Navy SEALs have a unique skill set that allows them to operate in dangerous, high-stress situations. For retired SEAL Alex Rossi, his dedication and perseverance serve him well when he takes a job as a small town sheriff. What skill or talent most impresses you?


Sixteen years ago

Micki hated the big parties her parents threw. She wasn’t a big party person anyway. At fourteen, she had discovered that she relaxed the most with small groups of her friends. She liked sleepovers with four or five of them. Or riding horses. Or just hanging out. She wasn’t hot for every boy in her high school as some of the girls were. Well, maybe a little lukewarm for Neil Harrison. He was, after all, super cute, with a sexy grin enhanced by the cutest dimple.

She’d come to the conclusion she was a late bloomer, but that was okay. Some of the girls were so busy learning all about sex she was sure by the time they graduated high school there’d be nothing left for them to learn. Not her. A guy had to really do it for her, really turn her on before she was ready to give him any part of her body.

Tonight’s party was in full swing, at least a hundred people drinking and eating and laughing. And all trying to show everyone else they were richer and better and more important. Sometimes she wondered how her parents could stand some of them, but her father was an important person in the cattle industry and state politics, so this was part of their regular agenda.

Because it was a weekday night, she was not having a sleepover. She’d put on a dress to please her mother, done her bit by saying hello to the people she knew, and now she was going to her room to lose herself in a favorite movie.

She had reached the doorway when a thick arm banded around her waist and a hand covered her mouth, fingers pinching her nose. She heard the door slam shut and, in the next moment, she was face down on her bed, a heavy male figure pinning her in place. His fingers pinched her nose so tight she could hardly breathe. She tried to wriggle out from beneath him, but he was big, heavy, and his full weight held her in place.

“Listen to me.” His voice was a raspy whisper. “Don’t struggle, or I’ll break your neck. Nod if you understand.”

She did her best to nod her head once. What else could she do?

“I crave sweet young meat like you. The harder it is to do this, the better I like it. Sweet young virgins do it better for me.”

He eased his grip on her nose but kept his hand over her mouth while he yanked up her dress, grabbed her panties, and ripped them off. She heard the rasp of a zipper and knew he was taking it out.

Oh sweet Jesus.

She clenched her fists and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to wish herself into a different place.

“Don’t you worry,” he whispered, as he kneed her legs farther apart. “I’m already wearing protection. Can’t have any little schoolgirls giving birth to bastards.”

The next few minutes were a concentrated nightmare. He thrust his fingers inside her, scraping her sensitive inner flesh, then shoved his thickness even deeper.

Oh god! It hurt! It hurt!

She couldn’t scream, not with his big hand over her mouth. Anyway, she was sure he’d kill her if she tried to. She clenched her teeth as fiery pain shot through her and he drove himself in and out of her virgin sex. She felt the throbbing inside her as he climaxed, and then he withdrew, grunting in satisfaction.

“I’m getting off you now,” he said in the same raspy whisper. “You count to a hundred before you get off this bed. And be sure you don’t tell a soul, or I’ll find you and break your neck.” He barked a short laugh. “But you are one sweet piece of meat. You’ll make a great lay one day when you grow up.”

She heard the door close as he left the room, and even though he couldn’t see her, she lay there counting to two hundred. Tears coursed silently down her cheeks, and it hurt to breathe. Finally, she got up and slowly headed into her bathroom. It even hurt to walk. Oh god!

It took her a while, but she managed to wash up, clean away the blood on her thighs, and pull on a nightgown. Found the housekeeper and asked her to tell her mother she was sick. Then she climbed into bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. She had no idea who the man was. He could have been any of the dozens circulating at the party. But she knew one thing.

She was staying away from parties as long as she lived at home and getting the hell out of here the minute she graduated high school. And she never, ever was going to have sex. Not with this nightmare firmly lodged in her mind.


appointed sheriff a little more than a month ago. As he stood at the edge of the clearing in this wooded area, looking at the body on the ground, his heart ached for the young teenage girl who would never see her next birthday. He wondered how such evil could exist in a setting with such natural beauty.

Fir trees reached to the sky, and batches of scrub punctuated the rolling land. Birds flitted through the treetops and brushed their wings against the scrub that grew everywhere. Above him the sky was a clear blue dusted with white clouds and, in the distance, the majestic Crazy Mountains rose with elegance from their foothills.

But, on the ground, fourteen-year-old Holly Martino lay sprawled on her stomach, arms outstretched, as if she’d been dropped there like a rag doll. Her head was tilted at an unnatural angle, due, he knew, to the fact her neck was broken. Hair as fine as spun gold was tangled, a few twigs caught in it. Her fingers were dug into the dirt as if she’d tried to claw her way up. Torn panties were wrapped around one leg, and he knew as sure as he was breathing that when the coroner did the post mortem, he’d find evidence of brutal rape. It was a signature, although one, according to the reports he’d gotten his hands on, that hadn’t shown up in some time.

No one had reported her missing yet, so he could be pretty damn sure this had happened very recently. Like today. If a park ranger hadn’t stumbled on the body while doing a routine tour, who knew how long it would have been until she was found. She’d been left in a remote area where days could have passed before anyone discovered her. Access to the area was all but impossible except by horseback or four-wheel drive, since most of the roads led directly to the ranches. Unluckily for the killer, a forest ranger, skirting land boundaries and checking the area, had stumbled on the body and called it in at once.

He’d seen plenty of dead bodies during his tour as a SEAL, even those of children, although they’d usually been the victims of horrific attacks on villages by the same people Alex was fighting. He’d thought those years had hardened him, but seeing the brutality visited on this young girl made him sick to his stomach.

He’d almost been waiting for this after Holly had sought him out the other night.

When Hank Patterson approached him about this job, he’d said, “For the most part, it’s a snap job. Nothing goes on in the county to ruffle the surface. The biggest excitement is when everyone goes to the Fourth of July rodeo and gets obnoxiously drunk.” He paused. “Except for one thing.”

As head of Brotherhood Protectors, information always filtered up to him. He was pretty much plugged into everything in the county if not the state. The man had chosen to base his Brotherhood Protectors agency there and had his finger on the pulse of everything. In fact, some of the county commissioners had reached out to Hank about helping them find someone. Alex, a few months out of the SEALs after three tours of duty, had been at loose ends when fellow SEAL Scot Nolan, a member of the agency, hooked him up with Hank.

“What if they decide not to appoint me?” Alex had asked.

“Are you kidding? With your creds? Trust me, there’s no one around that they’d be interested in. Besides”—he winked—“like I said, they asked me to help find someone.”

So Alex had met with Hank and some of the commissioners and, before he could blink, he had a job and was renting a home on the edge of town. And what a home. It was the first place in years where he’d really felt peace.

But Hank had also clued him in about a decades-old open case.

“There’s one big problem you need to know about, one that still has people looking over their shoulders. You’ll have one huge fucking mess to clean up if you take this job. It’s been dormant for several months, but it hasn’t gone away. There are people out there who need to be identified and made to pay for their crimes.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

He’d told him about the miasma of evil that clouded the county, the history of brutal rapes and murders covering two decades. The information he laid out made Alex sick to his stomach. A series of crimes hung over the county like a black, evil cloud, brutal rapes punctuated with murder that had been ongoing for several years. Uber wealthy men raping young teenage girls, usually at a large party held at one of the sprawling ranches in the foothills of the Crazy Mountains. Either the girl lived there or attended the event with her parents. The routine was always the same. The girl would somehow be alone, separated from the rest of the party. A man would come up behind her, place his hands over her mouth, pinching the nose with thumb and forefinger, and drag the girl into a bedroom. Hold her head so she couldn’t turn and see him. Press her face hard into the mattress as he attacked. All any of them knew was the man was very big and very rough, tearing their panties and raping them with brutal force.

And promising to kill them if they told.

“A few did tell,” Hank told him. “And shortly after they made the report, we found their bodies. We’re pretty sure Jeff Bartell was part of that group and even did the killings himself.”

“Damn!” It had made Alex sick to think about it. “But if people knew who the culprits were, why weren’t they arrested?”

“First of all, none of the girls who came forward could identify their rapists. And the former sheriff, now in prison, was part of that inner circle. Everyone figured he’d passed the word that a victim had filed a report and then the girl was killed. As promised.”

Alex whistled. “Jesus.”

Hank told him they had no idea how many had gone unreported. Brotherhood Protectors had tried on their own to learn who the powerful men were, but the upper echelon of Crazy Mountains society was like a closed corporation. No one talked, and they resented even being questioned.

True-crime writer Jenna Donovan, born and raised in the Crazies and a victim herself at fifteen, had come home in response to an email from one of the victims and dug into the situation. She was the one who’d unmasked Bartell as a member of the ugly group, and the one who had warned the others, whoever they were, when anyone came forward.

It was unclear whether Bartell had killed all the girls himself, but he accepted responsibility and never gave up any of the other names. He was tried and convicted for the ones that could be proven. After he was sentenced, his family moved away, out of Montana. No one knew where they had gone or who had provided the funds to set them up. And no one talked about it.

A year passed ’with no more reported incidents after the sheriff’s trial and conviction. It seemed that after Jenna’s stories broke, all activity had died. At least no more brutal rapes had been reported. Nor had any more bodies been discovered. Alex wondered if the rapists had decided to kill their little game while they could.

The deputy who’d been serving as temporary sheriff had begged to go back to regular duty. So here Alex was, in a state he’d never even visited before, and acclimating himself to civilian life while he figured out what to do with the rest of his life. How to be something besides a SEAL, although he was pretty sure that would always be with him. He figured this was as good a place as any. Living solo suited him. History proved he sucked at relationships so, for the moment, he wasn’t even looking for one. All he wanted was to get settled into the next phase of his life. And he could forego sex as long as his right hand held up. For a while, anyway.

For the past few weeks, he’d been reviewing the cold cases to give him an idea of who to look at and doing his best to quietly gather information about people in the area. He was still nowhere when, a month after he took office, Holly showed up at his place one night well after dark, frightened and desperate to ask for help. But only, she told him, if no one knew she had spoken to him. Fearful of being seen in his office, she’d come to his home to tell him what happened.

“They kill anyone who talks,” Holly told him, shivering with fear, “but someone has to stop it. All my friends are afraid to leave their homes.” She chewed her bottom lip as she decided what else to tell him. Then she blurted out, “Some of my friends even wonder if their fathers are involved.”

That alone turned his stomach. She told him her friends tried refusing to go to the big events with their parents, only to be told that whoever was doing this was not someone from around there. Family friends would never do this, so whoever was spreading lies about this should just stop it.

But Alex wondered if, despite her precautions, someone had been spying on her. Or him. It was hard to keep secrets most of time in this county, and he knew word had gotten out that, as the new sheriff, he’d received copies of the crime reports from the Montana Department of Law Enforcement. While no one had been named, the girls who had been brave enough to come to the sheriff were killed within a week of meeting with him.

The. murder of Holly Martino was the first incident since Bartell had been arrested. Alec kept the report locked in his safe at home, so all he could think was someone had been watching Holly Martino. Now, looking at the body of the pretty young girl on the ground, he wanted to hit something. Or someone.

“It’s a damn fucking shame.” Miranda Golden, his senior deputy, walked up to stand beside him. It hadn’t taken him long to discover Miranda knew everything there was to know about the area and about Montana law enforcement. That she was respected by almost everyone in the county. And that if he got on her bad side, he’d better quit his job. Getting on her bad side wasn’t even on his list.

“A fucking shame indeed,” he agreed. “And I can’t help feeling that somehow it’s my fault.”

She stared at him. “How is that possible? I’m pretty sure you didn’t do this.”

He shook his head. “She came to me, terrified, but determined to report it anyway. I should have found a way to put her in protective custody.”

“And how would you have managed that?” Miranda demanded. “What would you use as an excuse to her parents? And where would you have set her up, anyway?”

He knew she was right. In a sparsely populated county, with a small town for the county seat, there were no secrets, no matter how you tried to hide things. But that meant someone had been keeping an eye on the young girl, since he had arranged to meet her away from his office at a distant location. Either that or his house was bugged. If that was the case, he had bigger problems than he thought.

So here he was, barely five weeks into the job, doing his best to transition from the high-pressure life of a SEAL to a supposedly quiet job as a county sheriff, with a murder on his hands tied to an evil that continued to grip the area. He did have one thing, however, that no one knew, and he planned to keep it that way. Holly had given him a small paper sack containing her torn panties. When the rapist had pulled out of her, the condom had torn, and although he had taken it with him, there was enough semen spilled on the inside of her thigh to scoop it up with her underwear. Alex had taken it home with him and locked it in his private safe. Not yet knowing if he could trust everyone on his staff, he was keeping that sucker under wraps until hopefully it could be used.

“Well.” Miranda sighed. “The coroner’s here, and Chad Jenkins has finished taking pictures. Do you want to preserve the crime scene for any reason? I can’t imagine that there are traces of anything with all the dirt and leaves.”

Chad served as the crime-scene photographer for the office, along with some other duties.

“Let’s do it anyway. I want to come back out here with the pictures Chad shot and go over everything myself. There’s probably nothing, but I want to satisfy myself that’s the case.”

“Got it. Let me know if there’s anything I can do. Oh, and Jenna Donovan is still around here.” She chuckled. “Married that hunky bodyguard of hers. Hell, I’d stay around for him, too. Ask Hank Patterson to hook you up with them. Scot Nolan still works for Brotherhood Protectors.” She studied him for a moment. “Bet you thought it would be a little dull here after the SEALs.”

Alex barked a short laugh. “Actually, a little dull wouldn’t be bad after all those years in one conflict after another.”

“Hope it works out. We, uh, sort of like having you here.” She grinned.

“Thanks.” He glanced over to where the body still lay. “I see the coroner is getting ready to bag her and take her to his lab. Let’s walk over there. I want Chad to get pictures of the site without the body.”

The coroner gently moved the body into a black bag for transport before moving it into his van.

“I’m pretty sure nothing new will turn up,” he told Alex, “but I’ll move it up to the top of my list. Expect something preliminary by tomorrow.”

Alex nodded. “Appreciate it.”

Then he watched Miranda and another deputy string yellow tape around the perimeter of the area where the body was found and waited while Chad grabbed a bunch of shots of the area without the corpse.

“Keep a lid on this until I get back to the office,” he told Miranda. “Find out where her parents are, so I can do the notification. You know stuff before anyone else does.”

“I don’t know if Gavin Martino will be home,” she told him. “He’s some big deal in the state cattlemen’s association and is always flying that plane of his back and forth to Butte and Helena, or Great Falls or someplace.”

“Check on it for me, will you? Without giving away why I want to know? And see where his wife is.”

“That’s easy. It’s Tuesday. Celeste Martino will be at The Promenade, the ritziest place in town. She’s chairing the upcoming fashion show to raise money for an addition to the local clinic.”

“So they’re both pretty big on the political scene?”

Miranda snorted a laugh. “If it gets them publicity, they manage to be part of it.”

“Do me a favor,” he said. “I’m sure you know who her friends are. Get hold of one of them, let them know what happened, and have them bring Celeste to my office. Let me know when she’s on her way. And check on her husband’s whereabouts.”

“Got it.” She strode off toward her SUV.

Alex hung back as everyone else left. He wanted to get the feel of the area without another human being around.

If anyone wanted to commit a murder, he thought, this was the place to do it. The Crazy Mountains as a range were forty miles long and almost completely surrounded by private land. That limited the access of strangers to the area, which meant any crime committed was usually laid at the feet of some resident. It also meant that the people living in the Crazy foothills were sharp enough to be careful and not get caught.

And rich. It had to be some of the obnoxiously wealthy assholes who were used to buying their way out of anything and controlling their environment and anything that happened in it. He’d seen enough people like that in his lifetime, once to his great sorrow. They were the wealthy and privileged who thought they could get away with anything because rules did not apply to them. Because power was what it was all about. Plus, their money could cover up anything.

When everyone had left the scene, he walked over to Holly’s body and studied it carefully. They hadn’t found the tire tracks of any kind of vehicle, not even the four wheelers so many of the ranchers used to get around. So, how the hell had whoever it was brought her up here? On horseback? Always a possibility. God knew this wasn’t what you’d call an area of heavy traffic. Or any traffic, for that matter.

It was someone’s land, without a doubt. Most of the area around the Crazies was. Although a good bit of it was fenced, the rough terrain made it difficult for people not used to it to get around and so could be accessible only if you knew what you were doing. He’d have to check and see who owned this particular parcel, although he was sure whoever had killed Holly Martino hadn’t dumped her on his own land.


Still, it wasn’t as if he had anything else to do. Since it seemed he sucked at relationships, he lived a pretty solitary existence. Except for the few times he hung out with Hank and his wife, Sadie, and some of the other Brotherhood Protectors, his social life was a big fat zero. But that was good, he told himself. No chance to screw up again and all the time in the world to find the answers to this terrifying puzzle.

Tomorrow, he had to stop by the Schroeder Ranch and see what Tom Schroeder wanted regarding the big party they had coming up this weekend. Miranda had told him that after Jeff Bartell was arrested, when anyone threw a party, they wanted law enforcement there, as if to let the world know they weren’t involved in the nasty business. Not, he knew, that it would stop someone if they were bent on rape. Apparently, over the span of two decades, these men had perfected their technique, even where timing and circumstance were concerned.

His thought process was interrupted by the ringing of his cell.


“Sheriff, it’s me. Miranda. I’m calling you on your cell rather than having dispatch put through the message so we can keep it on the downlow.” Her voice dropped even more. “I have Celeste Martino in the office, and she’s demanding to know what the hell is going on.”

“Okay. I’m on my way.”

He wasn’t looking forward to the next hour at all.

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