No Rules --
The first time he left it nearly killed her.
This time was different. Now she couldn’t have cared
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
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
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
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.
“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
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
“I believe the total assets are close to three million
“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
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
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
“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
“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.
“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
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
“Are you a doctor?”
“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
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
Mosely pushed at his shoulder, making Donovan turn. “Hey, are you saying there was a crime here? That this was
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!
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
“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
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
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
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
Then she’d get out of the godforsaken, backwoods hole
that was Nipagonee Rapids, Michigan, as soon as possible