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No Rules -- Starr Ambrose

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No Rules -- Starr Ambrose

No Rules --

 

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excerpt

The first time he left it nearly killed her.

This time was different. Now she couldn’t have cared less.

Jess supposed she could work up a good anger if she tried. Something that reflected the unresolved feelings she’d thought fifteen years of therapy had healed. Because death was forever, and this time the son of a bitch hadn’t just walked out of her life; this time he’d died. Any faint hope for an apology or reconciliation with her estranged father was gone—one more thing he’d taken from her. The bastard.

Still, she’d been his only child, and sole surviving blood relative. As far as she knew, he hadn’t even spoken
to her mother in fifteen years. So when her father’s lawyer said, “We’ll begin going over the will as soon as the other beneficiary arrives,” she scrunched up her brows in confusion. “What other beneficiary?”

“One moment, Miss Maulier, I’m sure… Ah, here we go.”

Jess turned in her chair, braced for the sight of some garish gold digger, no doubt one of those busty types with too much jewelry and makeup, and a handful of tissues to wipe her fake tears. One final reminder that the gentle, loving father of her childhood was long gone, replaced by a man she didn’t recognize and actions she couldn’t understand. The cynical expression she’d prepared fell into an openmouthed stare.

It wasn’t a woman. Far from it.

Testosterone oozed from the man who strode into the office. From his height and build, she might have mistaken him for a professional athlete, but he lacked the casual grace and easy-going demeanor she’d expect in a man who played games for a living. Confidence was there, and no doubt the skills to go with it, but she was sure it had nothing to do with sports. This man did not play games. He was danger and aggression in one raw package, an appearance so imposing it would have sent her flying to her therapist’s couch in a panic
if he’d approached her in a bar. She hoped he didn’t notice how she shrank back in her chair.

He was dressed entirely in black, from his leather jacket and pants, to his boots and shiny helmet tucked beneath under one arm. Even his unruly hair and unshaven stubble were so dark as to be nearly black. The only spots of color were his blue eyes, which took in the lawyer, then her, before making one thorough sweep of the room.

It was the kind of look that made her sure he could close his eyes and recite every object on Mr. Sanderson’s desk and bookshelf. Cool, but intensely alert. When his gaze came back to her, she shivered.

“Hello, Jessie,” he said, startling her with the nickname only her father had used. “I’m Tyler Donovan.” He bit the fingertips of one leather glove, pulled his hand out, and reached down to where she sat.

She stared, first at him, then at his hand. The chilly November air rolled off him as she allowed him to engulf
her fingers in his firm grip for two seconds before pulling abruptly away.

His name had meant nothing to her. He was too young to be one of her father’s contemporaries, yet too old to be a typical student. Surely such a dangerous-seeming man couldn’t have been a close friend of the quiet linguistics scholar? And yet, he’d known her name.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but who are you?”

“Tyler Donovan.” He repeated it slowly, as if it should have some significance for her.

It didn’t.

“How did you know my father?”

“We worked together.”

At tiny Emerson college? He had to be in a different department; linguistics had never seemed so vital and stimulating when she was in school. She was still staring at him as Mr. Sanderson settled at his desk and opened a folder.

“Please sit down, Mr. Donovan, and we’ll get right to it. This is really very simple, as you are the only two beneficiaries in Walter’s will. I’ll summarize, if you’d like me to skip the legal jargon.”

She nodded and Donovan said, “That’s fine,” but his attention seemed more on her than on Mr. Sanderson. She was equally distracted, still wondering who in the hell he was while trying to ignore the little flip her stomach took every time her gaze ran into his.

Mr. Sanderson seemed oblivious, intent on his own agenda, which apparently involved wrapping up this appointment and being someplace else. “Good, good,” he approved. “Walter had this will drawn up several years ago, but nothing has changed and it’s quite straightforward. Miss Maulier, the house and property in Nipagonee Rapids, consisting of ten acres, are left to you. All monies in stocks, bonds, retirement plans, and any accounts at the Emerson College Teachers Credit Union are also yours. My secretary will provide you with a list of all accounts with their current values.”

“Thank you.”

“I believe the total assets are close to three million dollars.”

“Three…” Her tongue stumbled to a halt.

"Million.” Mr. Sanderson nodded briskly. “If you think any assets have been overlooked once you see the list, please let me know immediately.

“Uh, no, that is, I’m sure…” She ran out of words, realizing she wasn’t sure of anything. She hadn’t expected to profit from her father’s death.

"And Mr. Donovan, Walter consigned the entire contents of his house to you.”

Jess shot a startled glance at the man next to her, who did not look surprised in the least.

Mr. Sanderson went on without looking up. “Two things are excepted from that bequest. One is a collection of
children’s books displayed on the fireplace mantle, and the other is a glass-enclosed bookshelf in the study containing replicas of ancient Egyptian artifacts and copies of two books authored by Walter on his research in Egypt. Both go to Miss Maulier.”

The lawyer finally looked up with a satisfied smiled. “That’s it. Any questions?”

Jess didn’t know where to start. She’d just fallen heir to more money than she’d ever expected to have, and yet all her father’s personal items, from valuable Persian rugs to the precious framed paintings done by her mother years ago, had been given to some stranger. An intimidating, dark stranger who nodded once as if satisfied that he’d gotten exactly what he expected.

It stung, a final parting insult she hadn’t expected. She’d wanted those paintings. She’d also wanted the memories that went with them of a time when she and her parents had been a close-knit, happy family. Now they belonged to Tyler Donovan…whoever the hell he was.

The man in question turned his enigmatic, closed expression on her. “I’d like to go through the house as soon
as possible. When can I come over?”

Never hovered on her lips, but she bit it back. She probably couldn’t deny him access, but she didn’t have to
make it easy for him to cart off the only good mementos she had from a torn-apart childhood. “Later,” she said stiffly. “I have a funeral to get through first.” She stood, telling Mr. Sanderson, “Thank you, I’ll get in touch with your secretary before I return to Houston.”

She had her hand on the doorknob within two seconds, but Donovan sprang to his feet and grabbed the edge of the door before she could push it far enough to squeeze through. “I really need to go through the contents of that house, Jessie,” he said.

“My name is Jess,” she muttered, unnerved by the affectionate nickname coming from his lips. Touching him
was even more disturbing. The cool leather of his sleeve brushed her arm, and his warm breath tickled her neck in a way that was pleasant enough to be disconcerting. “You’ll have to do it later,” she told him, adding a glare meant to enforce her decision. It had no effect, but he didn’t stop her when she pushed against his weight and shoved through the doorway, relieved to be free. She didn’t bother to give him her phone number, certain he would find a way to get it. He looked resourceful.

Donovan walked briskly down the deserted hallway of the Bass County morgue, boots clicking dully on the linoleum, leather chaps and jacket creaking like an old saddle.

Rainwater dripped off the helmet dangling from his hand, leaving a trail of drops behind him. He was cold and wet, but considering it was November in northern Michigan, he was just relieved the precipitation wasn’t snow.

He would have preferred to have his car, but the message about Wally had caught him off guard in the middle of moving the bike to his sister’s house for the winter. Continuing north was faster than turning back to his apartment in Chicago to get his car. But he’d still been too late. There was nothing to do but follow Wally’s puzzling final instructions to contact Jessie.

But first he needed to confirm his suspicions. At the end of the hallway a door opened and light spilled out around the stout form of a man in a police uniform. He jerked his chin in Donovan’s direction. “You Tyler Donovan?”

“Yeah. Sheriff Mosely?” At the older man’s nod, Donovan offered a firm handshake as he reached the door,
then followed Mosely inside.        “Tom Rasmussen,” Mosely said, introducing the man who rose from his desk. “County coroner.”

“Thanks for staying late,” Donovan said, shaking hands again.

“Not my idea,” the coroner grunted. “Parker here said you had information about the victim’s cause of death,” he said, nodding at Sheriff Mosely. “I can’t imagine it would change my conclusion, but I have to listen anyway.”

Donovan absorbed the insult without expression, but was pleased to see Rasmussen scowl when he tossed his wet helmet onto the visitor’s chair in front of the desk. He’d never gotten along well with territorial bureaucrats and this one was already giving off bad vibes. “The sheriff tells me you have a cause of death for Walter Shikovski,” he said.

“I do.”

“What was it?”

“Why do you want to know?”

Donovan allowed a tight smile, enough to let the coroner know that he was merely tolerating the question; the report was public knowledge. “He was a close friend,” he said. True, although far from the whole truth.

“Didn’t know he had any,” Mosely said. The sheriff’s assessing gaze was more professional than Rasmussen’s,
openly curious about the stranger. “His coworkers said he kept to himself.”

“I’m a former student.” Also true, as far as it went. “Walter’s death was…unexpected.” Alarming was more
accurate.

Rasmussen nodded, accepting the story. “Walter Shikovski died of a heart attack,” he said. “Plain and simple.
Ventricular tachycardia resulting in death.”

A heart attack, maybe. Not plain and simple, though.

“Can I see the body?”

The coroner frowned. “Why?”

He didn’t want to say it, but knew he wouldn’t get to see the body any other way. “Because you might have missed something.”

“Are you a doctor?”

“No.”

“Then how would you know?”

“I knew Wally.” If he gave them the truth, they’d never believe it. “Look, if you won’t show me, I’ll examine the body at the funeral home. But it would be easier if I could see him here.” It took all the patience he had to add, “Please.” Rasmussen gave Sheriff Mosley a sullen glance. Mosley shrugged. “Fine,” Rasmussen acquiesced reluctantly. “In here.”

He followed them into an adjoining room, past a solitary autopsy table in the center, to a bank of four steel vault doors in the far wall. Rasmussen pulled out the upper left drawer until it was fully extended. Donovan braced himself mentally as the coroner lifted the sheet, revealing the upper half of Walter Shikovski’s nude body.

He’d seen dead bodies before, but never got used to the jolt of seeing the composed, grayish features of a friend. Sadness twisted in his chest, and he quickly looked away from Wally’s face. His friend would understand the necessity of what he had to do, but he would perform the task with as much respect as he could.

Stepping closer, he took Wally’s left arm and turned it, carefully examining the spaces between his fingers, the inner crook of his elbow, and under his arm. The dead limb felt unnaturally heavy and loose in his hands. Setting his jaw, he repeated the examination on Wally’s right arm. Rather than lower the sheet past his friend’s waist, he raised it from the bottom, exposing Wally’s lower legs. He repeated the search, checking behind Wally’s knees and between his toes, even pulling out a small flashlight to better examine the waxy, pale skin. Rasmussen stood with his arms folded and said nothing. Donovan ignored him, taking his time.

Finally, he straightened and wiped beads of sweat from his brow, the evidence he’d found chilling him to the bone. Goddamn it. What had his friend gotten into, and what kind of hell had they put him through before killing him?

“I’m done,” he told the coroner. “Thank you.” Rasmussen came forward. “What do you mean, you’re
done. What did you find?”

“Exactly what I thought I’d find. Needle marks. But I’m not surprised you missed them, they were well hidden.”

“Marks, plural? What the hell are you talking about?” He didn’t have to answer. Rasmussen snatched the
flashlight from him and repeated the examination, touching on every spot Donovan had looked at. Mosely watched with growing curiosity, moving closer to Wally’s body as if he might see something, too. When Rasmussen finally turned to face Donovan, his cynicism had been replaced by a sober determination. “What happened to him?”

Nothing he wanted to tell. “What do you think?”

“Needles. He was injected, repeatedly. I did a standard tox screen; nothing showed up.”

“It wouldn’t. I’m sure the drug used was undetectable.” What he didn’t say was that, if this case was like others he’d seen, only one of those marks was from a lethal injection. The others were most likely thin probes, used purely to cause pain. But Rasmussen would probably never need to diagnose torture again, and didn’t need to know. “You weren’t wrong about the heart attack, just maybe about the cause.”

Mosely pushed at his shoulder, making Donovan turn. “Hey, are you saying there was a crime here? That this was murder?”

Donovan considered how much to tell him. Someone had tried to get information from Wally. Telling Rasmussen and the sheriff wouldn’t help Wally, but there was more than one life at risk here. “Walter Shikovski was murdered. I can’t prove it, but I can tell you that his daughter is in danger from the same people who killed him.”

Sheriff Mosely straightened. “What people? What do you know about it?”

“I don’t know who they are.” Not yet. But he’d sure as hell find out.

Mosely followed him as Donovan went to the other room and snatched his helmet off the chair. “You know
something. What did they want from Wally?”

He stopped, looking Mosely in the eyes. “That’s the million-dollar question, Sheriff. I don’t know the answer.”
He’d find out that, too. Or a whole lot of people were going to end up dead, starting with Walter’s beloved
daughter, Jessie.…

Jess turned her collar up against the frigid wind, shivering from head to toe. The funeral director had insisted on sticking with the outdoor service her father had arranged and paid for years before, even though Walter must have envisioned dying in the summer. Michigan’s November cold was playing hell with her Southern blood.

Not that there were many who suffered along with Jess. She eyed the small group of mourners standing around the mahogany casket for the graveside service. Had anyone liked her father? Only a handful of his coworkers from the university had shown up, anonymous figures in long coats and hats who murmured introductions she immediately forgot. And Tyler Donovan. He’d lurked in the background during the service, still in motorcycle leathers, as if he’d brought nothing else with him to Nipagonee Rapids. To her annoyance, he’d shown up at the funeral home, too, never speaking to anyone, just watching. Each time his gaze had
met hers she’d found it hard to look away, his intent stare compelling and unnerving at the same time. It sent shivers across her shoulders; she hadn’t decided if they were good shivers or bad ones.

He hadn’t called her to go through the house yet.

She looked for him now as the small group dispersed, determined to ask exactly what work he’d done with her
father and why his friendship had meant so much to Walter Shikovski that he’d left all his personal possessions to him. She scanned the surrounding tombstones and scattered pines as the service ended, but saw only two men in heavy coveralls leaning against a backhoe in the distance, waiting for everyone to leave so they could lower the casket and finish the burial. No Donovan. He was probably hanging back, waiting for the last mourners to leave so he could approach her again about going through his newly acquired possessions.

Cold raindrops mixed with the November wind, hurrying the last of the mourners toward their waiting cars. She ignored their footsteps crunching the dead leaves behind her, giving her father’s casket one last look. An official good-bye seemed called for, but she had no words to offer. No words that could express the hurt of losing the beloved father of her childhood, and nothing to say to the man who’d turned his back on his thirteen-year-old daughter when she’d needed him most.

Cold rain bit at her exposed legs below her trench coat, prompting her to hurry and be done. “Screw it,” she
muttered aloud. “Good-bye, Dad—”

With a rush of movement behind her, her words were suddenly cut off. A hand snaked around her throat and
clamped over her mouth, rough fingers mashing her lips against her teeth. Jess screamed, the muted sound vibrating against the hand.

Whose hand? Her mind flew to Donovan and the way she’d lost track of him, yet hadn’t seen him leave. Would
he attack her? Who the hell knew? He was a mystery. She should have mentioned him to someone, asked who he was. Too late now.

Panic tore through her and she clawed at the arms pinning her against a tall, male body. Strong arms, hard and muscular beneath thick sleeves. Donovan’s? They could be. Against her ear, a rough cheek brushed hers, igniting new terror. She struggled wildly, then froze as the man’s harsh voice rumbled into her ear.

“Hand it over,” he growled. “Or end up in the ground with him.”

Not Donovan’s voice. The unfamiliar accent proved it, but provided no reassurance. He pushed her forward, still holding tightly, and her foot slipped into nothingness—the edge of the grave.

A green felt tarp covered the grave, a fake grassy border to hide the yawning hole beneath the casket. The tarp gave way beneath her shoe. Another scream tore from her throat, muffled against his hand as he forced her other foot to the edge of the grave. She shook her head, both a plea to stop and confusion over his demand. Hand what over? Her wallet? Her house keys? The rest of the threat was all too clear.

She dug her fingernails into his coat sleeves, hanging on as she lost her footing. For a heart-stopping instant she dangled above her father’s open grave. The man shifted, and she thought he was going to pull her back, message delivered, but he simply switched his grip to his left arm, still covering her mouth while his right hand moved away. He lifted it again, and she flinched as he nicked her neck with the point of a knife.

He was going to kill her. Her stomach flipped, bringing a sour taste of bile to her mouth. She wondered leetingly if throwing up would make him jump away, or if he would slash angrily with the knife. The thought was aborted by a sudden impact. Something hit him—hit them—from behind. In a blur of black leather, her attacker lost his hold on her and fell to the ground with Donovan on top of him. Flung from the man’s grip, she staggered forward. A weak cry escaped her as she groped at nothing and fell to her knees.

And kept falling.

Her fingernails clawed briefly at the smooth, hard mahogany of her father’s casket as she slipped past it. Beneath her feet, the tarp gave way, and in a sudden nightmare come true, she slid like a wet noodle down the
narrow space between the casket and the dirt wall of the grave.

Pain. Blackness. The smell of damp earth. A bone-deep panic that raked at her chest like an animal trying to get out. On her hands and knees, Jess clenched her fingers in cold soil, then recoiled. The exposed dirt of the grave seemed far more sinister than the ground above. With a shudder, she lifted her head.

A dirt wall rose on her right, ending in a gray slice of sky. Cutting off most of the view, her father’s casket hung above her on a framework of boards. A view not meant to be experienced by the living. A wild thought flew through her mind: if she survived, how many additional years of therapy would this require?

A sound like a mewing kitten squeaked from her throat, pitiful even to her ears. It didn’t come close to reflecting the depth of her fear. She inhaled deeply, allowing the smell of damp earth to fuel her terrified cry. “Help me! Someone!” Pushing herself to her feet, she nearly collapsed again at the stab of pain in her right ankle. Injured and buried alive. Terror shook her voice as she cried out again, “Help! Help! Help!”

A dark form appeared above her. A man, bare-headed in the increasing rain, dark hair plastered to his forehead and neck. His face was in shadow, but still lighter than the gloom of the grave. Light enough for her to recognize the hard stare and unsmiling face of Tyler Donovan.

“I’ll be back,” he yelled and disappeared from view.

“What? No, wait.” Her only chance at getting out of her father’s grave was about to disappear. Utter fear trembling in her voice, she called out, “Come back. I’m hurt.”

Far above, she heard a vicious curse and the scramble of feet on wet leaves. Seconds later, Donovan’s grim face peered over the edge of the grave above her. “How bad?”

Was he kidding? Was there a sliding scale for open grave injuries, a one-to-ten gradient? She needed to get out of here. With fear clutching her chest, she yelled back, “Bad. My ankle feels broken.” Actually, she could probably walk it off, but exaggeration seemed warranted if it got her out of here faster.

“Is it bleeding?”

Oh, for God’s sake. Was he really prepared to leave her here alone? “How the hell do I know? Her body shook
uncontrollably, and her voice choked with the tears she tried desperately to hold back. “It’s dark as Hades down here and I can’t tell mud from blood. Just get me the freaking hell outof here.”

“Fuck.” But with the decision made, he lay on the ground and reached into the grave. “Grab my hand.”

It was grudging, but it was also the only offer she was going to get. Wobbling on her good leg, she reached up to clasp his wrist. He gave a hard pull, grunting as he rose to his knees. She dangled, feet off the ground and chest against the cold, muddy wall of the grave. Closing her eyes against a flood of horrifying images, she hung on. A second later, matted grass tickled her cheek.

“Grab my other hand.”

She opened her eyes and did as he ordered. With one hard tug, he pulled her up until she slid belly-down onto the wet ground, gasping like a landed fish.

He knelt beside her, rolling her over and gently probing her ankles. Raindrops hit her face, stinging cold. She
welcomed the feeling as proof she still belonged with the living.

He patted her cheek. “Are you okay?”

The stupidest question ever. Anger helped her focus and was a good substitute for the terror still pumping through her veins. Narrowing her gaze, she snapped, “No, I’m not okay.” Sitting up, she swiped at the rain on her face with a trembling hand. “I just got shoved into my father’s open grave and you ask me if I’m okay? I am f-freaked out and scared and injured,” she gulped as her voice faltered, “and c-covered in mud. And I am definitely not okay.”

She pushed herself up, then balanced on one foot while gingerly putting her right toes down, testing their ability to take her weight. It wasn’t as bad as she’d feared.

He knelt at her feet, probed her ankle again, then rose, crossing his arms. “It’s not broken,” he said, clearly an
accusation. “It’s not even bleeding.”

She stared, incredulous. Brushing hair aside in order to give him the penetrating glare he deserved, she finally met his eyes. She froze as her thoughts tumbled into a void and disappeared.

Unlike when they’d met in the lawyer’s office, the circumstances were not polite and civilized. Neither was
he. His hair was wild and wet, his expression annoyed, and his firm jaw shadowed with stubble. His dark gaze was piercing and intelligent and something else that made her knees weaker than they already were. He looked tough and dangerous, like someone she wouldn’t care to meet in a dark alley. That he also looked inexplicably sexy had to be due to her rattled brain.

In the distance the sound of screeching tires penetrated her mental fog, followed by the muted roar of an overworked engine. Her attacker was getting away. Donovan stepped back, his impatience reignited. “Go home.”

“Huh?” She watched in confusion as he took a few running steps, motioning at the same time toward the two
workmen who were jogging toward them between the headstones. “See that she gets to her car, would you?” he called out.

The men paused, baffled, watching him run off. When the first man reached her, he took her elbow and stared at her muddy coat and legs. “Are you okay, miss?”

She didn’t bother with a scathing retort, watching instead as Donovan disappeared down the slope toward the
drive where everyone had parked. Seconds later she heard the throaty roar of his motorcycle as he raced off.

“Miss? Do you need help?”

She jerked her attention back to the concerned face of the man beside her. Struggling to sound lucid, she pulled her arm away and brushed futilely at the mud smearing her coat. “I’m okay, just a little shaken.”

“Are you sure? Can you walk?”

No. She wanted desperately to collapse to her knees. But even more than that, she wanted to get out of here. “Yes, of course.” She took a couple steps to prove it and nearly fell as pain shot through her right ankle. Recovering, she tested it gingerly. Sore, probably a mild sprain, but she could manage. “I’m fine, really. But would you mind walking me to my car?”

“Sure, sure.” The men exchanged worried looks and stayed close as she began walking carefully. She was certain she could make it unaided but wasn’t at all sure the lunatic with the knife was gone for good. As much as she wanted to go home and dry off, she would need to drive to the small police station first. The police needed to know her life had been threatened, even if the attacker had most likely been some deluded psycho who’d gone off his meds. In a town this size, they’d probably know who he was and where to find him.

Then she’d get out of the godforsaken, backwoods hole that was Nipagonee Rapids, Michigan, as soon as possible