AGENT UNDER SIEGE by Lena Diaz
About the Book:
Can they outsmart a killer …who’s already escaped justice?
The Kentucky Ripper is in prison…or is he? When no one will help Teagan Ray find the man who really abducted her, former profiler Bryson Anton agrees to investigate. But soon their search takes two jolting turns—brutal attacks from a cunning suspect…and a powerful mutual attraction.
Where to Buy:
About the Author:
Lena’s heart belongs to the rolling hills of her homestate of Kentucky. But you’re more likely to see her near the ocean these days in northeast Florida where she resides with her hubby and two children. A former Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart® finalist, she’s also a four-time winner of the Daphne du Maurier award and a Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller. When not writing, she can be found sprucing up her flower beds or planning her next DIY project.
Teagan is a survivor. She was kidnapped by the Kentucky Ripper years ago. She was humiliated and tortured. She got out of that nightmare but has never forgotten her ordeal.
Bryson is the FBI agent who worked on the case. He tried to save Hayley but got shot in the hip. He has to adjust to life in constant pain and as a cane and wheelchair user.
He’s determined, focused and also a fighter. Some may say he has a temper. But I see things from his point of view as pain and muscle stiffness can be a real issue and something that people who aren’t wheelchair users may not understand. As a fellow wheelchair user, I am able to understand how these two things can affect how I feel.
There are some points when he’s tender and understanding. The chemistry between them and depth and intricacies of relationship is expertly dealt with by author Lena Diaz.
There is so much action in this book. It really is non-stop. The trail and house where Teagan was kidnapped are really atmospheric and I felt fear and unease as they were mentioned.
The investigation has a lot of twists and turns and I was hooked by it and wanted Teagan and Bryson to be OK. The medical side of Bryson’s life is realistic and I went through the same nerves as Teagan waiting for him to recover from surgery.
Love, suspense, action and real-life issues combine in this very well thought out book with unforgettable characters.
Thanks to Lena Diaz and Harlequin Suspense for my ARC in exchange for an honest and voluntary review.
“Teagan,” he whispered. “Look at me.”
She opened her eyes and stared up at him. The moon’s light wasn’t enough to see the beautiful blue of his eyes, but she remembered how ruggedly handsome he was. He was so sweet and smart and…and he was going to die
“We have to kill him,” she whispered. Bryson’s arm stiffened against her, but he didn’t say anything. “We have to kill him,” she repeated. “Before he makes us go into that horrible shack. He wants me. He won’t shoot me, not right away. We’ll refuse to go inside and he’ll have to come close. As long as you duck down in front of me, I can shield you—”
“The hell with that,” he hissed. “I’m not using you as a human shield. The answer is no. We’ll survive this, somehow. I don’t have a plan yet, but putting you in the line of fire sure isn’t at the top of my list. It’s not even on
the list. Forget it.”
AGENT UNDER SIEGE
If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”
My prayers and condolences to all who have lost loved ones and friends during the horrendous, unimaginable pandemic that gripped our world in 2020. I hope that this story gives you a few hours of escape and that it puts a smile on your face. God bless.
ISBN-13: 978-1-335-40148-9 Agent Under Siege
Copyright © 2020 by Lena Diaz
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents
are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
This edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
For questions and comments about the quality of this book, please contact us at CustomerService@Harlequin.com
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Printed in U.S.A.
was born in Kentucky and has also lived
in California, Louisiana and Florida, where she now resides with her husband and two children. Before becoming a romantic suspense author, she was a computer programmer. A Romance Writers of America Golden Heart® Award finalist, she has also won the prestigious Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. To get the latest news about Lena, please visit her website, lenadiaz.com.
Books by Lena Diaz Harlequin Intrigue
The Justice Seekers
Cowboy Under Fire Agent Under Siege
The Mighty McKenzies
Smoky Mountains Ranger Smokies Special Agent Conflicting Evidence Undercover Rebel
Mountain Witness Secret Stalker Stranded with the Detective SWAT Standoff
Missing in the Glades Arresting Developments Deep Cover Detective Hostage Negotiation
Visit the Author Profile page at Harlequin.com.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
This former FBI profiler’s redemption hinges on him saving the young woman who believes her attacker is the killer Bryson failed to capture years ago.
This criminal justice student puts her life on hold to convince Bryson to help her catch the man who attacked her. But her decision sends them both down a path that could cost them their lives.
After his life is nearly destroyed by a corrupt small-town government, this former chief of police uses his lawsuit winnings to form the Justice Seekers. He offers former law enforcement officers a second chance to redeem themselves and obtain justice for others.
He was once suspected to be a serial killer but managed to disappear when the police turned to another suspect. Now more people are dying with the same signature used in the original murders.
Imprisoned as the Kentucky Ripper, is he really the serial killer who once terrorized his state? Or, as Teagan believes, did the real killer get away?
One of the Justice Seekers, he helps Bryson and Teagan when they need it most. But will his help come too late?
Long before the shadow fell across the end of the dock and hovered over Bryson Anton’s wheelchair, he knew the man was there. Motion sensors and security cam- eras had made Bryson’s watch buzz against his wrist when the man parked his car in the driveway. More messages warned when the man crossed the back patio. And again, when he’d descended the gently sloping lawn that ended at the creek. Bryson didn’t care who was now standing behind him, as long as he didn’t have to engage in conversation.
“Nice place,” the man’s voice rang out. “Probably one of the highest views in the Tennessee side of the Smoky Mountains. I’ll bet at night you can see nearly every light in downtown Gatlinburg from here.”
Bryson sighed but didn’t turn around. “My former boss took pity on me after I got myself hurt on the job. He gave me a boatload of money, and I was selfish enough to take it and buy this property. But that doesn’t mean he can drop by any time he wants.”
“I’m still your boss. I haven’t accepted your resig- nation.”
8 Agent Under Siege
“That’s not how it works, Mason. I resigned, whether you accept it or not. I’ll never be a Justice Seeker again. I’m not going back to Camelot. You and your knights of the round table are better off without a washed-up former profiler jacking up your investigations.”
“Is that why you’re sitting out here drinking like a fish, because you think you jacked up everything?”
“Something like that.” Bryson grabbed a can of beer from the cooler beside his wheelchair and popped the top. He took a deep long swallow, more to irritate his unwelcome visitor than because he wanted it.
Mason retrieved a beer and eyed the label, then tossed it back unopened. “Fish biting?”
“Do you see a fishing pole around here somewhere?” Bryson emptied his can in the water and dropped it on his lap before wheeling around. “Enjoy the view as long as you want. You paid for it.” He rolled his chair up the flagstone walkway toward the house.
“Dalton and Hayley missed you at their wedding last week.” Mason fell into step beside him.
“Yeah, well. I didn’t have time to learn the latest dance steps.” He stopped at the sliding glass doors and tossed the empty beer can in the recycle bin. When he reached for the door handle, Mason leaned past him and held it closed.
Bryson swore. “What do you want from me?”
“I want you to do your job. A new client came to Camelot yesterday. She specifically wants to hire you
.” He scoffed. “You expect me to believe she asked for a washed-up former FBI agent to screw up her case so
Lena Diaz 9
someone else will die? If she did, send her on over. I can accomplish that without lifting a finger.”
Mason leaned back against the door. “That’s a heck of a guilty conscience you’re nursing. Or are you just feeling sorry for yourself?” He waved toward the wheelchair. “If you’d actually go to your physical ther- apy appointments instead of being a no-show half the time, you’d be out of that thing by now. Don’t look so surprised. I pay your insurance premiums. I see what’s billed. And there’ve been a surprising lack of medical invoices lately. You’ve given up, Bryson. The ques- tion is why?”
“Why?” he gritted out. “Let me remind you that when I was the FBI’s golden boy, everyone treated my pro- files like biblical text. So when I presented them with a profile for the Kentucky Ripper, they focused all their efforts on Avarice Lowe, the suspect at the top of my list. Meanwhile, Leviathan Finney—the real Ripper— was no longer under surveillance. To celebrate, he kid- napped and gutted
another woman. Because of me, he was able to kill again.”
“Because of you
, the police were able to signifi- cantly narrow their list of suspects much faster than they could have otherwise. The choices they made after that weren’t your fault. Hell, Bryson. If it wasn’t for the work you did, it would have taken far longer to catch the Ripper and put him in prison.”
“Tell that to the family of the last woman he killed.”
Mason shook his head. “I hear someone anony- mously sends money to the last victim’s family every month. While I admire the generosity and kindness of
10 Agent Under Siege
the gesture, that person is making payments on a debt he doesn’t owe. The only person responsible for that woman’s death is the man who killed her—Leviathan Finney.”
Bryson fisted his hands on the arms of the wheel- chair. “Are we about done here? It’s getting late.”
“Big plans tonight?”
“I have to wash my hair.”
Mason let out a deep sigh. “Just explain one thing,
then I’ll go. Why now? You left the FBI over three years ago and started working for me as one of the Justice Seekers. Why is the Ripper case bothering you again after all this time?”
Bryson stared at him incredulously. “Bothering me again
? It never stopped
bothering me. But I tried to make something good from the bad, atone for my sins by working investigations for you. And what did I do? I nearly got Hayley killed, got myself shot and here I sit with shrapnel they can’t dig out of my hip without risking the loss of my leg. Do I sit here feeling sorry for myself? No. I don’t deserve anyone’s sympathy, least of all my own. The people who deserve sympathy are the ones I’ve hurt, those who nearly died because of me, and the one who did
. Accept my resignation and leave me alone. I’m not going to risk hurting anyone else. I’m done.”
Mason’s jaw worked as he stared past him toward the creek. A full minute passed in silence before he finally met Bryson’s gaze again. “Sounds like you’ve made up your mind.”
Lena Diaz 11
Bryson arched a brow. “Sounds like you’re finally listening.”
“Oh, I’ve been listening. I just don’t like what I’m hearing.” He pulled a thick neon green folder covered with pink polka dots out from beneath his suit jacket and dropped it onto Bryson’s lap. “Guess you won’t be needing this.”
He eyed the folder like he’d eye a coiled rattlesnake. “What is that hideous thing?”
“I was asked to give it to you. It’s from the client I told you about, the one who requested that you work on her case. She put her pursuit of a master’s degree in criminal justice on hold to perform research on an al- leged serial killer. She believes that you’re the only per- son who can convince the police that her conclusions are reasonable and help her catch him. She provided a summary of her research in that folder.”
Bryson snorted and shook his head. “If she’s con- vinced that a failed criminal profiler is the key to her theory, then she needs to go back to school. Her deduc- tive reasoning is skewed.”
“Personally, I found her work intriguing, her theo- ries compelling. And I’ve already got my master’s in criminal justice, not to mention a decade of experience as a chief of police and another seven years after that running The Justice Seekers.” Mason straightened and tugged his suit jacket into place. “But I can see that I’m not going to change your mind. The funny thing is, I never took you for a quitter. Even after the FBI.”
“Yeah, well. I never thought I’d be responsible for
12 Agent Under Siege
another innocent person almost being killed either. Guess we were both wrong.”
Mason stared at him a long moment, then looked past him again toward the dock. “That really is a gor- geous view. Let me know when you decide to go fish- ing. I can bring a pole, throw out a line.” He gave him a hard look. “All
of your brothers and sisters at Camelot would love to toss you a line, including Hayley. You just have to ask.” He shoved his hands in his pants pockets and strode away without waiting for a reply.
Bryson dropped his gaze to the ridiculous-looking pink-and-green folder in his lap. He stared at it long after he could no longer hear the sound of Mason’s car driving away. Long after the sun began to set and the mosquitos started buzzing around his ears. Long after the twinkling lights of Gatlinburg reflected in the slid- ing glass door, studding the night sky like glitter on a black velvet canvas.
Then he tossed the folder in the trash.
Teagan whistled as she stepped out of her car onto the brick-paved driveway. It was as if she was standing on top of the world, with the entire Smoky Mountains range spreading out around her in 360-degree views. There wasn’t another house in sight, just the rambling one-story stone-and-brick mansion set so far back from the main road that she hadn’t seen it until she’d almost passed it.
She wasn’t sure what she’d expected of the home of a former FBI special agent, but it wasn’t this. Either the FBI was paying way better than most people realized, or Bryson Anton’s post-FBI career paid extremely
well. He’d spent three years so far with The Justice Seek- ers, an agency of former law enforcement officers and ex-military whose professed goal was to obtain justice for people who couldn’t get it via the traditional route. Having seen their quirky, state-of-the-art headquarters that they’d dubbed Camelot, she figured it was a safe assumption that’s where Bryson had made his money.
When she reached the front porch, she was surprised that in addition to the broad front steps there was a
14 Agent Under Siege
ramp concealed behind the landscaping. No rocking chairs dotted the wide expanse. No flowers decorated the empty cedar window boxes, even though it was the middle of spring. If she had to describe the expen- sive, sprawling home in one word, it would be…lonely
She was about to knock on the frosted glass double door when the left side jerked open. She blinked in slack-jawed admiration at the incredible work of art that greeted her wearing nothing but a frown and a white towel draped around his hips. His dark, shoulder-length hair was damp. Beads of water clung to the hair on his golden, sculpted chest. It almost killed her not to reach out and trace the trail of one very happy bead that ran toward his six-pack abs and disappeared below the top of his towel. On a scale of one to ten, she rated him sexy-as-hell.
“Hi.” Of all the compelling, intelligent, well-formulated introductions that her summa cum laude education could have provided her, she came up with that one-word bit of brilliance. She cleared her throat so she could properly introduce herself.
“It’s about time you got here,” he practically growled. “I’ve been trying to work the cramps out of my hip all morning. If the muscles aren’t loosened up soon, I’ll end up in the wheelchair the rest of the day abusing an exquisite bottle of scotch.”
Leaning heavily on the cane in his right hand that she only just noticed, he limped across the expensive- looking shiny white floor before stopping beside one of the biggest black leather couches she’d ever seen. Except for the other couch in the room, which was just
Lena Diaz 15
as big. The two of them formed an L with their backs to the bump-out of windows near the garage.
“Where do you want me?” he asked.
Was that a trick question? On a bed, on the kitchen counter, anywhere
. Since he appeared to be waiting for an answer to his ridiculous query, she had to rewind the brief conversation in her head and remember what he’d said when he’d opened the door. Her previously absent brain clicked into gear, and she realized he was likely expecting either a massage therapist or a per- sonal trainer. For his left hip, the one he was favoring as he leaned toward the cane on his right side. Appar- ently he wanted her to tell him where he should sit, or lie down, or whatever was required so that she could work out his muscle cramps.
Her ovaries screamed at her to say yes to anything he wanted. But it wouldn’t be ethical to let this go on any longer when it was obviously a case of mistaken identity. All she had to do was tell him who she was and why she was there.
Now if she could just stop drooling long enough to remember her name.
He frowned. “What’s wrong?” He glanced down at his towel. “I’ve got boxers on if you’re worried that I’m naked under here.”
“Oh, no, trust me. That wouldn’t bother me at all
.” Drop the towel. And the boxers. Please.
She cleared her throat. “What I meant to say is that—”
The doorbell rang, followed by a knock on the glass. He swore. “Ever since my old boss came by yester-
16 Agent Under Siege
day, you’d think this was a Walmart on Black Friday. This makes the third person to come by in two days.”
“Three visitors in two days. A veritable siege.”
He gave her an odd look.
She smiled. It was either that or give in to the bar-
baric urge to grab his towel and toss it away. She curled her fingernails against her palms, trying her best to keep him safe.
His face was a study in pain as he limped to the door. She wondered at the source of that pain. His employer hadn’t mentioned anything about an injury. Mason had only stated that Bryson was on temporary leave, but that he’d be more than happy to return to take her case. She had a feeling that Mason might have stretched the truth. A lot.
He opened the door with a bit of wariness this time, keeping his lower half hidden behind it.
Unable to make out what was being said, Teagan imagined it was far more clever than her conversation since they spoke longer than it took to say, “Hi.” When he stepped back, a rather impressive woman entered. Bright, attention-getting red hair floated above baby- blue scrubs. She marched across the room with the au- thority of someone who had a legitimate reason to be there. Teagan was quite certain that the woman’s mus- cular arms would have made a linebacker blush with envy. After snapping a white linen in the air and tuck- ing it around the couch cushions, she ordered Bryson to lose the towel and lie down.
Teagan debated what to do. Should she go or should she stay?
Lena Diaz 17
“You.” Bryson pointed at her. “Sit over there until I can stand again without wanting to drown myself in a bottle of tequila. Then we’ll find out who you are and what you’re doing here.”
He dropped his towel and lay down on the couch, his left leg facing out toward the room. His thighs were just as muscular and beautiful as the rest of him. Wowzah
The woman that Teagan mentally dubbed “Helga” placed a pad on the floor by the couch and propped her knees on top of it. Strong, man-size hands were stuffed into latex gloves. Then she shoved the side of Bryson’s boxers up his leg and proceeded to squeeze and pummel his hip.
Personally, Teagan wouldn’t have bothered with the gloves.
She tossed her purse onto the other couch and plopped down to enjoy the show. It was over far too soon. She almost groaned in disappointment when Bryson pushed to his feet, then pronounced his cramps gone and thanked the therapist. A few minutes later, Helga had left and Bryson returned from his bedroom in a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt.
Since the jeans caressed his muscular thighs and tight rear end and the T-shirt did nothing to hide the perfection of his pecs, Teagan decided that she didn’t mind that he’d put on some clothes. It was a pleasure seeing the perfect male specimen in varying stages of undress. She just wished she could see him completely
undressed for a fair comparison.
He limped to her couch, looking just as adorably grumpy as he had when he’d jerked open the front door
18 Agent Under Siege
and complained about her taking so long to get there. Well, complained that Helga
had taken so long.
“Spill it,” he said. “Mason sent you, didn’t he?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.”
“How would you put it?”
“I’d say that I went to Mr. Ford and asked if I could
hire you. He said he was certain that you’d be interested, but that I’d have to ask you personally. He graciously provided your address and here I am. Technically, I sent myself.” She remained seated on the ultra-plush couch and offered her hand. “Teagan Ray. Nice to meet you.”
He didn’t bother with a handshake. “Bryson Anton. I don’t work for Mason Ford anymore. Get out of my house.”
Bryson stared at the defiant young woman sitting
cross-legged on his couch. There was nothing about her sensible flat shoes, her conservative navy blue dress pants and short-sleeved white blouse that buttoned all the way to her neck to indicate that she was a radical militant bent on destroying the rest of his miserable morning. Even her black hair, which appeared to be curly based on the little wisps that framed her face, was mostly tamed in a tight braid that hung down the middle of her back. So why wasn’t she cowed by his sour disposition and gruff commands? And why was she still sitting on his couch?
“Perhaps you didn’t hear me correctly, Ms. Ray.”
“Call me Teagan. I’ll call you Bryson.” She flashed a bright white smile that probably cost her parents a second mortgage.
“Ms. Ray, you may call me Mr. Anton, or the jerk who’s throwing you out of his house. Because that’s exactly what I’m doing. Tossing you out. I didn’t in- vite you here so—”
20 Agent Under Siege
“Actually, you did.”
She tapped her temple as if that would explain ev-
erything. “I have a photographic memory. I basically see words—”
“I know what a photographic memory is,” he bit out.
“Excellent. It’s good to use terminology we’re both familiar with for the absolute best understanding, with no confusion. A common frame of reference will help us communicate better. Don’t you think?”
“You lost me at no confusion
She grinned. She seemed to do that a lot. “Let’s go back to the part where you invited me here.”
“I didn’t invite you.”
“When Mr. Ford told you about me, you told him, ‘You expect me to believe she asked for a washed-up former FBI agent to screw up her case so someone else will die? If she did, send her on over.’” She spread her hands out beside her. “Here I am. Plus you invited me in at the front door. It’s kind of like with vampires, once you let them in, that’s it. You can’t just throw them out.”
“Watch me.” He tossed his cane on the other couch, then scooped her up in his arms.
Her dark brown eyes got so wide he could see the beautiful little golden flecks around the irises.
He whirled around, then stumbled and had to steady his shin against the coffee table to keep from tipping over.
She boldly looped her tawny-brown arms around his neck and stared up at him with a look of concern. “I’m not sure you should be holding me like this with-
Lena Diaz 21
out your cane. I don’t want you to hurt yourself. Plus, even as gorgeous—with a capital G
—as you are, I still think we should get to know each other better before we jump into each other’s arms. Don’t you?” She flut- tered her impossibly long, thick eyelashes.
“Has anyone ever accused you of insanity?” he asked.
“All the time. It’s one of my best qualities—the abil- ity to act crazy while I outmaneuver and outsmart ev- eryone around me.”
He scowled down at her.
She tightened her arms around his neck. “I could literally do this all day. We fit together perfectly. My soft curves, your hard muscles. Very comfy.”
“Are you flirting with me, Ms. Ray?”
“I believe I am, Mr. Anton.”
“Because you’re trying to confuse and outmaneuver
me so I’ll let you stay?”
“Mostly. Is it working?”
“The jury’s still out on that. But my hip’s starting
to hurt like the devil again, so I’m either going to drop you or set you down. I’m leaning toward dropping.”
“I prefer setting.”
“No sense of adventure.” He let her legs slide down until she was standing. Then he gingerly let her go, try- ing not to move too fast and lose his precarious balance.
She grabbed his cane and handed it to him. “Is this one of those cool FBI things? Like if you twist the head it opens and becomes a rifle? Or maybe the tip has poison
22 Agent Under Siege
in it? You jab the bad guy and he dies a horrible death a few minutes later. Am I right?”
“It’s a gun, of course. Poison is so beneath an FBI agent.”
Her grin widened. “James Bond has nothing on you guys.”
He rolled his eyes. It was all he could manage with the pain slicing through his muscles. When he thought he could shuffle across the room without falling to the floor in an embarrassing heap, he headed toward the kitchen. He eyed her morosely as she used her two per- fectly healthy hips to hop onto one of the bar stools at the marble-topped island.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” he warned. “You haven’t achieved victory. Once I liquor up enough to be able to haul you to the front door, I’ll be throwing you out as promised.”
“I consider myself forewarned.” She motioned to- ward him. “Mind if I ask what’s wrong with the leg? I noticed the ramp outside, and a wheelchair in the cor- ner of the family room.”
“You can ask
all you want. And I can choose not to answer.” Bypassing the scotch that he preferred for late-night drinking—alone—he grabbed a bottle of te- quila along with a shot glass.
She motioned toward the cabinet. “Can you at least pretend that you have some manners and act like a host for a few minutes?”
“Are you even old enough to drink?”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m sure I don’t look that
Lena Diaz 23
He sighed and reached for a second glass. After pouring two generous helpings, he set the bottle be- tween them. “Ms. Ray. You seem like an intelligent young woman—”
She grimaced. “You say young as if you think I’m a child. I can’t imagine that I’m more than ten, maybe eleven years younger than you.”
He arched a brow. “Meaning that while you were in elementary school, I was losing my virginity to the homecoming queen at my high school.”
She hesitated with a shot glass halfway to her mouth. “Can’t top that. But I did have my first kiss quite early. Third grade. Behind the jungle gym. Ricky Southern- ton.” She tossed her shot back with one gulp.
“On the lips?”
“On the cheek.”
“Doesn’t count. I was in second
grade when I kissed
Becky Louis. She bit my tongue.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have shoved it down her
He reluctantly smiled. “Maybe not.” He tossed his
own shot back and reveled at the smooth burn as it went down. A few more shots and he might be able to avoid the wheelchair until at least the dinner hour.
“Have you thought about getting prescription pain- killers instead of drowning the pain with alcohol?”
He shot her a look that should have frozen her to the bar stool.
She held up her hands in a placating gesture. “Sorry. The filter between my brain and my mouth is defec- tive. I shouldn’t have asked.”
24 Agent Under Siege
The completely unrepentant look on her face, in direct opposition to her words, forced a laugh out of him. How long had it been since he’d laughed, or even smiled? He had no idea. But the novelty of both had him starting to relax, if only a little. “I was on pretty strong pain pills in the beginning, but it was like liv- ing in a brain-fog all the time. Had to wean myself off them. Drinking works better for me, and it’s a heck of a lot more fun.” He refilled his glass, then paused in question with the bottle poised over hers.
He topped off her shot, then drained his while watching her. If he hadn’t been paying close attention, he wouldn’t have noticed the tiny, involuntary shudder when she tossed it back.
“That’s a waste of some pretty great tequila for someone who doesn’t even like it.”
She shoved the glass across the island for more. “What makes you think I don’t like it?”
He poured more for himself, but not for her. “When you have ten or eleven more years of experience be- hind you, maybe you’ll figure it out. Go home, Teagan. There’s nothing for you here. I can’t help you.”
“You mean you won’t
“The intent doesn’t matter. The result is the same.” “Then I guess we’re back to drinking. Shots with a
hot guy before noon. I can think of worse ways to spend my morning.” She grabbed the bottle.
He tugged it away from her. “If you’re trying to win me over with the hot guy talk, you can stop right now. Like I said, I’m not going to help with your case. And
Lena Diaz 25
I’m not buying this over-the-top happy, flirty person- ality you’re presenting. Nobody’s that cute. You’re try- ing too hard.”
“You think I’m cute?” She grinned and fluttered her long lashes again.
“I think you’re nervous and overcompensating. It’s time to drop the act.”
Her smile dimmed and she seemed genuinely con- fused. “What do you mean?”
He rested his forearms on the island. “Profiler, re- member? At least, I used to be one. It took me a few minutes to realize what was happening. Probably be- cause I’m out of practice and I do my best to avoid people these days. But you don’t have to keep pre- tending, trying to be something you’re not. Maybe it’s the tequila that I drank, maybe it’s that I admire your spunk and the effort you’ve put into this. Whatever it is, you’ve earned a slight reprieve. I’ll listen to your spiel so you can get it out of your system. Then
I’ll throw you out.”
She stared at him, wide-eyed, then grabbed his full shot glass and tossed it back before he could stop her. He silently cursed himself for not being more care- ful. Given her small stature and the strength of the te- quila, her ability to safely drive herself home was now
seriously in question.
“Better?” he asked dryly.
“Better. Although I’ll admit that scotch I saw in your
cabinet is more to my taste.” “Don’t even think about it.” She grinned.
26 Agent Under Siege
“This is where I warn you that I haven’t read the in- formation that Mason left me.”
“I kind of figured, since the folder I gave him is hanging half-out of your garbage can on your back patio.” She motioned toward the glass doors on the far side of the kitchen.
“Observant, I’ll give you that. Then again, it’s hard to miss a neon green folder with hideous pink polka dots.”
“Not a polka-dot fan?”
“Not in the least.”
He shifted his weight to help ease the tightness in
his hip. “Maybe you can brief me on what’s in the folder. Mason mentioned you think you’re on the trail of a serial killer.”
She nodded and ran her hands up and down her arms, looking slightly less eager now that the discus- sion was at hand. She reached for the tequila.
He swore and placed the bottle on the counter be- hind him. “Trust me. You’re already going to have a heck of a hangover. No more alcohol. Now, for a com- mon reference, so there’s no confusion
, what name are you dubbing your alleged killer?”
She drew a deep breath, then straightened her shoul- ders as if she was about to head into battle. “The Ken- tucky Ripper.”
Bryson froze, then slowly straightened. “That’s not funny.”
Teagan’s eyes widened. “I’m not making a joke. I’m serious. The Ripper is the killer I’ve been researching.” “At least now I know why you asked Mason for me, specifically. Well, forget it. Rehashing past failures
isn’t my idea of fun.”
She held up her hands. The overhead lights winked
off several gold rings. “Just hear me out. I’ve been researching this for a long time. I’m not here to cast blame. I’m here for your insight. And I’m here to ask a very important question.” She squeezed her hands together. “What if the guy they thought was the Rip- per is actually a copycat and the real serial killer is still at large?”
He winced, then eyed his empty glass with long- ing. “If that’s true, then I screwed up even worse than I thought.”
“Not at all. You
didn’t make the mistakes during the Ripper investigation. The police
He tore his gaze from the shot glass. “Maybe I drank
28 Agent Under Siege
too much tequila too because that one went right over my head. I’m lost, in spite of our common frame of reference
“Then I’ll be happy to explain. First, profiles are tools, not biblical text.”
He stared at her as his own words were thrown back at him. “Did Mason say that to you?”
She frowned. “No. Why?”
He shrugged. “Just wondering. Go on.”
She crossed her arms on top of the island. “When
your profile indicated that one of the two top suspects was the most likely killer, the police went after him with everything they had. Meanwhile, their other prime suspect was no longer under surveillance. He took advantage of their mistake to abduct and murder a woman. Instead of thinking of your profile as a di- vining rod, they should have stayed the course, kept their surveillance on both suspects until some evidence tipped the scales.” She motioned in the air as if waving away her words. “Regardless, my point is that, based on my research, I think your profile was spot-on. The first guy was
the real Ripper. The guy they put in prison is a copycat. The police got sidetracked by the last mur- der and pursued that killer to the exclusion of everyone else. So, while there’s plenty of blame to go around for how everything turned out, none of it should have ever blown back on you.”
He was going to filet Mason for giving this mis- guided, albeit beautiful woman his address. Her the- ories were bogus. Unfortunately, he could tell how vested she was in them and he didn’t want to destroy
Lena Diaz 29
her confidence before her law enforcement career was even off the ground.
Using his nonjudgmental teaching voice, the one he’d adopted while presenting guest lectures at Quan- tico, he explained, “For that theory to hold water, the first requirement would be that the Ripper is still ac- tive. But no other women have been tortured and bru- talized per his specific signature since he was put away. Explain how your theory addresses that.”
“No other women that you know of
“Fair enough. That I know of. But if new cases had popped up, I can’t imagine the media not making a connection even if the police didn’t. The Ripper case was bread and butter to them. It made for great ratings. If something that sensational happened again, they’d be all over it.”
“The media in Kentucky, yes, absolutely. Other places, not necessarily. They don’t know about the original cases and wouldn’t realize there was a serial killer operating in the area.”
“Definitely,” she countered.
He admired her confidence, even if she was dead
wrong. “Why would the killer change locations?” “Because he’s smart. He knew he’d been given a tremendous opportunity, that a mentally disturbed fall guy had taken credit for his crimes and turned atten- tion away from him. He knew that if he killed again in the same area, the police would know right away that they’d caught a crazy guy bent on enjoying the spot- light and confessing to crimes he didn’t do. They’d be
30 Agent Under Siege
back on the trail of the real Ripper, reassemble the task force. But stopping, not killing anymore, isn’t an op- tion either. Our psychopath is driven by an urge to kill that he can’t control. So in addition to changing loca- tions, he also changes his MO, his modus operandi, the way he kills.”
He could see why Mason had found her compelling. She spoke with authority, like someone who’d had real- life experience with this sort of thing rather than just book knowledge. He decided to press her some more, see whether she’d backtrack and second-guess herself, or hold firm and defend her theory. “Don’t serial kill- ers always keep the same MO?”
She gave him a wounded look that almost had him feeling guilty. “You’re treating me like a student, test- ing me, aren’t you? Pushing to see if I know what I’m talking about.”
“Do you? Know what you’re talking about?”
Her gaze dropped to the island. “Yes,” she whis- pered. “I do.”
Her ragged tone put him on alert, had him studying her body language. The best indicator of honesty and genuine emotion as opposed to lies and bravado was how a person moved, how they spoke, not the words they used. Her body language told him that something else was at play here, something she wasn’t yet ready to say out loud, something that had dread curling in his chest. “You were talking about modus operandi.”
She cleared her throat. “What I was saying is that serial killers don’t always maintain the same MO, their method, how
they kill. Modus operandi is a conscious
Lena Diaz 31
choice. They can change it if necessary. Like if a killer starts out tying his victims with shoelaces. If one of them manages to break a shoelace and escapes, the next time he abducts someone he’ll use handcuffs. Differ- ent MO, same killer.”
“That’s a good way to explain it,” he allowed. “But I’d add that MO is more about what’s necessary, or what the killer feels
is necessary, in order to carry out his crime. Outside of forensics, with no fingerprints or even DNA, what would convince you that some murders were done by the same killer if the MO had changed?” Again, he watched her closely, trying to decipher the subtext, the meaning beneath her words.
“Signature. A serial killer, a true psychopath, is driven to kill. He can change parts of what he does, but the signature is an intrinsic part of his killing rit- ual. It’s the part of his crimes that he can’t
change. Sig- nature is a subconscious action, something he doesn’t choose to do or not to do. It’s something he’s compelled to do.” She clasped her hands on top of the island. “Like the Ripper carving an X
across the abdomen of each of his victims after he abducts them. That’s his way of branding them, of letting them know that he… he owns
She wasn’t meeting his gaze anymore. Instead, she slowly traced the veining in the marble top of the is- land. Her stark words had his throat tightening as he carefully watched her, weighing every move, even the tone of her voice.
“Signature is often a reliable means for linking crimes,” she continued. “But the police often confuse
32 Agent Under Siege
MO with signature, or assume something is the signa- ture when it’s just another thing the killer does each time, but isn’t compelled
to do. And even though it’s been documented many times that serial killers can and sometimes do change their victimology, go outside their comfort zone and choose a victim that doesn’t fit with their history, the police automatically think that means it’s a different killer. It’s not their fault. Most will never come across a serial killer case their entire career. They’re not equipped to evaluate the complexi- ties, dive deeper, weigh a killer’s thirst to kill versus his desire not to get caught. They don’t understand his willingness or ability to adapt.”
“You’ve circled back to the Kentucky Ripper again.” He kept his voice gentle, encouraging her to finish what she came here to say, what she so obviously needed
to say. And all the while he cursed Mason for sending her, for using
her to get to him. “His original victimology included Caucasian women in their mid- to late thirties, married, with children. They all lived within the same fifty-square-mile geographical region in Eastern Kentucky. None of them worked outside the home.”
She nodded. “Yes, but I’m saying he could have changed all of that. He could have moved to another state, gone after someone who was younger, single, without children. Someone who worked outside the home, even if only to take temporary odd jobs to make ends meet. Even if the signature was the same, most people in law enforcement would think it was an- other copycat, a one-off, since the alleged real guy is
Lena Diaz 33
in prison. They wouldn’t realize what they’re dealing with, or even that they have a serial killer operating in their midst.”
What he’d started to suspect just moments ago had solidified into a cold hard knot of dread that had him clenching his teeth so hard they ached.
Holding on to the edge of the countertop to maintain his balance, he limped around the island until he was standing beside her. Then, keeping his voice as gentle as possible, he asked, “How old are you? Don’t give me a flippant answer either. I’m serious.”
His question didn’t seem to surprise her. “Just turned twenty-six. My birthday was last month.”
Younger than he’d thought. Her guesstimate of their age difference was off by several years. “You’re not Caucasian.”
Her perfectly shaped brows rose. “Gee, what gave that away?” Her sarcasm did little to hide the underly- ing pain in her tone.
“Mason didn’t mention where you’re from. I’m guessing it’s not Kentucky.”
“Never even been to Kentucky. My home is in north- east Florida, Jacksonville.” Her bottom lip trembled.
He tightened his grip on the island. “Single?”
She nodded, her eyes over-bright, as if she was fight- ing back tears.
She squeezed her eyes shut, then shook her head. “No kids.”
“You take odd jobs to make ends meet while doing your investigation?”
34 Agent Under Siege
She slowly nodded.
“Show me,” he whispered, still praying that he was wrong, but just as certain that he wasn’t.
Without hesitation, she gripped the hem of her blouse, then pulled it up to her chin.
Angry puckered welts marred her skin, forming a five-by-five-inch X on her abdomen. His hands shook as he gently pulled her blouse back down. “When?”
“Two years ago.” Pain leached from every word. “I was halfway through my master’s degree program. But I had to put it on hold until…until I recovered. But after that, I couldn’t focus, couldn’t even think about going back. The police had no leads, no suspects. They still don’t.” She shook her head. “That’s when I put my education to the test, began my own investigation. That folder I gave you is a year and a half of my life. My conclusion is that the man in prison known as the Kentucky Ripper killed one
person, even though he claimed responsibility for many more. The real Rip- per changed locales and victimology.”
She finally looked up, her tortured gaze meeting his. “I believe that I’m a victim from his second spree. There are probably others as well, cases no one has connected, including me. And more women will suf- fer and die if I don’t stop him. I’m also worried that I’m a loose end for him, that he’ll come back to finish what he started.” Her gaze searched his, as if looking for answers. “Please, Bryson. Help me find him and send him to prison. I don’t want to die.” The tears she’d
Lena Diaz 35
been holding back spilled over and streamed down her cheeks.
He swore and lifted her into his arms. Daring his hip to interfere, he cradled her against his chest and strode from the kitchen.
Teagan rubbed her bleary eyes and rolled her head on the pillow. She was in Bryson Anton’s bedroom. In his bed. But he wasn’t there, and his side of the bed hadn’t been disturbed. She didn’t know whether to applaud his old-fashioned gentlemanly conduct or curse him for it. She sighed and threw the covers off her before shuffling to the open bedroom door.
Bryson glanced up from the couch behind the cof- fee table, a stack of papers in his hand and more spread out across the wooden surface.
She stretched her arms above her head as she pad- ded across the family room in her dress socks. She had no idea where her shoes and purse were. “Not to bruise your ego, but after you took me to bed, I don’t remember anything. Maybe we should have a redo so you can refresh my memory.”
He gave her the side-eye. “Trust me. If I took you to bed, you’d remember.”
She grinned. “I have a feeling you’re right.”
He rolled his eyes. “You passed out in my arms, and
Lena Diaz 37
I generously allowed you to use my bedroom to sleep it off. You’re a lightweight when it comes to alcohol.” “Won’t argue that.” She yawned and gestured to- ward the cup on the table beside him. “I don’t suppose
In reply, he held the cup out to her.
She took a huge gulp before handing it back to him.
“I think I’m half in love with you.”
“That’s the tequila talking. You’re still drunk.” “Can’t be. Had to have slept it off by now. How long
was I out?”
He glanced at his watch. “Seventeen minutes.” “Oh. Then I’m definitely still drunk. More please.” He handed her the mug without looking up.
She shifted around to see what he was doing, then
sat beside him, her thigh pressed to his.
“Boundaries, Teagan.” He glanced pointedly at their
legs, plastered together.
She sighed and moved over, just enough so they
weren’t touching. “You’re either married, have a girl- friend, or we play for the same team, because nothing I’m trying is working.”
“Never married. My girlfriend dumped me months ago because hanging with a guy with a limp cramped her style. And, trust me, you and I are definitely not
playing for the same team.”
“What is it then? I haven’t struck out this many times since high school softball.”
“Maybe you’re not my type.”
“Pfft. Have you seen
me? These legs go all the way up.”
38 Agent Under Siege
He arched a brow. “We need to work on this low self-esteem of yours.”
She laughed and shuffled through some of the pa- pers he’d spread out in front of him. When she real- ized what he was looking at, hope flared in her chest. “You’re reading my file?”
He shrugged. “I was bored. I had seventeen min- utes to kill.”
“Does this mean you’re going to help me?”
“My history of helping people isn’t exactly stellar. I’m only committing to looking through your research to offer suggestions that you can take or leave. Maybe I can put a different spin on it so you can think in new directions. I wouldn’t get excited, if I were you. Like I said, I don’t have a great track record. This ruined hip is because I messed up a pit maneuver a rookie could have performed in his sleep. I managed to knock the killer’s vehicle into a ditch, but knocked myself silly in the process. Before I could even scramble for my gun, I’d been shot, shoved out the door, and the killer was taking off in my car with a hostage. The only reason the hostage survived is because one of my coworkers was able to rescue her after I nearly got her killed.”
“I have a feeling there’s way more to it than that.” She started to pat his leg, then jerked her hand back at his reproachful look. “Have I mentioned that I’m a touchy-feely sort of person? I’ll try to behave.” She bit her lip. “You’re still going to help me, right?”
He blew out a breath. “I thought you were acting
earlier, that you were overcompensating.”
“Sorry to disappoint. This is the real me.”
Lena Diaz 39
“I didn’t say I was disappointed.”
She stared at him, hoping he’d explain that
com- ment. But instead, he turned back to the papers in front of him. After a few minutes, she said, “If you change your mind about you and me, and I miss a signal, just let me know, okay?”
He let out a deep sigh and pinned her with an exas- perated look. “Teagan?”
She grinned and scooted back on the couch to sit
cross-legged while he reviewed her research. It was taking him far longer than she’d expected. The folder wasn’t that
thick. She’d brought the summary, not the detailed reports. But he kept thumbing through the pages, comparing things, rereading. She was dying to know what he thought. She was also dying for an en- tirely different reason.
She climbed off the couch. “Where’s the nearest toilet in this monstrosity? I’m about to pee my pants.” She hopped back and forth from one foot to the other. “Never mind, I’ll figure it out.” She ran into his mas- ter bedroom and chose door number one. “Found it!” she called back, before slamming it closed.
Bryson stared at his bedroom doorway where Tea- gan the Tornado had just disappeared. He’d expected a different woman when she woke, figuring her earlier actions were a type of bravado, a coping mechanism because of what had happened to her. Then again, she hadn’t slept long enough to sober up.
40 Agent Under Siege
He took his cell phone from one of the piles of paper on the coffee table, idly rubbing his aching hip as he re- luctantly pressed a programmed number that he should have deleted months ago. When the line clicked he said, “You’re trying to kill me.”
“Delightful, isn’t she?” Mason chuckled.
“You mean she’s always like this? There isn’t a cure?”
“I’m not taking her back. If that’s what you want, I’m hanging up.”
He turned his head, looking through the glass doors at the back of the kitchen. The creek was too low to see from here unless he stood. But the pilings holding the dock in place reached like spindly fingers toward the bright blue sky overhead, a reminder of his last conversation with Mason. Had it been only yesterday?
“Bryson? You still there?”
“I’m here. You mentioned when I was ready, that you’d throw me a line. Looks like I’m going to at least dip my toes in, whether I want to or not.”
“She’s a hard person to say no to.”
“Yes. She is.”
“Whatever you need, it’s yours. Just name it.” Ma-
son’s tone was all business now.
“My files, all those boxes I foolishly—and against
FBI policy—saved from the Ripper case with the Bu- reau. I asked you to store them along with other case files you archived for The Justice Seekers. Is it possible to get them sent here, when you have time?”
“You’ll have them within the hour.”
Teagan appeared in his bedroom doorway, look-
Lena Diaz 41
ing slightly green and more than a little woozy as she gripped the doorframe. She really didn’t know how to hold her liquor, which for some reason he found ador- able. “Thanks, Mason.”
“For the files?”
He tightened his hand on the phone. “We’ll start with that, for now.” He hung up. Then he grabbed his cane and laboriously climbed to his feet.
Teagan trudged toward him and stopped a few feet away, her hand clutching her stomach. Bryson had a feeling he was about to finally meet the real Teagan.
She looked up at him, misery drawing tight lines at the corners of her eyes. “Did I really tell you I had to pee?”
He smiled. Maybe he’d already met the real Teagan after all. “Come on. I’ll make you some fresh coffee and my special hangover blaster.”
When Bryson had mentioned a hangover blaster, the name alone should have warned Teagan to just say no. But she had to admit, even sitting on his master bathroom floor with her head hanging over a toilet, that awful concoction had done the trick. Too bad that meant throwing up everything she’d eaten or drank for the past week
She shuddered and sat back. At least she could be grateful that the man was a neat freak. Either that or he hired really great cleaning people. His bathroom floor was spotless. She winced. Or it had been, until she’d come along. With her tummy finally settling, she pushed herself to her feet and then wobbled to the sink.
After rinsing her mouth out with some mouthwash that she’d found in a cabinet and brushing her teeth with her finger and a dab of toothpaste, she felt almost human again. She washed her face, made sure her stub- born hair hadn’t escaped its braid, then did a quick re- fresh of the bathroom. The sound of voices engaged in conversation had her hurrying through the master bedroom and opening the door.
Lena Diaz 43
The front double door was wide open. Bryson was in his wheelchair directing a man with a hand truck full of bankers boxes toward a hallway that ran across the back of the house. Careful not to get in the way, she plopped down cross-legged on a leather padded bench just outside the bedroom and waited.
By the time the man was finished and Bryson locked the door behind him, she’d counted over a dozen boxes.
He wheeled his chair up to her. “Feeling better?”
“Much. Although I’m not sure whether the cure is worse than the hangover.” She motioned toward his chair. “I see you ran out of tequila and traded in the cane.”
“My liver cried uncle for the day.”
“If you strip, I’d be happy to play Helga and mas- sage your hip for you.” She rubbed her hands together in anticipation.
“The masseuse from this morning. What I lack in professional training I’d more than make up for with enthusiasm.”
He coughed as if to cover a laugh. “Yes, well. I ap- preciate the offer but another massage isn’t going to do the trick at this point. The hip gives out once the mus- cles get overworked and won’t support me anymore.”
“Are you doing physical therapy?”
“Let me guess. You can help me with that too?” “If I’d known I’d meet you one day, I would have
changed majors in college so I could say yes.”
This time he laughed out loud. “Let me worry about the therapy, or lack thereof.” He waved toward the back
44 Agent Under Siege
hallway. “Go on. Ask me about the boxes. I can tell that your curiosity is eating you alive.”
She frowned. “Your earlier theory about your girl- friend dumping you because of your limp probably isn’t right. I think she left you because you’re always profiling people and reading their minds. Okay, yes, the curiosity is driving me batty. What’s in the boxes?”
“I don’t read minds. Profiling, or more accurately, Criminal Investigative Analysis, is science, not art. Although some might argue it’s both. And the answer to your question is that the boxes contain my research on the Kentucky Ripper. I was fresh out of polka-dot folders.”
“All you had to do was ask. I could have let you borrow some of mine.” She waved toward the cased opening where he’d directed the man with the hand truck. “Did the FBI send over copies of their research on the case?”
“The FBI doesn’t allow former agents access to their case files. Those are copies I made of everything that passed my desk back when I worked on the investi- gation. Well, more accurately, when I worked on the profile. Technically, I wasn’t an investigator. But the case consumed me and left me with more questions than answers, even after the killer was convicted. I re- ligiously copied as much as I could and snuck it home every chance I got. From start to finish, the case took two years. Those copies added up.”
She put her hands on her hips. “I knew it. You don’t think the right guy was put away or you wouldn’t have
Lena Diaz 45
risked your career taking that stuff home. Admit it. My theory holds water.”
“I admit nothing. But I’m willing to take a fresh look, which is why I had this stuff brought out of stor- age.” He motioned toward the doorway at the end of the room. “Come on. Might as well give you a tour of this monstrosity
and show you where those boxes went.”
“That monstrosity comment I made earlier was under duress. I didn’t mean it.”
“Yes, you did. And I don’t take offense. It is
a rather large house, too big for one person. But it met my re- quirements when I was house shopping.”
“Let me guess. Requirement number one, no car- pet, for easier mobility with the cane and wheelchair?”
“Anyone could have guessed that.”
“Requirement number two,” she said. “It’s only one story. You’re not ready to tackle stairs just yet.”
“Again, too easy. What about the third require- ment?”
She shook her head. “Stumped on that one.”
“The isolated location so people wouldn’t bother me.” He arched a brow at her.
She winced. “Ah, well. Two out of three isn’t bad. That’s sixty-six percent, still a passing grade, in high school at least.”
“Somehow I can’t imagine you ever being satisfied with anything less than an A. You were valedictorian, weren’t you?”
“Takes one to know one?”
He smiled. “Come on. You’ve already seen the kitchen, family room, and made yourself completely at home in
46 Agent Under Siege
my master bedroom and bathroom.” He waved toward two more doors on the far right wall. “Closet and half bath.”
“I was so close earlier. Didn’t realize there was a half bath over there.”
“At least you made it to a bathroom. Can’t complain about that.” He wheeled his chair toward the back of the room.
She fell in step beside him. “What is this floor made out of? I can’t figure it out.”
He leaned over the side of the chair as if noticing the floor for the first time. “Beats me. Came with the house. Come on, right turn, obviously, since the hall starts here.”
Along the way, he pointed out the various rooms but didn’t stop until they reached the far end.
“He motioned toward the door in front of them. This leads—”
“Let me guess. Man cave?”
“Oh. Kind of anticlimactic after walking all this way.” “It wasn’t that
She gave him a droll look. “Says the man who rolled
all the way here. I’ve already gotten my ten thousand steps for the day. And that’s just since I walked out of your bedroom.”
“Do you want to see the coolest part of the house or not?”
“Coolest? Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man
cool or Keanu Reeves in John Wick
kind of cool?”
“More like Bruce Willis in anything
kind of cool.”
Lena Diaz 47
She grinned and they fist-bumped. “Then my an- swer is most definitely yes.”
He shoved the door open. Then he moved back and motioned her forward. “After you.”
The excitement on his face had her expecting some- thing amazing when she stepped inside the room.
She wasn’t disappointed.
Bryson rolled into his office behind Teagan and did something he rarely did these days. He simply enjoyed the moment. He didn’t worry about his aching hip or rehash the would haves, could haves, should haves of his life. Instead, he basked in the sheer joy on her face as she turned in slow circles, taking it all in.
There was a lot to take in.
The expansive room was a microcosm of the house itself, fully contained with a kitchenette in one corner, a bathroom, a bedroom intended for those all-nighters if he needed a quick nap before heading back into the main room to continue his work.
On the left side was the library. Floor-to-ceiling cherrywood bookshelves were filled with all kinds of law enforcement textbooks on topics like foren- sics, crime scene analysis, and profiling. Past the li- brary, nearly every inch of wall space was adorned with matching cherrywood cabinets, drawers and open shelving. Storage would never be a problem here. The boxes that Mason had sent over were neatly stacked beside some of those storage cabinets. Something for
Lena Diaz 49
him to tackle later, after everything was scanned elec- tronically. That was the real beauty of this room—the technology.
A large round stone table in the middle of the room was control central for the massive daisy-chained moni- tors that took up most of the opposite wall. From that table, he could bring up reports or photographs or even the internet and display the information on any indi- vidual monitor, or slide it across all of them to form one picture. It was a profiler’s dream, to be able to have everything at his fingertips at one time so he could make comparisons and see the entire case at a glance.
Too bad he’d never actually used the darn thing on a case.
Teagan had made a full circuit of the room, open- ing doors and checking behind them, looking into the storage cabinets. But she surprised him by returning to the library, rather than the round table. She traced her hands almost reverently across the books, like a beau- tiful butterfly, flitting from tome to tome. When she finally turned around, she motioned toward the two leather wing chairs and circular rug that completed the library effect.
“This is amazing. You have books I’ve only dreamed of reading, rare ones that my college couldn’t even get their hands on when I tried borrowing them through our library system. Two of the books have your name on them. I didn’t know you’d authored any texts.”
“Neither do most people,” he said dryly. “My pub- lisher lost a fortune on those.”
“Then they don’t deserve to be your publisher. They
50 Agent Under Siege
obviously don’t know how to market your work or it would have sold a gazillion books.”
“Are you one of the six people who bought a copy? Is that how you know they’re amazing?”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you’re exaggerating.” “Not by much, unfortunately.”
“Well, based on your reputation in the field, I’d love
to become reader number seven, if you’ll let me bor- row them.”
“You can have
them. I’ve got plenty more. What about the rest of the room? You don’t seem as impressed as I’d hoped. My ego’s a bit deflated. I thought you’d run straight to the table and start salivating.”
“I would have, if it wasn’t for your library. I’m a book lover, through and through. But the entire room is incredible.” She strode to the table and ran her fin- gers across it. “You must have enjoyed being a Jus- tice Seeker more than you’ve let on. This is fit for the knights of the round table
, just like the one that Mason told me that you all have in some super-secret hidden room at The Justice Seekers’ home base.”
“Almost. It’s not quite as large as his since I don’t have twelve Seekers, or so-called knights
, to fill it up. But I admit I enjoyed his flair for the medieval and the fun of the whole Camelot concept, so I stole some of that for myself. I converted an existing study and two bedrooms into this office with the intention of using it to work from home while recuperating from being shot. But the recovery has been slower than I’d expected, and I ended up with way too much time to
Lena Diaz 51
think about my failures. Resigning seemed like the reasonable thing to do.”
“Wait. Are you saying that you’ve never used this office, or great hall
, if you call it that like Mason does? Once it was finished, it just sat here unused?”
“I don’t call it a great hall. It’s got the stone floors, walls and table, but nothing else that resembles a castle like Mason’s does. And, yes, you’re absolutely right. I can’t remember the last time I’ve traipsed across the house to this room. If it wasn’t for the cleaning com- pany that comes in once a week, there’d be cobwebs and dust all over the place.”
“Wow. If I’d known that, I’d have snuck in through a back window and claimed squatters’ rights long ago. I could happily live here for weeks and not come up for air.” She lowered herself into one of the cushy leather chairs at the round table. “Ahhh. World class. You have great taste.” She waved toward the monitors. “Feel free to feed your ego by giving me a demonstration. How big are those screens anyway? Six or seven feet tall?”
He rolled one of the other leather chairs out of the way and positioned his wheelchair beside her. “Each one is six feet by three feet. I wanted twelve, to keep with the Camelot theme. But it seemed like overkill and would have restricted the space too much, so I settled on nine. They work together as one monitor if I want, or I can load something different on each one. That’s the real benefit, being able to put up information about different crimes on each screen and compare them. I can use a computer tablet at the table to select which
52 Agent Under Siege
screen I want and use a light pen to draw circles around different items or highlight them, edit them, whatever.” “Definitely cool. Can I drive?” She held out her
hand. “Give me the reins. Let’s do this.”
Instead of popping up one of the computer tablets
from a hidden compartment in the table, he adjusted his chair to face her and took her hands in his.
Her eyes widened and a slow grin spread across her face.
“Don’t,” he said. “Whatever sexy, funny, or smart- ass comment you’re about to make about me holding your hands, just wait. I need to have a serious conver- sation with you. Can you focus for a few minutes with- out any wisecracks?”
A look of wariness crossed her face. “Why do I feel like I’m about to be sent to the principal’s office?”
He sighed and let her go.
“Okay, okay.” She grabbed his hands with both of hers. “No jokes, no tangents. I’m listening.”
He arched a brow, not sure whether or not to be- lieve her.
“Really,” she said. “I can be serious when I need to. Go on. What is it?”
“I just want you to be sure that you know what you’re getting into before we go any further. You’ve been like a whirlwind, blowing into my life. I met you, what, a few hours ago? And somehow you’ve managed to make me excited about working again. That’s why I brought you to this room, to show you the tools we’ve got at our disposal so we can work together, if that’s truly what you want to do.”
Lena Diaz 53
“Are you kidding? It’s all I’ve wanted since I first came across the Ripper case and saw your contribu- tions to the investigation. I want to work with you to catch the Ripper before—”
“We’re not going to work on the Ripper case.”
She blinked. “My turn to be confused.”
He gently entwined their fingers, trying to convey
that he was there for her if she needed his support. “I’m going to hire a temp to scan in and catalog the data in those boxes. That will take several days, maybe even a week. In the meantime, the only case that I’ve had a chance to scan is yours. While you were recovering from your tequila binge, I used the scanner in my study to process your folder. That’s what I want to bring up on these screens. But there’s a world of difference be- tween looking at something on an eight-by-ten sheet of paper, and seeing it on a six-foot-tall screen. A lot of this stuff is deeply personal. Are you sure you can handle it?”
“I don’t understand your concerns. I put that folder together. I know what’s in it. I want you to see it, to review it with me.”
“Your descriptions of the most recent attack that you allege was made by the Ripper didn’t mention you by name. That’s quite telling. And there’s far more de- tail to what happened to you than what you had in that folder. A lot more. We have to review all of the infor- mation, not just some of it, if we have a chance at solv- ing this thing.”
“Well of course there’s more, all the detailed re-
54 Agent Under Siege
ports that support the summaries I wrote. I didn’t bring those with me.”
“That’s not what I mean. There are other details, things you didn’t reference even at a high level in your summaries.”
He squeezed her hands before letting go. Then he pushed down on top of the table in front of him and the section flipped over to reveal a computer tablet. He typed some commands into the control program, then pressed enter. Teagan looked up at the screens. Her eyes widened and she put a hand over her mouth before turning away.
“Where did you get those?” she whispered.
He tapped the tablet and the screens went dark. “I still have a few contacts in law enforcement.”
She crossed her arms over her middle. “Well, they shouldn’t have shared my hospital photos with you. They’re—”
“Too personal? None of my business?”
She flinched and dropped her gaze.
He rolled back from the table. “Come on. It’s okay.
Forget all this. You’re not ready.”
“Wait. Just…give me a minute to catch my breath,
okay? I can handle it. Really.”
“Teagan. There’s no reason for you to have to catch
your breath, to handle it. You lived through the ab- duction, the torture, once already. You shouldn’t have to do that again, reopen old wounds. Leave the inves- tigation to me. Maybe because I admire your spunk, or maybe just because I’m ready to jump back in the
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game and didn’t realize it until now. Regardless of the reason, I want to do this. But the only way I can is by going through every piece of data surrounding your ab- duction, everything that happened to you. Everything
. It’s the only way to make sure nothing was missed, that every possible clue has been considered. Mean- while, you can go back to Florida, get on with your life. When I have something to report, I’ll contact you.” He wheeled to the door and held it open for her. “Come on. We’re done here.”
When Teagan crossed her arms and gave him a muti- nous stare, Bryson sighed and let the office door close. She’d made no move toward the doorway. She wasn’t backing down without a fight. But neither was he. “Tea- gan, we should—”
“You caught me off guard. That’s all. I didn’t ex- pect to see…those pictures, okay? You should have warned me.”
“If I’d warned you, I might not have received an honest reaction. You would have covered up your true emotions, or at least tried, with false bravado. Now I know the truth. This is all still too raw for you to be in- volved in the investigation. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Victims don’t typically work on their own cases, for good reason.”
“I’m not a victim,” she snapped. “I’m a survivor.”
“Fair enough. That doesn’t change anything that I said.”
She waved toward the stacks of boxes. “Why can’t we start with these? I already know the man who at- tacked me is the real Kentucky Ripper, not Leviathan
Lena Diaz 57
Finney, the guy in prison. There’s no reason to review every nitty-gritty detail about what happened to me. We’re past that. We know who did it, that first guy you profiled back in Kentucky, the one the police let get away, Avarice Lowe.”
“Did you tell the detectives on your case that you believed Lowe was the one who’d abducted you?”
“Yes. I did.”
“And? Let me guess. They did a cursory look at him and either couldn’t locate him at all or said he had an alibi. And they went no further than that.”
“They couldn’t find him. But they didn’t try very hard.”
“Why do you suppose that is?”
She threw her hands in the air. “I don’t know. Prob- ably because they’re lazy and wanted to work on eas- ier cases.”
He wheeled over in front of her. “Can you think of another reason? Come on. Set aside emotion and use that valedictorian mind of yours.”
She gave him another mutinous look. “They don’t believe Lowe is the Ripper and had no evidence to tie him to my case. But that’s because they refused to lis- ten.”
“Detectives, good ones at least, follow the evidence. The only reason you feel that the Ripper is the one who abducted you is because the man who hurt you carved that X on your abdomen. Everything else about your case is different, including the fact that you survived.”
“Then let’s go through your case files and find more similarities. That’s why you brought them here.”
58 Agent Under Siege
He shook his head. “I brought them here to review after
I review your case, and then, only if we decide the two cases are connected, or highly likely con- nected. What happens if we do it your way, spend all our time on the Ripper case, and discover that you’re wrong? We’ve wasted weeks, or longer by that time going through all of the Ripper’s cases. We’d be starting over at ground zero without having made any progress figuring out who attacked you. If you truly want my help in finding out who hurt you, I’m all in. But I have to do it my way. I follow the evidence. And that means, starting at the beginning, with what happened to you.”
She stared at the stacks of boxes for a long mo- ment. When she finally met his gaze, naked pain ra- diated back at him. “I spent over a year and a half on this to find the man who hurt me. I don’t want to start over. I can’t.”
Disappointment shot through him, but he forced a smile. “Then don’t. Keep doing what you’re doing. Fol- low the leads where you believe they’ll take you.”
He nodded. “Without me.”
“Bryson’s way or the highway, is that it?”
He hated the hurt in her voice. He especially hated
that he was at least partly the cause. But it would be far worse if he gave in, if he went against everything he’d learned as a Justice Seeker in how to run inves- tigations as well as his profiling experience with the FBI. She’d managed to awaken a hunger in him for justice again, a desire to right the wrongs of his past and prove he was better than the mistakes he’d made.
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Starting out by making another mistake wasn’t how he’d atone for his sins.
Steeling himself against the censure and sense of betrayal in her beautiful brown eyes, he responded to her accusation. “Bryson’s way was to enjoy his hermit- like existence and never talk to another human being again. I was perfectly happy here all by myself until you showed up. So don’t act like I’m suddenly pushing you to do something that I want you to do. You came here for my help. I was willing to help you the only way I know how, by using my training and experience and following the right steps from beginning to end to build a profile. I would have gathered as much evidence along the way as I could. Then, I would have worked with the police to get them moving on it. None of that is sexy or flashy. It’s a heck of a lot of work. But that’s the way it’s done. Period. And you said you can’t do that, which means we’re
done. Follow your own path and I’ll follow mine. There’s a creek full of fish in my backyard. Maybe I’ll get a pole and cast a line. There are worse ways to spend my time. Go home. I mean it. I wish you the best, I truly do. But when I come back inside, I want you gone.”
He wheeled out of the room and a few minutes later he was on the dock, nursing a can of beer as if the twenty-four hours since Mason’s visit had never hap- pened. But as he listened to the creek splashing over the rocks and watched the cars far below that seemed like toys from this distance, he realized that everything had changed. There was
no going back. Mason had started a quiet rumble inside him. Teagan had built that rum-
60 Agent Under Siege
ble into an earthquake that had rocked him from his complacency. She’d reminded him of the thrill of the chase, the satisfaction of solving a puzzle, and the rea- son he’d gone into his line of work to begin with—to help people. But just as he hadn’t helped Hayley when he’d gotten shot, he hadn’t helped Teagan.
He swore and crumpled the now-empty can in his hand. He’d been far too rough on her. Every word he’d said had been true, his truth at least. But she obviously wasn’t ready for that kind of honesty. She wasn’t one of his peers, a hardened or jaded agent who he could talk to without guarding his words. She was a victim, a survivor. She deserved nothing but respect and kind- ness as she struggled to come to terms with what had happened to her. If going after the Ripper was her way of coping, then who was he to stand in her way? He should have encouraged her. Instead, he’d lectured her on the “right” way to conduct an investigation.
The distant sound of her car starting up in his drive- way had his shoulders slumping in disappointment. Not with her. With himself. She’d probably head back to her hotel room, or wherever she was staying, and continue her research like a hamster on a wheel never getting where they truly wanted to go. She needed guidance from someone willing to pursue the angle she wanted to pursue, not the angle that Bryson had insisted was the right place to start. So how could he help her?
It all boiled down to contacts.
He’d joked earlier that he still had a few
contacts in law enforcement. In reality, he had far more than a few. After all, he’d only gone on hiatus as a Justice Seeker
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six months ago. Before that, with his combined years as a Seeker and an FBI special agent, he’d worked with hundreds, maybe thousands of peers in his field. Many of them had become close friends that he still had to this day. Maybe, just maybe, he could give Teagan what she wanted—someone to talk to who’d worked on the Ripper cases.
He pulled out his cell phone and placed a call to Special Agent Pierce Buchanan. There was the usual small talk, asking about Pierce, his wife, Madison, and their toddler, Nicole. That was followed by some grov- eling and apologizing for Bryson having refused the couple’s many requests to let them visit him after the shooting. But they worked out an agreement. In ex- change for Pierce contacting Teagan and offering her an insider’s view of the Ripper murders, Bryson would fly to Pierce’s home in Savannah for a long weekend later this summer. Bryson wasn’t sure if he was the winner or loser in that negotiation. Three of Pierce’s four brothers and his father were in law enforcement. They’d likely show up and grill him about every detail of the shooting and its aftermath.
After ending that call, he made one more. To the airport.
Death and its close cousin, extreme violence, had walked this meandering path before. They’d held hands in the dark shadows beneath these towering live oaks. They’d carefully avoided the bulging tree roots that lifted and cracked the concrete, quietly stalking their prey. Here, in the near-darkness where thick branches and leaves blotted out the hot Florida sun overhead, they’d crouched in this ten-foot-wide space lined on both sides by six-foot-tall wooden fences. The fences were supposed to ensure the privacy of the homeown- ers whose properties backed onto the nature trail in The Woods subdivision while joggers and walkers enjoyed these paths. But two years ago, these same fences had protected and concealed evil.
This was where Teagan Ray had been attacked, bru- talized and then abducted.
There were theories that extreme violence, whether or not it ended in death, left an indelible mark on a place. It tainted the soil, the trees, even the air with its negative energy and could be felt for years afterward. Standing here now with a sense of dread and oppres-
Lena Diaz 63
siveness weighing down on him, Bryson was more in- clined to believe those theories than to dispel them. Because it wasn’t the GPS coordinates that had made him stop when he’d reached this spot. It was an over- whelming feeling of doom.
He shook his head at those thoughts. It was more sci- entific than that. He’d stopped here because he’d tried to mentally place himself in the role of a man stalking prey. This is where he’d have lain in wait for a poten- tial victim. It was a particularly dark spot, with thick overgrown bushes providing the perfect cover. And over two years ago, unfortunately, Teagan was the one who’d happened through here at just the wrong time. And she’d paid for that dearly.
After the initial attack, the belief was that she’d been drugged. Still able to walk with assistance, but not co- herent enough to fight back or even understand what was happening to her, she was led by her abductor to wherever he’d parked his vehicle. Or, at least, that was the theory. There weren’t any witnesses to fill in those details.
Her first lucid memories, after the attack on the path, were that she was blindfolded and tied up in the shack where he’d taken her. Two weeks later, when he’d left on one of his so-called supply trips that he took every few days, she’d miraculously escaped. But she’d got- ten lost in the wilds of the Florida backcountry for days. By the time a hiker had found her, she was dehy- drated and sunburned and half out of her mind. Once she’d recovered enough in the hospital to explain that she’d escaped a kidnapper, over two days had passed.
64 Agent Under Siege
The police used scent dogs to backtrack to the shack where she’d been held. Turns out she’d been about an hour and a half from her hometown of Jacksonville, deep in the woods outside of Live Oak, near the Su- wannee River. But the abductor wasn’t there, and he never came back after that.
The owner of the shack was cleared. Not because Teagan couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. She couldn’t pick anyone
out of a lineup. She’d been drugged, blind- folded, deprived of water and food. Her abductor had kept the shack mostly dark, with room-darkening drapes and few sources of light. He’d told her from the beginning that he planned to kill her. But until then, he was super careful, obviously in case she somehow escaped, which she did.
Because of his extreme care to conceal his identity, she’d told the police she could probably pass him on the street and would never know it. That was likely one of the reasons she had put her education and the rest of her life on hold to try to find the man who’d attacked her. Knowing he was in prison and could never hurt her again would no doubt be the only way she could ever live without the fear of him finding her again, and finishing what he’d started.
Too bad her abductor hadn’t been the owner of the shack. That would have made everything neat and tidy and it would all be over by now. But the owner lived in Canada, where he went to work every day and had plenty of people to vouch for that. The shack was where he stayed two or three times a year when he came down
Lena Diaz 65
to work at clearing the land around it in preparation for building the retirement cabin he dreamed about.
Bryson made some notes on the police report, mark- ing things on the map of the trail that he’d noticed today. Then he tucked the report into his jacket pocket and took one last look around. He intended to walk all of the paths in this community today if his hip could handle it, or use his wheelchair if he had to, which seemed likely by how badly his hip was already throb- bing. He wanted to see whether there were other good ambush spots on other trails. If so, then maybe some- one with homes backing up on those paths might have spotted a man walking the trails back then, choosing his ultimate hiding place. There could be some wit- nesses who didn’t even realize they’d seen something important.
There were 4.1 miles of nature walks and trails in this community, according to its website. Other sta- tistics that he’d gleaned about The Woods were that it had 811 homes and 18 man-made ponds. It boasted a so-called natural setting, thus the name. From his per- spective, that meant there were a heck of a lot of trees and overgrown bushes, providing great hiding places for would-be attackers. But because the community was gated, the residents had been lulled into thinking they were safe.
Maybe that explained why Teagan had thought noth- ing of walking through this overgrown, dark, far less traveled section of the trails as the sun was going down. Her parents lived just a few streets away, and she’d been home from college on a visit. Having grown up
66 Agent Under Siege
here without any major crime incidents in an upper- middle-class area that was generally considered safe, she had felt there was nothing to worry about. In a perfect world, there shouldn’t have been. But unfor- tunately, there were some very bad people sharing the same air as the rest of them, and Teagan had the mis- fortune of coming across one. Wrong place, wrong time.
Or did that really explain it? Could the attacker have been after her specifically?
That was one of the questions Bryson needed to an- swer. The assumption all along in the police reports, and by Teagan and her parents as well, had been that she was a randomly chosen victim. There wasn’t any evidence to the contrary. But Bryson wasn’t the type to assume anything.
A low growl had him turning around, leaning on his cane with one hand as he flipped back his jacket with the other to grab the pistol holstered on his hip. But he didn’t pull his weapon. Instead, he let his jacket fall back into place and rested both of his hands on the cane to steady himself as he glanced from the impres- sive, still-growling German shepherd to the gorgeous young woman holding its leash.
The accusation that she might have somehow gotten Pierce to tell her where he was and then followed him to Jacksonville died on his lips unspoken. She hadn’t expected to see him here. It was evident by her wide eyes and the way her left hand was pressed against her throat.
Lena Diaz 67
“What are you doing here?” he demanded. “I thought you’d be in Savannah by now.” His accusatory tone did exactly what he’d intended. It gave her something to focus on instead of the fright from seeing a man stand- ing in the shadows where she’d once been attacked.
She dropped her hand and gave the dog a command that had him sitting on his haunches. His tongue lolled out as if he hadn’t been poised to rip out Bryson’s throat seconds earlier.
“Why would I be in Savannah?” She sounded genu- inely confused.
It was his turn to be surprised. “Didn’t you get a call? From FBI special agent Pierce Buchanan?”
She shook her head. “No. But I haven’t checked my messages since leaving your place yesterday. My phone number listed in the folder I gave you is a landline at my apartment. It’s not one that I share with many peo- ple. And it’s not registered under my name.”
The truth sent a wave of anger and sympathy straight through him. “You carry a burner phone, don’t you? You’re worried that your attacker might trace you.”
Her gaze was her answer, darting toward the fences on either side of the path and the thick trees and bushes blocking the view of anyone behind them. He won- dered why the homeowners association hadn’t voted to clear out these dangerous hiding places, especially after what had happened to Teagan. But mostly, he wondered why she was here.
He took a step forward, hesitating when her dog emitted another threatening growl.
“Zeus, stop.” She shook the leash and the dog qui-
68 Agent Under Siege
eted, but his dark eyes followed Bryson’s every move. “Why would an FBI agent be looking for me?” Her eyes widened again. “Have they found something? In Savannah? Oh no. Someone else wasn’t attacked, were they?”
Ignoring the new round of growls from her dog, he limped toward her, stopping just out of lunging dis- tance. “No. I’m not aware of any more attacks linked to the man who hurt you. Pierce is a good friend of mine who lives in Savannah. Because of his experi- ence with serial killer cases, he ended up assisting on the task force in Kentucky. We worked the Ripper case together. After you left yesterday—”
“After you threw me out, you mean,” she accused. “I thought you Justice Seekers were supposed to be honorable and help people in need.”
He smiled, pleased to see a return of the sassy con- fident woman he’d met in Gatlinburg. “Yes, well. I was on hiatus from the Seekers at the time. So you weren’t officially my client. But I did want to help you. So after I threw you out, I called Pierce and asked him to give you an insider’s reading of the Ripper cases and to an- swer any questions that you had.”
Her brows crinkled in confusion. “Why would you do that? You told me that looking into the Ripper case was the wrong approach.”
He started to move closer, but Zeus stood up, his ears flattening. Shooting her dog to defend himself was the last thing he wanted to do, so he took a step back.
“I’m glad you have Zeus with you, for protection,” he told her. “That’s smart.”
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She winced and looked away.
Understanding had him filled with regret. “I wasn’t trying to say that you shouldn’t have been out here without him that first time.” When she didn’t answer, he leaned to the side, trying to get her to look at him. “Teagan?”
She sighed and met his gaze. “What?”
“It wasn’t your fault.” He waved his hands along the path. “None of this is your fault. A woman should be able to dance naked through the streets without wor- rying about some Neanderthal attacking her. It’s never
the victim’s fault. The only person to blame is the mon- ster who hurt you.”
A reluctant smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “You sound like my parents.”
Now it was his turn to wince. “Ouch.”
She laughed, then winked, looking more like her old self again. “Don’t worry. There’s exactly zero chance of me confusing Hot Guy with my parents.”
“Good to know. I think. Assuming I’m Hot Guy?”
She grinned. “Definitely.” Her smile dimmed, and some of her earlier uneasiness had her glancing around again. “I’m staying with my parents for a few days. And like I do every time I see them, I walk this trail. Not because I want to go…where it happened…some sur- vivor’s weird hang-up or something. But because it’s the same routine I had before the attack. I’ve walked these trails almost daily since I was a little girl. And I refuse to change that because of…because of what happened. He took so much from me. It might seem silly, but letting him take away my joy of nature and
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long walks would be letting him win.” She patted the dog beside her. “My only concession now is to bring my mom’s dog Zeus and Annie along.”
The dog seemed to be licking his lips in anticipa- tion of sinking its teeth into his hide—if dogs had lips.
“Wait. Annie? Who’s Annie?”
She slid her hand into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out a compact .22-caliber pistol. “Meet Annie.”
“Let me guess. After Annie Oakley?”
Her gorgeous smile made another appearance. “Very good, Sherlock. Maybe you should be an FBI agent.” She shoved it back into her pocket.
“Been there, done that.” He gestured toward her pocket. “Should I ask for your concealed carry permit?” “That depends. Did you become a police officer
since the last time we met?”
“Touché. Don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with me.
I won’t call any of my JSO contacts to tell them about Annie.”
“Is that how you got past the gates? Someone from the Jacksonville Sherriff’s Office told the guard to let you through?”
“Actually, I got in the old-fashioned way.”
“The old-fashioned way?”
“Ben Franklin. A bribe.”
He’d expected a laugh. Instead, her face turned
“Teagan? Are you okay?” Risking the wrath of Zeus,
he leaned toward her.
Predictably, the dog barked and pulled against the
leash trying to reach him.
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She frowned and yanked him back. “Zeus, enough. Friend. He’s a friend.” She motioned toward Bryson. “Hold your hand out for him to sniff, palm down.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No. I’m serious. Let him smell you.” She slipped her hand under the back of the dog’s collar. “Friend, Zeus. Friend.”
Telling himself he was an idiot, he did as she’d asked, holding his hand out.
Zeus snuffled his hand for a good ten seconds, then his tongue lolled out and he gave it a long sloppy lick before sitting back on his haunches.
Bryson made a face at the saliva on his hand, then looked up in time to see Teagan trying to hide a grin. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “You did that on purpose.”
“Yeah, well. It’s kind of funny, seeing you dressed up in a business suit with dog slobber all over your hand.”
After a quick glance at Zeus, who seemed far more interested in a butterfly flitting around a nearby bush now that he’d supposedly accepted Bryson as a non- threat, he reached out and wiped his hand on Teagan’s shirt.
She gasped in dismay at the wet stain on her for- merly white blouse. “I can’t believe you did that.”
“We’re even now. Don’t go planning your revenge.”
“Hmm. We’ll see about that.” She glanced around again. “You said you bribed the guard at the gate to let you in? You didn’t show him some kind of old FBI credentials or anything like that?”
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Now he understood why she’d paled earlier. “You’re surprised at how easy it was for someone who doesn’t live here to get in. Is that it?”
She nodded. “Not that I should be surprised. After all, the police ruled out the suspect as living in the community. They supposedly researched every single resident. We knew he had to have come from outside somehow. I just didn’t think it would be that easy to drive on in.”
“Yeah, well. It’s not like you have to be a former cop to be a security guard. Pretty much anyone can be one. And they aren’t paid enough to make them above re- proach, some of them anyway. I’m sure most are great people and genuinely try to do a good job.”
She snorted. “Now you’re pandering, trying to make me feel better. I preferred it when you were being bru- tally honest.”
“Brutal? Ouch again.”
“If the truth fits.” She shrugged, then winked as if to soften her criticisms.
“This isn’t going at all the way I’d planned when I flew down here late last night.”
“You thought I was in Georgia. You didn’t plan on running into me.”
“No. I didn’t. But now that I have, I’m wondering why I did. After being so intent on finding information on the Ripper, why would you come back to Jackson- ville? Are you taking a break from the investigation? Returning to school to finish your master’s?”
She straightened her shoulders. “No break. I’m digging
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in harder than before. And I’m taking your advice. I’m starting at the beginning. And this—” she waved her hand toward the trees and bushes around them “—is where it all began.”
The look on Bryson’s face had Teagan stiffening. “Why are you so surprised? I went to you for help and advice because I respected your experience and expertise. Did you think I’d completely ignore your suggestions?”
He nodded, surprising her with his honesty. “I as- sumed anyone stubborn enough to work past my an- noyance over the mistaken identity thing and then pretend they liked tequila enough to make themselves sick would be far too one-track minded to give up over a year of research to essentially start over.”
“Yeah, well. Maybe you shouldn’t judge people so fast when you meet them.”
His mouth quirked up in that sexy half-smile that had her practically drooling again just like the first time she’d seen him. Good grief he was dangerous, the kind of danger that had her wishing she’d worn shorts instead of jeans. She was actually sweating now, and it couldn’t be more than eighty degrees. A mild spring day around here.
“Looks like my profiling skills are even dustier than I’d realized,” he said. “My apologies for making as-
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sumptions.” He shifted on his feet, and she didn’t miss the telltale wince as he rested both hands on the top of his cane.
“Your hip is bothering you.”
“Are you playing Watson to my Sherlock now?” “Oh heck no. I’ll never be the sidekick. If anything,
I’m Wonder Woman and you’re Steve Trevor.” “Doesn’t he die in the end?”
“Everyone dies in the end.”
His grin faded. “I didn’t mean to bring up bad mem-
She shook her head. “Trust me. You didn’t. They’re
always there, in the back of my mind. That’s why I’m doing this investigation. When I escaped that day, I got out of the shack. But I didn’t escape him. He’s still out there. Until he’s put away for good, I’ll never be able to move on. Not really.”
He sighed heavily. “I was worried that might be a big part of this for you. What happens if you never find him?”
Zeus whined beside her and she realized she was unconsciously tugging his leash, transmitting her agi- tation to him. She forced her hand to relax and rubbed his head. “That’s a problem for future Teagan to worry about. Right now, I’m on the case, determined to do everything I can to bring this guy to justice. The real question is, now that we’re both committed to this en- deavor, do we work on it together or go our separate ways again?”
He subtly shifted, resting his back against one of the live oaks lining the path. This was the longest that she’d
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seen him standing without giving in to his wheelchair, and he’d been out here before she’d arrived. He had to be about ready to collapse.
“How about we discuss it over dinner?” he asked.
She blinked. “Dinner? Did I miss a signal some- where?”
He laughed. “It’s just dinner. I’m hungry, and to be honest my hip is going to give out soon if I don’t sit. Rather than fall down in an embarrassing heap on the concrete, I’m inclined to head to my car then off some- where to eat before my next appointment which isn’t for—” he glanced at his watch “—another two hours. What do you say? Want me to drive you home so you can put up Zeus and then go eat with me?”
“It was too much to hope you’d let that pass.” He pushed away from the tree and leaned on the cane. “I’m interviewing the Brodericks tonight, a couple who used to own one of the homes that backs up to this spot on the path. They moved shortly after everything happened, to one of the homes in the back of the sub- division, on Beautyberry Circle. Tomorrow I’m inter- viewing some other people who live along this path to see if they’ve remembered anything in the years since your attack. But also to get more of a lay of the land, try to get more of a sense of what your abductor may have been thinking back then.”
She stepped toward him, not stopping until she had to crane her head back to look him in the eyes. “Don’t tease me, Bryson. You’re mentioning these interviews because you’re offering to let me participate. Is that
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right? You wouldn’t be cruel enough to bring them up otherwise, would you?”
He smiled sadly and feathered a hand across her cheek. The touch was so unexpected, so soft and gentle that she’d swear her heart skipped a beat. Even more of a surprise, he leaned down and pressed an equally soft kiss against her forehead before straightening. But he didn’t drop his hand. Instead, he left it there, cup- ping her cheek, his thumb gently stroking her skin as if he didn’t want to break the connection between them.
“I’m not teasing,” he said, his voice a strained whis- per. “And I would never deliberately be cruel to you. I shouldn’t have been so harsh, so short with you in Gatlinburg. I thought I was being noble, protecting you. But I had no idea that instead of influencing you to go off in an innocuous direction where you’d be safe, you’d come back here to start over on your own. If the man who hurt you is still around here, and he realizes you’re back in town trying to find him, then you’re put- ting yourself in danger.”
She frowned, ready to argue. “But I can—”
“Let me finish. While I’m not trying to send any signals…” He dropped his hand, his face reddening slightly as if he just realized that he was still touch- ing her. He cleared his throat. “I’ll admit that there’s something about you, something special, that has me thinking about you far more than I should in ways I really shouldn’t be thinking, not when I’m working a case. It’s hell on my focus.”
She blinked up at him. “You think I’m special?” His gaze dropped to her lips. “No question.” He
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shuddered as if waging some kind of internal war with himself. Then he moved back a step. “The point I’m trying to make, and not doing very well, is that it would be really hard to work this case with you and to also stay objective the whole time and not get…sidetracked. But it would be even more impossible to work the case alone, knowing you were somewhere out there poten- tially putting yourself in danger with no one to watch your back. I’d worry about you the whole time and wouldn’t get anything done. So, I guess you’ve won this particular battle. To be crystal clear, no misunderstand- ings, I’m inviting you to work with me on your case, starting with the homeowner interview this evening. But only if we agree to keep our relationship profes- sional.” His gaze dropped to her lips again. “At least until the case is over.”
Her stomach jumped at his last statement. She couldn’t stop smiling. But not just because she now realized he was as interested in her as she was in him. Far more important was that he was going to help her find and put away the monster who haunted her dreamsat night, who cast a pall of fear over her every waking hour no matter how hard she tried to pretend that he didn’t. Bryson was the answer to her prayers. And she was going to enjoy every single minute that they were together, because the man was hopelessly fun to tease. Keep their relationship strictly professional? Pfft. Not a chance. But, of course, she wasn’t going to admit to that. He’d figure it out eventually and by then he’d be so hooked on her that he’d be helpless to do anything about it.
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That was her hope at least.
“I’ll be crystal clear in my response.” She hooked her right arm around his left one as if to flirt, when really she could tell he was struggling to remain upright and was probably too proud to ask for help. “I would love to work with you, starting with dinner, and then conduct- ing the interview tonight. But first, as you mentioned earlier, we need to drop Zeus off. Like I said, he’s my mom’s. I just borrow him when I visit.”
They started down the path together, him leaning heavily on the cane, her holding on to his left arm to keep him from falling over, and Zeus happily sniffing and following along at the end of his leash.
When they reached his rental car, she was surprised and a little disappointed to see that he’d chosen a luxury BMW sedan. Its dark blue color and the four doors gave it a decidedly mature, boring appearance even though it was definitely a nice car. Bryson Anton was still a young guy, in spite of his teasing her for being several years younger. And he really was hot. He’d look much better sitting in a red, sporty convertible with the top down than a glorified grocery-getter. Or maybe even a jacked-up four-wheel-drive truck with a gun rack in the back, although that seemed a little too country for him. He was refined, but not upper-crust. Definitely the convertible sports-car type.
But after he insisted on holding the door open for her, then slid into the driver’s seat, his deep sigh and the look of relief on his face explained why he’d cho- sen this car. He needed the plush seats and comfort of
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a vehicle that would smooth out a bumpy road because of his bad hip.
“Have you thought of getting a second opinion on your hip?” she asked. “I mean, there has to be a way to fix it so it doesn’t hurt so much all the time.”
“I’ve had second, third and fourth opinions. The bul- let is lodged close to my spine and presses on a nerve that makes the hip ache. Surgery isn’t an option. I’m told there’s a fifty-fifty chance that it will loosen on its own one day and then be removable and I’ll be good as new, or it will loosen on its own one day and nick my spinal cord, putting me permanently in a wheelchair.”
She pressed a hand to her mouth. “Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry.”
He shrugged. “I’m learning to live with it. Partly thanks to you. I admit to wallowing a bit in self-pity before you came along. Now, if the bullet shifts and I can’t walk anymore, at least it will happen while I’m trying to do something good rather than sitting around my house all day drinking tequila.” He put the car in drive but kept his foot on the brake. “Enough about me. Where to, Ms. Ray?”
“Do a U-turn, Mr. Anton.”
With Zeus taking up the tiny space behind the seats and lolling half-across the console that separated them, Bryson followed her directions to her parents’ home, at the end of a long pond on Birch Bark Court, and pulled into the driveway. Beautiful mature crape myrtles dot- ted the sides of the yard, their hot pink flowers waving in the warm spring breezes. And standing out front on the walkway between the garage and entry were both of
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her parents, currently in the process of planting a batch of white and pink periwinkles in one of the flower beds. “Give me a minute to get your door,” he said as he popped open the driver’s door. “Please don’t embar- rass me by getting out first. My mother would never
forgive my poor manners if you do.”
She grinned and gave him a thumbs-up. Of course
she didn’t need him to get her door. But she didn’t mind the show of chivalry and old-fashioned manners, espe- cially since he thought that she was special and made it hard for him to focus. She couldn’t help chuckling at that declaration as he leaned on his cane, obviously struggling not to limp very much as he rounded the car to her side. Behind him, her dad and mom were star- ing with unabashed curiosity at the gorgeous white guy who’d brought her home, no doubt wondering what was going on.
After she and Zeus got out and he closed the door behind her, she gathered the dog’s leash to keep him from taking off and looped her arm around Bryson’s left one again.
He arched a brow in question. “That’s probably not a good idea. You might give your parents the wrong impression about our relationship.” He kept his voice low even as he nodded in answer to her father’s wave.
Instead of letting go, she tightened her hold. “Did I ever mention that my dad has a bad heart?”
His eyes widened as they started up the driveway toward her parents. “I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
“Oh, it’s under good control. But it would probably
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make his heart go into palpitations if he realized that I’m investigating the killer again.”
He stopped beside her. “They don’t know?”
“Nope. And I aim to keep it that way. To protect Daddy.” She tugged his arm to get him going again.
“Then what are you going to tell them about why I’m here?” he whispered harshly before passing his cane to his left hand so he could do the expected handshake with her father. Her mother hung a few feet back, glanc- ing curiously between the two of them.
“I’m Nick Ray, Teagan’s father. That’s her mom, Sylvie.”
“Nice to meet you both. I’m—”
“Bryson Anton, from Gatlinburg.” Teagan flashed her best smile at her parents before dropping a bomb- shell. “My boyfriend.”
“Your boyfriend?” Bryson hissed almost two hours later as he was finally driving Teagan away from her parents’ house. “And after telling that zinger you left me at the mercy of your very curious mom and dad while you disappeared to take a shower. I haven’t had to dance that loose with the truth or change the sub- ject so many times to avoid being pushed into a cor- ner in, well, ever.”
“But you did it. You managed to get through the inquisition and dinner while spinning the truth like a practiced politician—minus the lies. I especially liked it when my dad asked how long it had been since we’d first met and you said it felt like only yesterday.” She flashed her magazine-cover smile at him.
He swore beneath his breath. “Why did you do it, Teagan? Lying by omission, or by not correcting what someone else said, is still a lie. And why trap me there for dinner when we were supposed to be there just long enough to drop off Zeus?”
Her smile faded and she looked out the window as he wove through the maze of streets toward the back
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of the development where the newer houses were built, where the Brodericks now lived.
They didn’t want to be reminded of what had hap- pened any more than Teagan did. It had taken quite a bit of cajoling to get them to agree to talk to him tonight. Thankfully, when he’d stepped outside of the Rays’ home to make a call to ask them whether it was okay to bring Teagan, they’d said it was. He didn’t want to surprise them by showing up with her. And he hadn’t wanted to disappoint her either, since she was so set on going.
“Teagan?” he pressed, when she didn’t answer.
She finally sighed and turned in her seat to face him. “I’m not going to apologize for doing it. Because I’d do it again if given the choice. But I do regret that I didn’t warn you, and that it was so difficult for you. Honestly, I was selfishly focused on myself. I love my parents and assumed you’d enjoy their company. And my mom is a terrific cook. I hoped you would love herzucchini lasagna as much as I do and have a fun couple of hours before we—” she waved her hand toward the road as he made the last turn “—dove back into…this. I needed that break, that moment with my parents to prepare for the interview.”
The sound of dejection in her voice had him feeling like a jerk. He pulled to the curb a few houses short of their destination, but left the air conditioner running to beat back the heat. He didn’t know how people lived here in the summer. The humidity in March made it feel like he was stepping into a sauna every time he went outside.
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“I liked your parents very much. Or, I would have, if I wasn’t working so hard not to tell a bunch of lies that I’d have to apologize for later. And your mom is a fabulous cook. We couldn’t have bought something at any restaurant around here and had better. But that’s not the point. I’m already getting over my anger. But I deserve the truth. Why tell them I’m your boyfriend when I could have just been a friend or a friend of a friend? Now, when they ask you about me later and you tell them we broke up—or whatever your cover is going to be when I don’t come back around—it will be that much harder. And it will probably make me look like a heel, thank you very much.”
She clutched her hands together in her lap, and he suddenly felt like the heel he’d just described. After everything she’d been through, and the upcoming in- terviews about her ordeal, here he was dumping on her. Regardless of the little drama that had just played out, it was nothing compared to what she’d endured.
He placed his hand over the top of hers. She glanced at him in surprise.
“I’m sorry, Teagan. I’m making it out to be far more important than it was. Let’s just drop it and—”
She shook her head. “No. I owe you an explanation. And it was far more important than you realize. Yester- day, at your house, you mentioned that your girlfriend left after your injury. Well you’re not the only one. Except it was my longtime high school sweetheart. It wasn’t official yet, but we’d always assumed we’d get married after we both graduated from college and got our careers going. He couldn’t…he couldn’t handle
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knowing what happened to me. Or how messed up I was for so long afterward.”
He took her hand in his and entwined their fingers together. “You don’t have to do this. It’s okay. I un- derstand—”
“No. You don’t. Look, I’m over him. Way over him. Anyone who can’t stick around through the bad isn’t the one you want with you during the good. It was a blessing that I found that out before vowing to spend the rest of my life with him. The breakup was just a few months after the attack. I barely even think about him anymore. But I’ve never…since then I haven’t… well, it’s been hard to—”
“You haven’t dated since?”
She squeezed her eyes shut, then nodded.
He waited in silence until she looked at him again.
He tugged one hand free and gently smoothed back a recalcitrant curl that had escaped the long braid down her back. “Since someone as gorgeous and bubbly as you could have a date any time she wants, that’s obvi- ously a personal decision. But your parents don’t un- derstand your choice, do they? They worry about you because you haven’t, in their eyes at least, moved on.”
She blinked as if in surprise. “How did you figure all that out so fast?”
He glanced down at his shirt and frowned. “Where’s my I’m a Profiler badge? I could have sworn I was wearing that today right along with my Eagle Scout badge.”
She managed a weak laugh and it warmed him in-
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side to see her smile again. “You, Bryson Anton, were never a Boy Scout.”
He pressed his free hand against his chest. “You wound me to think I couldn’t be a scout.” He winked. “What gave me away?”
She shook her head, her smile more carefree. “You’d have been bored to tears doing all the things they make you do to earn a badge. Instead, you’d rather be out there in the thick of things, getting lost in the woods just to see if you could find your own way out. Or set- ting a fire to see if you could put it out. Not exactly good scouts material.”
“Looks like I’m not the only profiler around here.” He squeezed her hand before letting it go. “If using me helps to make your parents worry less about you be- cause they think you have a boyfriend, then I suppose the subterfuge is okay. Just give me some warning be- fore you throw me in a fire next time, okay?”
He barely had time to blink before she was strad- dling the console, one thigh plastered against him, her generous breasts flattened against his chest. All his logical, well-thought-out arguments about not getting involved with her, especially while working the case, were incinerated the second her lips touched his.
So much for warning him before throwing him into another fire.
His whole body was being scorched from the out- side in, her tongue doing amazing things with his, her long nails raising goose bumps of pleasure across the back of his neck. But he wanted more, so much more. He groaned deep in his throat and wrapped his arms
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around her sensuous body. Then he half turned, pull- ing her the rest of the way onto his lap. He kissed her the way he’d wanted to since the moment she’d stood in his doorway looking so adorable as she breathed the word “Hi.” If the pain from his hip hadn’t stopped him that day, he’d probably have done something juvenile, like drool. Instead, he’d focused on the pain to keep from acting like a letch.
Teagan was unlike any woman he’d ever met. He never knew what to expect from her. Half of him was annoyed that he couldn’t predict her reactions even with his years of training as a profiler. The other half of him was sliding his hands around to the front of her shorts, grasping her zipper. Realizing what he was about to do, he drew on deep reserves of strength and forced his hands to release her zipper. Instead, he gently grasped her shoulders and eased her back to straddling the con- sole instead of him. His lungs labored in his chest as they blinked at each other from only a foot apart. And he couldn’t help but be pleased that she seemed to be struggling for air just as much as him.
“Holy smokes,” she whispered, her voice break- ing. She cleared her throat, her hands shaking as she reached up to check her hair. “Lennie what’s-his-face was junior high compared to you. Heck, elementary school. That was amazing
. I can’t even remember what he looks like anymore. And we were an item for over eight years.”
He grinned, his ego ridiculously inflated by her compliment. “Wait. Lennie? Your old boyfriend’s name was Lennie
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“No judging. People don’t choose their own names.” Her tongue flicked out to wet her lips, making him groan. “Kiss me again, Bryson. Before I start remem- bering what what’s-his-face looked like.”
He grabbed her upper arms and gently but firmly pushed her back. “Hell, no. We need to talk about this… thing going on between us before it goes any further. Besides, another kiss like that and I won’t be able to walk for a week.” He grimaced and shifted in his seat. “As it is, I won’t be able to walk for a few minutes, at least.”
Her gaze flew to his lap and her eyes widened. “Oh, mercy. Lennie really
had nothing on you.”
He laughed and pushed her farther away. “I’m start- ing to feel sorry for this Lennie guy.”
Her lips firmed. “Don’t. Trust me. He doesn’t de- serve your sympathy.” She settled back down on her side of the car and drew a ragged breath.
Seeing her mood change so quickly, as if swimming through a layer of dark memories, had an ice water ef- fect on his traitorous body—which was a good thing right now. But it also had him wanting to punch her ex-boyfriend for the hurt he’d obviously caused her.
“I’ve got a few friends at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office,” he said. “Where’s Lennie live? I bet I could rack him up enough speeding tickets so he’d be riding the bus to work for the next six months.”
Her mouth quirked in a reluctant smile. “Mercedes- Lennie on the city bus. Now that might be fun to watch.”
“Just say the word.”
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She laughed, then pointed to the digital clock on his dash. “Didn’t you say the interview was supposed to start about now?”
He noted the time and grimaced. “Hopefully a cou- ple of minutes won’t make them change their minds. You sure you want to do this? You can drop me off and pick me up when I call.”
“I’ve never wanted something this hard in my life. I’ve been in limbo for years. If you can help me end that, put this monster in prison once and for all, it will make all the difference. I can handle it. I promise.”
He wasn’t nearly as optimistic as she seemed to be. But he wasn’t going to argue with her. If she wanted to be a part of this, as far as he was concerned, she had every right to be. Because it was her life and all about making her feel safe again.
“It’s that gray-blue stucco over there, two houses down. Close enough to walk but with my hip, I’m going to be lazy and drive the last fifty yards.” Once they were parked in the driveway, he grabbed his briefcase from the floorboard behind her seat.
Unlike at her parents’ home, she didn’t wait for him to open the door. He silently cursed his hip for slowing him down. But there was no way he could go even one more step without his cane. He hefted it from the back seat and limped after her, pain his constant companion.
He’d pushed himself harder today than any day since he’d been shot. And it showed. His hip was so stiff and ached so much that he was running more on willpower than physical strength. And after that little stunt that he
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and Teagan had just pulled in his car, he was practically a cripple. But he’d grit his teeth and keep going, somehow. At least until this interview was over. And the moment he reached his hotel room he was going to collapse on his bed, down some painkillers and not move until morning.
At the door, he rang the doorbell then started when Teagan clutched his right arm.
“Don’t fuss at me. I’m not flirting, Bryson. Just give me a second.”
He noted the stress lines around her eyes, the ashen gray tint to her brown skin. He wanted to take her hand in his, offer his strength. But he didn’t have any to spare. If he let go of his cane he was afraid he’d fall down. All those times he’d blown off a rehab appoint- ment were really coming back to bite him.
“It’s okay, you’ve got this.” He offered a reassuring smile. “We’ve
got this. We’re a team, together. I’m here for you, all right? Trust me.”
She blew out a shaky breath and nodded just as the door opened.
A woman stood there, looking even more stressed than Teagan, her face so pale it was shockingly white in the dimly lit foyer.
Bryson lamely nodded rather than hold out his right hand since it was currently clutching his cane so he could remain upright. “Mrs. Broderick, it’s nice to meet you in person. I’m Bryson Anton. This is Teagan Ray. Is this still a good time to speak with you and your hus- band about Teagan’s abduction two years ago?”
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“Of course.” Her gaze darted from one to the other, then behind them before she stepped back. “We’ve been expecting you. Please, come in.” Without waiting, she turned and strode through the long, dimly lit foyer away from them.
Bryson hesitated. “It seems as if this impending in- terview is far more upsetting to Mrs. Broderick than I’d expected. Maybe you should wait in the car.”
“No way. I don’t want to blow my chance. If I can’t handle the emotions of this first interview, you won’t let me go to the ones tomorrow. I’ll be okay. You’ll make sure of it. We’re a team. That’s what you said. Right?”
He regretted agreeing to take her with him for so many reasons. But they couldn’t stand here waiting and make the Brodericks think they’d changed their minds. He motioned for her to step inside. She gave him a tight smile, and they started down the foyer to- gether.
Mr. Broderick’s deep voice sounded from the fam- ily room that was just visible through the arched open- ing a few feet away.
Teagan gasped and stopped.
He turned to see what was wrong. Her eyes were opened wide, a hand pressed to her mouth. She looked absolutely terrified.
“Teagan? What’s wrong?”
“That v-voice,” she croaked, obviously struggling to push any sounds out. “His
Bryson swore as understanding dawned. He dropped his cane and clawed for the pistol holstered at his waist
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as he struggled to turn around without falling. White, hot pain exploded in his head and his hip crumpled be- neath him. Teagan’s scream was the last thing he heard as everything went dark.
Teagan stood frozen, the horror of what was happen- ing—again—seeping into her bones like leaden con- crete, anchoring her in place. Her pulse hammered in her ears, blocking out the sounds around her. It was as if her mind had separated from her body and all of this was happening to someone else.
Bryson. Sweet, wonderful Bryson lay dead at her feet, his dark hair matted with blood. She’d only caught a glimpse of his battered body before jerking her gaze up toward the man who’d hit him, fully expecting the next blow from the baseball bat to land on her. Even so, she couldn’t raise her arms to defend herself. She. Couldn’t. Move.
Instead of hitting her, he’d taken Bryson’s pistol out of his holster, then shoved his hand in her pocket and yanked out her gun too, all before she could even blink. How had he known she had the gun when even she, in her moment of need, had forgotten it?
He’d been just inches from her but after taking the guns, he’d walked away. She watched helplessly, uselessly still as a statue, as the man—oh God, that
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—crossed the family room to the woman cower- ing in the corner. What was her name? Broderick. Mrs. Broderick. A trap. She’d led Bryson and Teagan into a trap. Why? Why would she do that?
The woman’s lips moved. She was looking up at the man, hovering over her with the bloody baseball bat in his right hand. She was saying something, pleading? The words were lost in Teagan’s fractured mind, unable to penetrate the sound of her own heartbeat rushing in her ears. Thump. Thump. Thump.
Her heart pounded against her rib cage, white noise that masked every- thing around her. The tableau played out like a silent movie before her, a nightmare. Because surely none of this was real. It couldn’t be.
Not again. Not again. She couldn’t survive this again.
The man lifted the bat.
Teagan tried to yell, to get her legs to move. She had to help the lady. But her throat was so tight she couldn’t make a sound. Her legs were shaking so hard she couldn’t take a step.
He brought the bat down in a deadly arc.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
Oh dear God, please, no!
The bat. The woman. Bile rose in Teagan’s throat. A low-keening moan filled her ears, and the man jerked around to look at her. She re- alized that she was the one making that awful sound.
The room around her darkened, like a tunnel, nar- rowing down to one point where all she could see was the man across the room, watching her. Everything cen- tered on what she’d never seen until this very moment.
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His face. She’d known that voice, the devil’s voice. To this day, it haunted her dreams. But that face. How could such evil hide behind such an average, kind- looking face?
There was nothing remarkable about it. He was white, clean-shaven, his light brown hair streaked with blond that had no doubt cost a fortune at some expen- sive salon. Which meant this man had money, a job, likely a home, a car. A family? He was just like anyone else she’d pass on the street.
Except that he wasn’t.
The eyes. The eyes gave him away. They were dark, almost black, completely devoid of warmth. An abyss of emptiness, a deep well of evil with no soul to warm them. They were the eyes of the monster who’d hurt her two years ago. The same monster who’d just bru- tally killed Mrs. Broderick. And the wonderful man lying at Teagan’s feet.
She couldn’t look down. Couldn’t stomach seeing the damage the bat must have done. She didn’t want that image burned into her retinas. Bryson. Smart, gor- geous, sweet Bryson Anton, who wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for her.
Forgive me, Bryson.
Evil stared back at her from twenty feet away. Blood dripped from the bat in his hand. She shuddered as a wave of nausea gripped her.
He smiled, as if pleased at her distress. Then he started toward her, still holding that awful bat. Slowly. Like a lion stalking the weakest member of the herd, separating it out, readying for the kill.
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Her mind screamed at her. Move. Run. Do something.
But she couldn’t. Why not? She’d run before. Two years ago, when her attacker injected drugs to put her to sleep, but missed the vein, she’d taken advantage of his mistake. She’d pretended to be asleep. And then, after hearing the sound of his car driving away, she’d forced one foot in front of the other. She’d gotten away.
There were neighbors close by. Some of them had to be home. Most of them had to be home. The work- day was over for the nine-to-fivers. All she had to do was turn around and…no.
She couldn’t leave Bryson.
She didn’t deserve to survive yet again when he lay at her feet in his own blood. It was her fault. This, then, would be her penance. Face the monster. Pay the price for bringing Bryson here, for destroying a won- derful man.
Shoes echoed against the floor. Hardwood. Like her parents’ house. He was coming closer. Relentlessly. Slowly. Savoring her fear.
She whimpered, and hated herself for it. She was about to die. She wanted to face him with dignity in her last moments. But the wounds of the past were too much to overcome. Her body wasn’t her own anymore to command. She couldn’t stop shaking. Maybe she was already dead.
Evil stopped three feet away.
She forced herself to meet his gaze, to memorize every line, every bump, every angle of his ridiculously ordinary face, refusing to look away as fate raised the bat once more. If she couldn’t run, at least she could
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stand here and pretend courage she didn’t possess. There would be no defensive wounds for her. But as she stared at him, a strange sense of déjà vu swept through her. She’d seen him before. Not at the shack. He’d always concealed his identity back then. So she had to have seen him somewhere else. But where? Who was he?
He raised the bat higher, watching her, as if waiting to see what she would do. As she remained motionless, his smile faded. She wasn’t giving him the satisfaction of cowering. She was ruining his fun.
Hooray for her. Finally she’d beaten him. If only in a very small way. This time it was her turn to smile.
Hate glittered in his eyes as he slowly lowered the bat. He tossed it onto a nearby chair and reached behind him. Metal glittered in the overhead lights. A gun? No. Silver circles. A short chain connecting them. Hand- cuffs. He’d bound her last time, tied her with strips of cloth. But never handcuffs. She’d cut through the strips with her teeth after the drug had failed to knock her unconscious. Perhaps he’d changed his routine since then. He’d learned from his mistakes.
He moved with a swiftness that was terrifying. Too late, she tried to twist away. But the sound of one of the cuffs ratcheting onto her left wrist echoed in the foyer. He yanked her wrist down toward the floor. She fell to her knees, sliding in the sticky wet blood. Bryson’s blood.
Dear, sweet Bryson. Lying on the floor, his face turned toward her. Eyes closed forever.
His murderer slapped the other handcuff onto
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Bryson’s right wrist and ratcheted it closed, anchor- ing her to his body. She looked up in question. He’d retrieved the bat, but instead of slamming it down on her, ending this, he turned away. His shoes clomped across the floor as he headed down the hall to the left. Dress pants. He was wearing gray dress pants and a white shirt. A formerly white shirt. Had he just left work? What kind of person did this—entered some- one’s house and beat them to death after getting off work, like it was a normal part of their day?
A hysterical laugh bubbled up in her throat, but died before reaching her lips. The monster had opened a door and headed inside. A muffled sound echoed from the room. Was someone else there? The sickening un- mistakable crunch of wood on bone had her gasping in horror. The other half of the couple who lived here, Mr. Broderick. He must have been in the room, prob- ably tied up. A bribe so that his wife would do what the monster told her to do.
Bile rose again in her throat. She turned away from Bryson’s body just in time to empty the contents of her stomach against the foyer wall. She shuddered and wiped her mouth.
“Dear Lord,” she prayed, the whisper finally pass- ing through her tight throat. “Please let me die quickly. And don’t let me grovel or beg for my life. Give me strength. Please, God. Help me.”
Something fluttered against her shoe.
She gasped and whirled around. The fingers of Bryson’s right hand moved against her, tapped her toe.
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She shot him a look of shock, and met his pain-filled startling blue gaze.
“Bryson,” she whispered. “You’re alive. Oh my God. Bryson.” She lifted her shaking right hand to his face and gently cupped it. “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”
His eyes seemed unfocused. He coughed and blood dribbled out of his mouth to the floor.
“Shhh,” she whispered. “Don’t try to talk.” She jerked her head up, realizing there weren’t any sounds in the other room anymore. He’d be coming out soon. Coming for her and Bryson. “Close your eyes,” she whispered. “Play dead. He thinks you’re dead. Just, no matter what happens to me, just lay there. Don’t move. Do you hear me? Play dead. It’s your only chance.”
His fingers tapped her again and his lips moved.
She glanced down the hall, then leaned down, try- ing to hear what he was saying.
“Run. Get. Away.” His whisper was so low she could barely make it out. “Go.”
Tears splashed onto his face and she realized she was crying. “Oh, Bryson. I’m sorry. I thought you were… I thought it was too late. And I couldn’t make myself leave you. And now, I can’t.” She lifted her left hand, showing him the handcuffs that bound them together. “It’s okay, though,” she whispered, looking down the hall again. What was taking the monster so long? What was he doing in there? “It’s okay,” she re- peated. “There’s nothing I can do to save myself. I ac- cept that. But he thinks you’re already dead. Lie very still. No matter what. You’ll make it. Just play dead.”
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His lips moved again, his eyes pleading with her to listen. “Cane. Get. Cane.”
“You think you can stand?” A rush of hope flooded through her. “Here. I’ll help you.”
“Cane,” his hoarse whisper was louder now. “Get the cane.”
She stretched out their linked hands and scrambled over, reaching out her right hand as far as she could. It took some contorting, but she was finally able to grab it. “Got it.”
“I’ll take that.” The monster jerked it out of her hand and backed up several feet. “Getting feisty, Teagan? Planning on trying to beat me over the head with this like I did your friend?” He chuckled and motioned to- ward Bryson. “Give me his cell phone. And yours. Hurry.”
“Mine is in my purse.” She motioned toward her purse where it had fallen to the foyer floor earlier. “Prove it. Turn your shorts pockets inside out.”
She did as he asked.
“Now his. Get his cell phone and toss it to me so I can verify that you don’t do something stupid, like try to press 911 before you give it to me. If you do that, you’re both dead. Understood?”
She drew a ragged breath and nodded, then dug in Bryson’s suit jacket pockets until she found his phone. For the briefest second, she hesitated, desperately want- ing to press the three precious keys that would call for help. But the monster was watching. And he’d shifted the aim of his gun toward Bryson’s head as if in warn-
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ing. She hurriedly stood as best she could with her arm cuffed to Bryson and tossed him the phone.
After checking the screen, he threw the phone on the couch, then motioned toward Bryson again. “Take that watch thing off his wrist and get rid of it. I don’t know what it can do, whether you can make calls with it. I’m not taking chances.”
She quickly took it off and tossed it down the foyer.
“Help him up. We’ll bring him with us. I need to know how much he knows before I kill him.”
She hesitated. “He’s already dead. Just uncuff me and I’ll go with you.”
He made a clucking, disapproving sound with his mouth. “Now, Teagan. Don’t lie to me. I doubt I hit him hard enough to kill him. But if you’d rather I take care of things right now, to make it easier for you so you don’t have to help him walk, I can get the bat—”
“No!” She shook her head. “Please. Don’t. Just… give me the cane. I’ll help him. But I need the cane to get him on his feet, to help him walk.”
He tossed the cane down beside her. “I’d help but I don’t want to get his blood on my nice clean shirt.”
She blinked and realized he was wearing a different shirt now, a light blue one tucked into navy blue dress pants. Even his shoes, which had been black earlier had been exchanged for gunmetal gray ones. He must have washed himself off and changed into some of Mr. Broderick’s clothes. Right after killing the poor man.
Swallowing hard, she looked down. Bryson’s eyes were open again. He was staring at her.
I’m so sorry
, she mouthed, regret heavy in her heart
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that she’d wasted her chance to get help for him. Had she suspected he was still alive, she would have forced herself to turn around, to run to the nearest neighbor and call 911. Instead, she’d been frozen by fear and the belief that he’d been killed. She’d given up. And be- cause of her cowardly actions, now he was still in horri- ble danger, when she might have been able to save him.
“Get him on his feet. Now. If you take too long, I’ll shoot you both and be done with it.”
She wanted to demand that he be done with it right now. But that was no longer an option. It wasn’t just her life on the line now. She had to be brave, strong, and somehow figure out how to get Bryson out of this mess. She awkwardly straightened his legs, apologiz- ing profusely every time she jostled him because of their hands being handcuffed together.
Finally she got him into a sitting position with his back pressed against the opposite wall of the foyer from where she’d been sick. White lines around his mouth clearly mirrored his pain. His hip had to be excruciat- ing right now, on top of the awful bump on his head. She reached up to test it and he winced, ducking away from her hand.
“You’re not bleeding anymore,” she whispered. “That’s a good sign.”
“Hurry up,” the monster ordered. “The daughter will be home soon.”
Teagan and Bryson exchanged a look of horror. The idea of a daughter coming home to find her parents slaughtered by this man was beyond awful. But still being here when she got home would ensure that she
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too would be killed. As if coming to the same realiza- tion, Bryson began pushing against the wall, struggling to get to his feet.
She faced him, their hands clasped together as she helped him up the rest of the way. As soon as she was sure he wasn’t about to fall, she got the cane and put it in his left hand. He normally held it in his right, to compensate for his bad left hip when he raised his right leg. But with his right hand cuffed to hers, that wasn’t an option. It would be rough going. She hoped she had the strength to keep him from falling.
“Come on. Out the back.” The monster was hold- ing a gun now. Bryson’s gun. He motioned with it and stepped out of reach of the cane or a well-aimed kick, not that they could manage either one shackled together with Bryson hurt.
More from willpower than physical strength, the two of them managed to hobble out the open French door, across the patio, all while being directed by the gunman. He closed the door behind them, probably to throw off anyone trying to find the perpetrator who’d murdered the Brodericks. But where was he going? He stopped at the six-foot-tall wooden privacy fence that encircled the large backyard.
He motioned them forward with the gun. When they stopped a few feet away, he lifted one of the sections of fence back from the post it should have been nailed to. Perhaps this was the way he’d gotten into the Brod- ericks’ home? He’d come from behind them, loosening the section of fence to act much like a gate.
Just the way he’d abducted Teagan years earlier?
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Until this very moment, she’d never remembered how he’d managed to get her off the path without anyone seeing her. It had always been a confusing image in her mind—a creaking sound that she’d attributed to the breezes in the branches overhead, but that she now realized must have been him opening a pre-loosened section of fence; her turning around just as the bite of a needle plunged into her neck and a hand clamped over her mouth. Darkness descending around the edges of her vision as he’d tossed her over his shoulder. That creaking sound again. He’d closed the fence behind them. That must have been what happened.
“Teagan?” Bryson whispered, between lips white with pain. “We have to move.”
The gunman was pointing the pistol at her. He must have told her to get going and was threatening to shoot her. She squeezed Bryson’s hand, then struggled for- ward with him leaning heavily against her, their cuffed hands clutched tightly together.
The gunman waved them toward the back of the house whose yard they were now in while he secured the section of fence behind them. As they reached the screened-in porch, the cut screen on the door told the story that she had feared. She exchanged a look of mis- ery with Bryson before helping him through the door that the killer had obviously gone through earlier.
But how had he known that she would be at the Brodericks’?
That question was eating at her. And she had no an- swers. She wanted to ask Bryson, but doubted he could think much beyond the pain that was clearly radiat-
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ing through his whole body. It was taking everything he had to remain upright, as evidenced by how hard he was leaning on her and how often he stumbled. It didn’t help that the house was carpeted. It was much harder for him to keep his balance, and he fell against the wall more than once.
“To the garage, that door over there.” The gunman motioned ahead to the right, then ducked through an archway to their left into the kitchen.
“Where are we?” Bryson whispered as they hobbled toward the garage.
“Bentwater Place,” she whispered back. “The sub- division directly behind The Woods. The entrance to this subdivision is about a mile, maybe more, from the Hodges Boulevard entrance to The Woods.”
He nodded as they reached the door that led from the house into the garage. It was standing wide open, revealing a small package delivery truck inside. Any hope that Teagan had that he hadn’t hurt the driver died when she saw the piles of packages taking up most of the space on the other side of the garage. No driver would have willingly allowed someone to dump the contents of his truck. How many people had to be hurt or die because of whatever sick fantasies this guy had?
“Find the button that opens the garage door,” Bryson urged. “If someone’s outside, we can try to get their attention.”
“Do it and I’ll shoot both of you,” the killer said from behind them.
Teagan stiffened and looked over her shoulder. His
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dark, empty eyes bored into hers. The maw of the pis- tol was pointed directly at the back of Bryson’s head. “What do you want us to do now?” She steadied
Bryson’s shaking body against the garage wall beside the doorway. He was so pale she was afraid he was about to pass out.
“Get in the back of the truck.” The sound of sirens filled the air, coming from somewhere behind them. The killer froze, cocking his head to listen. The sirens got louder. There could be no mistake. They were rac- ing toward the Brodericks’ house. The daughter must have gotten home and called 911. And the police had to have been close by to be responding this quickly. Any minute now, they’d be standing in the home that was separated from this one by about fifty feet of grass and a privacy fence.
If she screamed, would they hear her?
As if reading the intention in her expression, the killer shoved the gun’s muzzle against the back of Bryson’s head. “In the truck. Now. If you scream, if you do anything to alert the police, I’ll shoot both of you, him first. Then I’ll find another family a few houses down to kill and drive away in their car as the police try to figure out where the shots came from. You’ll be dead, another family will be dead, but I’ll be just fine. Is that what you want? Me to kill your boyfriend and another innocent family, all because you refuse to fol- low instructions?”
“We’re going.” She forced the words out between clenched teeth.
Bryson looked like he wanted to argue. But he was
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in no physical condition to do so. They hobbled to the end of the truck. The gunman twisted the handles and yanked open both of the doors. Just as expected, it was empty. No windows. No pass-through to the cab. Just a metal box, with no way out but the back doors. Which required getting past their armed escort.
It took some grunting and contorting because of how their hands were cuffed together to get both of them into the back. As soon as their feet cleared the doors, one of them slammed shut.
The gunman paused in the opening of the other door. “I’ll take that cane for now. Don’t want you trying to poke me with it when I open the door again.” He yanked the cane away from Bryson and sealed them inside.
“He didn’t blindfold us,” Teagan said.
Bryson hated the fear in her tone. He knew exactly
what she was afraid of, that because the man who’d abducted them hadn’t blindfolded them, it meant he intended to kill them. He wasn’t worried about wit- nesses, or that they could identify him later. But reas- suring her right now was beyond Bryson’s abilities. He was struggling just to stay conscious. That blow to his head had really done a number on him.
The darkness in the back of the truck was absolute, which was disorienting enough. But his aching hip and throbbing head were each trying to outdo the other in the pain department, which made his efforts to wrangle his scattered thoughts next to impossible.
“Bryson?” She moved her left hand against his right one and interlaced their fingers. “How bad does it hurt? Your head?”
He gently squeezed her fingers. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”
“Maybe if you said that without pain making your voice so raspy I’d believe you.” She clasped her right
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hand over their joined hands. “I’m so sorry. None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for me involv- ing you. I never should have gone to Gatlinburg and interfered with your life. That was beyond selfish. And now, we’re both going to die—”
“Hey, hey. Stop that. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m the professional. I should have been on guard against this type of possibility. But what matters right now is that you don’t give up. You hear me, Teagan Ray? Don’t you dare give up.” He waited, but when she didn’t respond he said, “If you’re nodding or shaking that beautiful head of yours, or making some kind of rude gesture, your effort’s wasted. I completely forgot to pack my night-vision goggles this trip.”
A brief laugh reassured him like nothing else could have. He needed her present, engaged, not frozen and helpless the way he’d seen her in the foyer after he’d finally managed to swim through the darkness that had threatened to drag him under. He wasn’t sure how long he’d lain there after that awful slam of the bat against his head. He hadn’t even seen the bat until later, when they were leaving, lying on one of the chairs. It had shocked him that he was still alive with the amount of blood covering the bat.
Then he’d seen Mrs. Broderick.
She’d been curled in a lifeless heap on the other side of the room. He knew then that not all of the blood on the bat was his. The poor woman had been brutally at- tacked. Even though it didn’t feel like it, he was lucky to be alive. For now.
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“Aren’t you going to say I told you so?” she asked, interrupting his thoughts.
He had to draw several deep breaths to push back the hazy fog that kept trying to drag him into uncon- sciousness. What had she said? Something about I told you so. “What are you talking about?”
“Avarice Lowe. I’d pegged him all along as the man who’d abducted me. But I was wrong. It’s this man. Whoever’s driving this stupid truck. The thing is, Lowe never seemed to fit the image of the monster in my head. I know it sounds wonky. But I always thought I’d know my abductor if I ever saw him, by the way he was built, his profile, something. Nothing ever clicked for me when I saw Lowe’s pictures. And, to be hon- est, nothing clicked when I saw this guy today. Not re- ally. I mean, his voice, yes. Definitely. And yet, even though he seems familiar, he doesn’t seem…right. It’s still not clicking.” He could feel her shoulders move against him as she shrugged. “Listen to me. I’m not even making sense.”
“Always…trust your instincts.” He swallowed hard against the bile rising in his throat. Obviously he had a concussion. All he wanted to do was lie down and sleep. Or throw up. Or both. He cleared his throat and tried again to follow the conversation. “Instincts. They’re telling you something. What did you mean when you said he seemed familiar?”
“It just seemed…familiar. He’s the kind of guy you
could pass on the street a bazillion times and you might
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think, okay, he’s kind of good-looking. Clean-cut. But nothing amazing. Just a typical, white-collar kind of man, you know? And yet, I would swear that I’ve seen him before. Not just once. Several times.”
He rubbed his left temple, desperately trying to beat back the throbbing pain and focus on what she was say- ing. There was something important here, more impor- tant than her thinking she’d seen him before. But he couldn’t seem to grasp what was bothering him about what she’d just said. Finally he dropped his hand to his side, giving up for now. Whatever was bothering him would come to him, eventually.
“Maybe he lives in The Woods,” he offered. “You’ve passed him on the street, on the sidewalk. Or saw him at that amenity center. Do you ever use the tennis courts, the pool?”
“The pool sometimes. But I haven’t in a long time. Not since, well, I never was a fan of a one-piece bath- ing suit. Too grandma for me. But I don’t think wear- ing a bikini is exactly a good idea now.”
He wanted to reassure her, tell her that no one would notice the X that had been cut into her skin. But peo- ple could be cruel. Some probably would stare. Others might ask a question, innocently thinking she’d had that X carved there on purpose, like a tattoo. They might wonder at the symbolism and significance, without re- alizing they were bringing up a horrific memory that she’d rather forget.
He’d just started to doze off again when she asked, “What are we going to do?” Her voice was a low whis-
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per, as if to keep the driver from hearing them. “Please tell me you have a plan.”
He didn’t have a clue. He tightened his hold on her hand. “We’ll figure it out. Together. Two against one. We’ve got this.”
The truck hit a bump in the road, knocking them against each other. He scooted back against the wall, trying to keep from slamming into her. But she had no such compulsion. She moved closer, her body plastered against his side. But unlike earlier, there was nothing suggestive about her actions. He could feel the slight shaking of her shoulders and realized she was silently crying. Carefully, so he wouldn’t hit her face, he ma- neuvered their handcuffed hands so that he could put his arm around her, pulling their linked hands tight against her belly. She cradled her head against his neck.
He tried to pay attention to the changes in road noise, traffic sounds, the turns the truck made. But everything was so muffled that he had no clue where they might be. Had it been an hour? Two? He had no idea. With his watch gone, and his mind a fog, time as he knew it didn’t exist anymore. His every moment was measured by stabs of pain that shot through his body with every beat of his heart. His hip had long ago gone numb. But, if anything, the pain in his head was worse than before. He felt every shift of the truck’s wheels on the pavement, every pothole, every slide of gravel.
“We’re slowing down,” she whispered.
He nodded, then remembered she couldn’t see him.
“Yes. We are. And we’ve turned onto a gravel road.
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Wherever he’s taking us, we’re close.” He carefully pulled their linked arms over her head so they were side by side again, instead of nestled against each other.
The brakes squealed as the truck lurched to a halt.
Her fingers clenched his. “Now would be a good time to share your plan.”
Right. If only he had one. His thoughts were so jum- bled. “Stay alert. Be observant. As soon as that door opens, evaluate your options and react. If he’s stupid enough to stand in striking distance, we tackle him. But I don’t expect he’ll do that.”
“So we have no plan.”
He sighed. “Pretty much. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope. All it takes is one mistake on his part, one moment when his guard is down. Then we’ll get the upper hand.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“I have to. We both have to. I’m not operating on all pistons right now, and my vision was blurry at the Brodericks’ house so I’m not expecting much better when he lets us out of here. I need you to fill in the gaps. Pay attention when he opens that door. Get a three-sixty view. We need to know what’s around us. Where to run if we get a chance.”
“Okay. I’ll… I’ll do my best.”
The driver’s door creaked open.
“Come on,” he urged. “Let’s scoot to the end in case
we can surprise him, take him down.”
Getting to his knees was beyond his capabilities at
the moment. Instead, he had to scoot across the metal
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floor of the truck. Thankfully, it wasn’t that large and they were soon positioned beside each other at the doors. The sound of shoes crunching on gravel came from
outside. He was heading toward the back.
Bryson could feel her shivering against him. He si- lently cursed the man with all the power right now, the man who’d hurt her more than most people endured in
their entire lifetime.
He gritted his teeth and braced himself, hoping she
was ready to dive with him to tackle the man. There was no other option since they were still handcuffed together.
The left door flew back. Bryson hadn’t planned on near total darkness and hesitated for a moment. But Teagan was already hopping out of the truck. He hur- riedly followed and together they rushed forward, hop- ing to wrap arms around their attacker. They both met empty air and stumbled against each other before fall- ing back against the closed right door. It was the only reason Bryson managed to remain upright.
Laughter sounded off to the left. A powerful flash- light switched on, forcing them to squint and shield their eyes against the brightness.
“Good try.” The man chuckled again. “But I as- sumed you’d pull a stunt like that so I stayed behind the door, out of reach.” He lowered the light to point at the ground, directly in front of them. Dirt and gravel mixed with pine needles and other debris. Since the only sounds were insects buzzing close by, it was a safe bet that they were somewhere outside of town, an hour, two, maybe more from Jacksonville if his judg-
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ment on how much time had passed was accurate. But he couldn’t be sure. Their captor may have driven in circles to disorient them and then drove to some rural part of town. Jacksonville was the largest city in the country by landmass, so they could easily still be in Duval County but nowhere near any homes or busi- nesses.
Teagan’s fingers curled around his. Perhaps she was beginning to realize how isolated they were, and won- dering the same thing that he was—what happens next?
Without the flashlight in his eyes, he was able to make out more details now. The moon and stars pro- vided enough light to see that they were surrounded by trees and Florida scrub, mostly small thin bushes and sharp palmettos ready to skewer anyone foolish enough to go for a walk in the woods.
The gunman stood about twenty feet away, out of reach, a dark silhouette with his arm extended, pistol gleaming in his grip. “Get moving.” He motioned with the flashlight to their right, aiming it at what was ap- parently their destination, a tiny cabin.
“I need my cane,” Bryson called out.
The flashlight swept back toward their captor. He aimed it up toward his own face, a slow smile spread- ing across his cheeks as he pulled something out of his pocket. “Let me guess. Because you wanted these?” He shook the two tiny keys on the end of a chain, making them click against each other. “Handcuff keys hidden in the cane’s handle. I knew you were awfully insistent on wanting that stupid thing. Took me half the trip fid- dling with it to figure it out.”
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He threw the keys into the trees, then leaned down and grabbed the cane, which had been lying at his feet. “Afraid you’ll have to do without it. I’m not risking an- other trick in that thing that I haven’t figured out yet.” He tossed the cane into the woods behind him. “Now go on.” He swept the flashlight in an arc toward the cabin again. “Teagan, stop standing there like a statue and help your boyfriend before he falls down.” He chuckled.
Bryson looked at her. She hadn’t moved since they’d tried tackling the gunman without success. Her fin- gers holding his were cold, stiff. Her body shook as she stared wide-eyed at the little house in the clearing. And then it dawned on him why. He’d seen it before, in crime scene photos.
The killer had brought them back in time, two years to be exact. He’d brought them to the infamous shack where he’d once held Teagan captive.
The world had disappeared for Teagan. Everything had faded away the moment she’d jumped out of the truck and the flashlight revealed what she should have expected, but hadn’t allowed herself to believe. He’d taken her back to the dilapidated shack where she’d spent two weeks in a drug-induced stupor, drifting in a haze of pain from the torture that her captor had put her through.
She pressed a hand to her belly, remembering that first night, when he’d slowly carved the X in her flesh. The pain had been excruciating. With her arms and legs tied and him straddling her, there was nothing she could do to escape the slow awful burn of the blade. She’d screamed so loudly that something in her throat burst and she’d almost drowned in her own blood.
After escaping this hellhole, she’d charted a new path for her life. She’d focused her energies on becom- ing stronger, both physically and mentally. When the police seemed to be getting nowhere with the investi- gation, she’d taken it over herself, doing everything she could to try to discover the identity of the man who’d
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reduced her to the broken woman she’d become for those fourteen days. And she’d thought she had. She’d been so sure that Avarice Lowe was the real Ripper, the man who’d branded her like a steer. The fact that no one else believed her didn’t dissuade her. Instead, it made her angry, and even more determined to find someone who’d help her put Lowe away. She’d thought Bryson was that someone, the one person who would read her file and finally tell her that she was right.
But she wasn’t right. Bryson was right, had been all along.
It was as if everything she’d done for the past twenty- four months and nineteen days was a sham, a waste, a farce. Here she was again, where it had all started. And she’d managed to condemn Bryson to share this hell with her. This time, both of them would die.
“Sweetheart, look at me,” Bryson’s whispered words seemed to come to her from the end of a long tunnel. “Come back to me. Don’t give up. Don’t let him win.”
She couldn’t see him, couldn’t see anyone, or any- thing. Not the dark shapes of the trees, or the twinkling lights of the stars, or the moon, or even the gravel rocks at her feet. The devil himself, the one who’d brought them here, had faded too. All she saw was the little shack.
Hovel was more accurate.
Four walls covered in weathered gray wood that was splintered and warped. No electricity, which meant no air-conditioning, unless that had been changed. The inside consisted of a small bedroom and bathroom on the back left corner, a tiny main room and a kitchen up
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front. Although calling the cooking area a kitchen was being generous. It consisted of a handful of homemade- looking cabinets and drawers, a tiny refrigerator like those in hotel rooms and a compact gas stove fed by a propane tank outside. The bathroom, as she remem- bered it, was so filthy she’d had to close her eyes when he’d shoved her inside and stood guard at the open door, watching. Always watching. Or touching, hurting her in unspeakable ways.
Dear Lord, please, let me die. Strike me with light- ning, something, just don’t let him…touch me…not again. Please
“Teagan, look at me. Open your eyes.” Bryson’s gen- tle but firm voice cut through her terror, snapped her out of her semi-stupor.
She openly stared up at him. The moon’s light wasn’t enough to see the blue of his eyes, but she remembered their beautiful color, and the kindness in them. She re- membered how ruggedly handsome he was. He was so sweet and smart and…and he was going to die.
A low keening moan slipped out between her clenched teeth. Her hands shook as she started to lift them. But her left hand pulled up short because of the cuffs. He bent his arm to allow her more movement, frowning, apparently wondering what she was doing, but helping her. Always helping her. She lifted her arms again and this time she was able to cup his face.
“We have to kill him,” she whispered. “Before he makes us go into that horrible shack. He won’t shoot me, not right away. That would spoil his fun. We’ll re-
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fuse to go inside and he’ll have to come close. As long as you duck down in front of me, I can shield you—” “The hell with that.” His clipped tone brooked no
argument. “I’m not using you as a human shield.” He grabbed her left hand and pulled it down with his, their handcuffs rattling against each other. “I don’t have a plan yet but putting you in the line of fire isn’t at the top of my list. It’s not even on
the list. Forget it.”
“Hey, you two. Get moving.” Bam!
The warning shot kicked up dirt near their feet. Tea- gan threw herself against Bryson’s chest, desperately trying to shield his body with hers.
He swore and shoved her as far from him as the cuffs would allow. His glare told her exactly what he thought of her attempt to protect him. But without her to lean on, he stumbled. She rushed forward and jammed her left shoulder beneath his right, bracing him again. The pained look on his face told her he hated that he needed her help. But he didn’t push her away again.
“Next one goes in your head, FBI guy. Or Justice Seeker. Is that what you go by? Seems I heard that somewhere. You need to do what I say, when I say it. Or you can seek your justice six feet under.”
Justice Seeker? Bryson probably mentioned that he was a former FBI profiler when he spoke to the Brod- ericks to lend him credibility so they’d agree to speak to him. But would he say anything about being a Justice Seeker? Not likely. It had taken her months of digging to track Bryson to the Seekers. How did this animal know about them?
“I need my cane.” Bryson’s voice was hoarse, a tes-
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tament to the amount of pain he was in after their lit- tle dance in the dirt. “I can’t walk without it. Unlock these handcuffs and send Teagan to retrieve it for me.”
“So she can take off and escape? I don’t think so. Good try though. But I’m tired of waiting.” He aimed the gun at Bryson’s leg.
Teagan rushed in front of him to his left side to better help him, their cuffed hands pulled awkwardly across his waist. He was really struggling, his left leg shaking as if it was about to collapse.
His look of regret confirmed that he realized the same thing. He gave her a curt nod of thanks, then lurched forward.
The thirty or so feet to the shack felt more like a mile trudging through wet cement. But finally they were at the two steps that led up to the tilted, rotting front porch. There was no railing, nothing for Bryson to cling to except her. But they made the climb together, pausing just outside the front door.
Instead of the dry-rotting wood she remembered, this door was shiny and new, its glass front encased in a black wrought-iron frame with a network of verti- cal bars just like she’d expect to see on a jail cell. And both of the small front windows, to the left and right of the door, were covered in the same black bars. He’d converted the shack into a jail.
There’d be no escape this time.
She pulled the door open and glanced up at Bryson. His eyes were glazing over, unfocused. He tried to say something, but couldn’t seem to get the words out.
She practically dragged him inside as he teetered
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back and forth. Thankfully the couch was right where it had been the last time, four or five feet from the door. If turned sideways, it would probably scrape both walls, if it would even fit.
He fell from her grip onto the cushions, pulling her down with him. She managed to push off the back cush- ion so she didn’t fall on top of him. Instead, she slid to the floor, her left arm raised to not jerk his right arm. Not that he would have felt it. His eyes were already closed. He’d passed out.
The sound of metal grating against metal had her jerking her head around to see what the gunman was doing. To her relief, he hadn’t followed them inside. But to her horror, he’d just locked the door. He grinned as he pulled his key out of the round lock that required a key on both sides—not the kind where you could flip it from the inside.
He aimed the flashlight up, casting an eerie, sinis- ter look across his face. “I’ll give you two lovebirds some alone time,” he teased, adding a wink that had her wanting to throw up again. “Make sure he’s ready to answer my questions when I get back. I want to know what the cops know. If he can’t talk, he’s of no use to me.”
She’d wondered why he’d gone to the trouble of tak- ing both her and Bryson instead of killing him at the Brodericks’. Now she knew it was because he wanted to interrogate him.
“Today caught me off guard, I gotta admit,” he continued. “I’m not really prepared. Don’t have my… supplies handy. But don’t you worry. I remember every-
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thing you like. I’ll make sure I come back with just the right stuff.” He leaned closer, pressing his face against the glass. “How’s my mark on your belly looking?”
She automatically pressed her hand against her stomach, her entire body shaking as she stared at him. Hot tears coursed down her cheeks in spite of her ef- forts to hold them back.
His grin widened, his bright white teeth sparkling in the light. “Don’t worry. I’ll freshen it up a bit, make sure it hasn’t…faded, since our last meeting.” He chuckled and hopped off the porch, the flashlight’s beam bouncing across the gravel as he headed toward the truck.
Bryson blinked in the near darkness, a fog of confusion roiling through his mind. Where was he? How did he get here? And why was he lying on a couch that, judg- ing by the lumps and musty smell, clearly wasn’t his?
He braced his hands on the cushions to push himself up but the tug of a cold chain against his right wrist had him stopping to look down. A small form lay curled up on the floor, her left arm propped against the couch. As his eyes adjusted to the dark and he was able to make out more details, he noticed the gleaming silver circle around both their wrists. They were handcuffed together. Still confused, he leaned down for a better look. Teagan. She was on the floor, without even a pil- low for her head.
What was going on?
Her eyes were closed and she was asleep, albeit a fitful one, her elegant brows drawn into a frown. Hav- ing never seen her hair anything but perfect, he was surprised to see curls forming a halo around her face, escaping the tight braid that hung down her back. Even worse, there were dark splotches on her blouse. The
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color was lost to him in the darkness, but there was no mistaking the metallic smell.
Memories slammed into him. Awful glimpses of the reality that had happened, and where those dark splotches had come from. He softly touched one to make sure it wasn’t wet, then pulled his hand back in relief. It wasn’t her blood. It was his. Thank goodness she hadn’t been hurt. But that would change the mo- ment their captor returned.
Careful not to jostle their joined wrists, he managed to push himself to a sitting position so he could take stock of their situation. It didn’t look good. The front iron-barred door was closed, no doubt locked, but the glass provided a moonlit view of the gravel road and clearing out front. They were empty, the delivery truck nowhere in sight.
He studied all four walls in the main room as best he could in the limited light. Both of the front windows were covered in bars. He imagined the one other win- dow that he’d seen in police photos, the one in the tiny bedroom down a short hall, was also barred. The ad- jacent bathroom didn’t have a window, unless that had been changed over the past two years.
The place was too small to be called a hunting cabin, which was what the owner had called it in the police reports. Had he been the one to install the bars and new door after what had happened here? Or had he sold the cabin, unknowingly, to the very killer who’d been using it all along as his own? Maybe the original owner was the killer, and the police had mistakenly cleared him.
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Those were only some of the questions going through his mind. Along with the one that had been niggling him since the tragedy that had happened at the Brodericks’: How had the killer known that Tea- gan would be there?
“Bryson, are you feeling better?” Her voice sounded groggy.
She was shoving to her knees, already reaching up to check on him. He grabbed her hands in his and kissed them before letting go.
“I hate that I slept at all. But I needed it. I’m think- ing more clearly.”
“What about the pain? Your head? Your hip? I could massage—”
He stopped her wandering hands and teased. “Boundaries, Teagan.”
She smiled, somewhat reluctantly. “I sure never thought our first time sleeping together we’d actually be, well, sleeping.”
“Maybe next time it will be different.”
Her eyes widened like an owl’s in the darkness. “If you really mean that, I’ll bust out one of these walls to get us out of here. And I’ll hold you to your word.”
He laughed, amazed that he could
in a situation like this. “Now there’s the sassy, sexy, smart woman I re- member. I think that sleep did both of us some good. But we can’t sit around any longer. We have to get out of here before he comes back.”
She moved her arm, frowning when the short chain between their wrists stopped her movement. “You had handcuff keys in your cane. Why didn’t you tell me?”
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“I wasn’t even sure they were still there. It was a gag gift from Bishop, one of the Justice Seekers, after the shooting. He gave me a set of handcuffs and put the keys in the head of the cane, teasing that I could use them to keep my girlfriend at my side through my convalescence. That was after the nurses complained about how bad a patient I was in the hospital.”
The corners of her mouth turned up in a small smile. “I can imagine that. I’ve seen how grumpy you are when your hip hurts.”
“I never thought about those handcuff keys again until I was lying on the floor in the Brodericks’ foyer and realized we were cuffed together. That’s the main reason I kept asking for the cane. But he kept us under such close scrutiny that I never got the chance to get them out. You have to twist open the top and tilt the cane up in the air. Not something you can do on the sly. Once he put us in the back of the truck and kept the cane, I figured I’d lost my opportunity so there was no point in bringing it up.”
“I don’t suppose there was a gun in there too,” she said. “I asked you in Gatlinburg if there was a gun hid- den inside and you said there was.”
“I was joking. Being a jerk, really.”
“No. Never a jerk.” She squeezed their joined hands. “We need to get these handcuffs off. It’s the only
way we’ll have a fighting chance if he comes back be- fore we get out of this shack.”
“You really think we have a chance?”
Her left hand clutched his right one so hard that his
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fingers started going numb. She was trying to put on a brave front. But inside, she was obviously terrified. He leaned down and tilted her chin up, their eyes
meeting with understanding, before he pressed a soft kiss against her lips. He’d only meant to distract her for a few seconds, to make sure she knew that he was here for her and would do whatever he could to protect her. But with both their emotions running high, touching her was like putting a match to gasoline.
Suddenly she was straddling him like she’d done in his rental car. And the temperature went up a thousand degrees as they tangled against each other like two horny college kids on spring break. It was only when she moaned into his mouth that he realized he’d slid his hands up her belly and was working on the front clasp of her bra. The logical part of his brain was yelling at him to stop this madness, that they were wasting valu- able time. The rest of him, which seemed to be win- ning, was arguing that maybe this was exactly what he should be doing in case these were his last moments on earth. What better way to go out of this world than making love to the most amazing, interesting, adorably sassy woman he’d ever met?
“The back,” she whispered against his mouth. “The clasp is in the back.”
What few brain cells he had left registered what she’d said, that to take off her bra he had to slide his hands around to her back. But if that was the case, what was the hard part in the front of her bra he’d just felt?
He broke the kiss and stared down at her. Some-
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where along the line, either she or he had discarded her shirt as best they could. It was hanging over his forearm caught in the handcuff chain. And in the dim light filtering in through the windows and front door, two perfect breasts sat in all their glory, exposed, freed from the cups of her bra that was still fastened beneath them. More than almost anything, he wanted to pull each nipple into his mouth, treasure those soft, warm, incredible curves. But, as impossible as it seemed, there was something else he wanted more.
He slid his hands around her back and fumbled with the clasp. She sighed with pleasure as he pulled her bra off, but her eyes flew open in surprise when he sat back.
He held the bra up, felt where the underwire ended, then tore at the delicate fabric with his teeth.
She stared at him in confusion. “What…what are you doing? If you want to put your mouth on some- thing, trust me, there are better places to put it.” She motioned toward her breasts.
He grinned even with the fabric in his mouth. She was definitely the type of woman who knew what she wanted. If he could go back in time and keep her at his house instead of turning her away, he’d probably still be in bed with her days later.
“Bryson?” She was frowning now, obviously get- ting annoyed.
He made one last tear and the wire hit his teeth. He sat back, working at it with his fingers now, pulling it out of the fabric.
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She gasped in dismay. “That bra cost over a hun- dred dollars.”
He hesitated. “You’re kidding. You wear hundred- dollar bras?”
“It’s my only hundred-dollar bra. I was saving it for a special occasion.” She arched a brow. “Why do you think I took a shower at my parents’ house? Who do you think I put that bra on for?” She waved her hand toward her shorts. “I have matching panties too.”
Boy oh boy did he want to see those matching panties. But more than that, he wanted her to live
. He glanced toward the door, and the blessedly empty gravel road out front. “I’ll buy you another hundred- dollar bra, a dozen. And matching underwear. But rightnow, I need this.” He finally yanked the wire free and held it up. “Handcuff key.”
Her eyes widened in surprise.
“Hold up your wrist. I’ll try your side first.”
She did as he’d asked, and he ran his fingers along
the flat side of the metal circle until he found the little slot for the key, just where the metal was locked into the hole. He slid the end of the underwire inside, then carefully worked it back and forth. The cuff backed out one slot with a loud click, giving her a little more wiggle room.
“It’s working!” Her voice was full of awe.
“Long way to go. Give me a minute. I have to be careful or the wire will break.” He ratcheted the metal back one slow click at a time.
“I’m guessing our captor took Annie from you at
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the Brodericks’,” he said as he twisted the wire in the cuffs. “Otherwise you’d have shot him full of holes.”
“Annie? Oh, my gun?” At his nod, she shook her head. “I don’t understand it. I had so many opportuni- ties to get away, to get help. But I just…froze. In that foyer. He took your gun and mine before I even thought about trying to use them. Or run out the front door to a neighbor’s. I can’t believe I just…stood there.”
The handcuff loosened another click. “It’s the trauma from before. If he’d been anyone else, I imag- ine that wouldn’t have happened. But your brain shut down the moment you realized who he was. That’s not your fault. It’s not something you could control.”
“Nice of you to say, but I’m not so sure that—” Click. He pulled the handcuff off her.
She rubbed her wrist and grinned. “I’m free!” “Not quite. That was step one. Step two is getting
out of this shack. Step three is disappearing into the woods long before he gets back.” He slipped her end of the handcuffs over his still-cuffed wrist and clicked them loosely into place.
“What are you doing!” she exclaimed. “Why did you do that?”
“To save time. I can do whatever I need to do with both cuffs on the same wrist. I’ll worry about getting them off later.” He waved toward her shirt, which had fallen to the floor. “I’m having enough trouble focus- ing with this concussion without your gorgeous breasts distracting me. Mind putting your shirt back on?”
Her smile beamed at him, full wattage. “You think my breasts are gorgeous? What a sweet thing to say.”
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She winked and grabbed her shirt. “Let’s get out of here, Bryson. I want you to buy me those matching un- derwear sets so you can take them right back off again.”
He laughed and tried to shove himself to his feet, but his hip gave out and he collapsed against the cushions. His face heated with embarrassment as he cleared his throat. “Looks like I’ll need a little help standing. I should be able to walk but getting up off this couch is beyond my current abilities. I always get stiff after lying down for a while.”
“I sure hope you do.”
He glanced at her in confusion, then realized what she meant when she winked.
He shook his head, grinning. “You’ve got a one- track mind. Help me up.” He held his hand out to stop whatever she was about to say. “Without another sexual innuendo. We’re running out of time.”
Her smile faded and fear took its place. He regretted being so blunt, but even though her natural tendency to block out her fears and worries by flirting and teasing was adorable in most circumstances, they were a lia- bility in this one. Especially since the blow to his head had him thinking far less clearly than usual.
She helped him up, and thankfully he was able to limp unaided to the door.
“What do we do now?” She settled her shirt into place. “Try to pull out the hinge pins?”
He was already sticking the underwire into the door lock when her innocent question had him glancing up in surprise. The hinges were on the inside. Because doors like these were intended to keep people out, not in.
Their abductor might have finally made a mistake.
“You, Teagan Ray, are brilliant,” Bryson told her. “I’ll try the lock first, but I was worried this metal will be too soft for this. The hinge pins will likely be our ticket out of here. But we have to find something to use to pop them out.” He motioned toward the stove, which was only about three feet from the door, and beyond that to the handful of cabinets that formed the tiny kitch- enette. “Look through this kitchen, in the bedroom, under the couch. We’ll need something we can either wedge under the end of the pin to pull it or something to stick in the hinge on the bottom to push it.”
“I’m on it.”
She moved past him and started slamming open cabinets and drawers. He could follow her progress through the tiny shack by the sound of her cursing and the sounds of her either kicking or hitting walls.
He blocked all that out and focused on trying to pick the lock using the underwire.
After half a dozen attempts, he realized it wasn’t going to happen. The metal was just too soft and kept
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bending. He tossed it aside as she ran to him holding up a long metal rod and a foot-long piece of wood.
“Will this work?” She was breathing heavily from exertion. “I figure you can stick the metal up the bot- tom of the hinge and use the wood like a hammer to push out the pin.”
“Do I even want to know where you got the steel rod? And why it’s wet?”
“Were you in the bathroom?”
“Like I said. You don’t want to know.”
He grimaced. The rod looked like one of those old-
fashioned toilet-tank float rods that controlled how the toilet flushed. As to the wood, it was either a piece of baseboard or a piece of the floor itself. Judging by the dilapidated shape of the building, neither would sur- prise him.
The steel rod was the perfect size and slid in place beneath the middle hinge pin with ease. Hope flared in his chest as he slammed the wood against it. He slammed it over and over and over, but the pin wasn’t moving. He finally stopped and leaned in close, try- ing to see if there was something keeping it in place. Then he took a closer look at the hinges in the door frame and cursed.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Locking hinge pins.”
“Never heard of them. But I don’t like how that
He tossed the wood and rod on the floor and wiped
his hands on his dress pants. “I thought our captor
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made a mistake with the hinges on the inside. But he didn’t. There’s an extra screw that prevents the pin from being backed out. We’d need an Allen wrench and a screwdriver to get it out. No homemade tools are going to back out that screw. It’s drilled into the wrought-iron frame.”
Her shoulders slumped. “That’s why he didn’t try to drug us, or tie us up. He knew there was no way to escape.”
“Don’t give up on me now. I haven’t thrown in the towel just yet.”
She nodded. But he could tell she was rapidly los- ing hope.
“Talk to me,” he said. “Tell me how you escaped the last time while I see what else is in here.”
“There’s nothing. Just the couch and a few alumi- num pots and pans. The utensils in the drawer are plas- tic or rubber. There’s nothing we could use to stab or hit him.”
“He’s got a gun. Nothing much trumps that. We need to get out before he returns. We have to think outside the box.” He limped past the front door and the stove, then yanked open one of the cabinet draw- ers in the kitchenette. “Tell me about the shack, and how you got out.”
“It’s basically the same. Well, the bars are new. And the iron front door. There isn’t a back door. He tied me up when he left, with cloth. He didn’t use handcuffs. Mostly he used drugs to keep me docile. He’d knock me out for hours, and I wouldn’t wake up until he was back. I was in detox for weeks after I got away.”
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He pulled the hardware, tested the corners of the drawer boxes. “Go on. What else.”
She sighed heavily. “I was blindfolded whenever it was light outside. And he wore a hooded mask most of the time. That always gave me hope, thinking he’d eventually let me go because he was keeping his iden- tity secret. But I don’t know that he ever would have. He was just extra cautious, in case something happened and I got away. He’s not worried about us identifying him. He’s going to kill us.”
He’d just started into the bathroom but turned around when she said that. “Not if I kill him first. Do not
give up on me.”
Her eyes widened, but he didn’t stand around talk- ing. The sense of time passing was making him feel edgy and nervous. He couldn’t imagine that whatever their captor was doing would keep him gone much longer.
The bathroom was a total bust. It was pitch dark, for one thing, but tiny without even a cabinet under the sink to hide anything. No bleach or cleaners that he could toss in the gunman’s face. He didn’t know how Teagan had managed to think about the toilet rod or even how she’d gotten it out of the back of the tank in the darkness. He had to give her a lot of credit for ingenuity.
The bedroom was much the same as the rest. Bars on the lone small window. An empty closet. No bed, just a mattress lying on the floor. It looked new, thank- fully. Not the one that had been here two years ago.
He paused in the tiny hallway outside the bedroom.
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As run-down as the place was, maybe they could push through a wall like Teagan had teased about earlier. He doubted it, but he sent her off to look for weaknesses in the walls while he returned to the kitchen corner of the main room. With her distracted, he leaned down to study the two-burner gas stove.
It had caught his attention earlier as he’d considered what he could do given the lit pilot light and the fact that the gas line ran through the wall to a propane tank on the outside. Filling the cabin with gas and causing an explosion would likely burn the dry-rotted cabin like kindling. And the fire could be seen for miles around. It would get first responders out here for sure. But being blown apart in the explosion or burning alive were both wholly unappealing.
“What are you looking at?” she asked.
“Nothing helpful. I’m going to check the bedroom again. Did you find any weaknesses in the walls?”
She followed him as he limped into the bedroom.
“No. But I’m no expert at building construction. And it’s still so dark in here that I might have missed some- thing. Unless you want more baseboards.”
He straightened from his study of the wood beneath the window where he’d been hoping moisture might have rotted out the frame. “Baseboards. That’s what you handed me to use as a hammer. Where did you find it?”
She pointed toward the closet. “In there. The board was broken already so I was able to kick out that piece I gave you.” She rubbed her hands up and down her arms. “He’ll be back soon, won’t he?”
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The wobble in her voice had him longing to hold her, to try to comfort her. Instead, he dropped to his knees to study the baseboards, grimacing at the jolt of pain that sizzled through his hip.
“You didn’t finish telling me how you got away.” He felt along the bottom of the closet as she talked behind him, telling him how her captor had missed the vein the last time when he’d tried to drug her.
“He was going on one of his supply trips,” she said. “The injection made me groggy but didn’t knock me out like usual. I pretended to be unconscious. After he left I shoved the blindfold up and used my teeth to loosen my bindings and got myself untied. The old front door was mostly rotten so I kicked it until it split away from the frame. Then I took off. Nothing amaz- ing. I just ran until I couldn’t. Then I walked. Then I crawled. A hiker found me several days later. Not that any of that matters. Our situation is different. We’re good and stuck here.”
He tugged on the board he’d been testing, pulling as hard as he could. It broke in half with a loud crack.
She jumped beside him. “What was that?”
He glanced over his shoulder. “The walls might be solid. But the floor isn’t. Those baseboards came out easily for you because the whole floor in this section has been eaten up with termites.” He waved toward a foot-long, four-inch-wide hole he’d made in the floor. “That’s dirt down there. The crawl space under the cabin. This is how we’re going to get out.”
She was shaking her head before he finished. “No,
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Bryson. That’s not the sound I heard. There was some- thing else, out front.”
He lurched to his feet, then limped as fast as he could into the main room. She ran after him and they both stumbled to a halt when they saw the headlights bouncing crazily across the trees. A vehicle was com- ing up the gravel road toward the shack.
They were out of time.
Teagan watched the lights bouncing across the trees. The road faced those trees but ran perpendicular to the front of the shack. They wouldn’t be able to see the truck until it made the last turn and pulled up. But there was no reason for anyone else to come down this road. The killer was back. And when he came inside and saw they were out of their handcuffs, he’d cuff them again. Then he’d make a circuit of the shack and find the small hole that Bryson had started. He’d decide Bryson was too big a liability to keep around. He’d kill him for sure.
And then he’d come for her.
“Kill me, Bryson.” She grabbed his arm. “Please. I can’t do this again. Choke me. Hit me over the head. Something. It will be a mercy killing. Please.”
He shook her hand off his arm. “This isn’t over. You hear me? Don’t you dare give up.” He pointed to the couch. “We have to block the door. As small as this room is, we should be able to jam one end against the wall and the other against the door. He won’t be able to get inside.”
She looked from the lights outside to the couch
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and back again. “We’d just be delaying the inevitable. What’s the point? I have a better idea. I’ll make him so angry he has to shoot me. Then at least I won’t have to bear his touch again.”
He yanked her around to face him as the sound of gravel crunching beneath tires echoed outside. “All we have to do is break three or four more boards in that closet and we’re out of here. But we have to buy some time. Help me get this couch into place.” He grabbed her arm and tugged her away from the door as the head- lights turned toward the shack.
“Grab that other end,” he yelled. “We’ll have to slide it past the hallway to turn it. Hurry.”
She ran to the other end and together they slid the couch across the floor.
“It’s clear,” he said. “Now, turn it, turn it. This end toward the door.”
They slid the couch sideways, one end facing the door, the other the hallway.
“He’s here! He’s here,” she yelled. The truck had parked in front of the cabin.
“Slide it back. We have to wedge it between the wall and the door. Hurry!”
She pushed her end but couldn’t get it against the wall. “It’s too long. It won’t fit. He’ll be able to push the door and the couch will slide down the hall.”
The engine cut off outside. A loud creak sounded. The truck door opening?
She started to shake. “Oh, God. He’s here.”
Bryson leaped over the back of the couch, stumbling and nearly falling before catching himself. Then he
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limped to her end. He bent down and somehow lifted the couch in spite of his bad hip, his face turning red as he shoved the couch up in the air. Then he dropped it against the wall just past the hallway opening. It fell down, but stuck with another foot to go. She didn’t see how it would hold. When the killer pushed the door, if he pushed hard enough, the couch would slide up the wall and he’d still be able to get inside.
Bryson must have thought the same thing because he climbed onto the end of the couch that was against the wall and hopped up and down, one-legged, favor- ing his hip. He jumped again, and again. The couch springs squeaked in protest. Then it dropped down into place, wedged tight.
Keys rattled outside. “Hey, what are you doing in there?”
Bryson grabbed her arm and tugged her toward the hallway. “Go, go, go.”
“Open the door!” The gunman pounded against it, his voice thick with rage.
Once they were inside the bedroom, Bryson released her and limped into the closet. Jamming his bad hip against the wall to keep his balance, he slammed his right heel down on the boards beside the hole, over and over. Wood crunched beneath his boot, dropping below. But the hole wasn’t large enough for them to get through. Not even close.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
Teagan jerked around as bullets burst through the wall from the front of the shack and plowed through the opposite wall, throwing splinters up in front of her face.
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“Down, get down!” Bryson tackled her to the mat- tress on the floor behind her.
More shots exploded through the wall, right where she’d been standing. She buried her head against his neck as he covered her with his body.
The front door rattled, followed by furious curs- ing and shouting. Then, nothing. Silence fell over the shack like a heavy blanket, except for the sound of their breathing and the blood rushing in her ears.
“What’s he doing now,” she whispered. “Where is he?”
He lifted off her and held a finger against his lips, telling her to be quiet.
She nodded to let him know she understood.
A thump sounded outside. Bryson grabbed her, stumbling and limping as he pulled her into the cor- ner away from the window. Moments later, a flash- light shone through the glass. They both scrunched up against the wall, watching the light as it moved around the room. Then it stopped, shining directly on the hole in the closet floor. The light flicked off.
“Oh, no,” she whispered.
He swore softly. Then he pressed his fingers to his lips again, and edged to the window to peer out.
A thump sounded from somewhere beneath them. She covered her mouth to keep from screaming. He grabbed her, pushing her in front of him toward
the door, motioning for her to be as quiet as possible. He was obviously struggling to keep up, his unbal- anced gait evidence of just how badly his hip must be
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hurting. But they made it to the hall, then hurried into the main room.
He limped to the door and tugged the handle. It moved just enough to prove it wasn’t locked. But there was no way to open it with the couch against it. He mo- tioned for her to put her hand on the knob, then bent down next to her ear. “When I lift the couch, run like hell. Get out of here. Run to the woods and don’t stop for anything.”
“What about you? You can’t run.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“Bryson, I can’t leave you—”
The sound of wood splintering in the other room was
followed by a guttural yell. “You’re dead, you hear me? I’m going to kill both of you!”
Shots rang out. Glass shattered. He must have shot out the window.
“He’ll be through that floor soon. I need you to run. I need to know you’re safe. Then I’ll run a different way and hide. Our best chance is to split up. Promise me you’ll run and won’t look back. Promise!”
More wood splintered in the other room.
“Promise me.” He lightly shook her.
“Okay, okay. Promise.”
Bracing his left side against the door, he grabbed
the bottom of the couch and pulled and tugged, wres- tling to get it to move after being wedged in so tight.
A shot rang out.
She ducked, then looked at Bryson, who’d frozen in place. “Are you okay?”
His mouth tight, he nodded. “Get ready. Remem-
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ber what I said. Run as fast as you can. Don’t stop for anything.”
She nodded and tightened her hand on the doorknob.
He heaved again. The couch finally jerked free and seemed to practically fly upward and over on its side, out of the way. As soon as it cleared the door, she tugged it open and ran. She ran as if the hounds of hell were on her heels, because that’s exactly what it felt like. She didn’t stop until she reached the far end of the clearing. Even though she’d promised not to stop, she did. She had to make sure he was okay. Ducking be- hind a pine tree, she peered around it at the shack. The front door was hanging open and the headlights didn’t reveal anyone inside. He’d made it. He’d gotten out.
She turned and ran.
as soon as Teagan took off running, Bryson dropped to his knees, grimacing as he scooted himself back against the wall, tucked between the door and the stove. He hadn’t lied to her, not at first anyway. He’d thought he could run, or at least limp really fast. With a head start, he would have had a chance. But then things had changed. He slid his hand inside his suit jacket. It came away sticky and wet. That last bullet had hit its mark. He wiped the blood on his pant leg and closed his eyes.
Another shout of rage sounded from the bedroom. The man sure had an anger problem. Bryson wondered what he did for a living, because it would be really hard to hide that type of a temper in a nine-to-five office job. Something or someone would be bound to set him off. Whatever he did, it would be a solo kind of job. He’d
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have the freedom to set his own hours so he wouldn’t be missed for weeks at a time when he was on a so- ciopathic spree. He’d have made an interesting profile.
A series of loud thumps and cursing echoed from the back room. The gunman was finally breaking through the floor.
Bryson coughed and blood sprayed out of his mouth. Not a good sign. Darkness was closing in on the edges of his vision again. He shook his head to stay awake. He still had one more thing that he had to do. Step one had been to get out of the handcuffs. Step two was to get Teagan out of the shack to safety. Step three was still to come. He had to ensure that first responders came out here to help her so she wouldn’t die in those woods. And at this point, there was only one way he knew to do that.
He slid his hand behind the stove beside him, then yanked hard on the gas line. Like most things in this shack, it was old and brittle and much easier to pull loose than he’d expected. Finally something was going his way.
“I’m coming for you now!” the killer yelled from the other room. Shoes stomped on the hardwood floor and a hulking dark shape appeared in the hallway. Dawn was finally breaking on the little glade in the woods. And the first rays of sunlight shone through the door, glinting on the pistol in the other man’s hand.
He narrowed his eyes at Bryson, his face red with anger and exertion. He looked left and right, not that he needed to in such a small space. One glance could clearly show that they were alone.
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“Where is she?” He lifted his gun, aiming it at Bryson. “Tell me right now or I’ll shoot.”
Bryson smiled and held up the gas line, which was hissing and spewing out foul-smelling propane. “She’s gone. Go ahead and shoot me. The flare from the muz- zle will take us both out. And Teagan will never have to be afraid of you ever again, you scum-sucking, piece of human excrement. You’re not even fit to lick the bot- tom of her shoes, pervert.”
The other man’s gun started shaking. His face was so bright red it looked like he would have a stroke at any moment.
As gas continued to fill the room, Bryson piled on more insults, trying to prod the killer’s temper so he’d shoot. He wanted him to shoot. Because Teagan would be safe. She could finally live the life she deserved, without fear. And the explosion would bring the help she’d need to make it back to civilization.
“You stupid cop.”
“Is that the worst you can think to say? Really?” Bryson clucked his tongue. “You’re dumber than I gave you credit.”
He roared with rage, then strode across the room toward Bryson and shoved the gun against his tem- ple. But when he glanced at the gas line, he swore. He tossed a few more curses Bryson’s way, then yanked open the door and headed outside.
Bryson swore a few choice curses himself. He hadn’t defeated the devil after all. But he’d get the help Teagan needed. Of that he was sure. As soon as the gunman was far enough from the cabin to feel safe, he’d shoot
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that propane tank. He was too mad not to. The explo- sion would be spectacular. Half the firefighters and cops in the county would be here in minutes.
“Bryson, what are you doing?”
His eyes flew open. Teagan was running toward him from the hallway. “What the hell? The place is full of gas and he’s going to—”
“Shoot the propane tank, I’m guessing? Was that your stupid plan?” She put her hands beneath his shoul- ders and hauled upward. “Help me. Hurry.”
He swore a blue streak and drew on reserves of strength he never knew he had to push to his feet.
“Go, go, go,” she yelled, repeating his earlier words to her.
They hobbled into the bedroom and she hopped down into the hole. He winced as he tried to lower him- self, then gave up and went headfirst. She was reaching back to help him, but he shoved her toward the patch of sunlight just a few feet away. She hurried forward and he half-scrambled, half-crawled after her.
Out front, the truck engine started up. Tires crunched and the engine roared as he drove away from the cabin. They cleared the structure, him leaning heavily on her once again as they stumbled toward the tree line. Just past the first stand of trees, palmettos viciously
scraped their flesh.
“Down,” he yelled. “Over here!” He yanked her be-
hind a fallen tree log and rolled on top of her.
A shot sounded. The shack exploded, turning the
clearing into a fiery inferno.
Teagan restlessly paced the hospital conference room. From the exasperated looks on the faces of most of the men sitting at the table, she knew they were getting tired of her jumping out of her chair. But she was too nervous, too freaking scared about what was going on with Bryson that she couldn’t sit still for more than a few minutes.
“Ms. Ray,” one of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detectives called out to her.
Which one was he? Burns, Rodriquez, Bunting? The names of the other two sitting at the long table had been forgotten right after they’d introduced themselves. How many detectives did it take to question one lone abduction victim? How many did it take to change a stupid light bulb?
“Ms. Ray,” he called out again.
Burns. That was his name.
He motioned toward the other side of the table. “Will
you please sit and answer some more questions?” Five against one. JSO on one side, her on the other. Not that they were enemies, exactly. But their lack of
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interest, or ability, to solve her abduction and torture two years ago didn’t make her much of a fan now. The only reason she was talking to them was because Bryson was in surgery after being life-flighted from Live Oak to the trauma unit at UF Health Shands Hos- pital here in Jacksonville.
It had nearly killed her watching the helicopter disappear in the sky with him on board. And she’d hated being stuck with a Florida Highway Patrolman as her assigned bodyguard, wasting time making her get checked out at a local Live Oak emergency room. When the doctors there confirmed what she’d said all along—that she was fine—the patrolman had finally taken off down Interstate 10 to drive her to Jackson- ville. They’d arrived two hours ago, and she still didn’t have an update on Bryson’s condition other than that he was in surgery.
“Tell you what, Detective Burns.” She flattened her palms against the table but didn’t sit. “How about you get me a real update this time on Mr. Anton’s condi- tion. Something more detailed than a simple acknowl- edgment that he’s still in surgery, and then, maybe I’ll answer more of your endless questions.”
He sighed heavily, then left the room, presumably to get the information that she’d requested.
Another detective motioned toward her seat. “There are three murders attributable to your abductor—Mr. and Mrs. Broderick and the driver of the delivery truck that he hijacked. We need to catch this guy before he hurts someone else.”
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“Don’t you think I know that?” She shook her head at his seeming callousness. Her heart ached over the senseless, brutal murders her kidnapper had carried out while trying to get to her. She wanted him caught just as badly as anyone else, probably more so. Because even though she wasn’t the one who’d hurt those peo- ple, she’d always wonder whether she could have done something differently to prevent their deaths.
“Ms. Ray,” he began again. “I know this is nerve- racking, especially when you’re worried about your fiancé. But we really need your help.”
A twinge of guilt shot through her over the fiancé lie. But she’d wanted to make sure that the hospital would share information with her on Bryson’s condi- tion. Not that it had served her well so far. She’d been stuck in this room, answering dozens, maybe hundreds of questions during this inquisition. There just wasn’t anything else she could tell them. Maybe if they’d ac- tually work on the investigation, using the informa- tion that she’d already given them, they’d figure out the killer’s identity and arrest him.
She plopped down in her chair. “I honestly don’t know what else you think I can tell you. We’ve been over the timeline again and again. I told you the guy looked familiar but I couldn’t figure out why, still can’t. I sat with your sketch artist and you’ve got his likeness now. Why don’t you put an APB out based on that and try to find the guy?”
“They don’t use the term APB anymore, Ms. Ray,” a familiar voice spoke from the doorway. “It’s called a BOLO—be on the lookout.”
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Relief had her slumping in her chair at the sight of Bryson’s boss from The Justice Seekers, Mason Ford. “Mr. Ford, thank you so much for coming.”
He stepped inside the room. “I’m just glad that I was already in the state working a case when you called.” “Who the heck are you?” one of the detectives de-
manded. Rodriquez, she believed.
“A friend of the family. If you don’t mind, I need
to speak to Ms. Ray.” He opened the door wider when they didn’t move. “Privately.”
The detectives shot sour looks at both of them but finally got up. As they headed out the door, Rodriquez turned back to Teagan and slid a business card across the table. “When you’re ready to cooperate, give me a call. We need to jump on this case fast. Please don’t take too long.” With that he headed out the door.
She threw her hands in the air. “When I’m ready to cooperate? I’ve done nothing but cooperate. They keep asking me the same questions over and over.”
Ford shut the door behind him and gave her an apol- ogetic look. “And I’m about to ask you to repeat ev- erything you just told them. Sorry about that. But you did call. I’m here, and the full force of my company is at yours and Bryson’s disposal. I’m pulling everyone off noncritical cases effective immediately. We’ll do everything we can to catch this guy.”
Some of the tension that had taken hold of her for the past twenty-four hours began to melt away at his words. “Thank you, Mr. Ford. I can’t tell you how good it is to hear someone say that. Those detectives treated me as if I was a suspect, the jerks.”
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His mouth tilted up in what she assumed passed for a smile for him. Back at The Justice Seekers head- quarters he’d never cracked even a shadow of a smile. But he’d been nothing but courteous and had jumped at the chance to help once she’d called him on the way from Live Oak to Jacksonville to tell him that Bryson was hurt.
He set a leather portfolio on the table and sat across from her. “First, please call me Mason. After all, you being Bryson’s fiancée makes you family, more or less.”
She felt her cheeks heat. “I’m sure you realize we aren’t really engaged. I made that up so the hospi- tal would share updates about his condition. Not that they’ve bothered.”
“Since you only met a few days ago, I kind of fig- ured that was a ruse. The offer to call me Mason still stands.”
“A few days ago? It feels like I’ve known him for- ever.”
“Not surprising, given the trauma and emotional turmoil you’ve weathered together. As to those detec- tives being jerks, I’m sorry it feels that way. They’re under a lot of pressure to solve this thing and proba- bly don’t even realize how they come across. Not that it excuses poor manners. As for Bryson’s condition, I can update you on that.”
She straightened in her chair. “The hospital gave you information?”
“Let’s just say that I got the information from the hospital and leave it at that. Sometimes the end justi- fies the means. Don’t you think?”
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She grinned. “I like how you work, Mason. Please tell me how he’s doing. Is he…is he going to—”
“He’s going to be fine.”
She dropped her face in her hands, unexpected tears flowing down her cheeks.
He waited silently until she regained control of her emotions. A few minutes later, she drew a ragged breath and sat back. “That’s very good to hear. Thank you.”
“Of course. He’s actually in recovery now and should be awake soon.” He placed his cell phone on the table. “The second he’s lucid, that’s going to vi- brate. I’ll take you right to him.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, fighting to hold back more tears.
“The bullet nicked his spleen but no other organs,” he continued. “It went through and through. He lost a lot of blood. That on top of the concussion pretty much shut him down. That’s why he was unconscious after the blast. Luckily you were both behind a log when the tank exploded, which shielded you from the shock wave. Otherwise, your insides would have liquefied.”
He smiled apologetically. “Sorry. That was graphic. Bottom line, he’s going to be okay, eventually. He was lucky. You both were. If the explosion and resulting fire hadn’t alerted authorities so that help arrived quickly, he’d have bled out.”
She wrapped her arms around her waist. “Once again, he saved me, in spite of how badly he was hurt. He saved both of us. He’s an incredible man.”
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“Yes. Yes, he is. And I want to do everything I can to protect both of you. We need to catch this guy and get enough evidence to ensure he’ll either be executed or locked up so he can’t hurt anyone else ever again. I know you’re weary of answering questions. But I’m coming in late on this. So I’d very much appreciate it if you’d start from the top, right after you left my of- fice in Gatlinburg.” He pulled a computer tablet from his portfolio and set it on top of the table. Then he took out a small electronic device and set it a foot away from her. “To save time briefing my team, and to make sure I don’t miss anything, I’m going to record this as well as take notes. If you’re okay with it?”
“Absolutely.” Covering the same ground yet again didn’t bother her since it was Mason who was asking the questions. She believed that he’d actually do some- thing with the information. None of the detectives she’d spoken to earlier had inspired that kind of confidence. “Did the police give you a copy of the likeness their sketch artist came up with?”
“Not yet.” He picked up his phone. His fingers prac- tically flew across the screen as he typed out a text. He waited a few seconds, then the phone buzzed. He checked the screen, then set it down. “My team will have the sketch within minutes.” He poised his hands over the virtual keyboard on the tablet. “You were going to tell me the timeline. Don’t leave anything out.”
Half an hour later, a knock sounded on the door. Mason was out of his chair, gun in hand but hidden behind him before the door opened.
The detective who’d gone for a status update stood
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in the opening, a look of surprise on his face when he saw Mason. He took a quick glance into the room. “Where is everyone?”
“Not here. What can I do for you?”
“I, ah, wanted to let Ms. Ray know that Mr. Anton is out of surgery.”
“Thank you.” Mason closed the door before the de- tective could say anything else. He holstered his gun, then sat down. “You were saying?”
She clenched her hands together beneath the table. “You drew your gun. You think he’ll show up here? At the hospital?”
“It’s possible. Don’t worry. I had a guard stationed outside the surgery room. He’ll stay with Bryson in recovery as well.”
She blinked. “How do the police feel about that?”
“I’m always as accommodating as possible with law enforcement. But I’m not about to leave the security of an injured member of my team to their care. The hos- pital administrator was more than okay with it after I offered a substantial donation in Bryson’s name.” He winked. “Now, if you don’t mind. Please continue.”
“Yes, of course. I, um, I guess I was up to the point of where I ran like a coward for the trees.”
“No. I think you were telling me that you did exactly what Bryson asked you to do, so you wouldn’t put him in more danger by making him worry about having to protect you rather than make his own escape. But I’m puzzled. If you ran into the woods at the front of the clearing, how did you end up behind the shack when it exploded?”
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Her face heated. “I didn’t exactly follow Bryson’s instructions. I know he wanted me to keep going, to run as far away as I could. But I hadn’t seen him leave the shack, and I was worried that he might have been pretending to feel better than he did, just to get me out of danger. All throughout our ordeal, he kept telling me to have faith, that it was two against one, that we could beat the bad guy together. And there I was run- ning away. I just couldn’t do it.”
He crossed his arms on top of the table. “So what did you do?”
She wrapped her arms around her middle, remem- bering. “I circled through the woods to the back of the shack.”
“Where was the gunman?”
“I wasn’t sure. The truck was still parked out front. I didn’t see him anywhere.”
He stared at her, waiting.
“I got down on my belly and tried to see beneath the shack, through the crawl space. When I didn’t see anyone moving around under there, I was terrified that the gunman was inside with Bryson. So I ran to the shack and crawled up into the closet through the hole in the floor.”
He still didn’t say anything. But his eyes widened slightly.
“I heard the gunman shouting in the other room. And I smelled gas. It was filling up the cabin. A mo- ment later, the front door creaked. I peeked around the corner and saw the gunman running for his truck.” She
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swallowed hard. “And Bryson, he was just sitting there, his back to the wall, holding the gas line in his hand.” She swiped at the tears in her eyes. “For a split sec- ond, I thought he was dead. But then I saw his chest rise and realized he was still alive. I yelled at him to get out. We dropped through the hole in the closet floor and made it to the woods just before the explosion.” She wiped her tears again. “Like you said earlier, if it wasn’t for Bryson getting both of us behind that log when he did, we’d both be dead. He deserves a medal
of honor. Not a bullet in the back.”
He cleared his throat. “That’s quite a story. I gather
you sat with him until help arrived?”
“Of course. I know CPR. But that’s about the lim-
its of my nursing abilities. He was breathing, and his heart was beating. But he wouldn’t open his eyes. I didn’t know what to do. All I could think of was to apply pressure to the wounds, even though they didn’t seem to be bleeding all that much. I had no idea he was bleeding internally.”
She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and let out a shuddering breath. “Thank goodness the fire depart- ment and police arrived so quickly. I heard the sirens and ran to the clearing. They were amazing, ran with me around back, no questions asked. They immedi- ately started an IV and got him on a gurney. I think they flew him out in a helicopter within a couple of minutes. They saved his life.”
He slowly shook his head. “No, Ms. Ray. I think that distinction belongs to you. If you hadn’t been stub- born enough and brave enough to go back into that
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shack to check on him, he’d be dead right now.” His voice sounded oddly hoarse, and he cleared his throat before continuing. “Thank you. On behalf of all the Justice Seekers, thank you for saving our dear friend and coworker.”
She was about to argue that he wouldn’t have even been in danger in the first place if it wasn’t for her, but his phone vibrated against the table.
He picked it up, then stood.
She shoved out of her chair. “Bryson’s awake?” He shook his head. “Not yet. But I’ll go check on
him right now. Meanwhile, you have visitors.” “Visitors?” She frowned. “The police are back?” He hesitated at the door. “When you called me to
help Bryson, I took the liberty of calling someone to help you. But I asked them to give me time to inter- view you first. They’ve been very accommodating. But they’re out in the hall now, demanding to see you.” He smiled his first real smile. “You’re an incredibly brave and smart young woman. Thank you again for every- thing you did.” Without waiting for her reply, he left the room.
A moment later, two people rounded the corner and paused in the doorway.
She let out a shriek and ran around the table, tears flowing again.
Her mother and father gathered her to them in a bone-crushing hug.
Teagan sighed deeply and shifted positions in the plas- tic chair a few feet from Bryson’s hospital bed as he slept the morning away. Three days. It had been three days since she’d cried all over him in the recovery room after he woke up from surgery, only to have him gruffly tell her that he needed his sleep. Since then, he’d hardly spoken a word to her. He was acting just like the surly bear she’d encountered the first time they’d met. But they’d moved beyond that. Far beyond it. So why was he acting like they were strangers and he was the grouchy hermit again?
She’d asked him that very thing.
His answers were many. He had a headache. He was feeling fuzzy from the concussion. The pain from his surgery had him feeling bad and he just needed to sleep. All of that was probably true. But he was a strong man, and had overcome far worse to save both their lives. And he’d been at his kindest in the past when he was in tremendous pain, because he’d risen above it to save them. So none of his actions now made sense.
Thankfully, his boss—Mason Ford—didn’t seem
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worried about Bryson’s less than friendly attitude that seemed to extend to anyone unfortunate enough to be in his vicinity. He simply ignored Bryson’s gruff responses and went about his business. And he kept Teagan up to date on everything going on with the investigation.
Which, unfortunately, wasn’t much.
Even with half the Justice Seekers working the case here in Jacksonville, none of them seemed to be mak- ing any more headway than JSO. No one had discov- ered the identity yet of the man who’d abducted them and killed three innocent people. But Mason assured her they were doing everything they could and weren’t giving up. And he did something else—he gave her a company credit card to use for all of her and Bryson’s needs. He told her the card had no limit and to use it for anything at all, no questions asked.
He’d also ordered Bryson to let her make all the arrangements to get him set up at a local hotel after being discharged so he could get strong enough for the trip back to Gatlinburg. Teagan decided that she liked Mason Ford very much, especially since he made no secret that he was rooting for her to win this little cold war between her and Bryson.
She crossed her arms and waited another half hour before the doctor’s morning rounds finally brought him to Bryson’s room to perform a final evaluation before giving him discharge papers. Miraculously, he woke up just as the doctor stepped into the room. Teagan snorted and looked out the window, pretending indif- ference, when she was fuming inside.
The hurt had long ago faded. Or, at least, it was bur-
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ied down deep. No more crying in front of him. She had her pride after all. And no crying on her mama’s shoulder either, given that her mother now thought— along with the hospital staff—that she and Bryson were engaged. That was going to be a huge disappointment for her parents once he went back to Gatlinburg and she told them the “engagement” was off. They’d half fallen in love with him when he’d had dinner at their home. They fell the rest of the way after hearing everything he’d done to protect their only child.
But they wouldn’t be the only ones nursing a bro- ken heart.
She kept her face averted, pretending interest in something out the window while she wiped the wetness from her eyes. How could she still have all these in- convenient feelings for a man who didn’t return them? She took a few deep breaths and reached down for her anger again, wrapping it around her other emotions like a shield, to keep her safe.
“All in all, you’re an incredibly lucky man,” the doc- tor said behind her as he apparently finished his exam. “Any one of your injuries—the blow to the head, the gunshot, the half-dozen pieces of wood that the explo- sion drove into your back—could have killed you. You might not feel lucky right now, but once the pain fades and you’re back on your feet, I think you’ll begin to realize just how fortunate you are. Someone was look- ing out for you.”
She turned around, but steadfastly looked at the floor while he thanked the doctor and discussed the discharge instructions. Her anger had evaporated beneath the shock
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of what she’d just heard. She hadn’t known about the wood driven into his back. On top of everything else that he’d endured, he’d basically been stabbed, six times
, as the remnants of the shack rained down on them. But not one of those pieces of lethally sharp wood had hit her— because he’d protected her. Again. She had no right to be angry with him. And he had every right to be angry with her. He’d be sitting on his dock enjoying a cold beer right now, listening to the rippling water of the stream behind his house if it wasn’t for her. Healthy, content, his only worry the ache in his hip when the tequila and scotch weren’t enough to dull the pain.
What a selfish immature idiot she’d been, thinking only of herself.
The squeak of metal had her glancing up to see him struggling to lower the railing. The doctor must have left while she was consumed with her own thoughts.
She rushed over to him. “Here, let me.” She gently pushed his hands away and lowered the railing. “Just, please, don’t try to get out of bed on your own. I know you don’t want my help, so I’ll get the nurse to help you get dressed.”
“It’s okay. I understand. I’ll have the car brought up and will meet you and the nurse out front.”
He frowned. “What do you think you understand?” Without answering, she hurried from the room.
Bryson eased Back against the pillows that Teagan had just stuffed behind him so he could sit up in the hotel bed. “Thank you.” He motioned toward the impressive
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fifteen-hundred-square-feet, two-bedroom suite that she’d reserved for them at the Omni hotel. The accom- modations were luxurious, but more important, it was close enough to the hospital that he hadn’t had to en- dure the agony of a long car ride. And since she’d in- sisted on him taking more pain pills after reaching the hotel, he was feeling pretty good right now. Physically at least. “Thank you for everything, Teagan.”
She seemed surprised by his words, acknowledg- ing them with a quick nod. Then she turned to finish putting away his clothes that she’d had brought from the other hotel he’d originally been staying in, closer to The Woods subdivision. Her surprise that he’d ac- tually thank her had him feeling like even more of a jerk than he had since the moment he’d woken up in the recovery room.
All the memories of what had happened had slammed into him, stealing his breath. He’d made so many mistakes that could have cost her life. The very first one was in agreeing to take her with him to that ill-fated interview at the Brodericks’. Everything had gone downhill from there.
The worst part was knowing what had driven him to include her, to give in to her request even though he was the one experienced in law enforcement and knew bet- ter, knew the dangers. What had driven him was pure selfishness, his ridiculous fixation on her and desire, no—need
—to be around her as much as possible. His obsession had clouded his reason. And just as soon as he was able to manage on his own, he’d set her free, break this tenuous bond that had developed between
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them. He’d ensure that none of his bad decisions could ever risk her life again. Obviously he hadn’t learned the lessons of his past—from his sloppy handling of the Kentucky Ripper case to his failure to save Hayley from the person who’d ended up shooting him in the hip all those months ago. He had no business thinking he could really protect Teagan.
She was much better off without him.
Finally she stopped running around the suite put- ting things away, and stood by his bed. “I guess it’s good that you already had a wheelchair and had it at your other hotel,” she said. “Saved me from having to rent one while you’re here. Goodness knows you’ll need it for a while until you’re back on your feet.” She motioned beside the bed where she’d stored it within easy reach. “There’s a cane too, for when you’re feeling good enough to try to walk. It’s nothing fancy. I got it at the hospital gift shop. Your other one, unfortunately, is locked up in evidence. It practically took an act of Congress just to get my purse released after the police took it from the Brodericks’ home. They wouldn’t even discuss the cane, for some reason. Anyway, in case you’ve forgotten your discharge instructions, they’re in writing in the top drawer of your bedside table. But part of it is that the doctor wants you to try to stand and take at least a few steps several times a day. If you’re in bed the whole time you could get blood clots and—”
“Do you need something? A glass of water? Soda? There’s a bar over there but you really shouldn’t have any alcohol with the pain meds you’re—”
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“No. Thank you. I don’t need anything. I—”
“Okay, then. I’m going to explore my room, catch up on some sleep. I haven’t slept well at the hospital and—”
“—if you need something, just text me on your phone. I left it on the nightstand. The police have both our phones in evidence so that’s a new one. I had Mason program your team’s numbers in there, so that should help. My new number’s in there too, obviously, so you can text me. I’ll check on you in a couple of hours.”
“I need to talk to you.”
“No, right now you need to sleep. We both do.” “Wait, please. Just give me a minute to—”
She hurried into the other bedroom, shutting the
door hard behind her. But she hadn’t turned fast enough to hide the tears in her eyes.
He swore and punched a fist into the mattress be- side him.
After spending five grueling days and nights in a tension-filled hotel suite with Bryson, Teagan was more than ready to see the last of the place, no matter how amazingly luxurious it was. She could have had a home health-care nurse take care of him while he re- cuperated. But since part of the reason that Mason had suggested they stay there together was to ensure that both of them were out of sight in case the killer came looking for them, it just made sense for her to take care of him herself.
But it hadn’t been easy.
They’d hardly said two words to each other after their arrival. And since it wasn’t looking promising that the killer would be found any time soon, it was time for both of them to try to get on with their lives. Well, as much as possible anyway. The police would have someone watching her parents’ home while she was here, not that anyone expected the killer to be bra- zen enough to try to hurt her again. He was long gone, on the run.
Now, as the rented limo pulled up at her parents’
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home to drop her off so Bryson could fly in Mason’s private jet back to Gatlinburg, she was so antsy to get away from him that she was pulling open the door be- fore the driver had even come to a complete stop on the street out front.
“Wait,” Bryson called out. “Let me walk you to the door.”
“I’ve got it. No need.” She grabbed her one piece of luggage from the seat beside her and hopped out, not even giving the driver a chance to open the door. “Take care, Bryson.”
She heard him swearing as she slammed the door shut. Tears were already running down her cheeks by the time she sprinted across the front lawn and threw open the front door. “Mom, Dad, I’m home. Don’t get up,” she yelled, hurrying toward her old bedroom on the right side of the house. “I’ll put away my stuff and freshen up. Talk to you in a few.”
“Teagan? Are you okay?” her mom called out from the kitchen where insanely amazing smells were com- ing from. She must be cooking dinner.
“I’m great. Need to use the restroom, that’s all,” she lied, hurrying to toss her bag on the bedroom floor then running into the bathroom before her mother could stop her.
She shut the door, then turned around and slid to the floor, finally letting the tears fall that had threat- ened all morning. She hated crying, especially since she’d probably cried more lately than most people cried an entire lifetime. But it seemed to be the only outlet for her tumultuous emotions. Admitting to her mom
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that she was more upset over the way the relationship between her and Bryson had ended than the fact that a killer was still out there wasn’t something she was keen about. Especially since the so-called relationship had never really begun in the first place. It wasn’t real, none of this. It couldn’t be. They hadn’t even dated. So how could she possibly be in love with him? It wasn’t love. It was lust, and shared trauma. In a few weeks, or months, this ache deep in her soul would be gone and she’d forget all about Bryson Anton.
Now if only she could convince her heart of that brazen lie, she’d be just fine.
After crying for a ridiculously long time, she actu- ally felt better. She blew out a shuddering breath, then climbed to her feet. The mirror above the sink was not her friend. Her eyes were puffy and red. Her hair was escaping her customary braid. And her makeup was a disaster.
Thankfully, her mom and dad wouldn’t care about her makeup. But they would care if they realized she’d been sitting in here crying for the past ten minutes. She grabbed a washcloth from the cabinet under the sink and washed her face, scrubbing off all of the makeup she’d painstakingly applied in the hotel bathroom. Not that Bryson had noticed. Her throat tightened. Good grief. Stop it, Teagan. He’s not worth it.
She lifted her gaze to the mirror and shook her head. Maybe if she kept lying to herself, she’d eventually believe the lies.
Straightening her shoulders, she drew a bracing breath and headed off to find her parents. Her mom smiled at her from the archway into the kitchen.
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“Teagan, baby. Finally you’re home.” Her mom tossed a dishcloth onto the countertop and wrapped her arms around her.
“It’s so good to be here. I missed you and Daddy so much.” After a good long hug, she let her mom go and glanced around the kitchen. “It smells amazing in here. Did you cook all my favorites?” She crossed to the stove and bent down to smell the tantalizing aroma rising from the huge pot. “Jambalaya. You’re the best, Mom.”
“There’s apple pie baking in the oven. It’ll be ready by the time we finish supper.”
She turned around to hug her mom again, then froze. Bryson was leaning against the wall beside the table at the other end of the kitchen, looking like a model out of a magazine in his charcoal gray tailored suit.
He straightened away from the wall and smiled. “Hello, Teagan.”
“What…what are you doing here?” she demanded. “You’re supposed to be on your way to the airport.”
“I wanted to pay my respects to your parents and they invited me to dinner. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Well, of course I mind.” She put her hands on her hips. “You need to leave.”
“Teagan Ray,” her mother chided her. “That’s not how we treat our guests, especially your fiancé.”
“Teagan!” Her father had just stepped inside from the backyard, holding a pitcher of sun tea that her mom must have had steeping on the porch table. Behind him, Zeus lay on the grass, sunning himself. Her father’s
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mouth widened in a broad smile. “Your mom said you were finally home. Come over here and give dear old dad a hug.” He nodded at Bryson, apparently unsur- prised to see him, and set the jug on the table.
She reluctantly stepped into his embrace, glaring at Bryson over her father’s shoulder. This farce had to end now. No way was she going to sit through dinner pretending everything was okay. When he let her go, she moved back beside her mother.
“Mom, Dad, there’s something I need to tell you.” “You can relax,” Bryson said. “I already told them.” Her jaw dropped open. “You told them?” She
glanced from her mom to her dad. “Neither of you look furious with me. What exactly did he tell you?”
Her mom pressed a kiss against her cheek. “The truth. That you were never engaged, that you weren’t even boyfriend and girlfriend. He explained how you told the hospital you were his fiancée so you could be in on his care plan, which I think is really sweet. I was just teasing you a minute ago about being engaged. I shouldn’t have done that.”
She blinked at her mom, then shot Bryson a con- fused look. “What did he tell you about why I said that he was my boyfriend?”
is standing right here and can speak for him- self,” Bryson teased, sounding lighthearted, which had her even more confused after everything that had hap- pened. “I explained that you didn’t want them to worry about you because of the bad breakup with your ex. You wanted to protect them, to keep them from think- ing you hadn’t moved on in your life.”
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“You said that?” she whispered, her throat tight. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?”
She slowly nodded. “I still don’t understand why
you’re here. You should be on the plane.”
He stepped toward her, his limp barely noticeable. Then, to her complete and utter shock, he took both
her hands in his.
“I couldn’t leave with things the way they are be-
tween us,” he said. “I need to explain why I’ve been a complete and utter jerk since waking up in recovery.” Her chin wobbled, and to her horror she realized she still had tears left to shed. She furiously blinked them back and glanced at her parents, who were both av- idly watching without making any pretense at not try- ing to listen. She leaned forward, lowering her voice, even though she was certain they could still hear. “You
don’t owe me any explanations.”
“Yes. I do. We can talk now, in front of your par-
ents. Or somewhere private. But I’m not leaving until I apologize and give you an honest explanation.”
“Why are you being so nice all of a sudden?” She leaned in so close she was almost touching him and whispered, “You don’t owe me anything, Bryson.”
He slowly shook his head. “I owe you my life.”
“Damn it,” she muttered, stepping back. “You’re making me cry again.”
“Teagan—” her mother began.
“I know, I know. Language. Sorry, Mom.” She won- dered if her mother would still treat her like a kid when she hit thirty. She swiped at her wet eyes. “We’ll talk in the backyard, Bryson. Then you can go.”
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“After dinner,” her mother said. “Whatever you two have to say can be settled later. Now go wash up. Henry, show Bryson to the other bathroom so he can wash up too.”
Teagan’s face heated with embarrassment at being ordered around in front of Bryson. But since he was currently following her father to the master suite to the second bathroom, at least she wasn’t the only one being bossed around like a child.
“You can thank me later,” her mother whispered. “Now go fix your face before that handsome man comes back.”
She gasped in dismay, remembering that she’d washed off her makeup, and ran for the bathroom.
“you didn’t need to put on any makeup, you know,” Bryson said after dinner as they both rested their arms on the top of the picket fence and stared out over the backyard pond.
Her face heated yet again. “I’m amazed you even noticed.”
He sighed heavily. “I owe you a tremendous apol- ogy. I’ve been an absolute beast since waking up after the explosion.”
She hesitated, his words surprising her. “I didn’t think of it that way, that when you woke up in recovery it was your first time being awake since the explosion. You must have been really confused. In your place, I think I would have been terrified. Not knowing what had happened.”
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He turned to face her, his left hand braced on top of the fence. “I was beyond terrified, about you.”
“About me? But… I was right there in the recovery room. You saw that I was okay.”
“By the grace of God, yes. Teagan, what were you thinking coming back inside that shack? Just a few seconds earlier and that madman would have still been there to kill you or take you with him. A few seconds later and you’d have been killed in the explosion. You shouldn’t have risked your life like that, especially after promising me you’d run as fast as you could and wouldn’t stop.”
“Sort of like you promised me that you’d run out of the shack too? If you’d told me you’d been shot, I would have helped you instead of running off and leaving you. If you’d been killed, how do you think that would have made me feel? How could I live with that kind of guilt on my conscience? If you think I’m the kind of woman who thinks it’s romantic for a guy to die for her, then you don’t know me at all. I don’t want you to die for me. I want you to live.”
His jaw tightened, and he turned to face the pond again.
She did the same, counting silently until she could speak again without her voice shaking. “So that’s it then?” she finally said. “You’ve been mad at me ever since then because I couldn’t bear for you to die if there was anything I could do to prevent it? Is this your apol-ogy? Because as apologies go, it totally sucks.”
He suddenly turned and grasped her forearms, pull- ing her close. “Don’t you get it, Teagan? When you
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walked in my door in Gatlinburg, you changed every- thing for me, everything. You made me care when I didn’t want to. You made me want…you. And instead of shutting myself away to protect someone else from being hurt by another one of my lousy decisions, I decided to give it another try. I thought maybe, just maybe, I could help you and not be a bringer of doom. But look at how that worked out? I’m a jinx. Bad luck. Whatever you want to call it. If it hadn’t been for me, you wouldn’t have been at the Brodericks’.”
She shook her head. “What you’re saying doesn’t even make sense. Mason told me what happened with Hayley, when you were shot in the hip. You were the only person for miles around who saw her with the kid- napper. You rammed her truck with your car to try to save her, and paid for it by getting shot.” He started to interrupt, but she pushed his hands away to stop him. “The only one who thinks you were a failure in that incident is you. From what Mason said, the delay you caused before the abductor took off with Hayley again was enough of a delay to save her life. It gave other Seekers the time they needed to catch up to them. She’salive because of you. Period.”
His jaw tightened. “Are you done yet?”
“No. I’m not. I won’t bother getting into the details about the Ripper case. I already told you my own in- vestigation proved to me that you were the only one who had that right. And, hey, look at me, I was the one who was dead wrong on who abducted me. It certainly wasn’t Lowe. But as far as me going with you to inter- view the Brodericks, give me a break. You know me
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well enough by now to realize that if you hadn’t agreed to work with me after running into Zeus and me on that path, I would have continued my investigation on my own. So what do you think would have happened when I took the steps you did, set up an interview with the Brodericks, and others. Eventually I’d have stumbled onto the killer, like you and I both did. But I’d have done it alone. How do you think that would have turned out? Without you to save me, I’d have never figured out how to get out of handcuffs, or thought to make a hole in the floor to escape the shack. Without you, I’d be dead right now. Don’t you see that?”
His gaze searched hers. “After everything that’s hap- pened, how can you have such faith in me?”
“You’ve never let me down, not once. Why wouldn’t I believe in you?”
He lifted her hands and gently pressed a kiss on the back of each of them. “I’ve been angry at myself, angry at you, because I care so much about you. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
She tugged her hands free and cupped his cheeks. “Then maybe instead of pushing me away, you should be pulling me close. Because there’s no one I’d ever trust more than you to keep me safe.”
He groaned before taking her in his arms and kiss- ing her. The kiss was so sweet, so tender, that she was crying when it was over.
He frowned and gently wiped away her tears. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. What is it? What did I do?”
She laughed through her tears. “You did everything exactly right. These are happy tears, for once.”
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He pulled her against his chest. “I don’t know that I deserve your trust. Or that I deserve you at all. But you make me want to.” He pressed a kiss against the top of her head.
She reveled in the feel of him in her arms, finally. The sweetness of his hug, and the kiss they’d just shared, melted away the hurt of the past week. Finally, she was exactly where she wanted to be. And it felt far better than she’d ever imagined it would.
“I’m so glad I took Zeus for a walk that day,” she said. “And that you were with me when the killer found me. You’re an amazing man.”
He grew still, then gently pushed her back. “That’s it. The missing puzzle piece. The path where you were abducted the first time, and where we met while you were walking Zeus. That has to be it.”
She stared up at him in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
He pulled out his cell phone. “It’s always bothered me that the killer knew you’d be at the Brodericks’. And that he had enough lead time to have carjacked the delivery guy and hidden the truck in that garage. He also had time to loosen a section of fence, all in an- ticipation of us coming over. Who knew you’d be with me that night?”
She shook her head. “No one. No one but you and me. I didn’t even tell my parents where we were going.” “Exactly. You and I didn’t talk to anyone about our plans. And there’s no reason to assume the Brodericks would have told anyone either, or that they’d just hap-
pen to mention it when the killer was nearby.”
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“Okay, then the killer would have had to hear you and me discussing it. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Bingo.” He pressed a speed-dial number on his phone. “Mason, yeah, it’s Bryson at my new number. Listen, are any of the Seekers in The Woods subdivi- sion right now, maybe interviewing witnesses?” He shook his head for her benefit. “Okay, right. That’s fine. I can—” He listened for a few moments, nodding. “JSO. Of course. I forgot they were conducting extra patrols out here. I’ll call them now. I’ll catch you up later. It’s just a hunch.”
“Bryson, what’s going on?”
“Just a minute, sweetheart. One more call.” He pressed another speed-dial number. “Detective Burns? Bryson Anton. Yes. I have a favor to ask.” He idly turned away, slowly walking down the length of the fence as he explained whatever hunch he had to the detective.
She leaned against a post, smiling as she noted how well he was walking, without using his cane. His limp was barely noticeable. The last several days of rest had done wonders. And thankfully his surgery had been laparoscopic, making the recovery much easier. Still, he hadn’t had a miracle cure. If he pushed too hard he’d end up having to use the new cane she’d gotten him to replace the old one. Or, worse, end up in his wheelchair for the rest of the day. What he really needed was to go home, to get on that flight to Gatlinburg, and give his body more time to fully recover.
As he turned back toward her, still talking on the phone, she wondered what was going to happen next.
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Not with the case. She was content to let others han- dle it at this point. What she wanted to know was what would happen with them. After all, he’d kissed her, in full view of her parents who were no doubt watching them through the back sliding glass doors this very minute. And he’d called her sweetheart. Twice in as many minutes. That had to mean something serious, didn’t it?
He stopped a few yards away and leaned against the fence looking out at the water, phone still to his ear. But he wasn’t talking. He seemed to be waiting for something. He suddenly straightened and looked at her, a slow smile spreading across his face. He said something else to the detective, then shoved his phone in his pocket and closed the distance between them.
“What is it?” she asked. “Did they…did they catch him?”
“Not yet. But we’ve got a great lead. I asked JSO to look for some kind of camera tucked up in the trees that overlook the path, at the spot where we were that day I met you with Zeus.”
“And where I was abducted.”
“Yes. It dawned on me that the only reasonable way the killer could have known about you going to the Brodericks’ was if he heard us talking about it. And the only place we spoke about it was—”
“On the path.”
“Exactly. The camera was about twenty feet up in an oak tree, tucked into a juncture with two other branches, with a fake bird’s nest concealing all but a small hole for the lens. And it has audio capabilities as
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well as visual. He was watching and listening. There may be other cameras along the path too. Now that JSO knows what to look for, they’ll be able to find them, if they exist. More importantly, they’ll be able to get an expert on this, figure out the camera’s range and tri- angulate the area where someone would have to be in order to receive the transmission.”
“Wouldn’t he have to be close by?”
“Probably. Which means it’s likely he lives or works in this subdivision, and I’m guessing he did two years ago, as well. I doubt he targeted you specifically, not the first time. You just happened along the trail and met whatever criteria he has for his preferred victims.”
She pressed a hand to her throat. “I’m still stuck on the first part, about him living or working here. JSO cleared everyone back then, everyone in the whole de- velopment.”
He cocked his head. “They didn’t clear everyone in the one next door.”
She gasped. “Bentwater Place. The house where he took us and put us in the truck. He might live there?” He shrugged. “JSO’s looking into it. I would have
thought if he did, they’d have figured that out already as part of the Broderick murder investigation. But it’s possible he lives in one of the homes next door and would have known the house was empty the night we were doing the interview. Then again, he may live here in your subdivision and the police cleared someone they shouldn’t have when your case was being actively looked into. Like you, I’m a bit skeptical since they missed that camera and it’s remained there all this time.
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But from what the officer said who found it, he never would have seen it if I hadn’t specifically told him to look for one.”
“Wait. Are you saying it’s been there for years
? Not that it was put there recently?”
He clasped her hands in his. “Based on the condi- tion of the outside casing, it was probably there back when you were abducted. My guess is when the po- lice didn’t find it, the killer didn’t risk going back to get it. And when months passed without it being dis- covered, he kept it active and checked in on the video every now and then.”
“Which is how he knew I was here in Jacksonville, and where we were going that night.”
He squeezed her hands. “I believe so, yes.”
She stared up at him. “I was bound and determined to walk that path all week for my planned visit with my parents. I naively assumed I’d be okay with Zeus and my gun. But the way I froze back at the shack, and at the Brodericks’ house, we both know I wouldn’t have drawn my gun in time to protect myself. And knowing what I do now, I don’t think Zeus could have stopped him either. Thank God you were there that day.”
He leaned down and pressed a quick kiss against her lips. “That camera will hopefully lead them to the killer. And the BOLO they have with the police artist’s sketch will ensure he doesn’t get very far. But I’m not taking any chances. Pack a bag, Teagan. You’re going with me to Tennessee.”
If any other man had informed
Teagan that she was going to do something, or go somewhere, without ask- ing her, she’d have ripped right into him. But this was Bryson. She knew his authoritarian dictate wasn’t his typical way of operating, that he wanted to keep her safe, which was incredibly sweet. Besides, flying on a private jet to his home for who knew how many days or weeks of seclusion with him wasn’t exactly a hard- ship. Especially since they’d worked through the ten- sions and self-recriminations of this past week. She was looking forward to this time alone with him.
But as she watched him snoozing in the limo seat across from her on the last leg of the trip to his house, she couldn’t help feeling a twinge of disappointment. Between the toll that his injuries had taken on him and the effects of the pain pills and antibiotics, he’d slept most of the way here. He needed the rest to get better. But she was so hungry for time with him, quality time. She wanted that get to know you
phase of the relation- ship that they’d skipped during their life and death struggles. She was greedy to learn the little things.
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Like his favorite color.
His favorite food.
Was he partial to country music as so many people
around here were?
Would it shock him to know that she hated country
music but loved classical?
Since he hadn’t mentioned his family before, and
none of them had called or visited him in the hospital, was that because he didn’t have any family? Or was he just trying to keep them from worrying? Did his boss know that he wouldn’t have wanted them told about what had happened?
She couldn’t help feeling jealous if he had siblings. She’d always wanted brothers and sisters. Well, mostly sisters. Brothers could be so mean, at least from what her dad said about her uncles. But growing up an only child, she’d always longed for more. She wanted a house full of her own children one day. Did he want children too? Would he love and cherish them and protect them from a world that could be hateful and mean when people didn’t fit into those neat little racial categories?
“Want to talk about it?”
She met his questioning gaze. “You’re awake.”
“How’s your pain level? Need some pills?”
“I need to know what’s bothering you.” He grimaced
as he straightened in his seat, but shook his head when she reached for the bottle of pills in her purse. “Don’t. A little twinge here and there is better than sleeping my life away. Those things knock me out.” He glanced out the window. “Almost home. But we still have time for
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you to tell me what has you frowning as if you want to kill someone. Hopefully it’s not me,” he teased.
When she didn’t answer, his smile faded. “Seriously. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Random thoughts. Silly things.”
“You can be outrageous and deliciously sassy. But you’re never silly. What are these random thoughts? If you have questions about the investigation—”
“What’s your favorite color?” she blurted out, even though it was the least important question rolling around in her mind right now.
“Ah. Now I understand the frown. You’re contem- plating some of life’s most vexing problems.”
“How do you feel about interracial marriages, and children?”
His eyes widened. “Well, Okay. That was unex- pected. The answer is gray, by the way.”
“My favorite color.”
“Gray can’t be your favorite color. Gray isn’t a color.
He shrugged, unconcerned with her assessment. “As
to interracial marriages and children, I’m against chil- dren getting married regardless of their race.”
She stared at him deadpan. “When did you develop a sense of humor?”
“Apparently never. You’re not laughing.”
She looked out the window. “How much farther to your home?”
In answer, he tapped on the glass partition. It low-
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ered and the driver met his gaze in the rearview mir- ror. “Yes, Mr. Anton?”
“Take the long way to my house.”
“But, sir. We’re already—”
“Up and down the mountain, then. We have a few
things to settle before we arrive.”
“Of course sir. Just let me know when you’re ready
to get there.”
The glass went back up, sealing them in privacy
again. He moved from his seat to settle beside her, then took her right hand in his left. “I’m assuming this is a hypothetical question. Or is there something else you want to add, so that it’s more specific?”
Her face grew warm. “Forget I asked. It was a ridic- ulous question and completely inappropriate.”
“It’s a serious question, a deep question, and it de- serves a serious, respectful and honest answer. As to being inappropriate, I can’t imagine how it could be, unless maybe it’s not hypothetical after all and you’re talking about you and me—and you’re worried about how I would take it?”
It didn’t seem possible for her face to get hotter, but it did. “Like I said, forget I asked. It was inappropriate, because it assumes all kinds of things, like that what- ever this is between us could ever grow into something to where the answer to that question would matter.”
“You’re talking marriage, between you and me.”
She crossed her arms. “You don’t have to sound so stunned. It’s a logical progression in relationships. Not that I’m saying we’re in a relationship, exactly, or that it
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would become a logical step for us. I mean, if we ever even, you know, dated. Which we haven’t, really—”
He covered her mouth with his and gave her a slow, lazy and incredibly thorough kiss. When he pulled back, all she could do was sigh, and melt against the buttery leather seats.
“Wow,” she finally managed to say. “If I could bottle you up and sell you, I’d make a fortune.”
He laughed, then grew serious. “I’m not going to pretend that I can see into the future and tell where you and I might end up. We’ve had a rocky couple of weeks, and that’s the biggest understatement ever. But I can say with absolute certainty that we are definitely in a relationship.”
She swallowed, and managed a shaky smile. “Good to know.”
“As to your other questions, the first one is easy. In case you haven’t figured it out, I think you’re one of the smartest, funniest and hottest women I’ve ever met.”
She blinked up at him. “You think I’m hot?”
“Oh. Yeah. And that’s not in spite
of your brown skin or any other feature that makes you different from me. It’s because
of those features, because of all the things that make you uniquely you. You’re an amazing, sexy, wonderful woman, Teagan Ray. Whoever you end up marrying, if you decide to marry, that man would be incredibly lucky and should feel honored that you chose him. And if he doesn’t feel that way, then he doesn’t deserve you.”
She settled against him, resting her head in the crook
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of his shoulder as he put his arm around her. “You’re an amazing man, Bryson Anton.”
“You’re not so bad yourself. And, Teagan?”
He kissed her neck just below her ear, making her
shiver. “I couldn’t begin to understand the ugliness the world may have shown you, the prejudice you’ve likely faced in your life, or the fears you live with every day about things I would never encounter, simply because we were born looking different from each other. But I can tell you this. Hypothetically, if you and I, for example, were to marry and were fortunate enough to have children, I would do everything in my power to protect them in every way. Above all, I would love them, and make sure they knew they were loved, al- ways, unconditionally. And that I’ve got their backs, no matter what.” He kissed the top of her head. “Does that answer all your questions?”
She shook her head. “Not even close. I have doz- ens more.”
He laughed. “Then I guess we’ll be riding around
this mountain for a good long time.” He settled back more comfortably, pulling her with him. “Go ahead. Ask your questions. But be prepared. I might have a few of my own.”
Teagan had learned so much about Bryson during that conversation in the limo two days ago. It had been fun learning about his family, his rather large
family of three younger brothers and two older sisters who were both married and had six kids between them.
His family was spread out across the country from coast to coast. While his parents split their time be- tween Canada and traveling all over the US, fully en- joying their retirement, they popped in throughout the year to visit their children and grandchildren.
Bryson had explained that after seeing how difficult it was for his family when he’d been shot during his last Justice Keepers assignment, he’d made Mason promise not to tell them if he got hurt again. That was why they hadn’t been at the hospital. While she couldn’t fathom not keeping her family informed about something like that, she respected his decision.
But in spite of the many new details that she’d learned about him, she realized she’d already known everything that really mattered. He was smart, loyal, considerate, and a million other wonderful things rolled
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up in an incredibly mouthwatering package that she wanted to devour.
Except that she couldn’t. Not yet.
It was torture not being able to move their relation- ship forward the way she wanted to. But he couldn’t stand the way the pain pills made it hard to focus and concentrate on the investigation, so he’d all but stopped taking them. And that meant he was hobbling around on an aching hip again in the mornings, stuck using the wheelchair most afternoons. Her heart ached for him as she watched him limping across the family room right now with the aid of his cane, smiling at her and pretending he wasn’t in pain. But the small white lines around his mouth weren’t something he could hide.
“Ready?” He paused by the front door where she’d been waiting for him.
“Ready.” She took his cane so he could grab his suit jacket from the hall tree and shrug into it.
She picked up her purse and let him open the door. It seemed to matter to him to open doors for her, so she’d stopped trying to run ahead or open them her- self. As they crossed the front porch, she asked, “You really think a brainstorming session with the Justice Seekers is going to crack the case open?”
“We have to try something new to shake things loose. Plus Bishop texted me that he’s back from in- terviewing Leviathan Finney and wants to talk about what he found. He’ll meet us at Camelot.”
“First of all, I forget, who’s Bishop? Second, he in- terviewed the Kentucky Ripper in prison?”
He stopped on the walkway at the end of the porch.
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“Gage Bishop. He’s one of the Justice Seekers, the first one Mason hired when he created the company. Every- thing I know about him would fill about a third of a sheet of paper. He keeps to himself, doesn’t socialize with the others outside of work. Mason’s the only one who knows whatever traumatic event ended his law enforcement career before he started over as a Justice Seeker.”
He limped down the path again, toward the drive- way.
“I’m confused. Traumatic event? I thought you didn’t know anything about him.”
He stopped again, leaning heavily on his cane. “I assumed if Mason was impressed enough to give you carte blanche with a company credit card after I was discharged from the hospital that he would have con- fided in you. I thought you knew.”
“Knew what? I’m lost.”
“The Justice Seekers. The whole reason the com- pany was formed was to give a second chance to peo- ple who’d had their law enforcement careers destroyed through no fault of their own. It’s a second chance for all of us.”
“I had no idea. But I guess it makes sense. You felt you’d failed as a special agent—”
“No. You didn’t. But I understand now why you became a Justice Seeker. After you quit the FBI, you felt you had something to prove. And Mason gave you that chance.”
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“Not that I’ve done much with that second chance. He probably regrets hiring me.”
They’d started down the path again, but she moved in front of him, blocking his way. “Don’t you dare talk like that. I’d have been killed half a dozen times by now if it wasn’t for you. I’m not going to listen to any more self-recriminations. You’re an amazing guy with fan- tastic instincts. It’s time you gave yourself some credit.”
His jaw tightened, telling her he didn’t agree. But to his credit, he didn’t argue.
She stepped aside and followed him toward the driveway where she’d backed his metallic-blue Ford pickup out of the garage in preparation for the drive into town. It was decked out, with all the options. It wasn’t the red convertible she’d pictured him driving. But Hot Guy in a pickup revved her engines even more than she’d thought possible.
A luxury car, like the rental he’d had in Jackson- ville, would have been much easier on his hip. But the car that he’d owned, a classic older car he’d planned on restoring, had been totaled that day he’d been shot try- ing to save Hayley from a kidnapper. So it was either take his truck or hire another rental. She wished he’d opt for the rental because she knew it would be easier for him to climb in and out, and the bumps in the road wouldn’t hurt so much in a car. But she also knew he was a proud man and didn’t want to look weak in front of the team. To him, renting a car to drive when he had a perfectly good truck in his garage would be a neon sign that he wasn’t okay.
At least he was letting her drive. That was the one
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concession he’d made. She was pretty sure he was re- lieved when she’d asked, even though he pretended to debate her question. Her insistence that she loved trucks and wanted to drive this one, which was certainly true, wasn’t completely accurate since her main reason to drive was to help him save face. It was obviously much more comfortable to be a passenger than to pump his foot on the pedals.
Twenty minutes later they were at The Justice Seek- ers’ headquarters, an enormous two-story modern-day castle that fully lived up to its nickname of Camelot. Even though she’d been here once before when she’d met with Mason Ford about hiring Bryson, she was still in awe. Especially when Bryson took her into a secret passage to a room few clients ever got to see, a truly medieval looking meeting room with an enor- mous round table in the middle. It had been dubbed the Great Hall. It was a much bigger version of Bryson’s so-called office at his house. And judging by the enor- mous monitors forming a semicircle a short distance from the table, this Great Hall had all the technologi- cal gadgets that Bryson’s did, maybe more.
“Welcome to Camelot,” he whispered in her ear as they stood off to one side, just past the secret passage they’d walked through. “What do you think of Mason’s pride and joy?”
“Stunning. A bit overwhelming, really. But super- cool.” She waved toward the round table, where three other people were seated. “Are those Justice Seekers?” At his nod, she said, “I thought they were in Jacksonville.”
“Five of them are. The rest were working cases here
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and couldn’t leave right away. There’s one more Seeker we’re waiting on before we start. When fully staffed, there are twelve of us, plus Mason, our fearless leader.”
“One of our Seekers was killed last year. Mason’s just now looking for a replacement. But let’s not dwell on that. Like I said, there are basically twelve of us, plus the boss.”
“The knights of the round table. And King Arthur?”
He smiled. “Yes. But if you call Mason King Arthur he’ll never forgive you. That’s the one part of his little game he hasn’t adopted. He thinks it’s pretentious.” He motioned toward the right side of the table where a man just as broad-shouldered and tall as Bryson was pulling up a chair. “That’s Bishop over there. When we sit down, you’ll see that everyone has an assigned seat with their name and their moniker engraved on the stone table in front of them.”
“Moniker? Like, what, Hot Guy?”
He laughed. “Don’t say that too loudly or I’ll never hear the end of it. The monikers are based on their for- mer occupations. Bishop is The Bodyguard.”
“I thought you didn’t know what he did before he became a Justice Seeker?”
“We know he protected people, but we don’t know who he worked for. A good guess is one of the alphabet agencies—FBI, CIA, NCIS. But only Mason knows for sure. That extremely extroverted lady on the left who’s waving at you is The Cop, Brielle Walker. She used to be a Gatlinburg police officer.”
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She smiled and returned Brielle’s wave. “And the guy beside her?”
“Han Li, The Special Agent.”
“You both have the same moniker? Special Agent?” “No. He was a special agent with Homeland Secu-
rity. And he started here first, so he got to choose The Special Agent for his title.”
“Then what are you?”
His mouth tightened. “The Profiler. Not my choos- ing. Mason stuck me with that title.”
She splayed her fingers against his chest. “You’re an amazing profiler, Bryson. If I have to tell you that a hundred times until you believe it, I will.”
He arched a brow. “A hundred times, huh? That im- plies you’re planning on sticking around for a while.” “If you want me to stay, I’m sure I’d enjoy you try-
ing to convince me.” She gave him an outrageous wink. He was about to say something but the door to the hidden passageway opened and another man, wearing a Stetson, stepped into the room. Bryson’s grin faded and his answering nod in response to the other man’s
friendly “hello” was decidedly cool. “Who’s that?” she kept her voice low. “The Cowboy, Dalton Lynch.”
“Why don’t you like him?”
He gave her a surprised look. “What makes you think I don’t like him?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because it felt like a polar vortex descended on the room when you barely re- turned his greeting.”
His jaw tightened. “I have no problem with Dalton.
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But I don’t go out of my way to inflict my presence on him. His wife is Hayley, the woman who almost died because of me.”
She blinked in surprise. At the table, Dalton’s ex- pression as he eyed Bryson seemed to be more of re- gret, maybe even frustration. But there was absolutely no animosity or reproach. When he caught her look- ing at him, he nodded, then turned toward the others.
“Bryson, I don’t think he blames you for what hap- pened to his wife any more than you should blame yourself.”
He put his hand on her back. “You’re sweet to worry about me. But the only thing that matters right now is figuring out the identity of the man who almost killed you. And putting him away for a very long time. Come on, they’re waiting.”
He introduced her to the others. Then they all got re- ally serious, really fast. She sat in the chair beside him, in the seat for Zack Foster, The Tracker. He’d whispered that Zack was the one who’d died, which had her feel- ing like an interloper. But he insisted no one minded her sitting there and it seemed to be true. They were all very respectful and nice to her.
Each of them had a computer tablet in front of them, and what they brought up was displayed on one of the huge screens at the front of the room so they could see everything at the same time. As efficiency went, it was amazing. They shared reports, pictures, investigative notes, all at the touch of a button or the swipe of a fin- ger across their tablets that were each-hardwired into the computer for security.
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She was a bit overwhelmed hearing what they’d been doing. Every one of them was working her case now. It was humbling that they were all so vested in help- ing her. But then again, they were doing it for Bryson too. He was their brother-in-arms. The man they were after had almost killed him. And it was obvious that none of them were going to let a stone go unturned in their quest to bring the killer to justice and avenge their friend and fellow Seeker.
The hours ticked by, with short breaks here and there so everyone could use the restroom or make phone calls.
Lunch was brought in by some efficient person who suddenly appeared from the secret passageway and qui- etly set the food and drinks down on a table against one wall, then quietly disappeared.
They seemed to have exhausted just about every lead and angle possible by midafternoon. But there was one person who hadn’t presented his findings yet— Bishop. The others sat back and the room went quiet as his notes from the prison interview with Finney, the Kentucky Ripper, filled the screen.
“A few days ago,” Bishop began, “Bryson requested that I look into Leviathan Finney in relation to this case. The reason is obvious. Ms. Ray was abducted two years ago by a man who carved an X on her stomach, just like the Kentucky Ripper did to his victims. But since that same man abducted her again, and Finney is in prison for the Ripper’s crimes, the question is whether Finney is the real Ripper or a copycat. The reason that matters is that if he’s a copycat, then it’s possible that the man who abducted her is the Ripper. Knowing that provides a lot more data to use to find this man. But we don’t want to send ourselves, or the police, down the wrong investigative path. So it was important to figure out whether we could rule in her abductor as the Ripper, or rule him out.”
He typed a few buttons on his tablet, then a table of dates, names and comments appeared on the screen.
“Those are the Ripper’s victims,” Teagan said.
“They are,” Bishop agreed. “Along with the dates of their abductions and murders. I created this table to keep track of what Finney was supposedly doing at
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the time of each abduction or murder. It’s his alibi list, basically. Or it was supposed to be. When I checked through court transcripts, the alibi information was rather thin. His lawyer didn’t present much of a de- fense. Regardless, I dug as deep as I could in the time that I had. And then I went to the psychiatric hospital where Finney was being held before being deemed fit enough to be placed in the general prison population. I spoke to his doctors and was able to convince them to share information to help with my victim/alibi matrix.”
Teagan blinked and shot Bryson a look, but he didn’t seem fazed by Bishop’s last statement. As far as she knew, doctors, especially a psychiatrist, would never disclose that kind of information about a living patient without a warrant. She wondered what Bishop had done to “convince” them to talk.
“After that,” Bishop continued, “I spoke to Finney, for hours.” He highlighted a handful of rows in the table on the screen. “After piecing together witness state- ments from the investigations, court transcripts, what his doctor said, and then interviewing people to cor- roborate what Finney told me, these four rows are the only ones where I couldn’t positively alibi him out. But even these I’m fifty-fifty on.” He sat back and glanced around the table, apparently finished speaking.
Teagan looked at the others. Brielle was furiously typing on her laptop. Han was swiping through screen after screen on his, as if searching for something. And the guy in the Stetson, Dalton, had jumped up from the table and was standing off in a corner on, of all things, a wall phone. She hadn’t seen one of those in years.
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At her questioning look, Bryson asked, “The phone? Most of Camelot is a giant Faraday cage.”
“Fair a what?”
“Faraday. Electronic signals can’t get in or out. We have to use dedicated landlines. It’s for security. Even the computer tablets are hard-wired through the table to the main computer.”
She thought that seemed like total overkill, but didn’t really care at the moment. What mattered was that she was completely lost. “Why does everyone else seem to understand whatever Bishop just said about Finney? I’m confused.”
Bishop remained silent, apparently content to let someone else explain.
Bryson took her hand in his. “To sum it up, he was able to prove, maybe not court of law proof, but proof to us, that Finney couldn’t have killed most of the vic- tims that he’s accused of killing. He had solid alibis that either weren’t presented at trial or weren’t known at trial. There are only a few that Bishop couldn’t speak to. Which goes to say that you were right all along. Le- viathan Finney very likely isn’t the Ripper. But he’s not a copycat either. He was set up. Framed.”
“By the police?”
“Doubtful. Most likely the real killer, to take the heat off.”
“An innocent man is in prison. That sucks.”
“We’ll contact one of the Innocence Project groups to look into his case.”
“Already did,” Bishop chimed in.
“Great,” she said. “I guess. But what does all this
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mean as far as finding the guy who abducted us? Are you saying he’s the real Ripper?”
“It’s a definite possibility, highly likely actually. The police never linked your case with the others in spite of the signature X because the Ripper was already in prison. But now that we know the Ripper was never caught, all of the murders attributed to him have to be reexamined in relation to your abduction. This is a huge break. There’s an FBI field office in Jacksonville. Once our team brings them up to speed on this devel- opment, they’ll be back in the game, looking into your case and reopening the Ripper investigation. Obviously there are formalities, like convincing JSO to call them in to help. But Mason will get that done. Just a mat- ter of time. The number of people working this case is about to quadruple, easily. With some of the bright- est law enforcement minds around. They’ll catch this guy in no time.”
Dalton returned to his seat. The others turned their attention toward Bryson.
“What about you?” Dalton asked. “Any theories about who this guy might be?”
“A few,” Bryson said. “It’s been bothering me that he was able to abduct Teagan two years ago without anyone seeing him. She was apparently drugged. She thinks she remembers him injecting her right after he accosted her on the path. After that, her memory is blank until she woke up at the shack. But that path through her neighborhood is well-traveled. And the entrance to the path on both ends is in even busier sec- tions of the neighborhood. It seems far-fetched that he
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could have led or carried a drugged woman from the path without anyone seeing her. Which is why I called Mason early this morning and asked him to have our Seekers in Jacksonville re-interview everyone who lives close to that part of the trail and ask very spe- cific questions.”
“Like what?” Dalton asked.
“Like whether he could have loosened a section of fence like he did behind the Brodericks’ house and taken her through the opening to someone’s backyard. From there, if he did the same trick he pulled with us, he could have gone through someone’s home while they weren’t home and into their garage where he had a car waiting. Then, all he had to do was drive out of the subdivision. There’s a guard shack at each of the two entrances. But the cameras only record people coming in, not going out. If he came in via the subdivision be- hind The Woods, like he did recently, he wouldn’t be on any of the guard gate’s cameras.”
Teagan raised her hand.
Bryson smiled. “You don’t have to ask permission to speak.”
She felt her face heat and lowered her hand. “You said earlier that you thought he might live in one of the houses in Bentwater Place, near the one we went through to that delivery truck. Did anything ever come of that?”
“The police ruled that out. He definitely isn’t one of the homeowners on that street or the neighboring streets. But one of those homes was vacant because it’s for sale. He could have seen that for sale sign and
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broke in to conduct quick surveillance on the house next door. Once he was sure the owners weren’t home, he used that house as part of his plan to abduct you.”
Dalton tapped on the table as if in deep thought. “How close is that path to the Bentwater subdivision?” Bryson looked at Teagan in question. “What do you think? Half a mile? The Woods is huge. That path is in
the center of the subdivision.”
She nodded. “Maybe even a mile, or more really if
you consider all the twists and turns you’d have to take because of all the streets in between.”
“He didn’t walk from Bentwater to the path,” Bryson concluded. “It’s too far. There would have been multi- ple reports in the interviews that the police conducted after your abduction, reports of different people see- ing a man walking toward that trail. There weren’t any reports. None.”
“Then how did he get in?” she asked.
He sat back, considering the question. “Getting back to basics, we have two choices. He walked or drove. Since no mysterious strangers were seen on the cam- eras at the guard shack, driving is out. But since he wasn’t seen walking through the subdivision by any- one interviewed after your abduction, walking is out too. Which leads to one conclusion. The time frame that the police covered when canvassing the neighbor- hood was inadequate.”
A few chairs over from him, Dalton nodded. “That’s the only explanation. He was already in place. He went into the subdivision before the time range that the po- lice checked.” He turned toward the former police of-
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ficer. “Brielle, I think you had that report on the video from the guard shack. How far back did they check?” She was already typing. Then she punched a but- ton and a report popped up on one of the big screens. “One week. Our killer had to be in place prior to that.” She turned her focus on Teagan. “I haven’t been in that development. But from what I’ve read, there aren’t any actual woods where someone could hide out that long
and not be found, are there?”
Teagan shook her head. “No. I mean, there are plenty
of areas with lots of trees and bushes. But it’s all per- sonal property, or it backs up behind a strip mall on one side. The community areas are too heavily trav- eled, like those walking paths, to allow someone to camp out and not be seen.”
“I agree,” Bryson said. “And it goes back to the sheer volume of witnesses in that area. Even if he camped out, someone would have seen him at some point and reported it. Nothing like that happened. Which means he was in one of the houses. We already know he’s not one of the owners, based on the extensive reports the police did on every homeowner. If he was visiting someone who lives there, again, they would have men- tioned it to the police. That leaves one last possibility. He was using someone’s house when they were out of town. We need a list of everyone who was out of town over a week before the attack.”
“On it.” Brielle started typing on her computer again. “I’ve got all of those types of records already from our earlier canvassing but didn’t put it together
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the way you just did. I just need to cross-reference a couple of spreadsheets and I’ll have it.”
A few minutes later, the dejection on her face told the story even before she spoke. “Sorry, guys and gals. As impossible as it seems in a place with that many houses, no one was on vacation in that time span. At least, no one who didn’t have a house sitter or friend at their place while they were gone.”
Bryson sat forward in his chair. “Then the house was empty. Whoever owned it didn’t live there anymore. How many homes were vacant, either for rent or for sale during that time frame?”
The tension was palpable in the room as they waited for Brielle once again.
She popped up the latest search results. “Three. All for sale, all vacant.”
“Bentwater Place, the house that was empty and for sale that the police thought our killer might have used as his home base with the Broderick murders,” Bryson said. “Does anyone have any additional information on that house?”
“Like what?” Dalton asked.
“The realty company. Better yet, the Realtor who listed it.”
Dalton smiled. “Of course. On it.”
“I’m on it too, for the ones in The Woods,” Brielle said.
A few moments later, Dalton sat back. “Pine Acres Realty.”
“Dang, I almost beat you,” Brielle said. “I’m calling it a tie. Two of mine are with Happy Meadows Prop-
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erties.” She rolled her eyes at the name. “My last one, which happens to back up directly onto the path where Ms. Ray was attacked, is Pine Acres Realty.”
Teagan blinked in shock. “He’s a Realtor?”
“It appears likely,” Bryson said. “And he probably works for Pine Acres Realty. We need pictures.”
Bishop, who’d been quietly working on his own computer all along, punched a button. The screens filled with pictures of the smiling men and women who worked for that realty company.
Bryson arched a brow. “Thanks, Bishop.”
“Bottom row.” Teagan’s voice was hoarse. “If the
screen wasn’t so huge, I wouldn’t have even noticed. And now I know why no one in the neighborhood rec- ognized the police sketch.”
“Why?” Dalton asked.
Bryson reached for Teagan’s hand beneath the table and she gratefully clung to it. “Because he looks com- pletely different in that picture. Hair color, hair style, glasses. There’s only one thing that’s the same.”
“What’s that?” Dalton pressed.
“His eyes.” Teagan’s hand tightened on Bryson’s. “Pure evil, dead inside. That’s him. It’s definitely him. I’ve probably seen him on real estate flyers in the neighborhood. But I never connected the dots. His name?” She paused to draw a choppy breath. “I need to hear his name.”
“Chris Larsen,” Brielle announced.
She shook her head. “So average. So…normal.”
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Brielle started typing again. “I’ll get this informa- tion to Mason and the team in Jacksonville right away.” “I’ll give him a call,” Dalton added. “I’ll answer any questions he has about our thought processes and how we arrived at this conclusion.” He smiled. “HowBryson
arrived at it. Good job, Profiler. And it’s good
to have you back.”
Bryson seemed surprised by Dalton’s statement, but
he nodded his thanks. “Call me with Mason’s update on the hunt for this guy?”
“You don’t want to hang around? If our team’s in on the takedown we might get a live feed.”
“I would, but my hip’s aching something awful.” He pushed to his feet, leaning heavily on his cane, and mo- tioned to Teagan. “I know you’d rather hang around, but I don’t think I can drive right now. Do you mind?”
She was struggling to maintain her composure with all of this information crashing down on her. And here he was, pretending that he was the one who needed to leave. She gratefully went along with his ruse. “I can get the updates later. I don’t mind.”
Once they were in his truck, the stress and worry that had been eating at her seemed to magically fade away. He had that effect on her, made her feel safe, more in control. “I know your hip really does hurt. But I also know you’d never admit that in front of your team. You did that for me, because you saw how I was struggling to hold it together. Thank you.”
“It was nothing. But you’re welcome anyway. How are you holding up? I can drive if I have to.”
“I know, but I’m fine. It was all so…intense back
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there, finding out who he was, and realizing he’s just a person. You know? Not some mythical monster im- possible to stop. Hearing he’s a Realtor kind of takes the drama down a notch. Makes it somehow bearable, especially knowing it’s only a matter of time now be- fore this is over.”
When they pulled into the driveway, his phone buzzed in his pocket. She parked while he spoke to Dalton. When she got out, he frowned, obviously wish- ing she’d wait so he could open her door. He’d just put his phone in his suit jacket pocket and grabbed his cane when she opened his door and offered her hand.
“There’s no one here but us, Bry. You can suck up your pride for a minute and let me help you. It is
okay for a woman to help a man sometimes, you know.”
He avoided her hand and hopped out on his own.
She rolled her eyes and moved to his side. “What did Dalton have to say? Is JSO cooperating? Did they put out a new BOLO on the killer now that we know his identity?”
He smiled and unlocked the front door. As he pushed it open for her he said, “Yes, JSO is cooperating
, al- though I’m sure they think it’s the other way around. A new BOLO was put out, but they already contacted the realty company to see if they had a lead on his whereabouts. That’s why Dalton called, to give us an update about the realty company.” He shut and locked the door, before giving her his full attention.
“They got him, Teagan. He’s on his way downtown right now in the back of a squad car. It’s over.”
She burst into tears.
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Bryson tossed his cane to the floor and lifted Teagan in his arms. He couldn’t make it very far, but he man- aged to stumble to the couch without dropping her. He settled back with his precious burden and held her while she cried out the hurt and the fear and the anxi- ety she’d been suffering for years.
It was a long time later before he settled Sleeping Beauty in his master bedroom that he’d given up while she was here. She’d readily invited him to stay with her in his bed that first night. But he knew the dangers. It didn’t matter how his head hurt, or the wounds on his back, or his hip, or where the bullet went through him, or, good grief, how sore his belly still was from the sur- gery. He was a mess, physically. But if he got horizontal next to her none of it would matter. There’d be no stop- ping either of them from taking full advantage of that situation. And then he’d probably end up in the hospi- tal again. But oh how he wished it could be different.
He quietly shut the door. But he didn’t head to the guest room where he was staying. He had another des- tination tonight. And this one was too far for him to make using his cane. He’d used up the last of his stam- ina carrying Teagan. It was time to admit defeat, for now, and get the wheelchair.
A few minutes later he reached his office. As he opened files on the computer and began moving bits of information onto the various screens, he reflected on what Dalton had said at Camelot. He’d referred to his old moniker, Profiler. That one word, spoken by a fellow Seeker, had started an avalanche of thoughts in his mind.
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Even though he’d been trying to work this case as best he could with a lingering concussion and his other injuries, he hadn’t tried to approach it as a profiler. He was too used to scorning his previous profession, think- ing of his failures instead of focusing on his successes. But he didn’t think of it the same way anymore. Tea- gan had done that for him, made him start to accept that maybe he wasn’t the big failure he once thought himself to be. And Dalton, of course, welcoming him back. That had been a surprise. If Dalton didn’t blame him for Hayley’s near miss, maybe he needed to rethink that whole episode.
But mostly it was Teagan’s faith in him that was giv- ing him a new perspective. Like that maybe he should trust himself, listen to the warning bells going off in his head. They were telling him that something wasn’t right.
They’d caught the man who’d abducted Teagan. They’d caught the man who’d killed the Brodericks. So why did he feel like there was something left unfin- ished? The niggling feeling wouldn’t leave him alone. So he was going back to the beginning as he’d once told Teagan to do. He was reexamining everything. And once he did that, he’d do what he hadn’t done in years, and had never thought he’d do again.
He was going to build a profile.
Teagan finished brushing her teeth just as the morning sun began to peek through the windows. After giving her braid one last adjustment, she left the master bed- room to find Bryson. Much to her frustration, even though he’d ensconced her in the master suite since she’d come here, he was sleeping in a guest room. She understood it was because sleeping together was too tempting. Neither of them would want to sleep.
Which would just set his recovery back. But she was getting so frustrated wanting him to get better, and just plain wanting
Everything about him appealed to her. And the more she got to know him, the worse her obsession became. Whether he was in butt-hugging jeans and a T-shirt or one of those sexy tailored suits that showed off his broad shoulders, she wanted to peel off his clothes and explore every inch
. As if his sexy exterior wasn’t enough of a turn on, Hot Guy was also intelligent, with a kind soul and the heart of a steadfast, loyal, intensely protective warrior. It was becoming nearly impossible
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not to weep with longing and desire every time he en- tered a room.
She could definitely fall in love with him. She was more than halfway there already. But she had no clue whether he felt the same. Oh, he liked her, a lot. And he wanted her. There was no denying the hungry look in his eyes that he tried so hard to hide. Clearly he suffered from the same affliction that she did. If they ever really
got together, they’d probably spontaneously combust. But did he care about her? Really
care, as in I could love you forever kind of care? She just didn’t know.
Shaking her head at her fruitless thoughts, she headed to his room just down the hall. He wasn’t there. The bed didn’t even look as if it had been slept in. Growing concerned, she checked the main rooms in this part of the house. She even looked out the back door at the dock, where he could be found most eve- nings. But he wasn’t there. She was just passing the little alcove to the left of the TV when she realized it was empty. Each night he stored his wheelchair there and used the cane the next day until the pain forced him to use the chair once again. But the wheelchair wasn’t there. Why? Had he suffered a setback to his recovery?
Increasingly anxious, she headed down the back hall and looked in every door that she passed until she reached the end, his office. Light shining under the door had her letting out a relieved breath. He must have come here last night for some reason, then ended up sleeping in the attached bedroom rather than head all the way to the front of the house.
She knocked on the door. No answer. She knocked
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again. When he still didn’t answer, her overactive imag- ination conjured up all kinds of awful scenarios, like him lying on the floor in a pool of blood, his wounds ripped open. Just the thought of him in pain, needing her, had her opening the door.
He wasn’t on the floor dying.
And he wasn’t sleeping in the guest room.
He was in his wheelchair at the round table, oblivi-
ous to her entry as he spoke to someone on his cell phone. All nine of the giant monitors were filled with documents. But that wasn’t what had her gasping in surprise.
It was the pictures.
He glanced over his shoulder, then punched a but- ton on the control panel, clearing the screens. “Mason, I’ll call you back in a few minutes. Send me that list of dates as soon as you have it, all right? Yeah, thanks. Bye.” He set the phone on the table. “Sorry. I didn’t realize you were there or I wouldn’t have had those pictures up.”
She fought against the nausea the graphic, violent images had awakened in her as she joined him at the table. So many women. So much…carnage.
“I heard you talking to Mason. Does he have you working on a new case already and you stayed up all night studying crime scene photos?”
He hesitated, clearly uncomfortable with her ques- tions. “I’m not working a new case, not exactly. I’m… reexamining an old one.”
“Why would you do that?” Again, he paused.
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She glanced at the blank screens, her mind’s eye trying to reconstruct what she’d seen seconds earlier. But she’d been too broadsided by the unexpected tab- leau to recall many details, even with her photographic memory. “How old is this case you’re looking into?”
He looked at his wrist as if to check the time. But he hadn’t replaced the fancy computer watch yet that Larsen had taken from him. “Is it morning already? I can whip us up something to eat.” He backed his chair away from the table. “How about omelets? I can’t re- member the last time I—”
She leaned past him and punched the same key that he had earlier. The pictures popped back onto the screens.
He swore and cleared them again, but not before she saw a bloody X carved on one of the women’s bellies. “The Kentucky Ripper,” she accused. “You’re look- ing at the Kentucky Ripper cases. Why? The FBI is covering that angle. You said so at Camelot yesterday. And don’t try to change the subject by acting like you suddenly love to cook. We both know better. You for-get we played twenty questions times ten in the limo on the way home from the airport. I know a lot of things about you now that I didn’t before. Like that you hate to cook. So spill. Why have you been here all night looking at murders that happened years ago instead of celebrating that the man who tried to kill both of us is
sitting in a Jacksonville jail cell?”
He sighed heavily. “I didn’t want to wait for a re-
port from the FBI. I needed some answers now, to quiet
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some doubts I had, and make sure we’d covered every angle.”
“What doubts? What angles?”
“Little details that don’t add up. With Finney possi- bly innocent, the FBI is focusing on Larsen as the real Ripper. And it makes sense, given the signature and other details about the crime scenes, plus things we’re starting to learn about Larsen.”
She pulled out the chair beside him and sat down. “If it all makes sense, then what’s bothering you?”
“I’m not dropping this. You might as well tell me now or we’ll be here all day,” she warned.
He grimaced. “All right. What’s bothering me is the puzzle pieces that don’t fit. It’s like with the origi- nal Ripper investigation. There are things that never matched Finney. But there was enough so-called evi- dence that some other evidence was basically ignored. And once he was in prison, the murders stopped. Ev- eryone was content to let it drop, to ignore the incon- sistencies.”
“Not you,” she reminded him. “You kept looking at the case long after it was over. You stored all those copies of the case files. That’s what you were going through just now, isn’t it? I’m guessing that means you hired that temp you talked about when I first arrived, to key everything into the system.”
“I had Brielle work with someone while I was in the hospital,” he admitted. “I’d always wanted every- thing digitized to make examination of the evidence easier. With you having been abducted again, I wanted
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to have the previous case information handy when I got a chance to review it. The obvious conclusion at the time was that Larsen was likely the Ripper, even before Bishop spoke to Finney. I expected when I eventually got home and went through this stuff, that conclusion would be cemented in my mind.”
“But it wasn’t.”
“No. Far from it.”
She shivered and rubbed her hands up and down her
arms. “The man who attacked me, who attacked us, is behind bars. It shouldn’t matter whether he’s the Rip- per or not. So why do you look so serious? And why am I starting to feel concerned?”
He took her hands in his. “Whatever I’ve found, or think I’ve found, there’s no reason for you to worry. You’re safe here, with me. There are four fellow Seekers twenty minutes away if we need them, which we don’t. And I’ve got a pistol in the nightstand in my bedroom.”
“Then why have you been up all night looking at the case file?”
A flicker of unease crossed his face before his ex- pression cleared. “I like being thorough. And, as I said, I don’t like puzzle pieces that don’t fit.”
“Show me those pieces.”
“We’re in this together. And we’ll still be in this to-
gether when Larsen is brought to trial and we’re both called to testify. Don’t shut me out now. Show me.”
His reluctance was obvious, but he wheeled back in front of the computer tablet. “I can clear the pictures. There’s no reason for you to look at those. I was using
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them to double-check details in reports.” His fingers flew across the keyboard as he closed files and moved things around on the tablet in front of him without shar- ing them to the big screens. Then he punched one of the keys, and the various Ripper case files appeared on the large monitors. True to his word, there weren’t any pictures.
He continued to move things around, mostly clos- ing out various documents until he was left with only one screen of data. It was essentially a huge list with different headings with bullets of information beneath each one.
She read some of the headings out loud. “Race, sex, age, marital status, victimology, criminal psychopathy, location, signature…” She shot him a look of surprise. “A profile. You’re working up a profile.”
“More or less. I compiled the information from the Ripper murders along with what we know about Lar- sen’s recent crimes.” He scrolled to one of the sections labeled Organized vs. Disorganized
. “I’m sure you re- member a lot of this from your criminal justice classes. An organized killer is one who plans his crime ahead of time, brings his weapons with him. The disorganized killer grabs a knife out of a victim’s kitchen drawer to stab her. He’s more spontaneous, less controlled and tends to make a lot of mistakes. A disorganized killer is generally easier to find than the organized one be- cause of those mistakes. Which one would you say Larsen is?”
“Easy. Organized. He planned everything down to the last detail, from the camera hidden in the tree over
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the path where I went walking to the section of fence he loosened behind the Brodericks’ home. He had to have spent months getting that shack set up as his own personal prison, installing the bars on the windows and doors.”
“You get an A plus. He’s definitely an organized killer, which gives us insight into his mind and how he thinks. Mason confirmed that Larsen purchased that shack over a year ago. I don’t know whether he planned to go after you again, or someone else. But he was defi- nitely preparing it well ahead of time for another vic- tim. Knowing he was an organized killer helps predict other things, like that he probably had a steady job.”
“He worked for a realty company,” she said. “Not exactly nine to five, but he would have had some kind of schedule, checked in now and then, attended meet- ings.” She crossed her arms, remembering what she’d researched on the Kentucky Ripper’s crimes. “But that doesn’t fit what I know about the Ripper.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” He punched a few buttons and a list of names and dates appeared on the screen to the left of the main one they’d been looking at. “You should recognize those.”
“The ripper’s victims. Six of them.”
“What do they have in common?”
“Other than the obvious? The carved X’s in their bel-
lies, the fact that they were abducted for days or weeks before being killed? That all of them were stabbed, including the ones you haven’t listed. Some were shot too.”
“Other than all of that. What type of killer was re-
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sponsible for the kinds of crime scenes we found in those examples?”
She thought about it, then shrugged. “You’re going to say whoever killed them was organized. I remember those crime scenes were pristine. Very little forensic evi- dence was found. No weapons were left behind. I could go on, but I can’t argue that point. Those particular crime scenes were indicative of an organized perpetrator. But there were eight more killings. And those were the op- posite of organized. They were…sloppy.”
“Yes. They were.” He displayed another list of names on the monitor to the right of the main one, the eight victims she’d just mentioned. “All of these were simi- lar because they seemed to be the work of a disorga- nized killer.”
“Right,” she agreed. “Given the mix of organized and disorganized crime scenes, the conclusion goes more to a mental disease, like Finney suffered from. He was, is, bipolar. The theory was that he killed some in his manic state—the disorganized killings—and some in his depressive state—the organized ones.”
“It’s a popular theory, one the police bought into back then.” He motioned toward the first list. “Con- sider these victims again. Although they were brutally killed, the number of stab wounds is low. Only three for the first victim, six on another, and something in between for the rest.” He waved toward the second list. “These, however, had anywhere from twelve to thirty- one stab wounds in addition to being beaten in two of the cases. One victim even suffered cigarette burns all over her back.”
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“I remember.” That sick feeling was roiling in her stomach again.
“It’s called overkill,” he said. “The killer inflicted far more wounds than necessary to kill his victims. Normally, that might suggest that he knew them, had personal feelings of hate toward them. But it can hap- pen with a disorganized killer as well, with or without a mental defect. He kills in the heat of the moment, because of some imagined slight or explosive anger over something seemingly inconsequential to you or me but that is blown all out of proportion in his mind.”
Again, he motioned toward the screen on the list, the names of the six victims that he’d grouped together. “Here’s another take on these. In each of these cases, there’s evidence that the killer spent a lot of time in the victim’s home during the stalking phase while the vic- tim wasn’t there. What does that indicate?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe I need a refresher course on my college classes.”
He smiled. “I’m sure it will all come back to you when you go back to finish your master’s degree. Fa- miliarity is the missing link here. We spend time some- where when we feel comfortable there, because the location isn’t foreign or unknown to us.”
She stared at him a long moment. “I’m trying to fol- low, but all that tells me is that the Ripper likely lived in Kentucky, close to the crime scenes. That was part of the original geographical profiling. That’s why Finney was such a good fit.”
“And Lowe. Don’t forget him, the second potential Ripper on the original suspect list. He was from Ken-
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tucky too, born and raised in the same general area as Finney.”
“Okay. Yes, I remember that. It’s part of the reason that I thought Lowe might have been the one who ab- ducted me.”
He swiveled his wheelchair to face her. “Think about the other things we know about those crime scenes. In the first list of victims, the bodies were left where they’d be easily found, potentially indicating the killer had some religious background, that he wanted them to get a Christian burial, or whatever religion he fol- lowed.”
“The bodies weren’t hidden in the rest of the kill- ings either. They’re the same.”
“I’m going to disagree on that,” he said. “In the over- kill list, the victims were, well, slaughtered for lack of a better description. Discarded. There was no caring emotion behind that action. The bodies were easily found only because the killer couldn’t be bothered to try to hide them. Not so with the organized killer list. Those bodies were treated, after death anyway, with a modicum of respect. Left clothed or covered, lying down, almost as if they were sleeping as opposed to being tossed out like garbage. It’s subtle, but it’s a dif- ference. If you look at every kind of comparison that can be made, those two lists of victims each present evidence of a very different kind of killer. In fact, it’s my opinion that it proves there wasn’t one Kentucky Ripper. There were two.”
She sucked in a breath. But it really shouldn’t have been a surprise after everything he’d just shown her.
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She glanced from list to list, read the headings on the middle screen, the bullets beneath them. “But, if you’re right, then your original profile was wrong.”
He surprised her by smiling. “Don’t look so wor- ried. You’re not dashing my newly found confidence. There’s more to the original profile than appeared in any police reports.”
“Okay. Now you’ve lost me.”
He shifted in his chair, a quickly hidden grimace telling her how much his night of research had cost him physically. His hip was aching. He needed a hot soak in a tub and a long nap. But she didn’t want to embarrass him by pointing out the obvious, so she remained silent.
“When I profiled the murders allegedly attributed to the Kentucky Ripper,” he continued, “I presented the police with two
profiles. Two different killers. When Finney was arrested, it was the profile I gave them that most closely matched his characteristics that they used. The other profile I gave them was ignored. That’s why you never saw it in any of the official case files that you researched.”
“I still have to wrap my head around this. You’ve turned the investigation I did upside down.”
“No. I haven’t. I’ve proved that your original con- clusions were right all along.”
She threw her hands up in the air. “Now I’m be- yond lost.”
“Sorry. I’m not explaining this very well. To try to put it succinctly, if I look at Larsen and everything we now know about him, including that he used to live in Kentucky, he fits that first list of victims to a T.”
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“Larsen is the Ripper.”
He sat forward in his chair. “He’s one of them. That’s where your research comes into play. Everything about that second victim list—if we consider that Bishop is right and Finney was a mentally ill fall guy who didn’t kill anyone—that second list fits the man you believed all along was the Kentucky Ripper.”
She pressed a hand to her throat. “Avarice Lowe.”
He nodded. “All I’m waiting on for confirmation is a list of dates and alibis for Larsen. Mason’s work- ing on that to see if Larsen was on vacation or sick or whatever on the dates when the first set of victims was abducted. I’ve already cross-referenced everything I had on Lowe.”
She glanced up at the dates he’d mentioned, the ones beside the disorganized list. They all had check marks beside them. “Lowe doesn’t have alibis for the sec- ond set?”
“No. He doesn’t.”
She sat back. “Two Kentucky Rippers, and a third guy in prison who had nothing to do with the murders.” “It’s worse than that,” he told her. “There’s one more puzzle piece that you haven’t seen.” He typed on his
computer tablet again.
“What could be worse than two killers?” she asked. He hesitated with his finger poised over one of the
function keys. “How about this?”
A picture displayed on the screen. She stared at it
a moment, trying to figure out what was supposed to be significant about what she was seeing. There was a small crowd of people standing behind yellow crime
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scene tape. Behind them were homes and police cars parked up and down the street.
“One of the Ripper’s crime scenes? A crowd shot?”
“That’s exactly what it is. Standard operating proce- dure in a case like this. The police photographer hides out of sight and takes pictures of any people watch- ing the activity, just in case the killer ends up being in the crowd.”
“Because killers often come back to the scene of the crime,” she said. “They get a thrill from watch- ing the police.”
“Now observe the cropped, close-up version I made of that same picture.” He pressed another key and the screen changed. “What’s worse than two different killers?”
She gasped in shock. “A tag team of killers, part- nering together.” She stared at the close up of Avarice Lowe and Chris Larsen standing in the crowd, side by side, watching with riveted interest as the police worked one of the Kentucky Ripper crime scenes.
She tore her gaze from the screen. “For what?” “You were right all along. Lowe was the Kentucky
Ripper. But so was Larsen. None of us saw that coming.” “You did,” she said. “You created two profiles.” “Yes, well. My mistake was in not following through
and pursuing both after the police went after Finney. I assumed I’d messed up. Instead, I should have pushed for more investigating. Maybe then, Finney wouldn’t be in prison. Lowe would be in prison, along with Larsen. And then you’d have never been hurt. I’m so sorry.” His jaw tightened.
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She shook her head. “No. Don’t you dare go there. What happened to me was not your fault. It was Larsen’s.” He swallowed. “Thank you for that. But it gets even worse. I’m not sure it’s just Larsen’s fault. It may be Lowe’s too. Remember that you said, even after know- ing Larsen had abducted you, that he didn’t seem like the right man, that he didn’t fit your memories except
for his voice?”
It took a moment for his words to sink in. When they
did, she pressed a shaking hand to her throat. “Oh my God. You think that I was abducted by…both of them?” He gave her a short, clipped nod. “I don’t have any real proof. Just theories. But I think we should tell the police and the FBI to consider that they may have been a tag team on some of the same crimes, including what was done to you.” He took her hand in his again. “I’m
sorry. I probably shouldn’t have even told you that.” “No, no. I don’t want any secrets between us. I want to be included in everything.” She forced a smile. “Hon- estly, it’s not as huge of a shock as you’d expect. I was wrestling with my own doubts because some things didn’t seem to fit with Larsen. Now, well, it kind of all makes sense.” She squeezed his hand. “I assume you
already told Mason about this?”
He kissed the back of her hand before letting go. “I
was discussing it with him when you walked in. He’s corroborating some data, but as soon as he saw that pic- ture of Lowe and Larsen together, he was convinced. He’s pulling the Seekers onto this right now.”
“I guess everything’s in good hands, then.” “The best.”
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She pushed to her feet, still feeling a bit nauseated and shaky after the latest revelations. “I need to push all of this ugliness out of my head for now. I’m going to go call my mom and let her know I’m still alive. She’s gotten a bit paranoid after this last…episode. She made me promise to call her every day, but I fell asleep last night and never did. I’m surprised she’s not already blowing up my phone this morning.” Her face heated. “Sorry about falling asleep with you as my pillow. But thanks for putting me to bed. Next time maybe you can join me.” She gave him an outrageous wink, desper- ately trying to lighten the mood.
He gently cupped her face and pressed a soft kiss against her lips. “One day, very soon, sweet Teagan. I’ll do more than just join you in that big bed.”
She sighed with longing, already feeling better. He always made her feel better, even in her darkest mo- ments.
He put his phone in his pocket before turning off the equipment. Backing away from the table, he said, “Hop on. I’ll give you a ride.” He arched his brows in a suggestive manner.
She laughed and eased herself onto his lap so she wouldn’t jar his incisions. When they reached the fam- ily room, she carefully got up. “I’ll call Mom from the bedroom.”
“And I’ll make breakfast. Toast or an omelet? Those are the only two breakfast meals in my culinary arsenal.”
“Good choice. My toast always comes out burned.
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Meat lover, veggie lover, or deluxe?” He wheeled to- ward the kitchen.
“Deluxe. With sour cream on top, if you have it.” “You got it,” he called back.
She smiled and went into the bedroom. But after
three tries on her cell phone without the call going through, she gave up and headed to the kitchen.
He’d left his wheelchair sitting by the island and was leaning on his cane as he pulled ingredients for the om- elets out of the refrigerator. He glanced up in surprise when she started helping him. “That was a quick call.”
“It wouldn’t go through. I think there must be a prob- lem with the cell tower or something.”
He frowned as he set a carton of eggs on the counter. “Is your battery low?”
“No. But there weren’t any bars. No connection. I tried three times. All I got was static.”
He pulled out his phone and checked the screen.
Then he punched a button and held it to his ear. He swore and tossed his phone on top of the island. “Run back to the office and lock yourself inside.” He hobbled to his wheelchair and plopped down.
“Why? What’s going on?”
He wheeled around the island. “Someone’s jamming the cell signal. And there’s only one person I can think of who would have a reason to do that.”
The blood rushed from her face, leaving her cold and shaking as she hurried after him into the family room. “Avarice Lowe. You think he’s on his way here?”
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“No.” He glanced up at her as he wheeled past the L formed by the two couches. “I think he’s already
here. Probably lurking outside, gathering his courage.” He glanced at his wrist and swore. “I should have replaced my computer-watch the moment I got back. It would have warned me if someone was on the property. Go to the office, Teagan. Hurry. There aren’t any windows in there. Lock the main door, then lock the doors that lead into the bathroom and bedroom. Wedge a chair beneath the door to the hallway. Go
Ignoring his dictate, she ran after him into the mas- ter bedroom. “I’m not leaving you. Come with me.”
He wheeled to the nightstand. “I’ve got this. I’ll take care of Lowe. But I have to know you’re safe, out of harm’s way. Go on.”
He yanked open the top drawer.
“Okay, okay.” She headed toward the door. “But I wish you’d let me help you instead of—”
He was suddenly beside her in his wheelchair, shov- ing her back into the room. She stumbled but caught herself in time to see him shut the door and lock it. His face was drawn and pale as he met her question- ing gaze. “My pistol’s not in the nightstand. He’s in- side the house
He’s inside the house.
Those horrifying words ran through Teagan’s mind over and over as she watched Bryson leaning against the master bathroom counter after ditching the wheel- chair because it was in his way. He was using duct tape to secure the thick towels that he’d wrapped around her arms. She didn’t ask why. She knew why. The dis- organized killer, the one who’d murdered eight of the Kentucky Ripper’s victims, was quite the fan of knives. Bryson was using the towels to protect her in case Lowe got past him and came after her next. As to why he had duct tape in his bathroom, that was a discussion for an- other day. If they lived another day
The psychopath in the main room had already tried to get into the bedroom once. He’d scraped knives un- derneath the closed door, swiping at Bryson’s feet. Then Lowe had used his body like a battering ram, screaming obscenities as he tried to crash through the door. It was only because Bryson had used his own strength against the door that Lowe had given up. But not for long. He was still out there. Planning his next
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assault. Even now she could hear his shoes thumping and squeaking across the floor as he paced back and forth mumbling incoherent words to himself.
Dear God. Please help us.
Bryson tossed the roll of duct tape onto the counter and reached under the sink. “This is a last resort.” He handed her an aerosol can of deodorant. “I don’t want you near enough to him to use this. God willing, when you climb out the bedroom window, he’ll be so busy with me that he won’t get a chance to go after you.”
She sucked in a breath, fear for both of them mak- ing her flush hot and cold.
“But if he gets past me,” he continued, “and he catches up to you, spray his eyes. He won’t expect that. It will hurt like hell and he’ll be temporarily blinded. Run past him and go for the truck.” He dug the keys out of his pocket and shoved them into her jeans pocket. “Drive down the mountain like a bat out of hell. Don’t stop. Go straight to the police station. You hear me? Do not stop at some neighbor’s house or a little country store. If he ends up following you, he could go after you again. Go straight to the police. It’s almost a straight shot once you reach the bottom of the mountain. You remember the directions I told you?”
He lightly shook her when she didn’t answer.
“I do. I remember,” she said. “But none of this makes sense. Why don’t you put towels on your arms too? And climb out the window with me?”
He gave her an exasperated look. “I was up all night. My hip never had a chance to recuperate. I’m not run- ning anywhere. And the towels would make it too hard
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for me to maneuver in a fight. This is the way it has to be. He’s already cracked the doorjamb. The next time he tries to get through the door, he’ll be inside the bedroom. While I keep him occupied, you’re going to climb out that window and run for the truck.”
“I don’t want to run away like a coward and leave you. Don’t ask me to do that again.”
He grabbed a small pair of scissors from one of the drawers and set them on top of the counter. Next he grabbed a folded sheet from beneath the cabinet and tucked it under his arm. “You have to leave me. It’s the only way.”
She frantically shook her head and set the can back on the counter. “No. It’s not. Two against one, remem- ber? You and me against the world. He can’t kill both of us. If we attack him together, we’ll defeat him.”
“No, Teagan. You heard his roar of rage earlier. You saw the knives he was shoving under the door. Prob- ably the only reason he didn’t shoot his way through is that he doesn’t want to end his fun that quickly. He’s a cutter. He wants to enjoy himself first. But if he sees you running for the truck through the front windows, he’ll use the gun. You can’t outrun a bullet. I have to distract him, try to get the gun to give you a chance.”
He shoved the can in her hand, grabbed the pair of scissors and pulled her out of the bathroom.
A shoe squeaked against the polished floor outside the bedroom door.
Bryson scowled and dropped the folded sheet on top of the bed. He limped to the window and quietly eased it up. Rather than risk the noise of loosening the
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screen’s frame and dropping it outside, he used the scis- sors to cut an opening. He motioned for her to stand in front of the window.
“The truck will detect the key fob in your pocket,” he whispered. “All you have to do is press the button under the door handle and it will open. The engine’s a push-button start. You remember, right? You’ve got this.” He framed her face with his hands. “All you have to do is run, sweetheart. Everything’s going to be okay.”
Tears spilled down her cheeks as she looked into his beautiful blue eyes. “Bryson, I—”
Another squeak sounded outside the room. Lowe was getting restless, working up his courage for another as- sault. Then there was another sound, something scrap- ing across the floor. Something heavy. What was that?
Bryson pressed a quick, hard kiss against her lips. “You can do this,” he whispered next to her ear. “Don’t let me down.”
Her pulse was rushing in her ears so loudly that she almost couldn’t hear him. She grasped the windowsill. It was awkward with the ridiculous towels wrapped around her arms. But she managed.
Grabbing the sheet off the bed, he shook it out, quickly rolling and twisting it, holding it in both hands like a length of rope. It shook her to her core when she realized what he was doing: planning to use the sheet to defend himself against the knives. Her heart slammed in her chest so hard she marveled that it didn’t crack one of her ribs.
She hated this, hated the thought of abandoning him. And yet, if she stayed, she’d be a distraction that could
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get him killed. All she could do now was follow his in- structions and pray he was able to defeat Lowe.
With a concussion.
A bum hip.
Stitches both inside him and outside. Bruises all over. With nothing but a sheet to defend himself against
a madman with butcher knives and a pistol likely in his pocket.
This was insane.
A thump sounded against the door.
, he mouthed.
She clutched the stupid can of deodorant and prayed
that a better plan would come to her than leaving him here to his likely death. But what could she do? How could she help?
Something heavy crashed against the door. The already cracked frame exploded in a hail of wooden shards as a side table from the family room flew through the ruined opening. Bryson ducked, then lunged for- ward, arms outstretched with the sheet between them as he grappled with Lowe. Both men moved backward into the family room, a flurry of flashing knives and billow- ing cloth as Bryson ducked and weaved and wielded his sheet in an effort to avoid being diced into pieces.
“Now, Teagan,” he yelled, furiously fighting Lowe’s flailing arms. “Go!”
She let out a sob and jumped.
With teagan safely away, Bryson focused his undi- vided attention on the psychopath trying to hack him to death with a knife in each hand. Bryson wrenched
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his left arm up, using the sheet to deflect yet another blow. This time he twisted the sheet, then wrenched it back. The butcher knife in Lowe’s right hand flew across the family room, skittering onto the floor with a metallic twang.
Lowe dropped to the floor. Without his weight as a counterbalance, Bryson’s hip gave out. He crashed down on top of Lowe. A sickening scrape sounded and white-hot pain lanced through his side. Lowe’s mouth curved in a delighted smile as he grabbed the knife now embedded beneath Bryson’s ribs and yanked it out.
Bryson gasped, fighting for air now as he twisted and rolled with Lowe, desperately trying to gain con- trol of the knife. He grabbed Lowe’s wrist, muscles burning and shaking as he slowly won the tug of war, turning the man’s hand. Bryson swiped the blade across the man’s neck. A thin red line immediately formed. But it was only superficial. Lowe didn’t even blink. He kept straining against Bryson, trying to turn the knife the other way. Muscles bunched and cramped as Bryson fought back.
The floor turned slippery with sweat and blood. They rolled like two alligators in a death roll, each struggling to get the upper hand. Lowe was strong, and big, but he still wouldn’t have been that difficult for a man Bryson’s size to defeat. Except that Bryson had begun this match in a much-weakened state. And Lowe’s knife had done considerable damage. His life- blood was seeping from his side. A cold numbness spread across his middle, making him shiver. If he didn’t end this, soon, it would be lights out. For him.
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He threw everything he had left into fighting back. But his muscles ached. Weakness crept relentlessly through his body. It was a struggle just to hold up his arms.
Lowe gave one of his guttural yells, this one of sat- isfaction and triumph. He was winning. It was almost over. And he knew it.
Taking advantage of Lowe’s distraction, Bryson managed to twist and jerk the man’s knife hand again. This time he sliced deep into Lowe’s biceps on his right arm. But before Bryson could follow up with a killing blow, Lowe twisted and rolled on top of him. Bryson couldn’t get traction on the slippery floor. Blood sat- urated the knife handle. Bryson lost his grip. Lowe plunged the knife deep into Bryson’s side again, and twisted.
Bryson arched off the floor, an inferno of lava-like pain scorching him from the inside out. He dropped back down, gasping, struggling to catch his breath. The rest of his strength seemed to drain away, leaving him limp, muscles twitching in agony as he squinted and blinked, trying to focus.
Lowe was a dark blur, climbing to his feet, stag- gering and clutching himself as he lumbered out of Bryson’s sight-line. He rolled his head to the side, try- ing to follow the other man’s progress. Cold. He was so cold. His teeth chattered as he frantically pushed against the floor, like a fiddler crab, trying to slide away. But all he could manage was a few inches.
His nemesis stopped by one of the couches and leaned down. When he turned around, Bryson blinked,
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trying to see what was in the man’s hand. A gun. Prob- ably Bryson’s own pistol.
He held it up, no doubt gloating with triumph. Bryson could no longer see well enough to make out the man’s expression. Maybe that was a blessing.
“Chris said you’d put up a good fight and you did.” He spoke for the first time since their fight had begun, his words choppy as he too struggled to catch his breath. “I was his one call from jail. Imagine that. He called me instead of a lawyer.” He shook his head. “What a gift. And I’m here paying him back. This is for what you did to Chris.” He held his gun arm out toward Bryson. “After you’re dead, I’ll enjoy that girl- friend of yours. I’ll gut her like a fish.”
Bryson swore and tried to push himself up. But it was as if his body was glued to the floor.
The sound of a roaring engine had both of them jerking their heads toward the front windows. Bryson’s pickup crashed through the house, tossing one of the couches across the room like kindling, and slamming into Lowe so hard he flew across the room.
Someone hopped out, but all he saw was a blur. “Bryson! Bryson, I’m coming. Hold on.”
She crawled over the destruction she’d wrought on
his house. He wanted to yell at her for risking her life yet again for him. But he was so glad to see her, alive, and safe, because she’d killed Lowe. He didn’t yell. He was too proud of his little warrior to risk hurting the tender feelings that she tried to hide with her sassy
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quips. He despised himself that it took dying for him to realize just what she meant to him.
And that he loved her.
Her shoes squeaked and slid across the wet floor as she scrambled toward him. He tried to tell her that he loved her, that he was proud of her. But he wasn’t sure if the words came out or not. He was so tired. And cold. At least the awful pain had faded. He barely felt any- thing anymore. He closed his eyes, at peace, knowing that she was safe. That she would be okay.
teagan graBBed the discarded gun she’d spotted on the floor next to a smashed piece of electronics that she could only guess was whatever Lowe had used to jam the cell signals. But Lowe was no longer a threat. He was lying in a lifeless heap about ten feet away.
After a treacherous slippery slide across the blood- streaked floor, she dropped to her knees beside Bryson, gun still clutched in her left hand as she knelt over him. “Can you hear me? Speak to me,” she ordered through a cascade of tears.
He blinked, then slowly opened his eyes. “Teagan?” Her name was slurred. He seemed confused as he strug- gled to focus on her face.
“I’m here, baby. I’m here.” She set the pistol down and leaned over him, pressing her hands against the floor on each side of him to keep her balance. Some- thing bumped against her arm. She pulled back in hor- ror to see the handle of a knife sticking out from his left side, embedded all the way to the hilt. Blood pooled
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beneath him, forming macabre rivulets across the for- merly polished white floor. “Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no.”
“You…okay?” he whispered, his lips an odd, bluish tinge. “Where’s… Lowe? The…gun?”
She motioned toward the body on the other side of the room as she tore at the duct tape holding the towels around her left arm. “I hit the piece of scum with your truck. I drove it right up the front steps. Your gun’s right here.” She patted the floor beside him. “Don’t worry. He can’t hurt you again.”
He blinked. “Truck?” He rolled his head to the side, obviously trying to make sense of what she was saying. She finally freed the towel and leaned across him, pressing it around the wound while trying to not move
the knife and make it worse.
“Down!” he rasped.
She automatically ducked as the sound of a gut-
tural yell sounded off to the side. Bryson swept the pistol up and fired over and over and over. Then his hand dropped to his side and the pistol skittered across the floor. It was as if he’d gathered all the strength he had left to protect her, once again, and was completely spent.
She looked over her shoulder. Lowe was impossi- bly close to them, just a few feet away. She’d thought she’d killed him. She must have only knocked him out. Or he’d pretended to be unconscious. Neither of which mattered now. Bryson’s aim had been true. He’d shot him in the head.
A sob escaped her. “I can’t believe it. After seeing him through the window, holding that pistol, I drove
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through a wall to save you. But once again, you saved me.” She turned back toward him, smiling through her tears.
His eyes were closed.
His jaw was slack.
“Bryson?” She frantically bent over him. “Open
your eyes. Bryson?”
“Move. Get out of the way.”
She whirled around, shocked to see Gage Bishop
kneeling beside her. Behind him, Brielle, Dalton and Han had just stepped in through the ruined wall and were sweeping their pistols back and forth, looking for threats.
“Move.” Bishop none too gently shoved her out of the way. He pressed his fingers against the side of Bryson’s neck.
“Come on.” Brielle was beside her now. “Let’s give him room. The police and an ambulance are on their way. Mason told us he’d tried to call Bryson back and couldn’t get through. He called us, then 911.”
Teagan pressed her fist to her mouth to keep from screaming.
Bishop was performing CPR.
Chapter Twenty-Six Three months later
Long before the shadow fell across the end of the dock and hovered over Bryson Anton’s wheelchair, he knew someone was there. Motion sensors and security cam- eras had made Bryson’s new watch buzz against his wrist when they parked their car in the driveway. More messages warned when they crossed the back patio. And again, when they’d descended the gently slopinglawn that ended at the creek. But he didn’t turn around.
“It’s been nearly three months since you sent me away yet again, Bryson. One minute I’m at the hos- pital, thanking God that Bishop was able to keep you alive long enough to even get you there. Then I’m on my knees thanking God that you survived yet another arduous surgery. Only to visit you in recovery to dis- cover you’re acting like a grizzly bear, just like last time, proving you’re the worst patient ever in the his- tory of the universe. And then, when you’re finally in your hospital room and we’re alone, I’m ready to pour
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my heart out to you, and what do you do? You tell me to get out! You order me back to Jacksonville to work on my master’s degree. What the heck, Bryson?”
“The summer semester was about to start. I didn’t want you to have to wait until fall to start back again.” She said several unsavory things. “No phone calls from you. When I tried calling, you didn’t answer. I don’t even count the pathetic, generic texts you occa- sionally sent me. Then I find out that you’ve been talk- ing to my dad every few days, asking how I was doing. If you were worried, all you had to do was talk to me
Bryson. Not my family.”
“I was busy.”
“Really? What’s her name?”
He turned the wheelchair around to face her. She
was wearing hunter-green shorts and a lime-green tank top in deference to the warm weather. As always, her rich brown skin was flawless, her full high breasts a reminder of the incredible body beneath those clothes. But his favorite part of her was that gorgeous bright mind of hers. And her beautiful, sassy mouth. He never knew what outrageous thing she was going to say next.
“Helga,” he said.
She frowned. “Excuse me?”
“You asked me her name. Her name is Helga. Or,
well, I actually don’t even know her real name. But that’s what you called her when she was here that first day you showed up on my doorstep.”
She put her hands on her hips. “Does this mean that you’ve been doing the rehab the doctor ordered?”
“It does. I have.”
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She crossed her arms, looking only slightly less ag- gravated than before. “Well, that’s good. But I still don’t see why you couldn’t text me a real hello, with feeling, every once in a while. Or actually speak to me on the phone. What makes you think you could just text me last night to come back and everything would be fine?”
He smiled. “You’re here aren’t you?”
She narrowed her eyes, then whirled around.
He caught her arm just before she could get out of
reach and yanked her backward.
She let out a little squeak and landed right where he
wanted her. In his lap.
“Let me go, Bryson. I’m not kidding.”
He gently turned her face so she’d meet his gaze.
“Is that really want you want, Teag? You want me to let you go?” The flash of unshed tears in her eyes sur- prised him. “Sweetheart?”
“You already have. You wouldn’t let me stay to help with your recovery. You sent me back home like some child—”
“While I could never mistake you for a child, not even close—” he gently stroked her arm, unable to re- sist touching her “—there’s definitely an age differ- ence between us. Something to think about. You’re young, still working on officially starting your career, although I heard the FBI is interested in grooming you as a future candidate.”
She smiled. Not full wattage, but enough for him to know that he was right, that the FBI opportunity was important to her.
“There might be a nibble there,” she admitted. “They
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were impressed with the detailed investigation I con- ducted, and that I was right about Avarice Lowe being a serial killer. Apparently my notes on him have helped them narrow down facts that blow apart his alibis for some of the killings. He may not be around for a trial. But at least some of his victims’ families will have true closure now.”
He pressed a kiss against her cheek and settled her more comfortably against him. The fact that she didn’t resist being snuggled close was encouraging. “You have the most beautiful mind I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. It’s about time the rest of the world figured that out.”
She gave him the side-eye before looking away. “I’d say thank you, but it sounds like you’re building an- other excuse to justify why you wanted me to leave you.”
“Not leave me. Go back to school. Huge difference.” She shrugged.
“Teag, you’re young, energetic, just starting out in
life. I’m more toward the middle of mine.”
“Okay, maybe not quite the middle just yet. Hope-
“Is this going somewhere?”
He motioned toward the wheelchair. “I wouldn’t
want you to ever regret spending time with a cripple when you could be out with guys your own age doing whatever you want.”
She rolled her eyes with a dramatic toss of her head. “I think you’re confusing me with the self-centered
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stuck-up jerk who used to be your girlfriend. I’m a lit- tle more creative than her. I can figure out lots of fun things to do with you even if you can’t twirl me around a dance floor.”
“Does that mean you could be happy if I never walked again?”
Her mouth fell open and she cupped his face in her hands, all signs of teasing and anger gone as she stared into his eyes. “Oh, Bry. Is that what the doctor said? Are you…are you paralyzed?”
He gently pulled her hands down and kissed them before letting go. “No. I’m not paralyzed. I’ve been very lucky, actually, after being shot twice in my life. Then stabbed. Twice. I just wanted to make sure that if something like that did happen, maybe down the road—considering how dangerous my career can be— that you’d still be okay sticking around.”
Her brows arched in confusion. “Love isn’t based on how mobile you are or what you can do for some- one else. Love is when your happiness revolves around the other person’s happiness. Once again, I think you’re confusing me with the ex who shall not be named.”
“Did you just say that you loved me, Teagan? In that
unique sassy way of yours?”
She crossed her arms. “That depends.”
“On why you’re asking me these stupid questions
and why you texted me last night that you had first
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class tickets waiting for me so I could fly up here today. Thanks for the first class, by the way. That was cool.”
“You’re welcome. Thanks for coming.”
She twisted her mouth as if trying to figure some- thing out. “You’re acting awfully strange. And my infi- nite patience is wearing thin. Out with it. What exactly do you want? Are you asking me to be your girlfriend and you’re worried I’ll dump you because of the chair?”
“Be your girlfriend? Are you asking me to be your girlfriend?”
“We’re done here. Have a nice life, Bryson.” She hopped off his lap and started up the dock.
“I’m not asking you to be my girlfriend,” he called after her.
She raised her hand in the air and made a rude ges- ture without looking back.
He grinned. “I’m asking you to be my fiancée. For real this time.”
She stopped so fast that she wobbled and almost fell into the water. Once she regained her balance, she slowly turned around. “What…what did you just say?”
He leaned down and flipped the top back on the cooler beside his chair. Then he pulled out a red vel- vet box and held it up in front of him. “I love you Tea- gan Eleanor Ray.”
She gasped in outrage. “Did my mother tell you my middle name? I hate it. It makes me sound like an eighty-year-old.”
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“Well, maybe that will help with the age gap be- tween us.” He winked.
She marched back to him and stopped a few feet from his chair, eyeing the velvet box in his hands. “Be honest, Bryson. Exactly how much older than me are you?”
“Old enough to teach you a few things that I know you’ll really, really enjoy. And young enough to dem- onstrate them with an expertise that will make your toes curl.”
Her gaze flew to his. She swallowed, then cleared her throat. “Toes curl?”
“All of them?” she squeaked.
She fanned herself, then wiped her hands on her
shorts. “Um. Wasn’t there a question you asked me, a moment ago, when my back was turned?”
He nodded again.
She put her hands on her hips. “Don’t you think you should ask again? Face-to-face?”
Her eyes widened. She started to turn away.
She froze and stared in wonder as he dropped down
on one knee on the dock.
“I think I should ask it down here, do this the right
way, on bended knee.” He opened the box and tilted it so the ring would catch the light.
She pressed a hand to her throat. “You stood on
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your own. No cane. And you’re on one knee. I don’t understand.”
“By the grace of God, when Lowe stabbed me, it knocked the bullet loose instead of into my spine. The doctors were able to extract it. And I’ve been doing everything the therapists ordered me to do. I’m not pain-free yet. But there’s a good chance I will be. Even- tually.”
Her expression turned sad. “Are you in pain right now, Bryson?”
He shook his head. “No. And it’s not because of te- quila.”
“Pain pills. Like I said, I’m following doctor’s orders this time. No self-medicating with alcohol. No more skipping rehab appointments. And even though I hate how the pills make me feel, I wanted to be able to do this without grimacing. So I’m all doped up and feel- ing good. Now, about that question I asked—”
“The ring is beautiful,” she breathed, stepping closer and eyeing the box again. “But not half as beautiful as you, you frustrating, stubborn man.”
He smiled as he pulled the ring out of its bed of vel- vet. “I wanted something special, something as unique as you.”
She moved even closer, then pressed her hand against her chest. “Opals. And diamonds. And rubies. I love opals and rubies. How did you know?”
“All those calls to your mom and dad weren’t for nothing.”
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“Necessary. I wanted to surprise you. You just con- firmed that you love opals and rubies. Diamonds too I hope?”
She rolled her eyes. “Everyone loves diamonds. Or they should. I couldn’t ask for anything more beauti- ful. Thank you.” She held out her left hand.
He poised the ring in front of her finger. But be- fore sliding it on, he looked up, meeting her gaze. “It’s selfish of me to even ask you to marry me, because I think you could do a lot better. But I can’t imagine my life without you in it. I love you, Teagan Ray. I think I loved you the moment you knocked on my door and the only word you could get out was hi
.” He grinned. “Will you do me the honor of being my wife? Will you marry me?”
“Are you kidding? Put the ring on already.”
He laughed and slid the ring onto her finger. Then he stood.
Tears glittered in her eyes as she put her hands on his shoulders. “I can’t believe you’re standing here like this. I’m so happy for you.”
“No happier than me, that you said yes. I wasn’t sure how this was going to go.”
“That makes two of us. I had no idea why you wanted to see me. I believe you owe me a kiss, future husband.” She lifted her lips toward his and waited for him to bend down.
“Hold that thought. I have something else for you.” He turned back to the cooler and reached inside.
She groaned. “You’re killing me, Bryson. I don’t want anything else but you.”
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“Oh, I don’t know. I’m pretty sure you want this. And I did make a promise after all.” He handed her a pink bag with little pink ribbons tied all over it, and the name of a very exclusive store on the outside of the bag.
Her eyes widened. “You didn’t.”
She opened the bag and peeked inside, then squealed
with delight as she shoved her hand in and pulled out an aqua-colored lace bra and panty set. “They’re gorgeous, perfect. And they’re my size. Oh my gosh, please don’t tell me you asked my mother my sizes.” She gasped. “Or my dad!”
“Give me more credit than that. I asked your mother for your best friend’s name. Then I asked your best friend.” She laughed with obvious relief and sorted through the contents. “Twelve. You bought me a dozen bras
and matching panties. Bryson! This cost a fortune!” “I can afford it. I’d pay ten times that to see your
eyes light up and your glowing smile.”
The tears that had been threatening spilled over and
down her cheeks. “I’m so happy.”
“Because we’re going to get married?”
She shook her head. “Because you promised that
when you replaced my hundred-dollar bra that you’d buy me more, and then you’d take them off me.”
He threw his head back and laughed harder than he had in ages.
“Hurry, Bryson. I’m not waiting one more minute for you to keep your promise. I’ll strip right here on your back lawn if I have to.”
Still laughing, he scooped her up in his arms and
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ran with her to the house. But before going inside, he let her legs slide down him as he’d done so long ago. And this time, he did what he’d wanted to do since the first time he’d seen her. He kissed her. Really kissed her. Kissed her with all his pent-up emotions, love and longing and lust all rolled into one. And when he was done, he pulled back to soak in the haze of passion in her eyes and the love reflected back in them.
His hands were shaking as he cupped her face. “I don’t know what I did to make you love me. But I’ll thank God every night for the rest of my life that you showed up on my doorstep. You’re a treasure, Teagan. A gift to my battered soul. I love you so much.”
She shifted the bag of lingerie to her left hand and grabbed his right in hers. “I love you too, Bryson Anton. But you have one more promise to keep. You have to make my toes curl.”
“Challenge accepted.” He scooped her up in his arms and kissed her again as he strode through the house.
Her toes were curling before they even reached the bedroom.
Look for more books in award-winning author Lena Diaz’s miniseries, The Justice Seekers, coming soon!
And if you missed the previous book in the series, look for
Cowboy Under Fire,
available now from Harlequin Intrigue!