Dangerous to Touch

Dangerous to Touch

Silhouette Romantic Suspense
June 2008
ISBN 0-373-27588-9

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Excerpt
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All her life Sidney Morrow had tried to repress her disturbing psychic visions.  Until a vision of murder shattered her fragile serenity.  She had to go to the authorities—make them listen.  But Lt. Marc Cruz didn’t trust her one bit.  In fact, the sensual homicide cop treated her like a suspect.  And sent her senses haywire….

The dark-haired beauty knew something about the serial killer Marc was after.  But he was certain “visions” had nothing to do with it.  Determined to be her constant shadow, Marc wasn’t prepared when desire blindsided him—and put them both in the path of a relentless killer.

 
REVIEWS

“A captivating and complex love story.”
-- Cataromance

“Jill Sorenson is an author to watch.”
-- All About Romance

“I loved Dangerous to Touch. I haven't enjoyed a Silhouette Romantic Suspense so much ever. This goes down as one of the best I've ever read. Bar none.”
-- Maya Banks

 
EXCERPT

CHAPTER ONE

Sidney woke to the sound of a dog barking. 

Dangerous to TouchFor a moment, she thought she'd fallen asleep in the office at the kennel again, but when she opened her eyes she saw the pale yellow paint and outdated light fixture gracing the ceiling of her own bedroom.  Her cat, Marley, was curled up into a soft tortoiseshell ball at the foot of the bed, unperturbed.

She threw back the rumpled sheet and climbed out of bed, wondering who had gotten a dog.  In this neighborhood, just steps away from Oceanside City Beach, everyone owned or rented tiny two-story houses, like hers, each with the same nonexistent yard space.  Dogs weren't allowed on the beach, either, so most area residents didn't own them. 

Especially not large, menacing dogs with deep, resounding barks, which was most assuredly what she'd heard. 

Yawning, Sidney strode over to the open window in her underwear and pushed aside the gauzy curtains to catch a glimpse of heaven.  She inhaled the salty ocean scent, studied the play of the early morning light off the rippled water, listened to the rhythmic crash of waves breaking against the shoreline.

There was no dog barking.

Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she stepped away from the window, dismissing the noise as a remnant of a particularly vivid dream.  Visual illusions, unfortunately, were not an infrequent occurrence for her.  Now she was going to have to add auditory hallucinations to her list of oddities.

With a wistful glance at her comfy wrought-iron bed, Sidney grabbed a pair of jeans off the floor and pulled them up her slender hips.  Shoving her feet into old sneakers, she performed a hasty morning toilette that consisted of washing her face and brushing her teeth. 

As she left the bedroom, Marley let out a staccato farewell meow, indicating that she was sleeping in.

Downstairs, while Sidney waited for a bagel to toast, she turned the knob on the ancient ten-inch television atop her kitchen counter, more to distract than to entertain herself.  She only had three channels, and all of them were broadcasting news, the Sunday-morning variety, high-fluff, low-violence.  As she sipped hot coffee, enjoying the jolt of caffeine to her system, Crystal Dunn—a petite blonde reporter whose sweet countenance and angelic blue eyes couldn’t mask a cut-throat nature—broke in with an important newsbreak.

"Hal and Sandra, I'm on location in a quiet residential neighborhood known as Sunshine Estates.  Candace Hegel, who lives in the area, was last seen walking her dog here early yesterday morning.  Her sudden disappearance has caused a local panic.  Friends and family fear Miss Hegel may have fallen into the hands of a serial killer."

At the news desk, even the co-anchors appeared skeptical.  "Crystal, has law enforcement given any indications of foul play?"

Crystal batted her dark lashes engagingly.  "No, Hal, they have no comment, but if you remember Anika Groene, the killer's first victim, you'll note the similarities.  Anika was presumed to be taken while walking her dog, a dog which was never found, I might add.  Miss Hegel's dog is also missing."

Sidney's half-eaten bagel transformed into a hard lump in the pit of her stomach.  Photos of Anika Groene, a fresh-faced college student, and Candace Hegel, an attractive woman in her thirties, flashed across the screen, along with home-taken snapshots of both dogs.

"Anyone with information should contact the Oceanside Police Department…"  Crystal continued, reciting a hotline number.

Anika Groene's dog was a goofy-looking Doberman with a poorly done ear crop.  Sidney felt a rush of sympathy at the sight of his sweet, lopsided mug, sure the dog had met the same fate as his owner.

Candace Hegel's dog elicited a very different reaction.  He was an Australian Shepherd mix, by the look of him, although he didn't appear to have the friendly personality typical of the breed.  With his mottled blue-gray coat, mangy appearance, and fierce, colorless eyes, he was the kind of dog you crossed the street to avoid.

He also looked perfectly capable of making a loud, insidious bark—just like the one she'd heard that morning.

"Ridiculous," she said, switching the television off abruptly and promising not to turn it on again for another six months.

At Pacific Pet Hotel, the business she'd been scraping a living off of for the past five years, Sidney found something far more unsettling than the Sunday morning news:  Candace Hegel's hellhound, stalking the fence line.

"Why me?" she whispered, slowing to a stop in front of the gate and resting her head against the steering wheel.  It made no sense.  The kennel was miles from Sidney’s house, but she knew with one hundred percent accuracy that this dog's barking had disturbed her slumber. 

Grumbling, she got out of her truck to unlock the gate and roll it open.  As she drove into the small parking lot, the dog made no move to follow.  He merely watched as she exited the vehicle again.  By the time she called the police department, he could very well bolt.

She knew enough about dogs to understand that this one would need careful handling and a lot of finesse, two attributes she didn't associate with most officers of the law.

Keeping her truck door open, she whistled engagingly.  "Go for a ride?"

He sat on his haunches.

On impulse, she lowered the tailgate and sat, thumping the space next to her.  "Go for a walk?" she tried.

He didn't move an inch.

She sighed, feeling a reluctant respect for a dog that couldn't be bought so cheaply.

After disengaging the kennel's rinky-dink security alarm and entering through the side door, she wrenched open a can of puppy food and dumped it into a stainless steel bowl.  Grabbing another bowl, she filled it with water from the sink and walked back out.

He was still sitting there, watching her.

She placed the bowls just inside the fence line.  His jet-black nose quivered with interest, but he didn't move.  Intending to trap him in once he did come forward, Sidney rolled the gate until it was almost closed, leaving him just enough space to get through.  As she waited for hunger to overcome good sense, she studied him.

It had to be the same dog.  He was tall and rangy, more German Shepherd than Australian, now that she saw him in person.  He probably weighed at least 90 pounds, and he didn't have that energetic, innocuous expression Aussies wore.  His ears were straight up, not floppy, alert rather than playful, and his coat was more wiry than soft.

If not for his coloring, he'd look purebred, but that thick, charcoal-gray fur, liberally spotted with black, was a dead giveaway for his mixed heritage.  Blue roan, they called it. 

"So what'll it be, Blue?"

He cocked his head to one side.

Dangerous to Touch"Is that your name?" she asked softly, not surprised she got it on the first try.  She had a gift—or a curse, to be honest—for guessing right.

The dog entered the space warily, his hind legs shaking, ready to run.  Instead of going for the food, he came right to her, sat down and put his head against her jeans-clad thigh in a move that was positively heartbreaking.

"Oh, honey," she said, securing the fence behind him and placing her hand on his trembling head.

In an instant, she was swept away into a maelstrom of images.

Blue was running, running.  His teeth were numb from chewing and his head hurt.  Fuzzy.  Everything was fuzzy.

He was running in shallow water, through fields and over gravel roads, running.  Running away from the bad man, the pain, the sound of gunshots and the acrid odor.

He had to follow the river.

He had to get back home.

The last thing he remembered was walking with his mistress, like any other day, before everything went fuzzy.  He woke up in a strange car, chewed and clawed and broke his way out.  He searched for his mistress, knowing she was hurting. 

He smelled her blood.

Then gunshots and the bad man and now he was running.

He had to get home, find his mistress.  So he was running.  Running along the river that flowed into the ocean, running home…

Sidney lifted her hand, returning slowly to reality as the stream of consciousness ended, feeling drained.  She hadn't experienced such a strong outpouring of emotion in a long time, maybe never, and she was far out of practice.

She didn’t always get visions, which made her particularly unprepared for powerful ones.

Normally she took precautions against physical contact, even with animals, but the dog had been so forlorn, so needy.  She couldn't deny him the simple comfort of her touch.  

"Damn," she whispered, hating herself for being so careless.  Keeping this information from the police would be like failing to report a heinous crime.  Whether they believed her or not, she led the risk of ridicule, humiliation, and exposure.  "Damn," she repeated, trying to think of a way to share what she knew without sacrificing her anonymity or revealing how she’d discovered the information.

She clenched her hands into fists, and felt a hot sting cut into her palm.  Opening her hand, she saw that a chunk of safety glass had imbedded itself in her skin.  Scowling, she yanked the glass out and threw it aside before she realized it might be evidence.

Examining Blue critically, she saw burrs, stickers, and a few more shards of safety glass.  Perhaps he was carrying enough clues in his mottled gray coat as to make divulging her secret unnecessary.

After all, what did she know?  Dogs weren't exactly a fountain of specific information, any more than humans were.  Brain waves weren't as easy to read as story books. 

Sometimes she was plagued by self-doubt, unsure if her feelings were real.

She rested her elbows on the top of the fence, a more practical problem occurring to her.  The police would have to open the gate to get in, or to get Blue out.  If he ran away, and she figured he was wily enough to do just that, so would the evidence. 

She'd have to take this troublesome mutt to the station herself.   

***

Lieutenant Marc Cruz had seen better days.

Deputy Chief Stokes had sentenced him to two Sundays of desk duty as punishment for failing to use his allotted vacation time.  He couldn't, in good conscience, take off in the middle of a case, and it seemed he was always in that unenviable position.  Worse, she was making him catch up on paperwork, his least favorite activity.

He hated sitting at his desk almost as much as he hated idle time, but for every minute of actual police work it seemed like he had to complete an hour of computer-generated logs. 

"I've got a lead on a missing person," Stokes said to the mostly empty room.

Marc straightened immediately.

"Some woman outside says she's got Candace Hegel's dog."

Dog?  He hunched down at his desk, trying to make himself invisible.

No such luck.  "Cruz, you and Lacy take it," she said, narrowing her shrewd eyes on him.  "After Crystal Dunn yapped her fat mouth all over the news about the connection to Groene, we can't afford to treat this like anything but a possible homicide."

He arched a glance at his partner, Detective Meredith Lacy, who was hiding her smile behind a manila folder.  She was here on Sunday because she was new, barely out of beat, and didn't have any choice in the matter.     

"Yes, ma'am," he said under his breath.

"What was that?"

"I said we're on it," he replied, and Lacy strangled a laugh.

Stokes waved a hand in the air, indicating that his presence was annoying and superfluous.  She'd been especially testy since the trail for Anika Groene's killer had grown cold, but she couldn't seem to stay home, or let it go.

"Your favorite," Lacy said as they walked down the hall.

"What's that?" he said, his mind still swimming with computerized forms.

"Dogs."

"Don't get smart, Lacy," he muttered, striding into the lobby.  The last time Stokes had taken out her petty revenge on him, she'd made him stand in as a training dummy for patrol's attack dogs.  He had all of the protective gear on, but one of the ferocious beasts had knocked him down and dislodged his face mask.  The handler called off the dog, but not before Marc humiliated himself by fainting.  That was two years ago, well before Lacy joined homicide, but he still hadn't lived it down.  Apparently, stories like that never got old.

When the woman standing alone in the lobby turned toward him, all thoughts of dogs and deskwork vanished. 

At first glance, she wasn't his type.  She was dark-haired, for one thing, and short-haired, for another.  Nothing about her clothes or manner was designed to attract a man's attention, either.  Maybe he was shallow, but he liked women who weren't afraid to show a little skin.  She looked like she might jump out of hers.     

Dangerous to TouchHer faded green t-shirt was several sizes too big, and her battered blue jeans were two inches too short, exposing a pair of trim, nicely tanned ankles.  She was wearing dingy white sneakers with Velcro straps, no socks. 

The clothes were atrocious, but the body underneath warranted further examination.  She was tall and slim, almost to the point of being skinny, except for her breasts, which looked soft and malleable.  If she had a bra on, it was one of those no-frills types that molded to her shape as well as the worn cotton t-shirt.

Her face was even better than her breasts.  Her features were finely drawn and angular, her eyes a misty, ethereal gray, framed by lush black lashes.  With her close-cropped black hair, unisex style, and no make-up, she resembled an exceptionally beautiful teenaged boy.  He dismissed her as one of those women who couldn't be bothered with men.  She already had one, she wasn't looking for one, or she'd given up on finding one. 

"Miss Morrow?" he inquired, introducing himself politely.

She looked down at his outstretched hand with undisguised distaste.  Puzzled, Marc dropped his arm.  Taking the hint, Lacy didn't even attempt a handshake. 

"I have the dog in the back of my truck," she said quickly, pointing outside.  She was wearing latex gloves.  "If you can just tell me where to take him, I'll be out of your way."

He looked out at a sturdy red pick-up in the parking lot.  Sure enough, an ugly mongrel just like Candace Hegel's was in an extra-large dog cage in the back.  "Any chance of him getting  out?"

"Not unless he grows human hands."

He waited for her to claim that was in the realm of possibility.  When she didn’t, he shoved his own hands in his pants pockets, for they seemed to make her uncomfortable.  It was as if she feared he was going to reach out and touch her, of all horrors.

"Let's talk," he said.  "Do you have time for a short interview?"

"Can't we do it here?"

"This is a sensitive case.  We have to keep the information confidential, if possible."

She looked around the empty lobby in confusion.

"Witnesses tend to remember more in a place free of distractions," he added.

"Oh, I didn't witness anything—"

"Do you have something more pressing to take care of?" he interrupted. 

"It will only take a few minutes," Lacy said with a reassuring smile, probably because he was being rude.  "A woman is missing.  Anything you could tell us would be greatly appreciated."

"Of course," she said, resigned. 

Marc's curiosity was piqued further.  Most people couldn't wait to share everything they knew, to contribute, to feel important.  Most innocent people, anyway.

He followed Lacy and the mysterious Miss Morrow, employing the age-old "ladies first" excuse men used to ogle women behind their backs.  There was nothing boyish about the way she filled out her jeans, he noted.

As he and Lacy took seats opposite her at the table in the interrogation room, it occurred to him that there was another reason women opted to downplay their femininity, one that had nothing to do with men.  His partner, Meredith Lacy, was living proof of that.

He gave himself an illicit thrill, wondering if she was Lacy's type.  "Where did you find the dog?" he asked, dragging his mind out of the gutter.

When she met his eyes, her own darkened slightly, an almost imperceptible expansion of pupils signaling her awareness of him as a man.

Not indifferent to the opposite sex, he decided.  Too bad, Lacy.

"He was outside the fence this morning," she said, staring down at her gloved hands.  "At Pacific Pet Hotel."

A kennel worker, he thought with mild distaste.  "You're an employee?"

"I own it."

He raised his eyebrows.  She didn't look old enough to own a business.  "How'd you get him in that dog carrier?"

"I offered him some food and water.  He wasn't interested, but he seemed to trust me after that.  Enough to go in the carrier, anyway."

"Did he bite you?"

She followed his gaze to her left hand.  Under the latex, in the middle of her palm, there was a bandage.  "No.  He had glass in his fur.  And quite a few burrs and foxtails."

"Did you take them out?  Clean him up?"

"No.  I just reached down to pet him and…the glass cut into my hand."

Marc read a lot into that short pause.  She wasn't telling the whole story.  "Anything else we need to know?"

"I think he'd traveled for miles," she hedged.  "He was panting, and his feet were wet.  Smelly wet, like river.  The San Luis Rey is nearby."

He'd never before felt as though a person were lying and telling the truth at the same time.  He leaned back in his chair, paradoxically pleased.  It wasn't every day that plausible suspects walked in off the street.

***

"Would you like some water?" Detective Lacy asked after an uncomfortable silence.  "A soda?"

"No thanks," Sidney said, tucking her gloved hands under the table, annoyed with Lt. Cruz for scrutinizing her so blatantly.  He was one of those effortlessly handsome men who made her feel sloppy, awkward, and unkempt. 

He was taller than she was, and his clothes fit him perfectly, hinting at a nicely formed physique.  Even motionless, he managed to convey grace and power.  His features were well-arranged but unyielding, showing no trace of softness or compassion.  He might have appeared cold if not for his coloring.  His skin was dark, his hair a rich, warm brown, and his eyes a shade lighter, like smooth Kentucky whisky or strong iced tea. 

With brown hair, skin, and eyes, and a tobacco-brown suit, he should have looked average, even drab.  He didn't.  There was an elusive quality about him that probably intrigued women, a dangerous edge that excited them, and an overall appeal she couldn't describe but responded to nevertheless.  He was also quite young, in his early thirties at the most, although he appeared worldly rather than naïve. 

Staring back at him, Sidney was uncomfortably aware of how long it had been since she'd hazarded the perils of a man's touch.

Lt. Cruz must have decided the interview was over, because he stood abruptly.  Lacy followed suit, so Sidney rose to her feet as well. 

"If you think of anything else," he said, holding out a card with his name and number on it, "feel free to call."

She took it from him gingerly, not allowing his fingers to brush over hers, and shoved it in her pocket.  "What are you going to do with him?"

"The dog?  Process him for trace."

"And then?"

He shrugged.  "Turn him over to the pound, unless his owner or another family member comes to claim him."

"If they don't, will you call me?"  Sidney posed this question to Detective Lacy, deciding she was the more amenable officer.  "I'd hate to see him put down."  Large, mean-looking dogs were rarely placed in good homes.

"Absolutely," she promised as they walked out together.

"Is Gina working today?" Lt. Cruz asked Detective Lacy.

"Yep."

"Why don't you go sweet-talk her into meeting us over there?"

"You don't want help with the dog?" she asked with a slight smile.

"Why would I?" he returned.

"Whatever you say, Marcos," she said, punching him lightly on the shoulder before she ambled away.  Sidney watched her go, feeling a spark of envy for the basic human ability to touch another person in kindness, humor, or affection. 

Detective Lacy's tone was teasing, but something about what she said bothered him.  "Marcos?  Is that your real name?"

"Just Marc," he replied as he held open the door for her.  Ever-cognizant of his proximity, she moved by him carefully, resisting the urge to tell him to call her by her first name, as well.  She didn't want to remind him of her embarrassing refusal to shake his hand upon their initial introduction.

As they approached the back of her truck, he didn't make direct eye contact with the dog or do anything else cornered animals considered threatening, but Blue let out a series of rapid barks, gnashing at the grate. 

Lt. Cruz didn't even flinch.  "Friendly, isn't he?"

She smiled at his dry humor.  "Don't you like dogs?"

"They don't like me," he corrected.

When she laughed, he turned his head to study her face.  He was attracted to her, she realized in a flash of intuition that was more feminine than supernatural.  Something must be wrong with him.  Men were always put off by her aversion to physical contact. 

Dangerous to Touch"As much as I'd like to wrestle him out of there and into my own vehicle,” he gestured to a champagne-colored Audi with all-leather interior, "I think he's more comfortable with you.  If you don't mind."     

"Not at all," she said.  "Where to?"

"Vincent Veterinary Clinic.  You can follow me."

"I know where it is," she said, finding the situation highly ironic. 

She was accompanying Lt. Cruz, the first man she’d wanted to touch her in ages, to see Dr. Vincent, the last man who had.


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