Braden Donnelly leaned back against the headrest of his squad car. Almost thirty-six hours without sleep and he was ready to pass out. Even a few minutes of rest would be welcome. Unfortunately, as sheriff in a small town, there was no such thing as a sick day. Shaking his head, he forced his eyes open and started the car.
Only a short drive and he’d be home, sleeping in his own bed. Before he could pull out of his parking spot, his phone buzzed across the dash. He frowned when he saw Detective Vanessa Isaacs’s number. She was off tonight and there wasn’t much chance this was a personal call. As much as he wanted to ignore it, he couldn’t.
Dread surged through him as he answered. “Yeah?”
Her sigh was long and tired. Before she spoke, instinct told him what she was going to say. It had been about three months. The timing was right for another murder. “We’ve got another one, boss.”
“You’re sure?” The question was automatic. So far there were three victims—now four—and they’d all been killed the same way. Viciously.
“Of course I’m sure. Officer Jordan found her outside the Boudreau mansion after receiving an anonymous tip. From the sound of it, I think the caller is our guy. The body sure as hell isn’t visible from the road.”
Huge hedges and a wrought iron gate surrounded the mansion. It was almost impossible to see the front of the house on a clear day much less in the middle of the night. “Where’s the body?”
“In the backyard, by the pool.”
“I’ll be there in five.”
Not bothering with the siren, he flipped his lights on and floored it. At this time of night, not many people would be out. The Boudreau mansion was only used one month out of the year by a wealthy family from the north, but it was kept up. Something only a local would be privy to.
He slowed as he neared the entrance and steered through the open gate. The county coroner, Hailey Banks, was already there. So was Vanessa. He parked behind their cars on the long circular driveway.
As he got out of his car, he scanned the perimeter. Lately he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched. It might be paranoia because of the recent murders, but he’d been in the crosshairs of a sniper before and it was a sensation he hadn’t experienced in years.
After locking his vehicle, he followed the sound of voices around the corner of the house. Yellow crime scene tape sectioned off most of the stone patio. As he neared the area, Officer Derrick Jordan held it up for him to duck under.
“You received the call about the victim?” he asked.
The blond man nodded. “Yes, sir, but it was a private number. I contacted the gardener to let me in. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a prank before contacting you.”
“What did the caller say?” Braden asked, as they walked toward the detectives and coroner.
The officer’s face paled. “He told me where the body was, then…then he said to tell you that this was only the beginning.”
Braden frowned. “Me, specifically?”
The officer nodded and shifted from foot to foot. “Yes, sir.”
“Did he say anything else?”
“All right. Watch the perimeter.” Unless the killer himself alerted the media, there weren’t going to be any leaks within his department, but he wanted to do everything by the book. And that meant keeping an unspoiled crime scene.
As he neared the scene, Vanessa looked up from her notepad and wordlessly nodded at him as she stepped aside. When she moved, he got a clear shot of the body. An unexpected flash of cold snaked through him when he realized who it was. Just as quickly a slow burning rage for whoever had done this heated his veins.
Hailey, Hudson Bay’s county coroner and crime scene tech combined into one, stood over the female body with her video recorder. Her words were spoken softly but it didn’t lessen their brutal reality.
“Deep ligature marks around the neck indicate strangulation as a possible cause of death. Ligature marks around the wrists and ankles indicate victim was restrained during the attack. Bruising around the jaw combined with no visible defensive wounds possibly indicate victim was knocked unconscious before being restrained…” She paused, then stopped her video recording to glance at Braden. “She’s not a local this time and she doesn’t have any identification.”
“I know who she is.” Braden pushed down the bile in his throat as he stared at the ripped open and broken body in front of him. As he said the words, it was as if someone else was talking. He could feel the eyes of Hailey and Vanessa on him, but all he could do was stare at the lifeless woman.
The scene was the same as all the others. Naked and positioned spread eagle on the cold stone pavement, a once beautiful woman stared lifelessly into the night. Her dark hair was matted with blood and dozens of shallow cuts nicked her entire body. If the killer was keeping to his pattern, there would be sixty-six slashes total, plus odd burn marks on her back and buttocks and she would have been sodomized with a foreign object.
“Who is she?” Hailey asked.
He opened his mouth to answer but his throat seized. Looking at her like this—nausea swirled inside him. It was almost too much to digest. He cleared his throat, thankful he found his voice this time. “Her name is Macy Turner. She’s twenty-eight and teaches—taught—kindergarten in Charlotte.” His voice slightly broke on the last word. Braden hadn’t seen her in over six months. They’d gone on two dates and things had never gotten physical. But he’d genuinely liked her.
Before he hadn’t been sure if the killings were personal, but now he had no doubt. He shared a connection with the previous victims, but so did a lot of people in town. This was some kind of message for him. It had to be. His hands balled into fists as he looked at Macy. No one deserved this. The feel of his nails digging into his palms was a welcome pain. Whoever had done this was going to pay. He’d make sure of it.
“How do you know her?” Vanessa spoke this time.
“We went out on a few dates. Nothing serious, but… Fuck!” He shook his head and looked at the coroner. “Got any extra gloves?”
She nodded and handed him a pair of latex gloves.
Crouching down, he lightly gripped the victim’s left shoulder and rolled her body on its side. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered.
“Same as all the others.” Hailey made a soft tsking sound.
“Do we have any idea yet what these burn marks are from?” he asked, indicating the double pronged markings down her backside.
Both women shook their heads, but Hailey answered. “I’ve researched the markings everywhere I can think of, but they don’t match any Tasers or stun-guns available on the market. Whatever this guy is using, it’s still a mystery. And boss, I won’t know for sure until I complete the autopsy, but it looks like he kept her alive longer than the others. See those marks along her neck? He might have been choking her until she passed out, then resuscitating her.”
“He’s getting cocky,” Detective Isaacs muttered.
Braden pushed up and forced himself to look away. “Finish up what you’re doing, Hailey.”
She nodded, then glanced back and forth between him and Detective Isaacs. “Can I talk to you for a sec in private?”
Vanessa raised her eyebrows but wordlessly strode across the patio.
When Hailey didn’t say anything, he gritted his teeth. “Damn it, Hailey. Just spit it out.”
“I’m sure you already know, but Lilly Carmichael should be arriving in town tonight.”
Lilly Carmichael. He hadn’t said that name aloud in years. Even thinking it caused his heart rate to increase. Of course he knew she was coming to town. Her aunt had raised her since she was five. Lilly wouldn’t miss the funeral. “Why are you telling me?”
She shrugged. “After tonight, it’s obvious this is personal. This guy is targeting women in your life. Your fifth grade teacher, your Sunday school teacher, your fencing coach for crying out loud. I know we weren’t completely sure before but after this…I don’t know. Maybe you should stop by her place and at least warn her about what’s going on.”
He’d already planned to, but he didn’t tell Hailey that. “I’ll take your advice under consideration.”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t take that condescending tone with me, Sheriff.” Turning her back to him, she quietly resumed her assessment of their newest victim.
If their guy stuck to his pattern, there wouldn’t be any DNA to retrieve. No prints, no semen and only minimal fibers. Braden headed to where Detective Isaacs was talking to the only other officer present.
“Have you questioned the gardener?”
Vanessa shook her head. “No, but Jordan did.”
“All right. Scan the rest of the perimeter and I’ll work up all the information I’ve got on the victim. Have you talked to Perry?” Perry Bolinger was the only other detective they had on the Hudson Bay police force.
“No. He’s following up on the fire at Morgan’s Bakery.”
“I’ll call him and tell him to get down here. Call me on your way back to the station.”
She raked a shaky hand through her red hair and nodded before glancing back toward the grisly scene.
Braden gritted his teeth as he headed back to the car. He’d gotten out of the Marines because he was tired of dealing with death on a daily basis. He knew he was lucky having the team he did, but he hated that this was happening in his town and that his people were dealing with this shit.
As soon as he finished the paperwork and notified Charlotte P.D., he was heading over to Lilly’s. She might not be happy to see him, but that was too damn bad.
If this killer was going after people that Braden cared about, Lilly would be an obvious target for anyone who knew him. No matter what had passed between them, he wouldn’t let anything happen to her.
Lilly grabbed for her purse as the taxi driver slammed on the brakes. Holding her belongings in her lap, she pointed over the seat when the driver didn’t flip on his turn signal. “Left here.”
As soon as the driver pulled into the driveway of her aunt’s beach cottage, he jumped out before she’d even unstrapped her seatbelt. Placing a shaky hand on her abdomen, she tried to calm her nerves as she stepped onto the paved surface. The fresh salty air and the not so distant sound of crashing waves immediately enveloped her.
With her purse hooked over her shoulder, she fished her keys out and followed the man rolling her bags up the front walk.
After she paid him, he tore out of the driveway before she’d rolled her bags inside. Before she’d even flipped on the light in the foyer, she realized the gun she kept in her purse was clutched tightly in her hand. Immediately she tucked it back in her bag and cursed herself. For the past year she’d been using her gun as a crutch and it was time to get over it. If her training had taught her one thing, it was never to depend on a weapon.
She had to get over the feeling that the boogeyman was around every corner. As she shut the front door behind her, unexpected tears stung her eyes when she spied the stack of unopened mail. She still couldn’t believe her Aunt Debra was gone.
Lilly’s gaze flew to the stairs at the thought. Her aunt had lived in this house almost forty years. It seemed impossible that she’d fallen down the stairs and died in her own home.
A shiver snaked down Lilly’s spine, but she brushed it away. Leaving her belongings in the foyer, she headed for the kitchen. Everything was the same in the bright room. White, vintage style cabinets with clear glass doors displayed the beach-themed plates her aunt had collected over the years.
What was she going to do with all this stuff? This house? Selling it seemed wrong, but she wasn’t sure that she wanted to keep it. Maybe she’d use it as a vacation house?
Shaking her head, she grabbed a plastic tumbler from the cupboard and filled it with water from the refrigerator. She needed a hot bath and a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. Then she’d be able to think about the future. She flipped off the light and was halfway through the door when a scratching sound stopped her.
She paused in the archway, afraid to turn around. Her right leg ached as vivid memories assaulted her. There is no one here. I have nothing to be scared of. She repeated the words over in her head like a mantra.
Turning around, she scanned the quiet kitchen and let out a sigh of relief until her gaze fell on the small window by the sink. An invisible vise around her throat tightened, making it almost impossible to breathe.
A man wearing a black ski mask stood behind the window, staring at her. She blinked once, hoping he’d disappear but he was still there when she opened her eyes. In the moonlight she could make out his dark eyes and…his smile. He was smiling at her.
“Oh, God,” she whispered.
A black haze blurred her vision. She tried to take a step back but her body refused to obey. Numbness slowly slid over her, wrapping icy hands around her ankles and legs.
Find a weapon.
Her brain screamed that she needed to protect herself, but she stood there like a mime. It was just like Africa all over again. The man’s grin grew wider, revealing a perfect row of white teeth. He reminded her of something. Someone. The man was familiar, but not. She closed her eyes again and took a deep breath.
A hand clamped on her shoulder, and a wild, animalistic scream tore from her throat. Adrenaline and training kicked in. She dropped the tumbler in her hand and whirled with her elbow already bent and ready to strike.
“Damn, Lil, it’s me. The door was unlocked.” The deep familiar voice stopped her midswing.
She tripped over her feet as she refrained from attacking him, but blast-from-the-past Braden Donnelly steadied her with two firm hands around her waist.
“Braden? What are you doing…” Her voice trailed off as she took in his attire. “You’re a cop?” She should be asking what he was doing there scaring the daylights out of her. Instead she stared dumbly at him, not quite believing what she was seeing. The feel of that strong grip on her was way too familiar. For an instant she wanted to lean into him. Use his strength and wrap her own arms around him.
He ignored her question as his eyes searched her face. “Are you okay?”
His question made her step back. “Yeah, I’m fine.” Good lord, how many times had she said those words over the past year? She turned back to the window but the masked man was gone. If he had ever been there at all. She pressed a hand to her chest. “Did you see anything by the window?”
“No.” He frowned at her, then flipped the lights back on.
Lilly started to tell Braden what she’d seen but kept her mouth shut. Her counselor had told her that getting over PTSD wouldn’t happen overnight. If ever. It might be something she had to live with her entire life. Constantly worrying about flashbacks. She’d been dealing with it over the past year. The scene at the window was different than anything she’d experienced so far, but waking nightmares were part of the symptoms she’d been warned about so it wasn’t a total surprise. Actually having one, however, was more terrifying than she’d imagined. What did she expect? She was in her dead aunt’s house. It was only natural that she’d be jittery.
“That was some scream.” Braden’s familiar, espresso-colored eyes filled with worry as he continued to stare at her.
Any response she came up with seemed inappropriate—or worse, crazy—so she shrugged and cleared her throat. She hadn’t seen the man in a decade and she didn’t want him to think she should be locked in the loony bin. “Uh, would you like something to drink? I was about to put on some tea.” It was a lie, but she needed to keep her hands busy. If she was really honest, she didn’t want to be alone right now. Braden wouldn’t have been her first or even second choice as company but she’d take what she could get.
“If you’re sure it’s no trouble.” When she nodded, he motioned toward the trail of water on the tile. “I’ll clean this up.”
Warmth spread through her body at that sexy as sin voice. The man had always been able to get under her skin without even trying. Apparently that hadn’t changed. She wanted to hate that about him, but in reality being near him made her feel strangely safe. Turning her back to him, she went to the cupboard nearest the sink. Thankfully her aunt hadn’t moved anything.
Though she tried to block it out, she couldn’t get the image of Braden’s lean body out of her head. Even a brown and tan polyester uniform couldn’t hide the outline of his broad shoulders, muscular chest and trim waist. He’d definitely filled out since they were eighteen and it was in the form of all muscle. Something she should not be noticing. Still, it was hard not to imagine what he’d look like without that uniform. And what it would be like to trace her fingers over all those striations and muscles—
“I’m sorry about your aunt. Everyone’s going to miss her.” Braden moved around her and grabbed a handful of paper towels.
“Thank you,” she murmured, hating that his voice and nearness brought back too many memories. Hot, naked memories.
When his arm brushed hers, that unwanted heat spread even lower, which made her feel like even more of a freak. One moment she was scared out of her mind and the next she was turned on. By Braden Donnelly of all people. Not that that was so surprising. He’d been her first everything. First boyfriend, first kiss, first…
Yeah, she couldn’t go down that road. It would only bring her pain. She shook her head before collapsing at the kitchen table.
Seconds later Braden joined her. “You look good, Lil.”
She willed herself not to care, but could feel heat creep up her neck. The way he said her name transformed her body to mush. “So do you.” Better than good. For a moment she glanced at his hands and unwanted, vivid images flashed in her mind. He’d run his strong fingers over her entire body too many times to count. Not that she should be remembering any of that. Racking her brain, she tried to think of anything in the realm of normal conversation. It had been a decade since she’d seen him and they hadn’t parted on good terms. It was almost impossible for her to believe he was here, sitting in her aunt’s kitchen minutes after she’d arrived in town. To top it off, he was being nice to her. “When did you join the force?”
“A little over three years ago, but I was elected sheriff a year ago.”
It surprised her that her aunt hadn’t at least mentioned it, but Braden was a touchy subject for Lilly so she couldn’t blame Aunt Debra for avoiding it. “What happened to Sheriff Benson?”
“He retired.” Short and to the point.
She tapped her finger against the table. He wasn’t exactly throwing her a bone in the conversation department and she knew he wasn’t here to make small talk so she jumped right in. “Why did you stop by tonight?”
He shrugged and something akin to pain flashed in his dark eyes. “I saw the lights on and figured you’d arrived. Wanted to make sure you got settled in okay.”
So he’d come specifically to see her. He didn’t hand her some contrived story about being in the neighborhood. That was interesting. “Oh.”
“Are you really surprised I’d want to see you?”
“No, I just…” She swallowed, trying to formulate her words. Thankfully, the whistle of the kettle saved her.
Her hand shook as she placed his mug in front of him. As soon as she’d set it on the table, he clasped his hand around hers and stood, totally invading her personal space. “No matter what happened between us, your aunt meant a great deal to me, Lilly. You were the most important person to her and I just wanted to check on you.”
Unable to find her voice, she set the other mug down and mutely nodded her understanding. To her horror, a few errant tears escaped and rolled down her cheeks. She tried to pull away, but Braden muttered something incomprehensible and pulled her into a tight hug. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d let someone hug her. Touch her. Maybe it was stupid, but she needed the kind of strength he could provide so she let him hold her.
His masculine scent and strong embrace definitely hadn’t changed. He murmured soothing words against her hair and she let herself relax. When his familiar male scent washed over her with startling intensity, she cursed her traitorous body. Her nipples tightened against her bra when he stroked a soft hand down her spine. With one gentle touch her dormant libido flared to life.
A low buzz started in her ears as his grip tightened. It had been ten long years since she’d seen him and all she wanted to do was tilt her head up and feel his lips against hers. What kind of masochist was she anyway? Before she could let her thoughts stray into dangerous territory, she stepped back. It was biology. Pure and simple. She might still find him attractive, but that didn’t mean anything. The past would always come between them.
The reality of her physical reaction was beyond maddening. No one since him had the ability to turn her body into a blazing inferno with one touch and she hated that the physical reaction he’d once stirred in her was still there. Instead of looking him directly in the eyes, she found a spot over his shoulder to focus on. “I’ll be fine, I promise. I appreciate you stopping by.”
“I didn’t see a car in the driveway.” For some reason his words almost sounded like an accusation.
“I took a taxi from the airport. I’m going to pick up a rental tomorrow.”
She frowned. “Around eight. I’ve got a lot of arrangements to handle before Friday.” It was Monday night and the next three days didn’t seem like enough time to take care of everything before the wake. Her aunt was being cremated but her instructions had been explicit. No sappy funeral, just a wake with all her closest friends. Which meant over half the town.
“I’ll pick you up at seven forty-five.” He spoke like a drill sergeant.
“You don’t have—”
Braden shook his head. “Forget it. I’ll be here.”
She inwardly smiled. Some things never changed. “Fine, I’ll see you then.”
His eyes darkened and she instantly knew this wasn’t a social visit. Maybe it was instinct or maybe it was simply because she’d once been as close to him as a woman could be to a man. A cold sweat blossomed over her skin.
“Lilly, things have changed since you’ve been gone. Make sure you lock your doors and don’t answer the door for anyone you don’t recognize.”
After years of traveling the world it was second nature to be more aware of her surroundings, but the intensity of his tone surprised her. “What happened?”
“Don’t lie to me, Braden Donnelly.”
The corners of his lips curled up slightly. “This isn’t common knowledge but there’s been an unsolved string of deaths—murders—in the past year. I don’t know one hundred percent but it looks like the murders are related to me.”
“Murders? In Hudson Bay?”
“I can’t go into the details yet, but as far as we can tell, it’s been the same perpetrator and the guy is…sick.”
“Wait a minute, you mean like a serial killer?” Her heart skipped a beat at the thought of something like that happening in her hometown. Not only was there a possible killer on the loose, she was apparently seeing apparitions now. Just great.
“I didn’t use that word.”
She put a hand on her hip. “You’re also not denying it.”
His radio buzzed, but he blindly reached for it and turned the volume down. “Promise me you’ll be careful. Whoever this guy is, he’s managed to elude us. And if he does want to hurt me…you’d be an obvious target considering our past.”
She had a thousand questions—the first being why would someone want to hurt Braden, but she held her tongue. The look on his face told her he didn’t want to talk about it. Besides, he’d warned her and for that she was grateful. She had enough monsters in her past that the thought of dealing with another one was just icing on the cake. “I’ve got a SIG in my purse and I’ll sleep with it on my nightstand, okay?”
“You carry a SIG?” His dark brows rose in surprise and maybe a trace of admiration.
“It’s standard issue for…what I do.” Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t tell him what she did for a living. For all intents and purposes, everyone thought she was an analyst for the NSA. Which technically, she had been her first three years working for them. All that changed when she’d been recruited as an undercover agent. She’d only been an agent less than two years and some days she wished she’d just kept her job as an analyst.
His shoulders tensed as his radio sounded again. “I’ve got to get this, but I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
A small smile touched her lips. “I’ll be here bright and early.”
Braden nodded and headed toward the front door. She followed him and locked up. After he’d gone, she sagged against the door. Why had she agreed to let him pick her up? Her high school sweetheart of all people. That was probably the dumbest thing she could have done. Just being around the man made her tongue swell. Even now her heart beat an erratic tattoo against her ribcage, threatening to jump out of her chest.
With his warning fresh in her mind, she checked all the windows upstairs and downstairs before setting her aunt’s alarm to stay mode. While the system didn’t send information to an alarm company, it let off a deafening siren if anyone tried to break in.
After dragging her luggage upstairs, she shook her head as she glanced around her old bedroom. Almost everything was the same. Still had the same cherry wood desk, bureau, and even the same floral pink and sage comforter decorated her bed.
Lilly unpacked a few items of clothing and all of her toiletries, but she was running on fumes so after brushing her teeth and changing into a set of long pajamas, she got into bed. The thick comforter and sheets enveloped her. Just as she was drifting off, her cell phone rang. Groaning, she grabbed it from the nightstand.
When she saw the number, she contemplated not answering for a split second, then internally scolded herself. “Hey, boss.”
“I take it you’ve landed.” Lieutenant General Charles Atherton, her supervisor at the NSA, had a distinctive gravelly voice she could pick out anywhere. And from the sound of it, he was very much annoyed with her.
She cringed. “Yeah, sorry for not calling. I’m already at the house and getting settled in.”
“How are you holding up?”
“I’m fine.” Her answer was automatic and probably expected.
“If you need more time, just say the word.”
She’d taken two weeks off and only because he’d insisted. Over the past year, her boss had been pushing her to take a leave of absence. If he wasn’t going to make it mandatory, she wasn’t taking it. Without work, she’d have too much time alone with her memories and she feared her sanity would crumble. And the thought terrified her. “I’ll let you know if I change my mind.”
“All right, call me if you need anything.”
She wanted to tell him about her flashback but her throat clenched and she changed her mind at the last second. “Thanks for calling.”
“Of course,” he grunted.
As soon as they disconnected she rechecked her gun and laid it on the dresser so it would be close. The weapon wouldn’t help her fight nightmares, but it would protect her against a real killer.