Sheriff Zeke Mayes is prepared for a long struggle getting Rogue Walker to drop her defenses-and give in to desire. But soon Zeke will become embroiled in a deadly game that sweeps Rogue up in its wake. And when everything is a matter of life and death, there is no reason to hold back...
Four years ago
Now, how had she known the day was just going to suck? Caitlyn Lena Rogue Walker watched as Principal Thompson entered the classroom after her freshmen students had left for the day. Hot on his heels were the self- righteous Nadine Grace and her bully of a brother, Dayle Mackay.
She knew what was coming. Somehow they’d found
a way to punish her for coming to a student’s defense the month before. She had been waiting for the shoe to drop, and she had a feeling that when it fell, it was going to be an earthquake in her little life.
At least she didn’t have to worry about it happening any longer.
Maybe she should have heeded her father’s advice about coming here to his hometown to teach. He had wanted her to stay in Boston; he’d wanted her to be a lawyer rather than a teacher. Or better yet, the wife of a lawyer. Being a lawyer or the wife of a lawyer didn’t suit Caitlyn Rogue though. Neither did the name Lena—her friends and family knew better than to call her Lena if they wanted her to respond. She wanted to teach, and she wanted to teach in the picturesque little town her father had told her so many tales of.
Perhaps she should have heeded the tales he had told her of Dayle Mackay and Nadine Grace though, as well as his warnings to make certain she stayed off their radar. But staying off their radar hadn’t been as easy as she had thought it would be.
And as her father had warned her, they would target her simply because she was a Walker. Nadine Grace and Dayle Mackay had tried to destroy her father when he was younger, and it seemed they were more than determined to destroy her.
She had lived in Somerset for one short year. Long enough to know she loved it here. Long enough to plant a few quick roots, to dream, and to meet the county’s beyond- sexy sheriff.
The schoolteacher and the sheriff. What a fantasy. Be- cause within months, she learned that her father hadn’t been exaggerating about Dayle and Nadine. At the end of the school term the year before, she’d been forced to enter their radar to defend one of her students against Nadine’s accusations that he had cheated on an exam that she had overseen as a member of the Board of Education. Caitlyn knew the boy hadn’t cheated, just as she knew that no defense would help her now.
As her gaze met the two, she could feel her stomach tightening in warning as her heart began to pound a heavy, sluggish beat.
Brother and sister resembled each other in too many ways. The same black hair, the same squared features. Nadine was built smaller, and her eyes were hazel rather than green. Dayle Mackay was taller, with thicker black hair and forest green eyes. He would have been handsome if the evil that was a part of his soul didn’t reflect in his eyes.
Neither Dayle nor Nadine spoke as they entered the room with the principal. Rogue remained in her seat, watch- ing them cautiously as Nadine moved forward and slapped a small stack of pictures down in front of her.
A glimpse of the first one was enough to know exactly how Dayle and Nadine intended to destroy her.
Caitlyn stared down at them, feeling shame, mortification, but mostly defeat. She had never known defeat until she stared down at the pictures that she knew she could never refute. Not because she hadn’t done it, but because she had been unable to stop it.
Fanning the pictures out slowly, she had to bite back a cry that tightened her chest and had her hands shaking. She had somehow known that one night that she couldn’t fully remember had been a setup. She had sensed it then, she knew it now, and the rage and pain festered in her chest like a wound she wondered would ever heal.
Rogue swallowed back the bile that rose in her throat and ordered herself not to react, not to show pain, fear, or anger. She had her pride and she would be damned if she would let these two know how much they were hurting her. How much they were stealing from her.
“As you can see, Ms. Walker, there’s no way we can allow you to remain within the educational system,” Principal Thompson informed her in a tone laced with chilling morality. “Such actions cannot be condoned.”
No, they couldn’t be, Caitlyn would be the first to agree with him. If she had done it voluntarily.
The pictures showed her half undressed, her skirt raised well above her thighs, her legs spread for the male between them. Higher, her blouse was undone; a female, her long hair obscuring her face, obviously caressed Caitlyn’s bare breasts with her lips.
Caitlyn blinked down at the photos. There was no fighting them, though she knew, whatever had happened that night, she hadn’t had sex. When she had awakened in the unfamiliar hotel room, the first thing she had done was schedule an emergency appointment with her doctor. But the school board wouldn’t care about that. No more than they would care about the blood tests that had shown that whatever happened, she hadn’t gone into it willingly. Rogue had been drugged and betrayed.
She was still a virgin, but she would be branded as a whore.
She could fight it. She could call her parents. Nadine Grace and Dayle Mackay had no idea how powerful her parents were now, how eloquently they could seduce a jury, how enraged they would be if she ever let them know what had happened here. Brianna and Calvin Walker would descend upon this county like wraiths from hell with all the powerful Bostonian wealth they had amassed behind them.
Her grandparents, the Evansworths, were icons in Boston. Her mother’s parents would destroy Grace and Mackay without a thought.
But her father had warned her, and she had promised him she was a big girl, and that just like her brother and sister, she would carve out her own future, and she would succeed. She had promised him that there was nothing this county could do to destroy her.
She was going to teach, marry, and raise babies in the mountains. That was her dream. And her dream was crumbling beneath her feet. She felt her world shifting on its axis, felt the shame and the rage building inside her until she wondered if her head would explode with it.
Nadine sniffed. “You have a week to leave and we’ll not resort to putting the pictures on the Internet.”
She stared back at the pinched-face bitch that so hated her student Shane Mayes simply because he was the sheriff’s son, and the sheriff refused to kowtow to her or her brother. It was rumored Sheriff Zeke Mayes kowtowed to no man, or woman.
“I really don’t give a fuck where you put them.” It wouldn’t do her any good, Nadine would do as she wished anyway. “I’m not leaving Somerset.”
“My dear Ms. Walker, your employment here . . .” the principal began.
“Is obviously at an end.” Caitlyn smiled tightly as she picked up the photos and shoved them in her case. “I’ll clear my desk this evening, Mr. Thompson.”
“You’ll leave town,” Dayle Mackay stated, his voice like ice.
The man was a viper. His son, the town’s bad boy, had a heart of gold. But this man, he was black, evil. It was in his eyes, in his face. It was almost enough to send a shiver down her spine. But she didn’t shiver, her spine straightened and pure Walker arrogance and stubborn pride kicked in. Her father had once warned her that her pride would be the death of her.
“Go to hell, Mackay.” She could barely speak. Fury was ripping through her, tearing at her.
“Your reputation will be less than nothing by the time we finish with you, Caitlyn.” Nadine’s tight-lipped, superior smile looked like a wolf’s curl of the lip. Anticipatory. Ready to strike. “You don’t want to stay here.”
“No, you don’t want me to stay because you’re terrified that if one person stands up to your viciousness, then others will,” she stated calmly. “I’m doing more than standing up to you, Nadine, I’m warning you now, you can’t hurt me.”
Nadine’s smile was cold. “Your position within the school system has been terminated, Ms. Walker, and your standing in this county will be history.” Her tone assured Rogue she felt she had done the damage she wanted to do.
Caitlyn forced herself to laugh. Her father had taught her how to be strong; her mother had taught her how to be a lady. But her grandmother, ah, her grandmother had taught her how to be a bitch and made Caitlyn enjoy every lesson.
Bess Evansworth was a force of nature and a law unto herself. And Caitlyn had been her favorite. She had always allowed Caitlyn to tag along with her and her cronies to their luncheons and teas. And Caitlyn had learned.
“Put them on the Internet.” Caitlyn’s smile was all teeth. “I dare you. Better yet, mail a set to my grandparents. Their address is easy to find. Evansworth. Taite and Bessamine Evansworth, Boston. I’m sure my grandmother will get a tickle out of it. Though, Daddy might return to Somerset.” She shrugged as though she didn’t care. “You could take your chances.”
She shoved the few possessions from her desk into her bag. She didn’t have much. They hadn’t really given her time to settle in. She could fight the school board, but who really wanted to? She’d come here with dreams, and over the past months she had learned how ineffectual those dreams were in these mountains.
Somerset was beautiful, inspiring, and filled with dark, poisonous little creatures just waiting to strike. She had sensed that during the first few months here. She knew it the moment she had met these two, and now she felt their swift, sharp attack.
The pictures were in her purse, but she knew that meant so very little. Simply that she had her own copies. Damn them.
“Staying here will serve no purpose,” Dayle Mackay snorted. “You’re not wanted, you little bitch, any more than your ignorant father was wanted or any of the Walker clan. The lot of you are nothing but white trash, whores, and drug-guzzling bastards.”
Oh, one day, he’d pay for that one. They would both pay for that one.
“Oh well, far be it for me to prove you wrong,” she re- plied mockingly. “Do whatever the hell you want with the pictures. But.” She paused as she picked up the oversized bag at her side. “Be watching for me. When you least expect it.” She looked between the two. “When you very least expect it, I’ll be there. And it won’t be trumped-up photos that are used to break either one of you. It will be the truth.” She left the school, and she left her dreams behind her. She put her dreams behind her, and she refused to call her parents. This was her life, and the thought of dragging them into the mess she had allowed to develop made her cringe. It was her fault. She should have done as her father warned her and let his friends, who managed the bar he still owned in town, know who she was when she went there, rather than hiding from them. It wouldn’t have happened then, because they would have watched out for her.
The problem was, she hadn’t wanted anyone to watch out for her. She had been too confident that she could watch out for herself. She was an adult. She was able to defend herself. In the arrogance of youth she had convinced herself that nothing or no one could touch her.
She had entered that bar as confident and arrogant as any young woman that had just turned twenty-one, watched the excitement and fun with a sense of anticipation. And she had let herself be betrayed and nearly used. She had made that mistake. It was no one’s fault but her own. She would live with it.
She wasn’t about to leave Pulaski County though. As she drove home, she stared out at the mountains, watched the sun blaze full and bright as it began its descent in the evening sky, and she knew she couldn’t leave.
She had been raised in the city, but these mountains, they were a part of her. From the moment she had entered them, she had known she had come home, and she’d known she never wanted to be anywhere else.
But now, she knew an adjustment would have to be made. Her eyes narrowed, her jaw clenched. Damn Nadine Grace and Dayle Mackay. She wasn’t going to be run out of town. She wouldn’t be defeated like that. They had won this round, and those pictures would probably be on the Internet within hours. But that didn’t mean they had beaten her.
Her hands clenched on the steering wheel as she drew in a hard, deep breath. Her father had always called her his little rogue. He would smile fondly when she dressed in her “good girl” clothes as he called them, and his eyes would always twinkle as though he knew something she didn’t.
“You’re as wild as the wind,” he would tell her, and she had always denied it.
But now, she could feel that part of herself burning beneath the surface of the “good girl.” The dreams of teaching had always held her back. A teacher had to be circumspect. She had to be careful. But Caitlyn Rogue Walker was no longer a teacher. She no longer had to worry about being circumspect. She didn’t have to worry about protecting a job she didn’t have.
She flipped on the car’s turn signal and took the road that headed to the little bar outside of town. It had begun there— somehow, her drink had been spiked there that night—and if her father knew what had happened, he would burn it to the ground. Unfortunately, she had loved being in that damned bar.
She had sat in the corner, watched, devoured the atmosphere and had longed to be something more than a “good girl” while she had been there.
There was an apartment overhead. The manager, Jonesy, was a good friend of her father’s, as were the bouncers that worked there. She only had to walk in, announce who she was, and take over ownership.
Had her father somehow sensed her dreams would go awry here more than he had told her? Because he had offered her the bar. Told her that when she got tired of playing the political games that filled the educational system that she could always run the bar. And his eyes had been filled with knowledge, as though he had known the wildness in- side his daughter would eventually be drawn free.
Her reputation had been destroyed because of whatever had happened there the one night she hadn’t been cautious enough. Now it was time to remake that reputation.
Rogue was young, but she was pragmatic. She was bitter now, and she knew that bitterness would fester until Nadine Grace and Dayle Mackay had paid for what they had done. But she wasn’t going to let it destroy her. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of destroying her.
She smiled in anticipation, in anger. Nadine Grace and Dayle Mackay had no idea what they had done. They had destroyed Caitlyn Walker, but nothing or no one could destroy the Rogue she intended to become.
One week later
Sheriff Ezekiel Mayes eased from his current lover’s bed and moved through the bedroom to the shower. The widow he was currently seeing slept on, oblivious to his absence as he showered and dressed.
It would be the last night he spent with her, he knew. Zeke insisted on privacy in his relationships. He didn’t publicly date; he didn’t claim any woman. There was no room in his life, his heart, or his secrets for such a woman. And she was steadily pushing for more. He knew if he didn’t break it off now, then it would only become a mess he didn’t want to face.
He didn’t want ties. He didn’t want the complications that came from claiming any woman as his own. He didn’t want the danger he knew a woman of his could face. He was walking a thin line and he knew it; he wouldn’t make his balance more precarious by taking a lover that could become a weakness. Calvin Walker’s daughter was definitely a weakness, simply because of her affiliation with the Walkers and others’ hatred for them. The job he had set for himself demanded a fragile balance at the moment. Maintaining that balance would be impossible if he gave in to the needs clawing at his gut right now for one innocent little schoolteacher.
As he moved from the bathroom Mina rolled over and blinked back at him sleepily. Slumberous, dark eyes flickered over him as a pout pursed her full, sensual lips.
“It’s not even dawn yet,” she muttered, obviously less than pleased to find him leaving.
She should have expected it. He always left before dawn. “I need to get into the office early,” he told her. And he did, but it could have waited.
Mina Harlow was a generous, warm lover, but she wanted a relationship, and Zeke wasn’t ready to complicate his life to that extent. He hid enough of himself the way it was, he wasn’t interested in hiding it on a regular basis.
“Whatever.” She stretched beneath the blankets before eyeing him with a glimmer of amusement. “Oh, I forgot to tell you. That little schoolteacher that looks at you with stars in her eyes, Miss Walker. The school board fired her last week.”
He didn’t want to hear this particular piece of gossip again. He sure as hell didn’t want to hear the satisfaction in Mina’s tone at the fact that the little schoolteacher had been hurt. Mina was gloating over it, simply because Caitlyn hadn’t hid her interest in him.
This was bullshit. Catty, snide, and hurtful. He’d thought better of Mina at one time.
“I don’t like gossip, Mina,” he reminded her.
She gave a soft little laugh. “Come on, Zeke, it’s all over town and now it’s hit the Internet. Pictures of her in the cut- est little threesome with another couple. Who would have guessed she had it in her.”
Zeke wouldn’t have, and he still didn’t believe it. He’d heard about the pictures more than he wanted to. He re- fused to look at them.
“Miss Goody Two Shoes got caught having her fun,” Mina said smoothly. “I can’t believe she thought she could get away with playing like that here. She should have known better.”
Zeke’s lips thinned as he sat at the bottom of the bed and pulled his boots on. Dammit, he didn’t need to hear this again. He could feel that edge of burning anger in his gut, the one that warned him he was letting a woman get too close.
Caitlyn Rogue Walker was nothing to him, he told him- self. He couldn’t let her become something to him, either. She was too damned innocent, no matter what those photos might show. Not to mention too damned young.
“Too bad the cameraperson didn’t take a few more.” Mina yawned then. “Miss Walker wasn’t even fully un- dressed, but she was definitely getting ready to have a good time.”
His jaw bunched. The innocent Miss Walker had pissed off the wrong people, and Zeke felt responsible for that. Hell, this was just what he needed. He had steered clear of her for the express purpose of making certain she was never targeted for any reason because of him, and she had ended up as a target because of his son instead.
She had caught the attention of two of the town’s worst inhabitants. A brother and sister who delighted in destroying anyone they could. She had caught their attention by defending his son at school.
He felt responsible. It was his son, and despite his knowledge that she had been set up, he still hadn’t managed to find a way to punish those who had hurt her or to tamp down his growing interest in a woman he had no business touching.
He could feel the curling knot of anger, a hint of territorial possessiveness where the teacher was concerned and squelched it immediately. Miss Walker was too young, too innocent. She wasn’t a woman that would accept a sex-only relationship, nor was she a woman Zeke would be able to hide the darker core of his sexuality with, as he did other women. Women such as Mina. Women who touched only his body, never his heart. Miss Walker had the potential to touch the inner man, and he refused to give her the chance.
He’d failed to protect one woman in his life already; he wouldn’t make that mistake again.
“She’s Calvin Walker’s daughter, you know,” Mina continued. “Hell, I thought he was dead. What’s he doing with a daughter? Damned Walkers have never been worth crap, so it shouldn’t be surprising.”
Zeke rose to his feet and turned back to her. “I’m heading out, Mina. Take care.”
This relationship was over. He could barely manage civility now. Mina had always seemed like a kindhearted woman. She had a ready smile, compassionate hazel eyes, a gentle face. And a mean streak a mile wide. He’d learned that over the past few months. When it came to other women, younger women, anyone she considered a threat to what she might want at the time, she turned viperous.
“And you’re not coming back.” Her expression lost its amusement now. “Did you think I didn’t know your attention was waning, Zeke?”
“We had an understanding, Mina.” He’d made certain of it before the relationship began.
She sat up in the bed, unashamedly naked, her short brown hair mussed attractively around her face.
“Your attention hasn’t been worth shit since you met that girl,” she accused him snidely. “You go through the motions, but I don’t doubt you’re thinking of her when you’re fucking me.”
His brow lifted. “Jealousy doesn’t become you, Mina, and it’s not a part of what we had. In this case, you’re wrong. There’s nothing between me and Miss Walker.”
And there never could be. She was too young, too tender. Zeke didn’t mess with women whose innocence lit their eyes like stars in the sky. Caitlyn Walker was the forever kind, and Zeke simply didn’t have that to give her. Forever required the truth, it required parts of himself being revealed, and he’d learned at a young age that the truth wasn’t always acceptable.
“There’s nothing between the two of you because you’re a closemouthed bastard intent on making certain you never give so much as an ounce of yourself,” she snapped. “What’s wrong, Zeke, can’t anyone match the memory of that paragon you were married to? Or did you simply spend too much time in Los Angeles partying with all the gay boys?”
Zeke stared back at her silently. Prejudice in the mountains was still alive and thriving; he’d known that before he came home.
He turned and left the room. He’d be damned if he’d let himself be drawn into an argument with her, especially one she could use against him at any time in the future.
Zeke had a lot friends that still lived in L.A., and yeah, a few of them were gay. He and his past wife, Elaina, hadn’t felt that sense of prejudice that thrived here. He didn’t give a damn what a man or woman’s sexual preference was. He hadn’t cared then, and he didn’t care now.
As he left Mina’s little house outside town, he reminded himself that he was here to do a job, not to make friends or to find another wife. He’d been born and bred in these mountains; he knew every cliff and hollow, every breath of breeze and sigh of the wind. And he’d missed it like hell when he’d been forced to leave. Not that he’d had a choice at the time. It was leave with his mother or face the further destruction of his soul.
At fourteen, his life had changed forever. One moment in time had cursed him and had caused his parents’ divorce. Moving to L.A. with his mother and meeting Elaina, the woman he’d married, had changed it further. At seventeen he’d become a father himself, and through the years he had learned the hard way that he couldn’t run from his past. It had found him, and his wife had died because of it.
He was back in Kentucky because of it. Because he was tired of running, tired of fighting to forget what couldn’t be forgotten.
Damn, he loved these mountains though, he thought as he started his truck and pulled out of Mina’s back drive. The sun was rising over the peaks of pine, oak, and elm that filled the rolling hills. There was a mist in the air that drifted off the nearby lake, and the scent of summer filled his senses.
The vision of Rogue—he just couldn’t see her as Caitlyn—filled his head, no matter how hard he tried to push it back. He was thirty-two years old, a grown man next to her tender twenty-one. She was so damned tiny she made a man second think his own strength and so damned innocent that all a man could think about was being the one to teach her how to sin.
Someone else would have to teach her, he thought, if someone hadn’t already. He was staying just as far away from that land mine as possible. She would be the one woman that would tempt him. If he dared to touch her, if he even considered taking her, he’d never be able to give her only a part of himself. And because of that, he could never have her. There wasn’t enough left of him to give, sometimes he felt as though he had never completely found him- self and never would until the demons of his past were destroyed.
Securing that end wouldn’t be easy, he had known that from the beginning. Navigating the waters of deceit could come with a very high price. It was hard enough protecting his young son from it; he couldn’t deal with protecting a woman as well.
Vanquishing those enemies meant doing the job alone. And until one little schoolteacher with violet eyes, he hadn’t minded paying the price.
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