The hero in Guarding Jenna is based on a very real, very sexy SEAL that I am privileged to know. One of the reasons I love writing military romantic suspense is that it is inspired by real heroes and heroines.
It was the emails that pushed her.
Jenna Donovan had been keeping track of things online for the past fourteen years. She’d made a list of possibilities and every so often, when it wouldn’t get out of her head, she did a search for anything relating to those names. She had pitiful little to show for it, but her obsession with finding the right person was like an itch she could never scratch enough.
And then the emails arrived.
There is a rapist and killer here where you used to live.
He’s killed ten girls in fourteen years. No one can stop him. He rapes them and then kills them if they report it.
No one will help us. Please do something.
She could still feel the paralyzing shock that gripped her when she read it. Why had this person reached out to her? Did they know what had happened to her all those years ago? While she was still fighting back the nausea the memory caused, another email dropped.
We read all your stories. Please, if you can, we beg you to come investigate this or he will keep on doing it. Please.
Of course, it was the same man. Had to be. There wouldn’t be two in such a sparsely populated area.
How old would he be after all these years? And how powerful was he that he could keep doing this without retribution or discovery? The memory had slammed into her as if it had just happened. Her stomach clenched again as the nightmare she worked so hard to suppress came flooding through her as if a damn had broken.
She had run to the bathroom and vomited until her stomach was empty. Then, after settling her stomach with a cup of peppermint tea, she sat back down at her computer. She’d sworn never to return to that place where her nightmares began, but she could feel the fear rising from the messages. And she could feel the fear and desperation in the emails. Was this a sign from the universe that it was time to deal with the past? That doing one of her investigative pieces was the way to do it? Returning now was what she’d call an evil necessity. And maybe she could put her demons to rest once and for all.
Could she do it? What would it be like returning there? Who would she talk to? She had absolutely no intention of communicating with Roger Holland, her stepfather. Or former one, since her mother was now dead. It was his house—his ranch—that had been the scene of the event that still haunted her every day and night. He might not have been the actual villain, but he had created an environment that attracted people like the one in her nightmare. She’d never told him what happened, knowing he’d call her a liar. He always defended his friends in any situation, to the exclusion of everyone else, including his family.
Fourteen years ago, she hadn’t been able to get away from Montana fast enough. The day she turned eighteen, she took all the money her father had left her and headed for college on the other side of the country. Despite the pleading and tears from her mother, for her own sanity she’d had to get away.
Since the day she left, she had done her best to avoid coming back here at all, the place where her nightmares began. The death of her mother in the middle of her freshman year left her without a reason to ever come back. She’d put herself through college and built a new life for herself away from any reminders of the nightmare. If she still had nightmares, well, she was dealing with them as best she could.
Putting aside everything else she had going at the moment, she did a deep search for killings in that county, going back fifteen years. And there they were, scattered over time, very brief news articles about girls who were strangled and left in the forested areas of the Crazy Mountains near her former hometown. Maybe if she went back there and helped uncover the perpetrator, her nightmares would stop forever. Maybe she could have a healthy relationship with a man. Maybe a lot of things.
“I have to go back,” she told her friend, Grey Holden. “This is a sign, Grey. If I can find out who this is, maybe I can finally have some peace after all these years.”
Grey had done his best to talk her out of it.
Besides being her friend, he was the head of The Omega Team, a highly sought-after security and paramilitary agency, and former military himself.
She still remembered the night he’d saved her from a meltdown in a bar, even though he hadn’t known her from Sally Jones at the time. After that, he’d become a confidante, support person, and all around good guy in her life. But she wasn’t going to take his advice on this. It was an itch she’d been waiting to scratch for a long time, one that was now almost an obsession with her. Somehow, she felt she needed to do this to get on with the rest of her life.
“Are you sure you want to follow through on this?” he asked. “Maybe you should reconsider doing the story. Going back there, digging around, is sure to bring back all those memories.”
“On the other hand,” she pointed out, “it may be the only way to put them to bed once and for all.
Someone went to the trouble of sending me an email, using a net café so they could be anonymous.”
“But all you have,” he pointed out, “are very brief articles over a fourteen-year span about the murders of some girls who reported being raped. I understand that the timing isn’t exactly coincidental. They report the rape and then why’re dead.”
“Because that’s what he threatens,” she insisted.
“That’s what he said to me. If I opened my mouth to anyone I’d be dead meat. Murdered.”
“And how did he—whoever he is—know about the complaints? Did the sheriff tell him? If they don’t know his name, how would anyone know who to leak the information to?”
She bit her lip. “Somebody knows, and I want to find out who’s been shielding him all these years. If he’s been getting away with it all this time, it means he’s a man with a great deal of power and influence.
Maybe even reaching into the office of the sheriff. It’s even possible he’s such a powerhouse in the area that the girls or their parents confided in him, asking him what to do. It has to be something like that, because the rape complaints weren’t made public.”
“And you’re sure these are connected? I have to ask.”
She swallowed her frustration. “Yes. And whoever sent me the email said he—or she—knew for a fact it had happened to each of the girls who were murdered. I think this person knows or knew some of them, because the email described things about the rape that were never made public—big man, rough hands large enough to cover her eyes and mouth, powerful, arrogant, as if he was untouchable. And that shortly after they reported it, they were found dead. Strangled. That’s what the rapist threatened me with.”
“These murders have occurred over a period of several years,” she reminded him. “Some of those victims would be closer to my age now, except they’re dead. And who knows how many others were victims between the time I left and now? Girls who haven’t ever come forward.”
“And you’re sure this is the same man? ”
“Please.” She snorted a laugh. “How many stories like this do you think come out of rural Montana, anyway? You know I never believed I was the only one this guy targeted.”
“Yeah, I know. I know.”
“I’ve been at this for a long time, Grey, and I’ve learned to trust my instincts. When I started looking into the murders, I couldn’t believe the number of cases I found. And who knows how many rapes happened that were not reported? Like mine.”
“Okay, so he killed the girls who came forward,”
Grey reminded her. “Even if, like you, they couldn’t identify him. Even though all they had was the location and situation and sketchy information. Just on the off chance they might remember the tiniest detail. He was sending a message to all the others, right?”
“Yes, and Grey? One of them was one of the few friends I made when I lived here. Julie Kemp. At the time, I had no idea she’d been raped. She just one day stopped seeing me or anyone. When her body was found, the sheriff said it had to be a stranger in the area, but no one was ever caught. I’m still devastated about it.”
“All the more reason to be cautious.”
“The person who wrote the email had to know more than one of the victims if she told you he’d warned each of them,” he reminded her. “Just like he warned you what he’d do if you ever said anything.”
“But that’s why he keeps getting away with it,” she cried. “Because he’s some kind of powerful figure, ruled by his ego. He makes sure the girls are too intimidated by him to act, or he kills them. This is a habit that’s gone on for several years. For whatever reason, those girls took the chance.
“And they paid with their lives,” she told him, her voice tight at the thought of it.
“Let me repeat this. Because somehow word got out about what they’d done, and he made good on his threat. Of course that wasn’t mentioned in any of the stories. We don’t know how it leaked, so you’ll` have to watch your step everywhere.”
“I believe there has to be someone who knows who he is. They just keep quiet about it because it doesn’t matter to them. If he’s one of Roger’s friends, I can tell you they’d all overlook just about anything.
They all have more money and/or power than you can imagine, and they think they are untouchable. It’s time for it to stop.”
“You’re a good reporter, Jenna,” he told her.
“You’ve won some prestigious awards for your work.
You’ve written two very successful true-crime books.
Chances are he’s aware you’ve been digging into these cases. It’s very possible he’s paying someone in the sheriff’s office to keep him in the loop. That’s why none of the cases ever go anywhere. What if he’s been keeping an eye on you all these years, especially after your awards and your very successful books? If you show up in his playground, you might as well paint a target on your back.”
“Truthfully? I think he’s arrogant enough to believe I have no idea who he is, or that I’ll find out.
Or if I do, that despite everything I’m too scared to tackle him or he’s too untouchable.” She blew out a breath. “Maybe if I can finally identify him and nail him, I’ll have some peace myself and be able to get on with my life.”
She’d been carrying this bag of heavy rocks for a long time, and she desperately wanted to get rid of it.
She knew for a fact she’d never fully heal unless she did.
“You’re sure he lives in that area?” he asked again.
She nodded. “I am. Believe me, I’ve thought about it a lot. Too much. He could have been one of the many elite of the world who flew in for the high-dollar events my stepfather liked to host, but I just have the nagging sense that he lives around there. All the girls who came forward lived in that area. And something he whispered in my ear made me think he was local. It kills me that I can’t remember what it was.”
She gnawed on her thumb, a bad habit she wished she could break.
Grey shook his head. “I can’t say this enough times. If this guy is killing anyone who comes forward on a rape, what’s to stop him from going after you? You’re kicking up dirt in his playground.
And no one was ever charged, with either the rapes or the killings.”
“Which is why he keeps getting away with it.”
He nodded. “I just want you to look at every angle here. If it’s someone as powerful as you think—and I agree with you on that—he’ll have his eye on everything and killing is obviously not a problem for him.
A couple of the girls who were killed were just visitors in the area.”
“Fresh pickings,” Grey pointed out.
“It baffles me that he’s still free.”
“Because he leaves no evidence and kills victims who speak out. All those cases are still open investigations.”
“Going nowhere,” she reminded him.
“I’ll say again, he has to have an inside track somewhere. Go out there and you don’t know who or what you’ll be stirring up.” He studied her with those eyes that could see everything. “I just wish you’d change your mind.”
“Grey, someone went to the trouble of emailing me and drawing me into this. There has to be a connection. I have to follow it.”
“You sure you’ll be okay out there? I mean emotionally. Revisiting the scene, as they say.”
“I won’t be going anywhere near my stepfather’s ranch,” she assured him. “Hey, we haven’t even exchanged two words since I left there. You can bet he was damn glad to get rid of me. Maybe he’s forgotten all about me by now.”
He shook his head. “How can he not even want to know what’s wrong?”
She shrugged. “I’m nothing to him. I hated him from the day my mother married him. When I was thirteen, he was already looking to arrange a business marriage for me as soon as I turned eighteen.
And my mother was no help at all. She couldn’t understand why a marriage into wealth and status didn’t appeal to me the way it did to her.”
“That’s something I don’t understand.”
“I loved my mother, but she never got over my dad leaving her, and she was swept off her feet by a real asshole asshole. Roger Holland is arrogant, filthy rich, and travels in high society. She thrived on being the society hostess and rubbing elbows with the world’s elite. He knew I hated him and, when I balked at his plans, he wrote me off. Anyway, I’m going. I found a great cabin to rent. There’s a whole group of them clustered at the foothills of the Crazy Mountains. I haven’t exactly broadcast my inten-tions, so I’m sure my target has no idea that I am trying to identify him.”
“He has no idea yet.”
She sighed again. “Grey, I’ll be fine.”
“Yes, you will,” he agreed, “because I’m getting you protection.”
“What?” She shook her head. “No, you are not sending someone with me.”
“That’s right, I’m not. But I called Hank Patterson in Eagle Rock. He heads the Brotherhood Protectors.
I told him what you needed, and he’s assigning one of his best to you. A former SEAL named Scot Nolan.
He’ll be waiting when you get to your cabin.”
“Grey, this man I’m trying to find, whoever he is, has no idea I’m hunting him. That I’m digging into these cases. And I’ll fly well under the radar. I don’t need a babysitter.”
“If he’s as powerful as you think, your radar won’t do you any good. And this man’s a hell of a lot more than a babysitter.”
“Then maybe I can smoke the asshole out.”
“Not your smartest idea,” Grey objected. “But if that happens, you’ll definitely need protection. I take care of my friends, Jenna. Deal with it.”
Jenna gritted her teeth. “If I’m walking around with a guy who might as well have a sign on him that says bodyguard, how far do you think I’ll get?”
“A lot further than if you’re dead. Anyway, Hank Patterson and I got it all figured out. Nolan’s going to be your boyfriend.”
“My—” She’d stared at him. “Oh, great. I barely hook up with anyone I know, never mind a complete stranger. No. Just no.”
“Too bad. We’ve got it all worked out. Hank’s already made the assignment, and Scot Nolan has your file so he can know as much about you as anyone else does.”
“This sucks, Grey.”
“Not as much as being raped again or dead,” he pointed out. “Anyway, you have nothing to worry about him crossing the line. Scot’s a loner. Hank says he wishes the guy would find a nice woman and settle down but, he seems to be fine by himself.”
“Good, because I am, too.”
So here she was, about to face her demons.
I can do this. I can definitely do this. No, I have to do this or I’ll never have any peace.
She murmured the words over and over to herself as she steered her rental SUV down the highway from Bozeman to the cabin she’d rented at the foothills of the Crazy Mountains. She hadn’t wanted to come back here, but if she was going to see this thing through to the end, finally, she had to do it. But she wasn’t staying anywhere near Helena, that was for damn sure. Nor had she bothered to let her stepfather—a man she’d hated from the day she met him
—know she’d be here. That would be defeating the purpose.
Then the emails showed up, and everything came rushing back like a tidal wave, engulfing her.
Thinking about it now sent memories skittering through her brain, along with the words of her therapist.
Rape is the most demeaning kind of attack. It robs the victim of…
Out of nowhere, the feel of hard masculine hands covering her eyes and mouth popped into her brain, choking her. The scent of alcohol so strong.
Someone dragging her into a room, throwing her on the bed—
Choking, she swerved to the shoulder and stopped the car, slamming her hand against the steering wheel
No, no, no. I will not think of it.
Deep breaths. That’s what her psychologist always told her. Take long deep breaths. Inhale. Exhale.
That’s what she’d been doing for the past ten years, ever since she’d decided dealing with the aftermath by herself wasn’t working.
Damn. She’d thought she had the recurring images and sensations under control. She rolled down her window and drew in a deep breath of the fresh Crazy Mountains air, spiced with the essence of white birch and lodgepole pines.
She felt all her inner muscles relax, the tension easing as it usually did, her breathing evening out.
She closed her eyes and counted to fifty, as her therapist had told her to do, and called up pleasant images
—the sun setting over the water, A child on a playground, a dog chasing a stick on the beach. After a few moments she felt calm enough to continue. She was almost there. Almost in a safe place.
And hungry. She’d either been on a plane or driving most of the day. Digging in the console, she found the last of a package of snack crackers and chowed them down. Calmer now, she put the car in Drive and pulled out onto the roadway again. It pissed her off that even after all these years, any little tiny piece of memory could still set off a panic attack.
With effort she focused on the highway and the magnificent scenery on either side. The beauty of the Crazy Mountains and Yellowstone National Park should be enough to soothe anyone, right?
Then she remembered Grey’s insistence on the bodyguard. Even now, she didn’t know whether to laugh or scream or be grateful. She was more than grateful for Grey’s friendship. He had been her rock so many times when she’d been on the edge of a meltdown. But, except for him, she had enough trouble dealing with men as it was. How would she be able to handle having one around twenty-four seven?
She was still talking to herself when she rounded a curve in the road and found herself in the little enclave of log cabins. Twenty of them. That’s what the rental agent had told her, but each one far enough from the others to ensure privacy. Every porch had a number on it so she cruised slowly down the road, checking each one.
Then she realized she didn’t need any number at all. A big pickup truck was parked in front of cabin fourteen, and a tall, lean man who looked as if he ate nails for breakfast stood on the porch. He was well over six feet, his dark-brown hair slightly shaggy, framing a face defined by high cheekbones and a beard that shielded his jaw.
Warrior. That was her first thought.
Her second was, He doesn’t look very friendly. She could almost see the wall around him.
And third? Here stood the first man to ever kindle a tiny flame of desire and penetrate the ice that enclosed her body. A need that made her nipples harden and an unfamiliar throbbing set up in the heart of her sex. Oh my god! How did this happen right now, of all times, after years of failure and closing herself off? She wasn’t sure she’d even know how to act. Life was playing an unfair trick on her.
Exactly how was she supposed to do this now?
Bodyguard, she reminded herself. That’s what he was and all he was going to be. But she trembled nevertheless at the sudden assault of unfamiliar feelings.
Stop it! Now!
She had to keep telling herself she’d be a big disappointment to him.
She parked next to him and climbed out of the SUV, stretching a little because, between the plane and the rental vehicle, she’d been sitting a lot today.
“Hello.” She managed a smile for him. Be friendly, she told herself. You’ll be sharing a cabin—actually everything every day—for the duration of this trip.
But she guessed smiles were not in his repertoire because he just nodded, his face a stone mask. Then he walked down the two steps to the little parking area and held out his hand.
Oh, well. At least he was courteous.
“I know.” He shook her hand once then dropped it.
Inexplicably, her hand tingled from the contact and heat shot up her arm. What the hell?
He shifted his stance, moving his head slowly from left to right.
Jenna looked around, her forehead creased in a frown. She didn’t see anyone near them. A little way down the road, she saw a couple with two kids climbing into a van, but they didn’t seem very dangerous.
“You think someone is watching us? I’m not sure anyone even knows I’m here yet.”
“Did you call the sheriff before you flew out here?”
“I did, but I didn’t exactly get a warm reception.”
Scot lifted one eyebrow. “What did he say?”
She nodded. “I told him I had read about the murders and wanted to get some details from him.
He told me he couldn’t release information in an ongoing investigation. He also wanted to know what possible interest I could have in a case way out here in the boonies.”
“I’m sure you know that’s pretty much standard in situations like this.”
She sighed. “Yes, but I was kind of hoping I could talk him into at least sharing some information with me. He sounded more irritated than anything. Still, he did agree, grudgingly, to meet with me, after I told him I’d camp out in his lobby until he did.”
“Do you want me to call Hank and see if he can put some pressure on him?”
Jenna shook her head. “No, thanks. That would only piss him off more. I’ll see what he has to say to me in person. “
“He could be under a lot of pressure from a number of different factions,” Scot pointed out.
“Nobody outside of his office has made the connection between the rapes and the killings because no one knows about the rapes. Right? If this guy is as powerful as you think, and he’s really from around here, it’s possible he’s got a line into the sheriff’s office to bury this.”
Her jaw dropped. “Bury nine rapes? Nine murders?”
Scot shrugged. “It’s not unheard of. And if that’s true, he probably already knows you’re chasing this.”
Her stomach muscles clenched. She’d thought about that but hoped she could do it under the radar.
Stupid of her.
“You’re right.” Of course he was.
“Let’s get your stuff inside.”
Scot headed for her SUV. When he moved, his untucked shirt shifted, and she saw a gun tucked into the small of his back. She’d seen enough artillery doing her stories to recognize it as a Glock 19. Well!
At least he had good firepower.
“I can get my stuff,” she protested, pressing the fob to unlock the hatch.
“No problem. I’ve got it. Then we’ll go over the ground rules.”
Ground rules? Was she being protected or kept a prisoner.? Thanks, Grey.
But she could hear his voice in her head.
“Better pissed off than dead.”