant in San Antonio. The SAPD was ten times this size because it had a far greater population to serve. He’d worked damn long hours, seen the worst side of humanity and had a scar on his thigh to show for it. He rubbed the area automatically, still remembering the sharp bite of the bullets, the overwhelming pain and the tremendous discipline it took to still take down the shooter before he collapsed.

He’d thought at first he might go back to the department, even on limited duty. He sure wasn’t ready to take disability retirement. But between the shooting and the shock of his almost-fiancée’s deception, he’d decided he’d had enough of San Antonio. Maybe of any big city. When his boss had told him about the opening here and offered to give him a recommendation, he’d decided it was a sign to make a change.

The pace of life here was slower. Much more enjoyable. In two years he’d have to stand for election, but according to Matt Stark there weren’t a lot of people waiting in line for the job. Matt had been one of three people who’d interviewed him when he applied and they’d taken an instant liking to each other. In fact, Matt was the only person besides his old boss who knew the entire story of what had happened in San Antonio. He planned to keep it that way. Burying the memory was the only way to deal with it.

Little by little, he made himself a part of the community. He’d bought a small house at the edge of town, one with a couple of acres where he could keep a horse if he ever tried to ride again.

Gotta have a horse when you work in horse country.

He was actually looking forward to it. Not much happened around here except for some malicious mischief, a few speeders and maybe unlawful discharge of firearms. The pace here was slow enough that he could enjoy life a little. That had been one of the biggest draws when he’d interviewed for the job. If he ever thought about changing his mind, the constant ache in his thigh was enough to dissuade him.

“Glad to see you working so hard.”

Dillon grinned at Matt Stark standing in the doorway to the office.

“Your tax dollars at work, my friend.”

Matt laughed and dropped into one of the uncomfortable chairs in front of the desk. “Maybe we can drum up a little more crime in the county.”

Dillon sat up in his chair and leaned forward. “Actually, what we’ve got here is just fine with me, thank you very much.”

“Not missing the tempo of the big city? All those criminals you had to keep chasing?”

Dillon rubbed his thigh. “Nope. Not missing the gun battles either.”

Matt’s face sobered. “No, I don’t imagine you are. How’s the leg, anyway?”

“Still reminding me that I made the right move coming here. And thanks for your help with that, by the way.”

Matt shrugged. “Just wanted the best man for the job.”

When the previous sheriff had a heart attack and died literally at his desk, the county had advertised for a replacement. Matt had headed up the interview committee and convinced the others that Dillon Cross and Rowan County were a good fit for each other. The two men had become friends, a situation that continued to ease Dillon’s way into the community.

“Not that I don’t appreciate the visit,” Dillon said, “but did you drop by to shoot the breeze or do you have some crime you need to report? He chuckled. “Cattle rustling, maybe?”

Matt owned one of the biggest ranches in the county. His sister had been an active partner until her recent marriage. Now she served as ranch manager for the spread she and her new husband Buck Montgomery owned.

“Actually, I’m here with an invitation from my sister to come to her ranch for dinner Saturday night. Reenie and I will be there, of course. Nothing fancy. Just cold beer and steaks on the grill.”

“I hate to horn in on a family meal.”

“You aren’t. Like I said, just a casual evening. Give you a chance to talk to someone besides yourself.” He grinned. “But I warn you, Reenie will be eying you as a prospect for the Cattleman’s Ball, trying to decide which of her friends she wants to match you up with.”

Dillon laughed again. “Tell her to do her best. I’m single and glad to stay that way.”

His relationship had blown up when he got shot, his fiancée deciding she couldn’t take the strain of being married to a lawman after all. He was blessedly single now and determined to stay that way.

After Matt left, he went back to studying a report on his computer, trying to absorb the details, until Cheryl called to him from her dispatch station.

“Hot call, Sheriff. Neil Guthrie says he’s got a body on State Road 45 about four miles out of town.”

Dillon stood up so fast he nearly knocked over his chair. “A dead body? In Rowan County?” he looked at Matt. “You didn’t tell me you had real crime here.”

“We don’t, usually.”

“He says the body’s naked as a baby,” Cheryl added.

“A naked body?” Matt groaned. “That ought to be interesting. I’d better get out of your hair so you can get going on it.”

“Does he know who it is?” Dillon asked.

“Says it’s such a mess he can’t tell. Someone blew his face off with a shotgun.”

Well, hell.

He thought he’d left all that behind.

Matt lifted his eyebrows. “Damn. We haven’t had something like that in as long as I can remember. You’d better get to it.”

“Tell him I’m on my way,” Dillon called to the dispatcher. He picked up the keys to his county-owned SUV and rounded the desk. “And get someone else out there with him to help contain the scene.”

“Neil said Greg Benson was patrolling not too far away and is already headed there.”

“Good.” He opened the door of one of the interview rooms where his forensics officer, Lieutenant Ric Nevada, was reviewing some files. “Hey, Ric. We’ve actually got a crime that can use your skills. A body on State Road 45. A naked one at that.”

Ric looked up, an expression of disbelief crossing his face. “No kidding? Let me blow the dust off my kit and get it there.”

“Cheryl will give you the exact location. Dillon turned to Matt. “Listen—”

Matt held up a hand. “I understand. Go ahead, get going. See you Saturday night. About seven o’clock.”

Jinx was making notes for the staff meeting she planned to have in the morning when Lew yelled at her from the bullpen.

“Hey, Jinx. Come hear what’s on the scanner. Hurry.”

The newspaper kept a police scanner on the wide counter mostly because her father liked to know what was going on in the county.

“You never know when a hot story will show,” he’d always said with a grin.

Jinx thought it was just because he liked having one, like a toy. She couldn’t imagine what would have Lew so hot and bothered. Her heel snagged on something on the floor and she caught the edge of a desk to keep from falling.

“You shouldn’t run around here in those high heels,” Lew admonished. “You might break your neck.”

Shit, him too? “My shoes are fine,” she snapped. “What’s up?”

“Listen.”

She heard Neil Guthrie’s voice speaking to dispatch. “Yeah, Cheryl. That’s right. A dead body. On State Road 45 about four miles west of town.”

“Are you serious?”

Even with the distortion from the scanner, Jinx could hear the surprise in Cheryl’s voice.

“As a heart attack. And it’s totally naked.”

“I’ll get the sheriff out there right away.”

Holy crap. A murder here in laidback Rowan County? She thought she’d left all that behind in New York, but it seemed crime happened anywhere. Jinx looked at her watch. If she hustled she could get the bare bones of a story and at least one photo to go with it for Friday’s edition.

“Beep Andy in the print shop,” she hollered to Sheila. “Tell him I’ll be making a change to the front page.”

She ran for her office to get her keys, trying at the same time to catch the rest of the transmission. Heading toward the back door to the parking lot she hollered to Lew, “Grab a camera and come on. We need to get there before they move the body.”

Lew grabbed what he needed and followed her, jumping into her car as she cranked the ignition.

“Holy shit!” He clutched his camera as Jinx made a sharp turn onto the street. “I don’t know if we’ve ever had a dead body here.”

“I’m sure you have at some time or other.” She couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice. “After all, everyone dies sooner or later.”

“I meant in a ditch. And naked. Like this. Oh, wait.” He smacked his forehead. “Can we show a naked body in the paper?”

“Let’s get there and see what’s going on before we decide what we can and can’t print.”

But she could feel a tiny thrill race through her just the same. Her first day as publisher and she had a story more likely to be found in the city. It beat the story on the new cooking school and the latest meeting of the zoning commission by a hot mile.

She didn’t have to look hard to find the crime scene. The circus might have been easier to overlook. Cars and trucks were lined up on the shoulder on both sides of the road, the gawkers crowding as close to the action as they could get. Some people were sitting on open tailgates with coolers and sandwiches, watching the show unfold. It reminded her of the time Hank Genessee’s big field of coastal hay caught fire and half the county showed up and made a tailgate party out of it. Then again, up until today nothing very exciting had happened in Rowan County, population twenty-five thousand, so anything exciting brought out the lookie loos.

The new sheriff’s SUV as well as two deputy cars were parked at angles, blocking one lane. Neil Guthrie and another deputy were doing their best to direct traffic around the mess and desperately trying to move along the people who wanted to stop and stare.

Orange cones marked off the area where the body had been found and yellow crime-scene tape was strung as a barricade. The body itself was barely visible, mostly concealed by the people surrounding it. She recognized Ric Nevada crouched down with what she assumed to be his crime-scene kit open next to him. On the other side of him, she spotted Don Obregon, a doctor who doubled as the head of the family clinic that served the county and the medical examiner if and when they needed one.

But it was the man standing behind Ric who caught her attention. She guessed his height at six feet. His broad shoulders strained at the seams of the sport jacket he wore with an open-collared shirt and jeans that clung to long legs that ended in western boots. She’d heard the new sheriff didn’t like wearing the tan uniform that came with the office.

“Informed the commissioner that people should respect the law no matter what he wore,” her father had told her.

Jinx guessed he was right. His presence fairly shimmered with a quiet air of obvious authority and control.

Just as she reached the scene, he turned in her direction and a shock sizzled through her as if electrodes had been attached to her skin. Everything in her body tightened and throbbed and unwanted heat warmed her skin. Instantly, her nipples hardened and her thong became soaked, her body responding to the sight of him with an unexpectedly visceral reaction.

Holy shit!

After the disaster with Max she had so sworn off men, especially hot ones like this one. So why didn’t her body get the message?

His gaze connected with hers and heat flared in his eyes for a quick second. Apparently the same electricity had zapped him too. Then the professional mask was back in place. He placed his hands on his hips, which brushed back the lapels of the jacket just enough for her to catch a glimpse of the gun he wore in a shoulder holster.

“Sorry.” His voice was deep and slightly raspy. “This is a restricted area. My deputies should have stopped you from coming so close.”

She swallowed, hard, and hoped her reaction to him didn’t show.

“Your deputies know who I am.” She held out her hand. “Jinx Malone. I’m the publisher of The Hill Country Herald. I believe you met my father when you first arrived in town.”

“Sheriff Dillon Cross.” He shook hands briefly. “Yes, I did. I thought he ran the paper.”

“Only until this morning.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s right. I think he mentioned he was thinking of retiring.”

“Well, that’s what he did. Gave me the keys and took off with my mother in their camper for parts unknown.”

“Just like that?” The sheriff frowned. “It’s really none of my business, but shouldn’t you know something about running a paper before taking it over?”

What a smartass.

“I know a lot about it,” she snapped. “I grew up with that newspaper and I’ve spent ten years in New York learning even more. I assure you, the Herald is in good hands. And you’re right, it isn’t any of your business. As long as I get the facts right you have nothing to complain about.”

Holy cow, Jinx! Back off a little. Why are you letting this guy push your buttons?

Maybe because I had instant lust the minute I saw him? I can’t afford that. Not now. Not again. Not ever.

“Glad to hear it.” She watched his eyes as he took note of the way she was crowding the tape roping off the area. “I’m sure in New York you also learned you can’t go tramping around crime scenes.”

Jinx pulled in a deep breath and let it out slowly. It wouldn’t do any good to get this man angry at her right off the bat. The publisher of the newspaper was supposed to cultivate goodwill with the locals, not tromp all over it. She’d have to get back to the less-than-frantic ambience of the area all over again.

“You’re right. And I’m not—what did you call it?—tramping around your crime scene.” She tried on a smile. “Just trying to get the facts to report them to my readers. I, um, had them hold the paper so I could get this on the front page of this week’s edition.”

A muscle twitched in his jaw. “I don’t much care for reporters.”

She wanted to smack him. “Well, we should get along just fine since I don’t much care for cops.”

“Fine.” He ground out the word between clenched teeth.

“Fine.” She could be as abrupt as he was. “I’m so glad we understand each other.”

For a long moment he said nothing, just studied her as if she were an alien who had suddenly appeared from outer space. Then he glanced at the three-ring circus taking place along the roadside with the same frown of annoyance.

“Don’t people have anything else to do around here?”

She took in the scene again and couldn’t hold back the laugh. “They’re just curious. You’ll have to get used to it if you plan on staying around. This is the biggest thing to happen around here in the last century.”

“They can be all the curious they want,” he told her, “as long as they don’t get in my way and mess things up.”

She tilted her head, giving him a quizzical look. “Is that meant for me too? I assure you, I know enough to stay out of the way.” She lifted her iPad. “I’ll get the background details down. Then, when you get a second, I’d just like enough from you to put a story together. Oh, and my photographer wants to snap a couple of shots.”

Dillon Cross glanced at the scene behind him again. “You don’t think the good folks in Rowan County might be a little shocked to see a naked corpse on the front page of the paper?” His voice had a definite edge to it.

Her eyes widened. “So he really is naked?”

He nodded. “Not a stitch on him.”

“Do you know who he is? Has anyone identified him?”

“No and no. There was some damage to his hands too.”

“No kidding. In what way?”

“I’m not prepared to discuss any details yet. The crime scene is still fresh.”

“But—”

He blew out a breath. “Listen, Miss Malone—”

“Jinx,” she interrupted. “Call me Jinx.”

He nodded. “And you can call me Sheriff.” He was poker-faced and Jinx saw no humor in those dark coffee-colored eyes.

“All right, Sheriff. Speak your piece.”

And do it quick so I can get away with my dignity intact.

“I’m not trying to be a hard case here,” he told her, “but take a look.” He waved his hand at the activity behind him. “I need to keep the area as contained as possible, but you can see what’s happening. This is a crime scene, not a social gathering.”

Jinx bit down on her tongue to keep the nasty comebacks in check. She was used to the confrontational situation with cops in New York, where they seemed to regard the media as the enemy. Not to mention the holdover resentment from the past century against female crime reporters. Disliking law enforcement had become second nature to her. She’d had to toughen up to get stories and interviews. But this wasn’t New York, and she didn’t want to create antagonism her first day as publisher.

She took a deep breath, let it out slowly and pasted a smile on her face.

“Okay, Lew and I will get out of your way if you’ll give him a chance to get his shots before you take the body away. And then you take a few minutes to give me the bare-bones outline. I’m holding the print run so I can get this story in.”

He nodded. Once. “Fair enough. As long as I have the space to do my job. But I’m warning you, the scene is far from a pleasant one.”

“I’ve seen gruesome before,” she told him. “More than you can imagine. And whatever goes on, we won’t chew you up like the big-city papers do, Sheriff. It doesn’t hurt to have us on your side. Especially when election time rolls around.”

“Duly noted.”

She backed up, suddenly needing to put space between the two of them. What was up with her hormones today, anyway? Not even Max had aroused her just by his presence the way Sheriff Dillon Cross did. When she found herself mentally undressing him, she knew she had to move away from him. Maintaining professional composure was a must, especially in a first impression. Lusting after the sheriff was hardly in the reporter’s and publisher’s handbook.

As she turned to go back to her car, her heel caught in a crack in the pavement and she fell forward. Dillon Cross steadied her with a warm hand on her elbow.

“Wearing those heels around here might not be such a good idea,” he told her. “You could fall and hurt yourself. I’d think you’d have at least one pair of boots in your closet.”

“Crap.” His touch carried heat with it that burrowed its way beneath her skin and she yanked her arm away. “Does everyone have an opinion about my footwear?” She’d had it in her head to present herself very professionally her first day on the job. She’d just forgotten that professional meant different things in New York and Rowan County. Everyone was right. She’d break her damn fool neck if she didn’t get rid of the stilts. She just didn’t want Dillon Cross pointing it out to her.

He took a step back, palms out. “Sorry. Just trying to give some helpful advice.”

“I think I’ve had about all of that I can take for today.” Then she forced a smile. “But thanks anyway.”

He studied her for a long moment, his eyes slowly taking in her body from head to toe. Her pulse throbbed in inconvenient places and there went that intense flash of heat surging through her again.

Bad, bad, bad. Get your mind off men. Remember Max. Remember your promise to yourself.

“Wait at your car for me like you suggested. I can give you ten minutes when we’re finished here.” He waved at the mob scene again. “In the meantime, if any of these people are your friends, maybe you can convince them to go home and stay out of my crime scene.”

She swallowed the sarcasm that bubbled up. Lord, this guy pushed her buttons. “I would, Sheriff, but this is your crime scene, not a social gathering.”

Jinx turned away from him, careful not to trip in her heels again, as he mumbled something under his breath. She glanced over her shoulder.

“Did you say something?” She put on her sweetest voice.

“I said thanks for all your help.”

“Same to you.” She marched back to her car, satisfied that she got in the last word. This time.

Lew was still at the car, waiting for instructions from her.

“He’s still watching you.” He inclined his head in the direction of the scene. “The sheriff, I mean.”

Jinx yanked open the car door and sat down, half-angry, half-aroused.

“Let him watch, as long as I get my interview.”

And that’s all she wanted from him. Dillon Cross was the epitome of the alpha male, a species she’d sworn to stay away from. She supposed she should be grateful that her emotions and sensual awareness were still active after the battering her ego had taken from Max’s actions. Except she had absolutely no plan to act on any of it. She’d had enough of sexy alpha males. Maybe there was an instant cure she could take before he finished and came over to talk to her.

Dillon watched Jinx Malone trip back to her car on those ridiculous heels. Just what he needed. Another fucking reporter in his life. Why did he think things would be different out here in cow country? Because he was stupid and wanted out of San Antonio so badly he didn’t stop to think. And what was with her, anyway? Did the woman still think she was back in New York? She’d grown up around here, for God’s sake. Where was her common sense?

Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t her common sense that was at the forefront of his mind. Or the naked body behind him either. Unfortunately. No, it was that trim figure in the cotton skirt and blouse, with a hip sway that made his cock try to fight its way out of his fly. Lustrous auburn hair bounced at her shoulders as she moved, hair that was a great complement to the sea-green eyes she’d stared at him with. Eyes that alternately spit irritation and heat. The irritation he could handle. The heat was definitely a problem.

He wanted to bite or kick something. His reaction to her was so instantaneous it almost knocked him on his ass. The heaviness of a sudden erection pushed against his fly.

Great. Just great.

It would be goddamn embarrassing for him at his first major crime scene here if people spotted his inconvenient hard-on.

He tried to tell himself the whole instant-attraction thing was just an accident of human chemistry, but the heat and desire pooling in his groin told a different story. He’d just been without for too long. His choice, but it didn’t help the situation.

Haven’t you learned anything?

He reminded himself women like Jinx Malone were poison. Been there, done that, had the scars and taken the cure. He hoped. But watching the sway of her shapely ass as she walked away from him on those ridiculous high heels he felt lust boiling through him. He needed to stick to his vow of nothing but one-night stands, with women who understood the rules from the beginning. And a one-night stand with the publisher of the county newspaper sure wouldn’t be a career builder. Even in peaceful Rowan County his job could get dicey. Witness today’s dead body. It would help to have the press—such as it was—on his side.

He didn’t think he could go through the emotional turmoil again of getting attached to a woman only to find out why she really had attached herself to him. Or that she chose to inform him about it in a way that made him draw back into himself. Besides, he was still defining a place for himself in Rowan County and this new job. Getting involved with the wrong woman could really screw things up.

But Jesus. Apparently his hormones weren’t paying any attention. Her body practically had fuck me written all over it, from the nicely rounded breasts to the curve of hip and ass. He wanted to grab her and kiss that sassy mouth until she was senseless and melted into him. Except he didn’t think Jinx Malone would ever be senseless or ever melt into anyone.

“Hey, Sheriff?”

Ric Nevada’s voice broke into his mental wanderings.

“Yeah, Ric?” He walked back to where the naked body lay.

“We’re ready for Don to transport the body for autopsy. I’ll hang out for a bit after that and make sure I didn’t miss anything.”

“Good enough. I’ll tell Neil and Greg to get these lookie loos moving on their way out of here. I’ll be in the office when you get back.”

Then, with emotions that were definitely mixed, he walked across the road to Jinx Malone’s car to give her the promised interview. He just hoped his cock would get the message his brain was sending it.

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