The Next Victim

A killer is terrorizing a sleepy Florida beach town, and detective Ben Carver is convinced the killer’s next target is Shannon Ames, the sexy reporter who lives in his apartment complex. As clues emerge that change the whole course of his investigation, their attraction intensifies. But the secret Shannon carries could destroy any hope of a future together – and might even get her killed.



Read an excerpt …

Chapter 1

     The woman’s body lay near the edge of the pond, one red stiletto-clad foot submerged in a puddle of sludgy water left by the storm the night before. Blood pooled on the ground beneath her head, matting in her platinum blonde hair.
     Police chief Ben Carver’s shoulder nudged a low-hanging branch of a live oak as he passed, releasing a spray of leftover rain. Wiping a few drops from his forehead, he closed in on the crime scene. With every step, the familiar knot in his stomach tightened.
      Her scarlet sequined dress was torn and splattered with mud. One of the spaghetti straps had been ripped off, exposing a beige-tipped breast.
     He sighed and muttered an expletive. Didn’t the woman deserve at least a little dignity? He was tempted to take off his worn brown leather jacket and use it to cover her nudity, but he knew better. The CSI team hadn’t photographed her yet, hadn’t collected any evidence the killer had left behind. Still, it bugged him that she was left exposed not only to the elements, but to the gawkers who were already straining behind the crime scene tape to get a closer look.
     He’d been in law enforcement for fifteen years, a homicide detective in Boston for seven of them. When he packed up and moved to Florida six months before, he expected to never have to deal with murder again. And he’d been right.
     Until today. This afternoon, he could have been back in Beantown. There was no geographical restriction on violence.
     He studied the woman’s face. Yesterday, she’d been a knockout. Now, she was a statistic. Homicide number one in his career with the Vista Verde Police Department.
      Gibb Wilson, Ben’s second-in-command, ducked under the yellow police tape cordoning off a section of the park and picked his way through the rain-slicked grass. He stopped beside Ben. “Look what this mud did to my shoes.”
     Ben’s brows lifted as he followed the direction of Gibb’s gaze. “Obviously, you’ve got your priorities straight.”
     “They cost a fortune.” The ebony-skinned detective’s obsession with clothes was well known in the department, and he took a lot of ribbing because of it.
     “Another new pair?” Ben asked. “Jeez, Gibb, how many pairs of shoes do you need? You’ve only got two feet.”
     “At least I wear something besides sneakers every day,” he replied, giving Ben a once-over. “And jeans and T-shirts,” he added for good measure.
      “What’s wrong with that? I don’t have to worry about a month’s pay going in the trash because of a few grass stains or a little blood. I’m comfortable.”
      “You ought to start looking like a chief of police,” Gibb insisted.
      Ben grinned. “But then I’d look better than you.”
      Gibb mumbled something Ben couldn’t make out, but he didn’t have to hear the words to recognize the sentiment. He laughed, then tilted his head toward the blood-soaked ground. “You’d better watch where you’re walking. You aren’t going to want blood stains on those new Mary Jane’s of yours.”
      “They’re shoes–”
      “I know what they are,” Gibb interrupted. “First murder in this town in over ten years,” he added.
     Ben grinned. Gibb had apparently deciding he was finished defending his wardrobe choices. “Not a bad record.” Digging a pair of latex gloves out of his jacket pocket, he turned his attention back to the body sprawled on the ground.
     “Uniforms said a guy out jogging found her,” Gibb continued. “He’s over there.” He pointed to three cruisers parked on the gravel pathway that ran along the edge of the park. The back door of one of the cruisers hung open. A man wearing a t-shirt and shorts sat perched on the edge of the seat, his head lowered, his elbows propped on his thighs.
     Even from where Ben was standing, he could see dark stains covering the man’s shirt and hands. In the wrong place at the wrong time? Or was there more to it?
     In his experience, most of the time when a person came across a crime scene, they hung back, sometimes letting out a blood-curdling scream. Or they ran, especially when the victim had obviously been dead for a while. So, was the guy now sitting in the cruiser scrubbing at his thinning grey hair really an innocent bystander? Or his number one suspect?
     “Got his statement yet?”
     Gibb shook his head. “Not a formal one. The uniforms took some notes, but that’s it.”
     “Okay, take him down to the station and get a real statement. See if there are any inconsistencies between the two stories. And run a background check on him and see if there’s any connection between him and the victim.”
     Ben crouched beside the body, training his gaze on the wound on the victim’s throat. Ragged, not a smooth cut typical of a switchblade or even a kitchen knife. Maybe a serrated blade? He’d make a point of asking the medical examiner to take a close look at it, see if he could narrow down the kind of knife the killer used.
     Tucking the hem of his raincoat into his lap, Gibb crouched down beside Ben and let out a soft whistle. “What a waste.”
     Ben nodded. “Yeah. Looks like she went to one party too many.”
      Straightening, Ben left a few more instructions for Gibb then crossed to the gravel path where two uniformed officers were deep in conversation near one of the cruisers. “Any ID on the victim?” he asked.
      Both officers shook their heads. “We looked around. There’s no sign of a purse.”
      “We’ll have to run prints and see if she’s in the system. So what do we know?”
      “Not much,” one replied.
“Has somebody notified the coroner?”
      “He’ll be here within the hour.”
      “Crime scene?”
      “On the way.”
      At least the uniforms had taken some initiative. Surprising, since murder wasn’t something they had to deal with on a regular basis. “Good. Thanks.”
     A flash of orange in his peripheral vision drew Ben’s attention. Turning, he let out a groan. An orange Volkswagen was slowing to a stop behind one of the police cruisers. “Great,” he muttered.
      “What’s that?” one of the officers asked. “You say something?”
      “No. Nothing.”
      He recognized the car, knew who was driving before the door even opened. His heart sank. How the hell had she found out about this already? “Just friggin’ great.”
      The last thing he needed today was to have to deal with Shannon Ames. The woman was like a pit bull, especially if she smelled a story. And an unidentified murder victim in Beachview Park would probably be the biggest story to hit this town in its whole sixty-year history.
      But there was no way in hell she was getting within fifty feet of his crime scene. She’d get her story when he was good and ready to give it to her. Not one second before.
      It was a shame she seemed to go out of her way to irritate him, though. He was a sucker for redheads, especially redheads with bright green eyes. And redheads with curves in all the right places.
      Except this redhead was nothing but trouble.
     He kept his eyes on her as she tucked her camera under her arm and dipped below the police tape.
     What the hell?
     As she straightened, she ran her fingers through that cloud of hair, tucking it behind her ears. The jeans she was wearing molded to her hips and a pair of legs that seemed to go on forever. The pale blue V-neck sweater was high enough to be modest, but low enough to hint at what was underneath. He refused to acknowledge the cause of the sudden tightening in his jeans. But damn, she looked good.
     She didn’t seem worried about her feet getting wet in the grass, and he couldn’t help being a little surprised. Apparently they had something in common. Fashion wasn’t important to her either, at least when it came to doing her job.
     He expected her to approach him, and for a second or two it looked as if she was heading his way. But then she veered away, strolling casually as all get out across the grass, towards the victim’s body, as if she had every right to be there.
      Where the hell did she think she was going?
      Leaving the uniforms to secure the scene, Ben stormed across the wet grass to head her off before she reached the body.
      She smiled up at him when he intercepted her and stopped her from going any further. “Chief Carver.”
      Damn, even her voice was sexy, low and sultry enough to heat up a long New England winter night. But now was not the time to think about what that voice would sound like when she was in the middle of hot steamy …
     Get your mind back on what you’re doing, Carver. “Do you not realize this is a crime scene?”
      “Of course I do–”
      “You have no business setting one foot inside that tape. It’s there for a reason.”
      The smile disappeared, and those amazing green eyes narrowed on him. “I’m aware of that.”
      “Then you know you should be on the other side–”
      “Chief, I’m only doing my job. And that job is to inform the citizens of this town–”
      “Not when you’re interfering in a police investigation.”
      She let out a short laugh. “I’m not interfering at all. I’m only trying to get some information–”
      “You’re contaminating my crime scene.”
      Ignoring him, she raised herself onto her toes and peered over his shoulder, trying to get a look at the body. “When did it happen?”
      “You’ll hear about it when we’re ready,” he insisted.
      “Who is the victim? At least tell me that.”
      “No comment. Now turn around and go back to town.”
      Her gaze met his, and a soft smile quivered on her lips. Her voice lowered to just a shade above a whisper. “Come on, Ben, give me something … anything … please …?”
      Suddenly he’d gone from Chief to Ben? Did she think he was stupid? He knew exactly what she was doing. Blustering her way in hadn’t worked, so she’d switched tactics, playing cutesy and friendly.
      One thing they would never be was friends. They could have been lovers, maybe, if he was anything but a cop and she was anything but a reporter. It wouldn’t be the first time a cop had let something slip to a reporter when the wrong part of his anatomy was doing his thinking for him. And his slip had ended up on the front page of the newspaper the next morning.
     He and Shannon could have even been more than lovers, if he was in the market for something more than a one-night stand – which he wasn’t.
     Police work and relationships didn’t work. He’d found that out in the worst way possible. Because he was a cop, Karen was dead. If he’d been a teacher, or a lawyer, or even a reporter, she’d still be alive. But because he was a cop, she was dead. It was his fault. He hadn’t been able to protect her.
     “Well? Can you tell me something … anything?” Shannon’s voice interrupted his trip down bad memory lane. No. Definitely no. Shannon Ames and Ben Carver were definitely not ever going to be friends.
      “I’m not going to tell you again. Now either leave under your own steam or I’ll have you removed.”
      Her gaze lifted and met his, and for a brief moment, he wondered if she’d call his bluff.
      “And have you arrested for obstruction of justice,” he added since his threat of physical contact didn’t seem to faze her. “Your choice.”
      For a long beat, they glared at each other. Finally, she heaved a sigh. “Have it your way. I’ll just print what I know – a body was found in Beachview Park. Foul play is suspected, but the police refuse to co-operate with the press. Since they won’t release any details, it’s advisable for the female residents to take extra precautions when they are out at night. How does that sound?”
     “Your office can deal with the aftermath.”
      Ben cursed under his breath. He couldn’t let her print that. She’d have every woman in town terrified to leave their homes. “Fine. She had no ID. That’s all I’m telling you.”
      “Any clues–?”
      “That’s it, Shannon. I’ve told you everything I’m going to. Now get out of here. Last chance before you spend the night in jail and your story doesn’t make the morning paper.”
      “Okay, no problem.” With one last narrowed look in his direction, she turned away and headed back to her car. As she slid behind the wheel, Ben swore, taking note that he’d done more cursing in the six months since he’d met Shannon Ames than he’d done in the past six years.

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