Finding Forever (Smoky Mountain Lawmen Book 1) (16 page)

BOOK: Finding Forever (Smoky Mountain Lawmen Book 1)
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Tristan
stalked toward them.  “Well next time, don’t take fourteen hours to drive what
should be six at the most."

“Give
her a break, Tristan.  She didn’t want to come back here.  Neither of us did,”
Ben said quietly.

“Then
she should have just stayed the hell away!” Tristan exploded, suddenly in her
space.

Gemma
shrunk back.  Her brother never intimidated her and hadn’t frightened her since
they were kids and he was trying to terrorize her by chasing her with a
spider.  But the wild look on his face and the anger in his eyes frightened her
now.  She had never seen him so unhinged.

Suddenly,
Gemma found herself staring at Ben’s broad back.  “Go on to bed, Gemma.  I’ll
be there in a bit.”  Ben’s voice never rose, but Gemma heard the steel seep
into it.

She
couldn’t do as he asked though.  As sure as she knew her own name she knew that
Tristan wasn’t angry with them.  He was terrified for her and he was pissed
that he couldn’t do more to protect her.  Gemma stepped forward until she was
standing beside Ben.  She took his hand and reached out the other to take
Tristan’s.

Gemma
watched the wildness fade from his eyes and the anger turn down to a simmer as
he took in the wariness and understanding in hers.  In a blink, he ripped her
away from Ben and crushed her in a fierce hug.

“Something
happened.”  Ben said it as a fact and not a question.  Tristan released her and
scrubbed a hand over his face.

“Yeah.”          

Dread
settled over Gemma like thick smoke, threatening to choke the air from her
lungs.  “He didn’t—,” she couldn’t force the words past the lump in her throat.

Tristan
quickly shook his head as her meaning sunk in.  “No.  He didn’t hurt anyone
else.  He just made it abundantly clear what he wanted to do to you.”  He
pulled a folded sheet of paper from his back pocket and handed it to Ben.  “He
wasn’t happy that she snuck away this weekend.  The techs have the original and
are running trace on it.  Not that they’ll find anything, but we can always
hope.”

Ben
grunted as he read.  Gemma watched his face go white while his jaw clenched. 
The muscles in his jaw ticked with the pressure and the veins on his neck
popped out.

“I’m
going to kill the bastard with my bare hands when I catch him,” he growled,
crumpling the paper in his fist.

“Get
in line,” Tristan retorted.

Gemma
grabbed the paper from Ben’s hand and pulled it open, turning to keep him from
taking it back.  Words jumped off the page at her.  Sick, twisted, gruesome words
that made her stomach lurch and her head spin.  She leaned against the wall, unable
to support herself as the text sank in.  The psycho didn’t just want to kill
her he wanted to mutilate her and torture her.  She’d be horrified if she was
reading it about someone else.  It was almost too much to comprehend knowing
she was the subject of the awful note.

“He’s
not coming anywhere near you, Gemma,” Tristan said.  “You’re getting out of
here tonight and—“

“No.”

Tristan
stopped mid-rant and she heard Ben groan.  He covered his eyes and just
sighed. 

“I’m
still not running, Tris.”  She looked up at him imploringly.  “I just can’t. 
We’ll never stop him if I’m not around.  He wants me and he’s not going to stay
here if I leave.  He’s going to come looking for me and he’ll probably kill
someone else in an attempt to draw me out.  I’m not sentencing someone else to
that and I’m not spending my foreseeable future on the run.” 

Tristan
spun away and started pacing. 

“You
know I’m right,” she said softly.

“She’s
is
right, Tristan.  We have a better chance of catching this sick son of
a bitch if Gemma stays right here in Marshall,” Ben said.

Tristan
whirled on Ben, getting in his face.  “How the hell can you say that?  I know
you love her, but you’re willing to set her up as bait to catch the man who
wants to do
that
to her?” Tristan practically yelled, pointing at the
note now crumpled in Gemma’s hand.  “How?  How are you not handcuffing her
little fanny to the chicken bar in your SUV and hauling ass for anywhere but
here?”

Ben
stared hard at the younger man.  “Because she’s right.  Trust me, if I thought
it would work and we could catch the bastard before he could hurt anyone else
or track us down I’d do it in a heartbeat.  But she’s
right
.  He’ll
follow her anywhere I take her.  This guy is meticulous and I’ll bet dollars to
donuts he’s got a law enforcement background.  It’s the only reason I can see
that we’ve found so little forensic evidence and why he’s
always
one
step ahead.  It’d only be a matter of time before he’d track us down.  Then I’d
be alone with little back up.  I’m not willing to risk Gemma’s life on those
kinds of odds.”

Tristan
muttered several epithets and scrubbed his hands down his face.  Ben wanted to
do the same, but knew he had to keep it together if he was going to get Tristan
on board with the plan forming in his head. 

“So
what do we do?” Tristan asked.

Ben
smiled for the first time since they walked in the door.  “Simple.  We set a
trap.”

 

Chapter 18

 

Gemma
wrung her hands for what had to be the thousandth time that day.  Today was the
day.  They were going to set the killer up and take him down.  With her as
bait.  Ben and Tristan had spent the last few days devising their plan.  SWAT
was on stand-by and would be hiding a few blocks over.  Tonight when she left
work, she and Ben were going to stage a huge fight in the parking lot and he
was going to leave her alone at the therapy center to wait on a different ride.

She
was both utterly dreading it and highly anticipating it.  If all went according
to plan and she really was being watched like they thought, the killer should
take the bait and try to get into the center to kidnap her where two armed
men—men who had snuck in overnight and had been hiding out in her office all day—would
be waiting to take him down.  If something went wrong, however…well, she
preferred not to think about that.

Gemma
nearly jumped out of her skin as her cell phone buzzed in her pocket.  She
pulled it out and frowned as the number for Sally Coleman, head of an equine
rescue league of which Gemma was a part, appeared.  Frowning, she answered the
call.

“Hello?”

“Hi
Gemma.  I’m sorry to bother you at work, but we’ve got a situation outside of Rosman. 
I need as many bodies with trailers as I can drum up.  The locals there
stumbled across a farm with over twenty horses all in dire shape and we need to
get them relocated as soon as possible.  I wouldn’t call you during the day if
it weren’t an emergency.  Can you come and get a couple to board at the therapy
center?”

Gemma’s
brain kicked into overdrive.  If she left now, she could get there and back
before she was supposed to leave for the day and they could still go ahead with
the operation this evening.

“Let
me talk to Mona, but I’m sure it will be fine.  If you don’t hear from me in
the next fifteen minutes, then I’ll be there.  Are they going to be ready to
transport when I get there?  I’ve got something going on later that I can’t
miss.”

“Yes. 
They’re being rounded up now and evaluated so we can place them appropriately. 
By the time you arrive we’ll have a couple ready for you to take back.”

“Okay,
then.  I should see you soon.”  Gemma hung up.  Ben was
not
going to
like this.  But with a seizure that size, the therapy center needed to help
out. 

Gemma
hurried down the hall to Mona’s office and poked her head in.  “Hey.  Got a
minute?”

Mona
looked up from where she had been diligently pecking away at her keyboard and
smiled.  “Sure.  What’s up?”

Gemma
quickly outlined the situation.

“I
don’t know, Gemma.  I mean, I don’t have a problem housing the animals, but I’m
not sure you going out there is the best idea.”

“I
know.  But I’m going to call Ben.  I won’t go alone and Sally promised it’ll be
a quick pick up.”           

Mona
continued to frown.  “I still don’t think it’s wise, but if Ben agrees then
it’s fine.  We’ve definitely got the space.”

Gemma
grinned.  “He will.  Thanks, Mona.”

“Be
careful!” Mona called as Gemma hurried down the hall toward the stables to get
the trailer ready.  She’d call Ben while she worked.

 

Ben
looked up from the reports on the canvasses from the area around the therapy
center when his phone buzzed across his desk.  Gemma’s beautiful face smiling
from beneath the floppy brimmed hat she had donned at The City Market in Charleston
greeted him.  Despite the happiness in the picture worry punched him in the
gut.  She didn’t usually call him until her lunch break and that was over an
hour away. 

He
slid his finger across the screen and answered.  “Hey baby.  What’s up?”

“I
need to go out for a bit,” she said by way of greeting.  “I’m part of an equine
rescue league and the head of it just called asking if I could come pick up a
couple of horses to bring back to the therapy center.  Some locals stumbled
across a farm with over twenty horses in dire need of medical care and
rehoming.  I know you don’t really want me going anywhere, but with a seizure
of this size there aren’t many options to put all those animals.  I need to go,
Ben.”  The story came out in a rush and Ben could feel his brain rush to catch
up to the flow of words.

Ben
blew out a breath, remembering what happened the last time she went out at the
last minute.  “No.  I know it’s important, but it’s just too risky.  This guy
has proven that he can get to you anytime he wants.  Remember Biltmore?”

He
heard her sigh and the sound of something heavy hitting metal.  “What are you
doing?” he asked.

She
grunted and something else heavy dropped.  “Unloading all of Jasper’s crap from
the second stall of the trailer.”

Ben
stood and grabbed his keys, frustration making him snap at her as he hurried
from the station.  “Gemma, I said no.  It’s too dangerous.”

The
line suddenly got very quiet.  Ben pulled the phone away from his ear to see if
she had hung up.  It was still active.  “Gemma?”

“Ben,
I know you’re trying to keep me safe and that you’re worried about me, so I’ll
let that tone slide, but I’m telling you that I’m going.”  The banging resumed. 
“With that many animals, Sally has probably pulled every string she has to get
people to take them.  If we don’t take them in here they’ll likely have to
euthanize the two weakest.  I can’t sit by and watch two horses die knowing I
could have given them a chance.  If that puts my life in danger, so be it.”

Ben
cursed silently.  This was one quality in her that he both loved and hated. 
She had a weak spot for animals—people too—who were in need, and there wasn’t
much she wouldn’t do to help even if it meant putting herself in harm’s way. 
“I get that, darlin’, I do.  But why do you have to be the one to go?  Can’t
Mona go?”

“She’s
got a quarterly review due tomorrow and she’s swamped.  Because of all that’s
been going on, and with the plan in place for tonight I had a light schedule
today just in case.”  The banging ceased again.

“Dammit,
woman.  You’re killing me, you know that right?  I’m on my way.  Do
not
leave until I get there or I swear to God I will handcuff your pretty little
ass to the bed frame for the foreseeable future.” 

Gemma
giggled.  “Sounds kinky.”

Ben
couldn’t stop the frustrated growl that escaped.  “It’s not funny, Gems.  I’m
serious.  Stay put.”  He disconnected the call and threw the phone onto the
passenger seat as he peeled out of the station parking lot.  His knuckles shone
white on the steering wheel as he drove as fast as he dared.  He had to force
his jaw to unclench fearing he’d break a molar.  He couldn’t remember the last
time he’d been so furious.  She insisted on putting herself in danger and it
was starting to wear on his nerves.  They may not have to fake that fight this
afternoon.

He
slammed his fist into the steering wheel and sucked in a breath.  He knew he
was partly to blame for the danger.  He should have listened to Tristan and
squirreled her away in protective custody until he caught the killer, but he’d
let her emotions sway him.  He had wanted to spare her the heartache of having
to deal with someone else’s death because she’d chosen to live.  He wouldn’t
have blamed her if she had hidden away—most people would have—but he’d admired
the guts it took to stay in the line of fire when she didn’t have to.  And
she’d been right.  Putting her up as bait was the most effective and efficient
way to catch the killer.  It didn’t mean he liked it though. 

He
was terrified everything was going to blow up in their faces and the killer
would not only get away, but that he’d take Gemma with him.

“Dammit!” 
He slammed the wheel again.  He couldn’t lose her.   

           

Gemma
jumped as the door to the arena slammed against the wall.  Ben strode through
looking for all the world like a pissed off Greek god.  If there had been
obstacles in his path to get to her they would have withered and sunk into the
ground.

Man,
he’s pissed
.  Gemma straightened her spine. 
Let
him be mad
, she thought.  She’d had a lifetime of dealing with Tristan’s
temper.  She could handle Ben’s too. 

He
came to a stop before her and glowered down at her.  Gemma stared back.  If he
was hoping to break her and get her to cave by intimidating her he had another
think coming.  She had a stubborn streak a mile wide and had honed it on her
brother over the years.

“You’re
not going to back down on this are you?” he finally said, his low voice rolling
over her. 

She
simply shook her head.

His
jaw worked and he glanced away before turning his gaze back to her.  This time
the steely determination was replaced by something far softer as well as a
healthy dose of fear.  “I know you probably think I’m being heavy handed, but I
can’t help it when it comes to you.  I don’t like feeling like this.  This
isn’t me.  I never lose it, but the thought of something happening to you is
enough to tear off all my armor and leave the nerves exposed.”

Gemma’s
heart squeezed painfully.  She threw herself at him and felt tears slip down
her cheeks.  “I’m sorry, Ben.  I’m not trying to worry you,” she whispered
against his neck.  “I just have to do this.  I couldn’t live with myself if
something happened to those animals because of me.”  She pulled back so she
could look up at him.  “This is part of who I am.  I have to help when and
where I’m able.  And I can promise you that this won’t be the only time that I
run off to do something like this.  I wish that there was someone else who
could go today, but I’m the only one free at the moment.  If there were any
other way I’d have jumped on it.  I don’t like putting myself in danger, but in
this instance if I don’t, it might keep me safe, but I’ll never be the same.” 
Her voice caught on a sob and she choked it down.  “I’ll have to live with the
guilt that I could have done something and didn’t.”  She framed his face in her
hands, imploring him to understand.  “I don’t want to live the rest of my life
like that.  It will color everything else and I’ll never be truly happy.”

“I
know, darlin’.  It’s part of what makes you, you.  That generous spirit is what
draws me to you.”  One hand slid up her back to twist around her ponytail.  He
tugged until her head tipped back slightly.  “Do you mind if I come along? 
I’ll feel better if I’m the one who’s looking out for you.”

“I
was hoping you’d say that.”  She let her hands slide around his head to link
behind his neck as he bent to kiss her.  “And for the record,” she slid a hand
between them to cover his lips before he could kiss her.  “I was never going to
go by myself.  I was going to take Jake with me.”

Ben
frowned at the name. 

Gemma
smiled and removed her hand.  “Officer Maxwell.  His name is Jake.  He’s on
guard duty out front and since he and I have a track record with horses I
figured I’d take him along for this one too.  I mean, lightning can’t strike
twice, right?” 

Ben
couldn’t stop the smile that spread across his face.  “Baby, I’m beginning to
think that with you lightning will strike wherever and whenever it wants.”

He
silenced her giggle with a fierce kiss.

 

Gemma
pulled up on the scene and gaped at the number of trucks with trailers there. 
She’d never been on a rescue like this before.  She parked in the long line of
other trucks and trailers and climbed out.  Ben came around to stand next to
her.

“Is
it always like this?” Ben asked staring at the people running to and fro. 

Gemma
shook her head, searching the crowd.  “It’s usually much quieter with about a
fourth of the people.  But then there’s not normally so many horses to
rehome.”  She looked up at him.  “This is the largest seizure I’ve ever been
to.  Before this, my record was ten.”  She scanned the yard again.  Several
horses stood stoically inside the corral.  Each one was severely underweight. 
They all looked like they could drop at any moment.  “This is awful,” Gemma
said softly, starting toward the fence.

“Gemma!”

She
whirled to the left at the sound of her name.  Gemma smiled as she recognized
her friend, Sally.  Her long blond hair was drawn up into a ponytail, her
clothes streaked with straw-caked mud.

“I’m
glad you made it.  This is turning into a real circus.”  She gestured to the
chaos around them.  “I’d give you a hug, but I don’t think you want what I’ve
got on me all over you.”

Gemma
chuckled and embraced her friend anyway.  “I’ve been covered in it before.  It
washes away.”  She pulled back and gestured to Ben.  “Sally, this is my
boyfriend, Ben Davidison.  Ben, Sally Coleman.”

He
shook her hand.  “Nice to meet you ma’am.”

“You
too.”  Her grip on Ben’s hand lingered as she looked at Gemma.  She arched an
eyebrow in appreciation and smiled.  “Boyfriend, huh?  Does Tristan know about
this one?”

Gemma
and Ben both laughed.  “He does.  And he actually approves.  Albeit,
grudgingly,” Gemma told her.

BOOK: Finding Forever (Smoky Mountain Lawmen Book 1)
9.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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