But this time there were three, not just two.
All young, on the brink of womanhood.
All with nubile, firm bodies.
All unaware that he was hidden, deep in the umbra of the woods surrounding the lake.
The back of his throat went dry, and he licked his lips in anticipation. As the tallest one began to strip in the moonlight, he felt his dick start to come alive, thickening beneath his jeans and hardening in anticipation, as if it had a life of its own. He skimmed his fingers down his zipper, feeling his boner, smiling before reaching for his belt and silently drawing his Bowie knife from its sheath. He traced the smooth steel of the slightly concave clip point with the tip of his finger and imagined the weapon plunging deep between the breasts of the girls who had gathered on the shoreline. Underage, they were here despite their parents' warnings, because they were brazen and rebellious and ... not good girls. This, he knew. Sensed. No, they were bad.
He felt his juices flowing, that little zing that sizzled through his blood at the thought of what he would do. Ahh, yessss ...
But first things first.
He had to wait until the precise moment.
Parting the branches, he watched, his heartbeat accelerating, his breath coming in shorter gasps.
Moonlight was a ribbon on the smooth, unbroken surface of the lake, and the wind rustled through summer-dry branches, the hoot of an owl breaking the stillness.
Come on, he thought, his blood tingling. Take it off. He'd been to his share of strip clubs, first sneaking in when he was underage, then later, when there was no fear of being kicked out, sitting as near the stage as possible, watching the dancers carefully peel off their clothes in the most titillating manner. Over the years he became less interested in what was obviously staged, a practiced tease to turn on the audience and draw money from the viewers' wallets. But this, three girls on a dock at a deserted Wyoming lake, this was different. More real. More raw. And the fact that these near-women had no idea that he was observing them was the ultimate turn-on.
He squinted, then lifted his night-vision goggles to get a better view. The tall one striding out to the end of the dock was a blonde with an athletic build, and he knew why. Shiloh. She was the cowgirl, a tomboy, though built like a woman, her pale hair braided into a rope that hung halfway down her long back.
The middle girl was shorter, but trim, a petite brunette, her father a cop. He smiled at that. Katrina. Patrick Starr's kid. She resembled her mother and was a feisty thing. He knew. He'd watched. The fact that she was a detective's daughter only made her all the more interesting. A taboo.
But the third girl baffled him, and he didn't think he'd seen her before. Certainly she'd never come to swim nude with the others. He wouldn't have missed her. She was the smallest. Petite. Her hair was probably some shade of red, he guessed, pinned into a topknot on her head. Despite her small frame, she had big tits. He couldn't wait until she yanked off that sleeveless blouse she was wearing and showed 'em off.
Again his dick twitched.
He wondered at the color of her nipples. Pale and blushing? The kind that nearly blended into the surrounding soft tissue? Or big, dark discs with pointed little nubs that he'd love to suckle and nip?
Now his damned hard-on was pulsing.
But she was sitting on the edge of the dock now, hugging herself, hesitating. Come on now, girl, don't hold back now. Who the hell was she? He zeroed in on the features of her face and didn't recognize her, but he could imagine what it would feel like to have her slim legs wrap around his waist, the tightness of her moist pussy.
He had to look away for a second.
Couldn't let sex distract him.
At least not yet.
Come on, come on. His whole body tensed as the disrobing began. Of course, it was Shiloh, the cowgirl, who started the strip show. Her friends were following suit. The cop's daughter, supposedly whip smart, wasn't shy either, but the third one was still hesitating.
So, now, which one?
Who would be the lucky girl?
He adjusted his ski mask and, raising one finger, pointed at the unwitting three as they innocently removed their clothes.
Eenie, meenie, miney, moe ...
* * *
They should never have brought Ruthie.
That was the mistake.
And a huge one, Shiloh thought with more than a little rancor. She shouldn't have agreed to the change in plans, should never have sat waiting in the truck she'd "borrowed" from her jackass of a stepdad while Katrina had sneaked up the well-manicured street to Ruthie McFerron's house, tapped on the girl's bedroom window, and helped her sneak out. Crap! What had Katrina been thinking when she'd suggested that Ruthie join them?
Shiloh should've argued the point. After all, she was the one taking all the chances. If Larimer Tate figured out she'd rolled his truck away from the ranch, not turning on the headlights until she was around the corner, taken his crap of a pickup without his permission, there would be hell to pay. Sometimes, she thought, shaking her hair loose from its long braid, she let other people rule her life. Always a problem. Tonight, letting Kat talk her into bringing the third girl was an example.
Obviously, Ruthie was having second thoughts about sneaking out of her parents' house to join them, and now, of course, the little wimp was nervous, seeing ghosts in the shadows of the large aspens guarding this private lake, feeling as if unseen eyes were watching them.
The fact that the girl still went by Ruthie said it all. What sixteen-year-old would still be called Ruthie? And yet it fit, Shiloh thought, as she stripped off her dusty T-shirt and sweaty bra.
The cold breeze kissed her skin as she dropped both items into a pile on the dock. Ruthie McFerron was a baby. That's all there was to it. And she'd been coddled by a neat, little holy-roller family, unlike the patchwork of weirdos Shiloh called family. Her mother had married a string of losers — the last, Larimer Tate, to whom Faye was still married, being the worst of the lot.
"But I think I saw something," Ruthie whispered again.
"Like what? It's dark as hell out here," Shiloh grumbled as she worked at the top button of her jeans. She was having none of it. "You're imagining things."
"No, I think —"
"Shhh!" Katrina, a few steps behind the other two, hissed a warning. "No one's out here. Just us."
"Then why do we have to be quiet?" Ruthie's round eyes were visible in the moonlight, the whites shimmering.
She was such a wuss.
"I think someone or something's out here. There. Over there!" She pointed to a thicket of trees where the undergrowth was the darkest.
"Oh, for the love of God," Shiloh muttered, kicking off her cutoff jeans and panties. They landed close enough to her T-shirt that if she had to grab them quickly, she could scoop up all of her clothes at once. Good enough if, on the off chance that Ruthie was right, there was someone hiding in the copse of saplings surrounding this lake. "It's probably just a deer or a cougar, maybe a bear."
Ruthie gasped. "A cougar? No, it couldn't be a —"
Shiloh shrugged. "Then a wolf."
Planks creaked underfoot as Ruthie backed toward the center of the dock. "Can wolves swim?"
"Stop it!" Katrina warned angrily. "Why do you do that? Huh? What's wrong with you?" she asked, and Shiloh knew the question was aimed at her.
She didn't answer. Girls like Katrina and Ruthie didn't have a clue about the hot mess that was Shiloh's life; they didn't understand how living at home was far scarier than anything these woods could hide.
With a little less anger, Kat said, "Don't mess with her. It's her first time. She's not used to disobeying her parents."
Shiloh snorted to herself. Like Ruthie was some fragile china doll. But there was no talking Katrina down when she found a cause to get behind, and right now, Ruthie-damned-McFerron was her cause du jour.
Rebuked, Shiloh decided not to wait. Sucking in her breath, she made a shallow dive into the icy water. She barely made a splash in the still, humid night. Grateful for the frigid grip of the lake and the silence it brought with it, she swam deep under the water as if she could get away from the sting of Katrina's words. But the question What's wrong with you? chased after her, echoing through her brain.
Not for the first time.
Maybe it was her needy mother and the slew of broke-ass stepfathers who always eyed Shiloh with more than a little lust. Larimer Tate was the worst of the slimy lot, a sick bastard if there ever was one.
Or maybe she'd just been born with a bad attitude. Who knew? And really, who gave a crap? She tried to ignore Kat's question, attempted to shrug it off, as she did with anyone's criticism, be it constructive or not, but the words burrowed deep in her brain: What's wrong with you?
Nothing! She let a few bubbles escape from the sides of her mouth, and they rose around her, catching the moon's reflection in the inky depths. Really, it was all Ruthie's fault. Not hers.
Skimming along the bottom, she wondered why she'd ever allowed Ruthie to come anyway. The girl was the daughter of a minister, one of those fire-and-brimstone types who were always condemning sinners to hell. Shiloh had known sneaking Ruthie out and heading here to go skinny dipping was asking, no, make that begging, for trouble, but Katrina seemed hell-bent on making friends with wimpy Ruthie.
For the life of her, Shiloh didn't understand why, but she sure wasn't surprised that the girl was jumping at shadows. Well, fine. Katrina had wanted Ruthie to come along, so now she could deal with the girl and her case of nerves. Served them both right.
Her lungs started to ache, and she shot upward to the surface, tossing her hair from her face. Treading water, she observed the moonlight shining through the trees to show in stippled lines upon the lake's dark surface. Ripples moved around her as she turned onto her back, her bare breasts exposed. At least her muscles were finally relaxing after a day filled with dust and chaff from bucking hay and training a particularly stubborn colt. She enjoyed the horses, hated hauling the scratchy bales into the barn, detested working with her useless stepfather, though. What a douche.
Ruthie and Katrina were still on the dock, where they were finally removing their clothes. About damned time. Katrina was probably having to convince the younger girl that being naked was okay. What a head case!
She turned again, and from the corner of her eye, she thought she saw movement, just the barest alteration of the shadows in the foliage flanking the lake. Her muscles tensed as she blinked away the drops of water clinging to her lashes. Telling herself that they'd distorted her vision, she focused hard but saw nothing she shouldn't. She gave herself a quick mental shake. Ruthie's overactive imagination was infecting her. That was all.
Damn. Shiloh had come here all summer long and never once seen or heard anyone. Nothing had changed when Katrina, thinking a swim sounded good after a greasy, smoky shift washing dishes at Big Bart's Buffalo Lounge, had started tagging along. So why would that all change. Because of Ruthie?
It's nothing. With a kick, she turned over and dove deep again, but the eerie sensation chased after her into the murky depths.
* * *
"Shiloh?" Ruthie McFerron called nervously.
"She's fine." Katrina couldn't keep the irritation from her voice as she peeled off her tank top. Shiloh could be such a bitch, a hothead who was always barreling through life and damning the consequences.
Well, fine. Let her swim off alone. Cool her jets. Katrina could deal with Ruthie. "Don't worry about her. She talks before she thinks." Standing near the edge of the water, Katrina tightened the band pulling her hair away from her face and noticed that the greasy smells from the fryer at Big Bart's still clung to her.
She glanced at her friend. Ruthie was having one helluva time taking off her clothes. Katrina unhooked her bra and tossed it onto the small heap where she'd kicked off her flip-flops. Then she dropped her shorts and panties in one fell swoop. "Come on," she said to her newfound friend.
Anxiously eyeing the surroundings, Ruthie was carefully undressing, even bothering to fold her skirt and sleeveless blouse over her sandals. "I don't know about this," she whispered but managed to take off her bra and tuck it under her blouse.
"You wanted to come," Katrina reminded her. The truth was that Ruthie had practically begged Katrina earlier in the day when the preacher's daughter had come into the diner for an iced mocha and had overheard that Kat was meeting Shiloh for a midnight swim.
"I know, but ..." Ruthie held her hands over her breasts. "But it's all kind of weird, and I swear I saw something. I mean, Shiloh, she was just joking about cougars and wolves and all that. Right?"
"Of course she was," Katrina said tautly. But she slid another look into the fringe of trees surrounding the lake. There was something off tonight, a little bit of electricity in the air she couldn't explain. Or maybe Ruthie's case of nerves was just making her edgy.
"Well, it's not funny. I know I'm a little jumpy, but I'm still not used to the country. When we lived in Denver, everything was total suburbia. Malls and neighborhoods and Blockbusters and stuff. Dad said the area was losing its frontier charm. I've only been here a year, and the wilderness takes some getting used to. I really did see something. It's ... it's probably nothing," Ruthie said. "My mother accuses me of jumping at my own shadow."
"Yeah, well, don't worry about it." Katrina tried to soothe her friend, tried to ignore the skin-crawling doubt, that little bit of subconscious anxiety suggesting that things weren't as they appeared. A warning. She narrowed her eyes on the darkest spot in the surrounding trees, where the tree limbs nearly canopied over the narrowest point of the lake. A frog was croaking and mosquitos were buzzing, a fish jumping in the water and sending out ripples. But she saw no one lurking in the shadows.
The thought was ridiculous, wasn't it? No one would be out here.
For a fleeting second, she thought of the two girls who had disappeared two years before on a summer night just like this. Not here at the lake, but at a brook where they had gone wading. Rachel and Erin, two teens from good families. Katrina's father was still working on their missing persons cases. And then, just last month, Courtney Pearson had also gone missing one night after fighting with her boyfriend, Rafe. No one had been surprised about Courtney. She had been suspended from Prairie Creek High School numerous times because of her piercings and tube tops with jeans cut so low you could just about see her girl parts. Katrina and Courtney had been lab partners in earth science class, with Courtney repeating the class after failing it twice. Courtney Pearson had gained a reputation as the bad girl of Prairie Creek High School. Her image wasn't helped by the fact that her boyfriend was Rafe Dillinger, a spoiled rich kid who'd gotten caught stealing a few times.
Three girls gone. Some people, like Shiloh, discounted them all as runaways, but Katrina wasn't sure that was correct. Since the girls had vanished on Patrick Starr's watch, she had overheard a lot of the details, and it sounded like none of the girls seemed eager to get out of town. Kat worried they'd been kidnapped, and her father seemed to agree. Dogged as he was, Detective Starr wasn't giving up the investigation, not until he found them.
Katrina shook off her dark thoughts and lifted her arms to the humid velvet air. She was safe with her friends. "It's a good night for this." She glanced back at Ruthie. "Are you coming or not?" "Sure." Ruthie didn't seem sure at all with her arms folded to cover her breasts.
"Then come on. We'll ease in from the beach."
Ruthie let out her breath. Stepped out of her panties. Hid them in her tidy stack of clothes. "Okay," she said, tentatively following Katrina off the dock to the sandy shore. They waded into the lake, the water so cold it could steal your breath.
Katrina hissed, sucking in air through her teeth, her abdomen concaving.
"Wow," Ruthie whispered as she checked to make sure the pins holding the knot atop her head were secure. "It's freezing!"
"You just need to get used to it." Katrina scanned the lake. Shiloh had submerged again. Insects buzzed over the surface, and she felt rather than saw a bat fly by, but she wasn't going to say a word about it and spook Ruthie even further as they picked their way carefully over slick stones and sand.