Joe Zorn stamped snow off his frozen booted feet as he impatiently jiggled the door handle. Locked. A damn good thing considering that, despite the nationwide manhunt under way, a serial killer was even now finding his way through the storm to this Nowhere, Montana, ranch.
It wasn’t a case of if Dwight Treadwell would show. It was a case of when.
Although he was standing beneath the deep porch overhang, the howling wind whipped snow down Joe’s collar and snuck under the hem of his coat as it flapped around his ankles. He shuddered with cold. Which didn’t bother him nearly as much as finding the place lit up like a damned Christmas tree.
Joe glanced around the porch. His new assignment, party planner Kendall Metcalf, must’ve bought out every Christmas and craft store between Bozeman and Billings.
There was Christmas crap everywhere.
Might as well have a frigging flashing red neon arrow pointing to the house. Here I am. Come and get me!
Damn it to hell.
He kept one hand in his left pocket, fingers loosely clasping the grip of his custom-made HK Mark 23. He would rather shoot a hole through his favorite coat than have someone open the door to find a large, armed man standing on the other side.
It worried Joe only marginally that he hadn’t been able to reach the Camerons before he left the ski lodge, or that he didn’t have their cell numbers. High winds and snow storms frequently messed with the phone lines way the hell and gone out here.
Hunching into his coat, he jabbed at the doorbell. “Get the damn lead out, people.” When that didn’t elicit an immediate response, he thumped his fist on the door a couple of times, making the oversized Christmas wreath dance. “Open the damn d—”
He heard the faint beeps from inside as the security alarm was deactivated. The door swung open, spilling golden light and the hot, unmistakable fragrance of cookies baking onto the front porch. Joe’s heart did a hard thump-thump as he got his first look at the Amazon who was his charge.
Kendall Metcalf was luscious. Every curvy, magnificent inch of her. Her hair, the reddest Joe had ever seen, spilled over her shoulders like liquid fire. Her feet were bare, and black leggings accented every incredible inch of her long, long, long legs. A red sweater proclaimed, in cursive white script across a mouthwatering chest, ho ho ho y’all.
Before he could get on her case for opening the door without checking to see who was out there first, she grabbed him by the hand, practically dragging him inside. “Lord, am I happy to see you.”
Joe would have been ecstatic to see Attila the Hun at this point. His freaking nose was numb. He stepped into the warmth, booted the door shut, locked it, and pressed the reactivate button on the alarm before turning around to face her. The smell of Woman overlaid the smell of pine, vanilla candles, and baking. His temperature shot up in response, warming him much faster and more efficiently than a hot shower. But not quite as fast as his anger that she’d opened the door without ascertaining who the hell was knocking. Jesus.
“Lord. You must be a popsicle,” she said cheerfully, oblivious to his stony look. “Let’s get you defrosted.” She glanced at the control panel, apparently saw the light was on, frowned slightly, then headed across the vast entry hall toward the kitchen. Without turning to see if he was following.
“I just put my millionth pot of coffee on. I’m always addicted when it’s this cold, aren’t you? Here, can I take your co— No, you’re right. Keep it on until you thaw. This way.”
She’d taken her sweet time answering the door, but now that he was inside, she moved at the speed of light and hadn’t yet paused to take a breath. Which suited Joe just fine. He was a man of action and few words. He suspected she wouldn’t like either by the time this was over.
The house was blessedly warm, and smelled mouthwatering. The scent of Christmas was everywhere, but that wasn’t the fragrance making him salivate. She smelled as clean and fresh as . . . he frowned as he followed her into the kitchen. Some kind of . . . fruit? Yeah. Pears or something. Fresh and clean and—Jesus, he was losing it—juicy. She walked over to pour him a huge mug of coffee, bringing it back to the center island where another half-filled mug sat beside a baking sheet of hot-from-the-oven cookies. Joe removed his hat, then unbuttoned his coat. The kitchen was warm, and looking at Miss Metcalf kept his body temperature several degrees above normal.
“Black, I bet.” She handed him the mug. The most bizarre current of electricity passed from her fingers to his, shooting directly to his groin. Her eyes widened in surprise. It sure as hell shocked the hell out of him, and he almost dropped the mug.
Joe tightened his fingers around the heat of the Christmas mug, which still had a $3.99 price sticker from Ross stuck on the side. He peeled it off and stuck it on Denise’s sludge green–black granite counter top. Denise did not shop at discount stores. Never had.
“That’s what I thought,” Kendall said.
He hadn’t opened his mouth. He presumed she was still discussing his coffee choice. “Yeah. Thanks. Where—” “Are Denise and the kids?” she finished for him. Them, too. But he’d been referring to the cops. “She and Adam took them over to Denise’s mother’s for a couple of days. They’ll be back in the morning. It’s been insane here trying to get ready for the party tomorrow night, and all the guests, et cetera. You know how it is.” She laughed, a bright, robust laugh that did ridiculous things to Joe’s stomach before moving lower.
Whoa! Back off, pal.
She sat her quite delectable ass half on, half off a stool, then, without looking away from his face, picked up the spatula to slide cookies from the sheet onto a plate painted with some sort of large brown Christmas animal.
Her hands were pale and slender, her nails long and painted Christmas red. Sexy as hell. What wasn’t sexy were the defensive wounds marring her smooth skin. The obscene scars were thin and silvery, and there were dozens of them. On the back of her hands, on her palms, on her fingers, and on her wrists. Joe sucked back a black rage.
“Help yourself,” she told him, pushing the baking sheet an inch closer to his hand. “I just made them for something to do. The electricity has been iffy with the storm. Good thing they have a generator. I’d go completely ape shi—nuts with nothing to do.”
He’d thought that if the cops couldn’t get to the ranch, he’d at least have Denise’s husband here as backup. He and Adam had been in the Marines together, and Joe trusted his friend at his back. He shouldn’t have trusted his friend with his wife, but that was old news and water under the bridge.
“Are you alone in the house?” he demanded, straining to hear any noise to indicate someone was either upstairs or in any of the other rooms downstairs. All he heard was her sudden indrawn breath over the soft singing of Christmas carols from the battery-operated emergency radio on the counter. “Some of the guests arrived before the storm,” Kendall said, a little more cautious now. “The guys are upstairs,” she told him without a blink. She might as well have added Cleaning their guns.
Since she’d let him instead of one of the local cops he’d spoken to en route, Joe now knew damn well she was alone. Fuck it to hell. So they hadn’t been able to make it through before the storm hit. Which meant he and Kendall were alone in the six-thousand-square-foot house with a killer on the loose. Clearly she wasn’t aware that Treadwell had escaped. No wonder she’d opened the damn door.
If the local cops couldn’t get to the ranch, nobody could, not with the snowstorm raging. But dollars to donuts Treadwell was out there. Somewhere. Storm or no storm. Joe figured they had at least twelve hours before the situation turned to shit.
The fact that Kendall was trying to bluff him into believing she wasn’t alone—now, when he was already inside—made Joe’s blood boil. Not only wasn’t she supposed to be alone. She should be far, far away.
Curling an arm about her waist in an unconsciously protective gesture, she took a sip of her coffee, holding her mug to her mouth as she watched him over the rim. Alone, yet she had on all her warpaint. It was subtle, but . . . there. She didn’t need it, Joe thought, almost mesmerized by large sparkling hazel eyes staring at him unblinkingly. Her lips were a pale pink. He wondered if her nipples were the same rosy color. Jesus. He brought his erotic thoughts back in line.
She took another sip of coffee. “I can’t tell you how great it is that you agreed to do this on such short notice, Don. Really. Thank you. My guy backed out at the last— What?”
The timer went off in a strangely karmic way as he corrected mildly, “Joe.”
Her brow wrinkled briefly. “Yeah, I know,” she shouted over the noise. “Snow was one of Preston’s reasons for not coming. But still, you’d think a guy from New York would know how to drive in a little snow, wouldn’t you?” She slid off the stool, slapped a hand on the buzzer, and grabbed a pair of oven gloves. Every vestige of saliva in Joe’s mouth turned to dust as she bent over. Hell’s frigging bells.
“Not that we get much snow in Seattle—but still, Preston’s originally from New York, so you’d think— You don’t care, right?” She grinned. “Anyhoo—his rental car went into a ditch on the way in from the airport. Silly guy ended up with a sprained wrist. And while I feel his pain, I really do, it doesn’t help me with all the stuff I have to do around here. Not to mention I’ll be too busy bossing around the catering people tomorrow night and won’t have time to do that and be Santa, now will I?”
He couldn’t—not even in his wildest imagination, which he didn’t have—envision this woman dressed in a Santa suit. “You’d dress up as Santa?” Now a Santa suit rented from Playboy he could imagine without any problem at all.
She scrunched up her face comically. “Well, yes. If you hadn’t saved my bacon. I would have,” she said it quite cheerfully, as she pulled out two sheets of steaming cookies. The fragrance of hot cookies, vanilla, and sweet scented steam filled the kitchen. “I really appreciate that you’re willing to come to my rescue like this at a moment’s notice so I don’t have to. Help yourself to those over near you. These will be a bit too hot—”
Hot. Definitely hot.
Kendall felt the prickle of sweat beading under her bangs. “I didn’t see a car out there.” Now that she came to think about it, she hadn’t seen a blasted thing. It had been snowing, and the world beyond the lights of the house had been dark. She frowned. “Did Donna drop you off?” Donna was his wife—and Kendall was babbling.
The guy made her incredibly self-conscious as he watched her from steady blue eyes as she moved from oven to counter. He was huge. Tall. Broad. Strong. All of which made her nervous as hell. He was intimidating. His massive shoulders, covered by the bulky, honey- colored shearling coat he still wore, looked a mile wide. She doubted he’d fit into the rented Santa suit she’d brought with her, but she appreciated that he’d come over to at least try it on. Especially in this awful weather.
Which probably wouldn’t matter at this point, she acknowledged. She doubted she’d need a Santa, since according to the latest weather forecast, this storm would be with them for several days. Poor Denise. She’d been so psyched for this party, but Kendall doubted anyone would be able to make it to the ranch in this storm.
A few of the invitees had arrived several days ago and were staying in the outlying guest cottages. The cabins were well equipped, decorated for the holiday, and self-sufficient. She hadn’t seen anyone in two days. So it was nice to have a bit of company. Even if it was only for an hour or so.
Even if the company in question looked like a large caged beast in a too small cage. He was sitting still, yet he gave off waves of leashed energy. And Lord, he was huge. Kendall wasn’t used to a man towering over her. But Donald Sanders did so, by a good four or five inches. His craggy, unseasonably tanned face was too rugged to be called good-looking, too masculine for her peace of mind. The thick dark hair brushing his collar badly needed a cut, and his lean cheeks could do with a shave.
She had the oddest urge to touch both. One to see if it was as soft as it looked, and the other to see if it was as rough. She curled her fingers into her palm to prevent herself from reaching over to stroke him. He looked to be in his early thirties, which was surprising because his wife, Donna, must be close to sixty. Hell, more power to her. Lucky her, her husband had sex appeal in spades. And Kendall certainly wasn’t immune.
Just looking at the man made her breath catch and her heart race pleasantly. She was almost preternaturally aware of him. Of the length of his dark lashes shadowing those cool blue eyes. Of the small pale scar beside his lower lip, almost buried in the crease of his smile. Of the way his large, tanned hand cradled, almost gently, the red coffee mug.
She had a vivid Technicolor image of that large hand cradling her breast, and she felt her nipples harden and her knees go weak.
Whew! The guy was potent.
Kendall’s physical awareness of another woman’s husband filled the kitchen like a living entity, making her feel a little guilty. But, hey. What was the harm? It wasn’t as though she’d act on the attraction she felt. It was a bit like craving a large slice of Black Forest cake when one was on a strict diet. Just because she wasn’t going to eat it didn’t mean she didn’t want it.
Except she’d never experienced this sensation in her stomach over a piece of chocolate cake. This was more like the dangerous excitement she’d felt as kid, stand- ing on tippie-toe on the highest diving board. Looking down at that water miles below. Too scared to jump.
“I came by chopper.” His deep voice poured through her like hot buttered rum. He put the Christmas mug down and shrugged out of the heavy coat, revealing a thick off-white wool turtleneck and jeans. Taking off the thick coat didn’t make him look any smaller, or any less intimidating. He was still a bear of a man. Masculine in an intriguing way that made Kendall’s heart do a little hop, skip, and jump. He looked as solid as a rock, with no appearance of body fat and an impressive physique. Her mouth went dry, and she busied herself with the cookies.
She hadn’t felt anything other than fear in so long, it felt wonderful to feel this tug of attraction. Better because she knew there was nothing she could do about it. It just was.
“Set down a half-mile from here,” he continued. “Parked back behind the barn.” He tossed the coat onto a bar stool beside him.
The scent of him—clean male skin, cold night air, a hint of leather—aroused all her senses with an urgency that surprised her. Perhaps her reaction to him was due to his size, Kendall thought. The man looked as though he could wrestle a grizzly bear. Being tall herself, it was intriguing to meet a good-looking guy who was big enough to make her feel petite.
And they’d been in the middle of a conversation. “You came by helicopter—from next door?” She knew Montana was huge. But people actually flew from ranch to ranch?
The corner of his mouth kicked up in a half smile. Whoa. Down girl. That small smile was so potent, she wondered what it would be like full strength. Judging from her accelerated heartbeat it was probably a good thing that he’d be leaving soon. To go home to his wife.
“ ‘Next door’ is more than twenty miles away,” he pointed out, biting into a cookie. “But I didn’t—”
The phone rang. Thank goodness. It was working again. It had been out for what seemed like forever, and she’d left her cell phone up at her cottage. As much as she’d like to have made some personal calls, she had no intention of braving this weather to retrieve her own phone.
Kendall held up a hand to stop him as she picked up the receiver. “Cameron residence.” As she listened every vestige of warmth she’d felt seconds before drained right out of her, as did most of the blood in her head. “I know. It’s been out since this morning. I’m sorry to hear that,” she said flatly into the phone as she watched him pick up the mugs she’d bought to brighten up the dark tones of the kitchen. “No, absolutely. I quite under—” The phone went dead. “—stand.”
Her heart was beating fast again. But this time it had nothing to do with the proximity of a sexy-looking man. She turned away as she returned the receiver carefully to the instrument on the wall. At the same time she lifted the front of her sweater and surreptitiously withdrew the small LadySmith handgun tucked against her skin.
Given the man’s appearance she hadn’t mistaken him for a house cat. But she hadn’t pegged him as a predatory tiger either. More fool her.
“You’re the best so far, ya know that?” She could almost hear Dwight Treadwell’s mild voice echoing like a never forgotten nightmare in the here and now. Obscene in this Christmas-scented kitchen a thousand miles away and a dozen months later. Goosebumps rose on her skin. “Defiant little bitch, ain’t ya? You’re scared as shit, but your eyes say go to hell. This is gonna be fun. F. U. N.”
Treadwell chipped at the Formica tabletop with the tip of what he’d told her was his second favorite knife. There was nothing but mild interest in his eyes as he observed her.
There was no more room for terror in her mind. It was filled to capacity. It felt like forever since he’d grabbed her at the grocery store and forced her, struggling, into the trunk of his car. Had no one noticed him kidnapping her? Had no one heard her screams before he’d knocked her out?
She’d woken to find herself naked, cut out of her clothes, and him standing, smiling, over her, a large, curved knife in his hand. It was already covered with her blood. She screamed—
Kendall turned around to face the man in this kitchen. She knew the six-inch-long gun only weighed about twenty ounces, but it felt as heavy as lead in her hand. “Oh no you don’t,” she snapped as he started to rise. “You stay right where you are. Keep your hands where I can see them.” She motioned at him with the barrel.
“You’re not Donald Sanders. So just who the hell are you?”
Excerpted from Red Hot Santa by Cherry Adair, Leanne Banks, Pamela Britton, and Kelsey Roberts. Copyright © 2005 by Cherry Adair. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.