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In a Heartbeat

$ 360.87
In a Heartbeat
Rita Herron

Литагент HarperCollins EUR


A Heartbeat Is All It Takes . . .With that brief, terrifying phone call, Lisa Langley's nightmare began again. Four years ago she was the sole survivor of the Grave Digger, a madman who buried his victims alive. Now a copycat killer is on the loose and she's the only chance Special Agent Brad Booker has of stopping this twisted psycho before more women – including Lisa – die.Hard-edged and always in control, Booker has never forgiven himself for failing to save Lisa from falling victim to the first Grave Digger. Whatever it takes, this time he's not going to let her down. Because almost losing Lisa is not something he can live through twice . . .


Lisa Langley was suffocating. Being buried alive. Swallowed by the darkness.


Cold terror clutched her in its grip. The wooden box imprisoning her was so small, her arms and legs touched the sides. She tried to scream, but her throat was so dry and parched that the sound died.

Tears mingled with the sweat on her cheeks, streaming into her hair and down her neck. What kind of maniac buried a woman alive?

The same kind that robbed you of your life the last few days.

William White. The man she’d dated off and on for the past six months.

The man otherwise known as the Grave Digger.
Look what Romantic Times BOOKclub has to say about
RITA HERRON


A Breath Away

“Herron has crafted a psychologically frightening novel. The plot is complex and compelling…the story’s twists are refreshingly not predictable.”

Her Eyewitness

“Rita Herron will grab your attention.”

The Man from Falcon Ridge

“4 1/2 stars! Rita Herron’s eerie gothic is a bewitching mixture of suspense and paranormal.”

Saving His Son

“Rita Herron produces a prime intrigue.”

Mysterious Circumstances

“4 stars. A terrifying tale of terrorism and germ warfare that has a very realistic feel. Fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat suspense drives the story from beginning to end.”

The Cradle Mission

“An exciting and engaging read.”
In a Heartbeat

Rita Herron
To Allison Lyons—for our first big book together.

Thanks for all your suggestions and patience. Hope we celebrate many more together!
CONTENTS


PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO
PROLOGUE


LISA LANGLEY COULDN’T breathe.

Heat engulfed her, and perspiration trickled down her brow and neck, the cloying air filled with the scent of decay, blood and foul body odors.

Her captor’s smell.

Her own.

She was suffocating. Being buried alive. Swallowed by the darkness.

Cold terror clutched her in its grip. The wooden box imprisoning her was so small her arms and legs touched the sides. An insect crawled along her chin, nipping at her skin, biting at the flesh. She tried to scream, but her throat was so dry and parched that the sound died.

Tears mingled with the sweat on her cheeks, streaming into her hair and down her neck. What kind of maniac buried a woman alive?

The same kind that robbed you of your life the last few days.

William White. The man she’d dated off and on for the past six months.

How could she not have known what kind of monster he was?

She trembled as the terrifying memories rushed back—the first day the suspicions had crept into her mind. The subtle nuances that William possessed a violent streak. His morbid fascination with the articles in the paper describing the murders.

The odd look in his eyes when the press named him the “Grave Digger.”

Above her, a shovel scraped the ground. Dirt splattered the top of the box. Rocks and debris pinged on top of her. The shovel again. More dirt. Over and over. The eerie drone of his voice humming an old hymn faded in and out as he worked.

The past few days had been a living nightmare. He’d heard her call the police. Had known she’d figured out his identity. Had known that the FBI was coming for him.

There was nothing else he could do, he’d told her—except treat her as he had his other victims.

She’d thought each day she would die. But each time, when he’d finally left her, bruised and hurting, she’d managed to will herself to survive. Because she’d thought she might be rescued. That Agent Brad Booker would make good on his promise to protect her.

Particles of dirt pinged off the mound above her again, the sound growing faint as she imagined him finishing her grave.

And then the silence.

It frightened her the most.

He had gone. Was never coming back. Her body convulsed with fear. She was hidden beneath the ground, locked in the endless quiet.

No one would ever find her.

She tried to raise her hand, to roll sideways so she could push at the lid. Her right hand was broken, throbbing with pain, but she dragged her left one to her side, twisted enough to turn slightly, and clawed at the top. Her nails broke into jagged layers, and her fingers were bloody and raw, with splinters jabbing her skin.

He had nailed the top shut. And laughed as she’d begged him to stop.

A few grains of sand sifted through the cracks, pelting her face. She blinked at the dust. Tasted dirt.

It was so dark. If only she had a light.

But night had fallen outside when he’d laid her in her casket.

She pushed and scraped until her fingers grew numb. In spite of the unbearable heat, chills cascaded through her as death closed in. Then, slowly, peace washed over her as she reconciled herself to the fact that she was going to die.

The life she’d dreamed about flashed into her mind—a beautiful white wedding dress. Getting married on a warm, sandy beach with the breeze fluttering the palm leaves and the ocean lapping against the shore. Moonlight shimmered off the sand as they exchanged vows, while her father stood in the distance, smiling proudly.

Then she and her husband were making love beneath the open trees. Promising to hold each other forever.

And later, a baby boy lay nestled in her arms. A little girl danced toward her.

A little girl she could buy a birthstone ring for, just as her mother had for her. Once she’d outgrown it, she’d made it into a necklace. But William had stolen that, too. Had ripped it from her throat and thrown it to the ground. It was lost forever. Just like her dreams.

Too weak to scream, she felt the sob that erupted from her throat die in the dusty abyss of her prison.

The hopes of that life, of a family, faded with it as she closed her eyes and floated into the darkness.
SHE HAD TO BE ALIVE.

The tires of Special Agent Brad Booker’s sedan screeched on the wet asphalt as he veered onto the narrow dirt road leading around the old farmhouse. It was pitch-dark, a cloudy moonless night. He’d reached “Death Valley.” At least that was the nickname the locals had dubbed it after several people had died in the valley.

Now he knew why it had been dubbed the gruesome name.

The grass and trees all looked brittle and frail from the drought, the outbuildings run-down and dilapidated, the lack of life a sign that it was deserted. He’d heard rumors about the area. That the soil wasn’t fertile. That plants and animals couldn’t thrive here. That families didn’t, either.

He threw the car into Park, jumped out, grabbed a flashlight and shovel from the trunk and took off running. Behind him two other cars raced up and parked. One his partner, Ethan Manning. The other a squad car from the local Buford police.

His heart pounded as he tore through the dark, wooded area searching for ground that had been freshly turned. Limbs cracked and branches splintered beneath his boots. It had been over twenty minutes since Brad had received the call from the reporter.

The call describing the spot where Lisa Langley was buried.

Jesus.

Brad had promised to protect her.

But he’d failed.

Behind him, the men’s voices sounded as each decided which direction to go. It was so damn dark they could barely see their own feet, the towering oaks and pines like a jungle that blocked out any light. They parted, the locals with the police dogs allowing the hounds to lead. Brad wove behind them to the right, shining his flashlight over the dry ground, ignoring the buzz of insects and threat of snakes as he raced through the briars and brambles. A voice inside his head whispered to him that it was too late.

Just as it had been for the other four victims.

Another voice ordered him to fight the panic.

But the air in the box wouldn’t last long—if the oppressive summer heat didn’t cause Lisa to have heatstroke first. And then the bugs would feast on her body.

He banished the image and forged on.

It seemed like hours, but only a few minutes passed before one of the police tracking dogs suddenly howled.

“Over here!” the officer yelled. “I think we’ve got something.”

Brad spun around and raced toward him. Seconds later, he spotted the mound of dirt. The single white rose lying on top.

The Grave Digger’s signature.

“Damn it!” His heart clutched painfully as he imagined Lisa Langley down below. Terrified. Dying.

Or dead already.

He loosened the knot in his tie, then jammed the shovel into the ground, swiping at the perspiration on his face with the back of his shirtsleeve. Manning and the locals followed, digging with a frenzy. Dirt and rocks flew over their shoulders as they worked. Sweat poured down Brad’s face, the sound of the shovels and the men’s labored breathing filling the humid air.

Finally, the shovel hit something hard. A wooden box. Just like the others.

His heart pounding, he dug faster, raking away the layers of soil until they uncovered the top of the box.

“Give me a crowbar and some light!” Brad shouted.

Ethan knelt beside him, shoved the tool into his hand. Brad attacked the box while the locals shone flashlights on the dark hole.

The wood broke and splintered. Brad clawed it open. His throat jammed with emotions. Fury. Rage. Guilt.

Lisa Langley. Such a beautiful young girl. Left naked and dirty. Bruised and beaten. Her fingers were bloody from trying to dig her way out. Her eyes were closed.

Her body so still.

“Too late,” one of the locals said.

“Shit,” the other one muttered.

“No!” He couldn’t accept it.

Even though he never went to church, wasn’t sure he was even a believer, a prayer rolled through his head as he reached inside and lifted her out. She was so limp. Heavy. Cold. He spread her across his lap, then immediately began CPR.

Ethan ran to the car and brought back blankets, draped them over her body, then felt for a pulse.

Gazes locked, the two men paused, paralyzed, for just a second.

Brad continued CPR, muttering under his breath. “Come on, damn it, Lisa, breathe! Don’t you dare die on me.”

Time lapsed into an eternity as they waited. Finally her chest rose slightly.

Ethan made a choked sound. “Jesus Christ, she’s alive.” He jumped into motion, punching at his cell phone. “Where the hell’s that ambulance? Get it here ASAP—our vic is breathing!”

Brad sent a thank-you to heaven, then lowered his head and wrapped the blankets more securely around her, rocking her back and forth. “Come on, Lisa, stay with me, sweetheart,” he whispered. “Help is on the way.” He shook her face gently, trying to rouse her into consciousness, but she was in shock. He wrapped the blankets tighter, hugging her closer to warm her. Somehow, if she lived, he’d make it all up to her.

And when he found the bastard who’d done this to her, he’d make him pay with his life.
CHAPTER ONE


Four years later

“THE GRAVE DIGGER IS BACK.”

Special Agent Brad Booker stared at the crime scene in shock, the detective’s voice mimicking his own thoughts. The Grave Digger case—this whole scenario reeked of it.

That first one had almost cost him his career, his entire life.

His mind ticked over the similarities. Four years ago, the final victim, Lisa Langley, had been found on another moonless night. It had been dark and so damn hot the heat had literally robbed his breath. As if the thought of her missing hadn’t already done so.

Just like the other victims, he’d found her in a rural, deserted wooded area. Rotting vegetation and overgrown bushes marred the trail. Yet they had plowed through and found the grave tucked into the midst of Death Valley.

Except today, there was no white rose on the grave. This killer was making his own statement. Adding his personal signature with the gold cross dangling around the woman’s neck. But what was the significance?

Hopefully, Joann Worthy’s battered body would give them some answers. The stench of blood, decay and death permeated the air. Crime scene technicians combed the woods with flashlights, searching for evidence in the inky night. Insects buzzed noisily. Cameras flashed, capturing all angles of the woman’s lifeless body and her burial spot. The medical examiner was busy logging details of injuries and determining the cause of death. A rookie Buford cop named Surges turned green as he spotted the already decaying body, and ran toward the bushes.

Brad stood rooted to the spot, sweat coating his neck and trickling down his back. An image of Lisa’s grave four years ago flashed back. Digging furiously in the heat of the night. Praying she was alive. Knowing it was his fault if she didn’t survive.

Barely resuscitating her.

And then the trial. Watching Lisa face her attacker. Listening to the gruesome details describing what the man had done to her. Then seeing the man finally locked away.

Another local, Gunther, sidled up to him. “You sure it’s not the same man? Maybe that first Grave Digger got out of jail.”

“Impossible.” Brad swiped at the gnats swarming around his face. “William White died in jail nine months ago, of a massive head injury from a prison fight. I identified his body myself.” In fact, he had flown directly to the facility the minute he’d heard of White’s demise. Had wanted to make sure for himself the sadistic psycho was really gone. That he could never escape and hurt another woman again.

Especially Lisa.

Then Brad had driven to the mountain cabin she’d rented near Ellijay in North Georgia to deliver the news himself. To see the relief on her face.

To find out if the ghosts still haunted her.

He’d somehow known they would, that she’d never fully escape them. And when he’d realized that he reminded her of the worst time of her life, he’d forced himself to leave. But he’d never forgotten her. Never stopped blaming himself.

Never stopped admiring her courage or…imagining that things could have been different if she’d never been a victim.

But a personal relationship with Lisa Langley was a pipe dream, especially a short-term one, which was all a jaded man like him had to offer. He knew nothing about love. Commitment. Families.

Dealing with a traumatized victim.

His own mother had thrown him out as a kid, discarded him like day-old meat. His bitter childhood had nearly turned him into the type of men he chased today. And there were times even now when he thought he might cross the line. Times when he’d come so close that he’d nearly tripped and fallen over to the dark side.

He had actually done so in the past.

The night he’d finally gotten his hands on William White, that killer instinct in him had emerged again.

Sweet, blissful relief to have caught the man had filled him, just as the rage and injustice of what White had done to his victims had made Brad nearly take the man’s life. Because Brad Booker was a man without mercy.

And White had seen that wrath.

Brad had no regrets. He would have enjoyed watching the killer die.

Forcing himself back to the present, he glanced at the victim’s body as the M.E. rolled her over. Bile rose in his throat. When they’d found her, Lisa’s lower back had been covered in welts in much the same way. Thank God she was safe now.

And keeping her safe continued to be part of the job. No one knew where she was. The new name she’d assumed.

And he intended to keep it that way.

But this poor woman…it was too late.

“Can you believe this?” His partner, Ethan Manning, strode up, notepad in hand, rubbing at the sweat on his neck. “We were in a drought back then, too, a real scorching heat wave.”

Brad nodded. “And the killer always left the body in an isolated place.” The proximity to his own cabin on the lake seemed eerie, too coincidental. He didn’t like coincidences.

“Wooden box was nailed shut with the same kind of nails,” Ethan said. “And he chops off the victim’s hair. Brutalizes them. Even calls a reporter to gloat.”

Brad grimaced. “But this time he left a cross instead of a rose.”

“What’s that all about?” Ethan asked.

“Maybe some indication that he’s a religious freak.” Brad scoffed at the idea. “Any sign of rape?”

The one thing Lisa had been spared. Thank God. Apparently White had been impotent.

“Can’t tell yet, but I’ll let you know,” the M.E. said. “He cuts the fingernails off to get rid of trace evidence.”

If the woman had been raped, then the copycat was deviating slightly from the first killer’s MO. Still, there were so many similarities. “How could this copycat know every last detail?”

“The papers carried the trial,” Ethan suggested. “And he could have read the transcript of Lisa’s testimony.”

Brad’s gut clenched. Every word of that agonizing testimony had been seared into his brain.

“Or hell, he probably bragged about it in prison,” Ethan said. “You know how these sickos are. White was a sociopath.”

Brad nodded. Right, the bastard had no conscience.

Brad almost understood. He’d been forced to get into perps’ heads too many times. Had seen their handiwork. Had witnessed their unspeakable acts.

Had begun to think he might be tainted himself from the violence. Not knowing his daddy or the genetic pool he’d come from triggered disturbing questions in the dark hours of the night.

The M.E. lifted a maggot from inside the box and bagged it. July 1, the dead of summer, and the Atlanta temperature soared near a hundred, making the heat in the box even more suffocating.

The poor woman. How long had she been kept down there before her killer had called? Brad turned toward Gunther, the local officer. “She the one you’ve been looking for?”

“Matches the sketch,” he said, tight-mouthed. “I’ll phone the family to meet us at the morgue and verify her identity.”

Brad grimaced. One of the worst parts of the job. Telling the victim’s family.

He still remembered Dr. Langley’s reaction when he’d phoned to relay the news that they’d found Lisa. Alive. Only the man hadn’t reacted as he’d expected.

“We’ll question the other inmates where White was imprisoned,” Ethan said.

Brad mumbled agreement. “And I want to talk to that reporter.”

“I’ll get someone on the lumber supply companies,” Ethan said. “He may be building these boxes himself, like White did. Maybe we can get a jump on where he bought the wood.”

Surges staggered up, wiping at his mouth. “Sorry.”

“Don’t sweat it, kid. You’ll get used to it,” Brad said. “Just start canvassing those cabins around the lake.”

Surges nodded, and Brad contemplated different possibilities—such as what if White hadn’t been operating alone years ago?

Sometimes serial killers worked in pairs….

The hairs on his neck tingled. They’d explored that angle during the original trial, but had never found any evidence to support it. But they could have been wrong.

Ethan moved up to his side. “Are you going to tell Lisa?”

Brad jerked his head toward his partner and swallowed hard. He’d never confided his feelings for White’s final victim, but Ethan had sensed the attraction. That Brad had nearly lost perspective.

But Lisa hated him. Would barely even look him in the eye.

How could he blame her? He’d hounded her for information on her boyfriend for weeks, accused her of covering for the man, even suggested White had used her, that she was a fool if she didn’t know the truth.

Then, when she’d finally phoned him to admit her suspicions, he’d promised to protect her. But White had gotten to Lisa first. The week that followed had been hell for Brad.

But nothing compared to the ordeal Lisa had endured. Seven days and nights of pure torture.

Ethan cleared his throat. “Booker?”

“No, not yet. I don’t want to alarm her.”

“You think that’s wise? Maybe she remembered something during the last four years that might help us. Like the place where White kept her. Or a second man.”

Brad nodded, feeling resigned, while they both tried to focus on the details regarding this other woman.

But as things wound down, and he strode back to his car, a sense of foreboding followed him. Could he ask Lisa to relive those nightmarish details again? To tap into her subconscious, where she’d repressed some of the horror?

Of course you can. You’re the man without mercy. You can do whatever it takes to get the job done.

His stomach knotted as another thought struck him. If this psycho was copying White’s crimes to a tee, would he go after Lisa just as the last madman had?
FOUR YEARS LATER, and Lisa still checked over her shoulder everywhere she went. She sighed, determined not to obsess over the past as she drove around the small north-Georgia mountain road toward Ellijay. But this particular stretch of road, barren and practically uninhabited, with acres of woods, always gave her the willies.

Lush green grass, wildflowers, rolling hills and valleys filled with groves of apple trees all swished past, the scenery so picturesque she almost wanted to stop and take a photo. To venture into the woods off the side of the road to pick some flowers.

Yet a sliver of unease raced up her spine as she glanced into the shadowy groves. It was too isolated. The shadows held danger. The trees created a canopy of hidden secrets. The leaves shading the sun painted the forest in darkness.

And another drought had rippled across the South. A water shortage had caused the grass to wilt, the flowers to die, the heat to kill. Just as it had when the Grave Digger had struck.

She sped up, anxious to pass the area and enter the small town, where everyone was friendly. She’d purposely left Atlanta after her ordeal because in every crowd she’d seen a potential attacker. In every dark alley, a psycho waiting to grab her. In every smile from a man, an invitation for trouble.

Would she ever get over her paranoia that someone would attack her again? That becoming involved with a man would end in danger?

William is dead, she reminded herself for the hundredth time that week, as she turned into the day care parking lot. He’s never coming back.

And you have a new life.

Or did she?

How could she really have a life if she continued to be afraid of her own shadow? If she held herself back from friendships, from involving herself in the community because she didn’t want to become a victim again?

No, it had to be this way. She was just trying to survive.

Now, she was safe. She’d changed her last name from Langley to Long. She’d rented a small cabin on top of a rolling hill with apple trees surrounding it. She could see anyone approaching from miles around.

No one in Ellijay knew her true identity, or what had happened to her four years ago.

She intended to keep it that way.

Didn’t want the pitying looks. The curious questions. The suspicious eyes wondering if she was crazy. The condemning ones that screamed she was to blame for her own assault. And for those other women’s. If only she’d been smarter, come forward sooner….

Just as her father had thought. Oh, he hadn’t come right out and said it, but she saw it in his eyes. The disappointment. The shock that she was no longer daddy’s perfect little princess. His conviction that she was playing into the victim role.

But she had been fighting it on a daily basis.

She parked, then climbed out of her Toyota. Instantly, heat suffused her, and her feet crunched the dry blades of grass of the lawn. Glancing around quickly, she noticed a tall, broad-shouldered man with wavy hair standing on the corner. He was watching her with hooded eyes.

Chilled by the realization, she hurried into the Love ’N Play Day Care, where she’d worked the last four summers. Thanks to Special Agent Brad Booker, who’d helped her relocate, she’d secured a teaching job at the local elementary school, and supplemented her income by working at the day camps in the summer. She waved good morning to the director, Luanne Roaker, who was talking to a parent in her office, and rushed to her classroom to set up for the activities.

Teaching preschoolers wasn’t the career she’d chosen before the attack, and certainly not the career her father wanted for her, but her priorities had changed drastically when she’d been pulled from that grave. Of course, Dr. Liam Langley, prestigious surgeon, didn’t understand that. First he’d wanted her to be the society wife, marry a doctor, serve on the volunteer committees as her mother had done when she was alive. When Lisa had mentioned a career instead, he’d suggested she follow in his footsteps and become a doctor.

When she’d chosen teaching, and relocated, he’d been furious.

But she liked working with the children—they were so innocent.

Just as she’d been once.

Never again.

Since the attack, she’d lost her sense of trust, given up on her dreams of marriage and a family. The kids she taught filled that void. They gave her the love she needed, their innocence a precious commodity, offering her hope that one day she’d be normal.

Free of the nightmares that haunted her.

Thirty minutes later, after she’d greeted each of her students with a hug and given Ruby Bailey, her assistant, instructions for setting up the daily art activity, she gathered the group into a circle for their morning share time.

“Miss Lisa,” four-year-old Jamie said in a low voice. “I had a bad dream last night.”

Lisa patted the little girl’s back, grateful she’d finally opened up to share. For the first three weeks in her class, she’d barely spoken. “Tell us about it, Jamie.”

The other children waved their hands, anxious to speak.

“I had a bad dream wast night, too,” exclaimed Sandy, a towheaded girl who hadn’t learned to say her Ls.

“I have bad dreams all the time,” Louis yelled. “But my mama says they’re not real.”

“They are too real,” Jamie mumbled.

“Mine was about spiders,” Sandy said. “Icky spiders with a miwwion-triwwion wegs.”

“I dreamed about being a princess,” Peggy said.

“I wants to be Spiderman for Halloween,” Davie Putnam said.

“Halloween’s not for a long time,” Billy Lackey shouted.

“Let’s let Jamie finish first, then the rest of us can share,” Lisa said, gently steering them back on track. “Jamie, Louis is right, dreams aren’t real, but sometimes they feel real, don’t they?”

Sandy scrunched her nose. “The spiders felt reawl. Wike they were crawwing on me.”

Lisa squeezed Sandy’s hand. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I don’t like spiders, either.” She turned back to Jamie. “Is that how you felt, Jamie? Like the monster was right there with you?”

Jamie bobbed her head up and down, her lower lip trembling. Sandy scooted over and put her arm around Jamie. “It’s awright.”

Probably a remnant of her own therapy, but Lisa had learned that if she allowed the children to express their anxiety first thing in the morning, their entire day went smoother. “Tell us the rest of the nightmare, Jamie. Sometimes if you talk about your bad dreams, they go away.”

“There was a big ugly monster hiding under my bed.” Jamie’s eyes widened. “He had green hair and black teeth and scales all over his body!”

“Eww.” Several kids shrieked, while Roddy Owens, a big kid with a devilish streak, mocked them.

“Scaredy-cats. Scaredy-cats.”

Lisa lifted a warning hand. “Roddy, we don’t make fun of others for how they feel.”

The voice of the therapist she’d seen after the attack echoed in her head. Emotions aren’t always rational. You simply have to learn to control your reactions.

“What happened next, Jamie?” Lisa asked.

“He grabbed my feet, and he dragged me under the bed.” Jamie wrapped her arms around her waist. “It was so dark. I don’t like the dark.”

Lisa hugged her. “A lot of people are afraid of the dark, honey. Maybe you could ask your parents to get you a night-light. I sleep with one myself.”

“You do?” Jamie said. A few of the children seemed surprised, then others piped in.

“I gots a night-light,” Kelly Ames claimed. “It’s a Cinderella one.”

“I got one shaped like a spaceship,” Ernie Walker squealed. “With sparkly colors on it.”

Lisa relaxed as the children shared, the morning racing by as they broke into groups for play activities. Finger painting was on the agenda for the day, so she tied an apron around her front to protect her clothing. Art was her favorite activity, and although Ruby sometimes complained of the mess, Lisa loved it. The kids could express themselves and their creativity while having fun and learning how to mix colors.

By one o’clock, when the class left for home, she was exhausted, but her spirits were high as she studied the colorful, bright pictures the children had painted. She and Ruby tacked them on the bulletin board.

Ruby laughed good-naturedly. “Wow, we have everything from bugs to barrettes.”

Lisa smiled at Sandy’s rendition of spiders, although Jamie’s interpretation of her monster disturbed her. Could that monster be real? Maybe a parent abusing her?

Or was she overreacting? Letting her own distrust of men make her suspicious?

“Ruby, do you know anything about Jamie’s family?”

Ruby frowned. “Just that her mother died last year.”

That’s right. Lisa remembered the single parent status from her file, although Jamie never spoke of it. “What about her father?”

“He’s a contractor, works long hours, but I hear he’s very loving. He’s a deacon at the church.”

Hmm. Maybe the monster wasn’t her father. Maybe a manifestation of Jamie’s fear of being alone, of losing her mother.

Lisa’s heart squeezed. She’d lost her own mother when she was about Jamie’s age. She’d make it a point to pay extra attention to the little girl.

After all, Jamie was only five. She should have childish fears.

But Lisa should be conquering hers.
NEARLY A WEEK HAD PASSED since they’d discovered the first victim of the copycat Grave Digger.

A week that had brought them no closer to finding the killer.

A week of thinking about Lisa Langley and wondering if she was all right.

Sure, Brad had the locals check on her. Physically, she was fine.

But was she really healing? Moving on with her life?

From his reports, she seemed to be. So why was he so damn nervous? Why had he been unable to sleep for the past six nights, wondering if she’d heard the news of the Atlanta woman’s abduction and death? If for some reason this new killer would come after her.

He knew for a fact that she didn’t read the paper anymore, that she rarely watched the news. That the least criminal behavior triggered her paranoia, when she was struggling so hard to recover.

But what if she had heard and was frightened? Lying in bed wondering why he hadn’t been the one to inform her a copycat had left White’s signature?

Would Lisa call him if she knew?

He’d left his number, told her countless times to phone him if she needed him.

Had hoped that she might so he could hear that soft, sultry voice of hers.

God, you’re sick. As if you’d have something to offer.

You’re Brad Booker, a bastard child. A man who’s seen the most abysmal side of life. A man who’s killed without blinking twice.

A man who should have protected her but let her down.

The clock chimed midnight, the hours ticking by a constant reminder that another victim might be taken any minute. That this case was a chance for him to redeem himself in the eyes of his superiors. He’d been walking a tightrope ever since the White disaster. And this time he had to toe the line. Prove the hard-edged agent was still in control. Methodical. Able to compartmentalize. Stay detached.

Reeling with frustration, he climbed from bed, wiped at the perspiration on his neck and opened the French doors of his cabin, aching for the quiet lull of the lake outside. The heat blasted him, though, insects swarming on the patio, being fried by the insect zapper he’d hung from the railing. He watched them dive toward it, circle the light, be drawn to its brightness. Then he heard the sizzle as they met their death.

Just as he would ruthlessly take down the killer.

As he’d done before.

What would Lisa think if she knew about his past?

He shook off the thoughts. The case was all that mattered.

The first Grave Digger, White, had chosen all brunettes. That is, until Lisa. But Lisa’s abduction had been about revenge. Silencing her for reporting him to the police. Not the same motive as the others.

The first victims had fit the same profile, had all been grad students in their twenties. Brunettes just like White’s mother.

Grave Digger #2 had started with a brunette, too, although she wasn’t a student. She was a professional. Would this new guy deviate even more from the pattern as time progressed?

The mangy mutt that hung around the lake stood near the woods, his skittish gaze connecting with Brad’s. The poor dog looked more like a lone wolf in the shadows, his gray coat matted and nasty. He had obviously been abused and would hardly come near Brad, which was fine with him. He didn’t want or need anyone depending on him.

Still, from time to time he left food and water on the porch so the damn dog wouldn’t starve.

He’d forgotten tonight. The dog hadn’t.

Of course, the animal looked as if he’d expected it would come to this. That Brad would let him down.

Grumbling beneath his breath, Brad went to the kitchen, retrieved the dog food, then brought it to the back porch, filled the bowl and put clean cold water in another. His cell phone trilled, and he tensed, his hand hesitating before he shoved the dog food bag inside and grabbed the phone off the end table. Just as he feared, Ethan’s number appeared. He clicked in. “Yeah?”

“He has another victim,” his partner said, deadpan. “That reporter, Nettleton, called it in.”

Brad shut the French doors, yanking on his jeans and a shirt. “I’m sure Nettleton’s eating up the story just like the first GD case.”

“Yeah, and Booker, you’re not going to like it.”

He was reaching for his gun, but froze, clenching the phone with a white-knuckled grip. “Lisa Langley?”

“No, Mindy Faulkner.”

God, no. Brad staggered backward, a sick feeling in his stomach. He’d met Mindy when he’d questioned her at the hospital after White had died. She was an E.R. nurse, but she hadn’t been on duty that night. He’d dated Mindy a few times after White’s trial. Had thought by sating himself with another female he’d forget this insane lust toward Lisa.

It hadn’t worked.

But Jesus, he didn’t want Mindy dead or suffering, either.

His gut clenched as he jammed his gun in his holster and rushed to his car, the reality of his job returning, reminding him of another reason he didn’t get involved with women. Being close to him put them in danger.

Was the killer someone he knew? What if he’d chosen Mindy because of him?
HER SHRILL CRIES shattered the peace he craved, the screeching sound echoing off the concrete walls and boomeranging through the ventilation.

She had been crying all night.

Scratching at the walls. Beating on the floor. Howling like an animal.

As if she thought someone might hear.

A deep laugh rumbled in his chest. If she only knew that her attempts were wasted. Futile. That she was so far away from another house that no one would ever know she was here. Not unless he wanted them to….

A sharp pain splintered through his head, and he gripped his temple, doubling over, rocking back and forth to stem the mind-numbing intensity.

What was wrong with him?

He’d been sick before, had his share of medical problems and doctors, but he’d never had headaches before. Never felt this excruciating agony.

Yet he was emboldened by the pain. Empowered just knowing that life and death were both only a heartbeat away.

The air in his lungs grew tight, and he wailed in anguish, the blinding fury that drove him erupting as he tore down the steps. He stumbled. Hit the edge. Grabbed the rail for security.

Another shrill scream pierced the air, reverberating through his head, slicing into his skull as if knives were carving into his brain matter, digging through the frontal lobe and picking at his cerebrum.

He cursed, bile rising in his throat as another scream rent the air. She wouldn’t shut up.

Not unless he made her.

The pain in his head intensified, throbbing relentlessly. He grabbed his skull, sweat pouring off his body as a dizzy spell nearly overtook him. It was so damn hot he needed a drink of water. It was almost as if the heat had sucked the life from him, clouded his brain, dried out all his senses.

A litany of curse words flew from his tongue, vile and loathing comments on mankind in general, especially women. He hated his weakness.

Didn’t she know that he couldn’t take it? That he needed rest. Quiet. Time for the medication to settle.

That without it, she wouldn’t live another minute. That it was all her fault he’d been sick.

A cool darkness bathed the interior downstairs. Shadowy streaks of cobwebs dangled in the black corner. Rage seared through him as he spotted her lying on the floor, begging. Her blond hair spilled around her bare shoulders, her breasts lay waiting, supple and distended, her legs curled toward her belly to conceal her secrets.

“Please let me go,” she whimpered.

He staggered and flattened his hands on the wall, then watched her through the bars of her prison. Her face was milky-white, void of color, her eyes two red-rimmed, swollen cages holding small, listless green orbs. Perspiration coated her entire body.

“Lisa?”

“No… Please let me go.”

Tiny black-and-white lights flashed intermittently like shadowy dots, frozen in front of his eyes. Remnants of memories exploded into his consciousness. Memories that seemed foreign. Memories of another woman coming toward him. Beating him nearly to death. The cries of a terrorized child following. The pain in his chest.

A small dark room, so small he could barely move. Blood seeping down his arms. The smell of urine. A man’s voice echoed loud and threatening. “You don’t deserve to live.”

Then he was someplace else. In the dirt, dying. No, a hospital.

A nurse’s face rose above him from the grave.

Angelic. Making promises. She was there to save him.

The smile faded.

Then she was gone. The pain returned. The lights dulling. The sound of the woman’s voice crying.

“Please, please let me go. I’m not Lisa.”

He reached out and unlocked the door, the key jangling against the metal as she shrank into the corner like a child. Simpering. Feeble. Weak. A coward.

She’d done nothing but beg and try to bargain with him.

No, she wasn’t Lisa. Lisa was innocent. Sweet. Caring. Even during the trial, she’d been perfect.

Exactly the kind of woman he wanted.

And in good time he would have her.

For now, though, he’d have to satisfy himself with this woman. Mindy.

“Come here, sweetheart.” He lowered his voice. Turned on the charm. “I won’t hurt you. Let me make it all better.”

She whimpered, the sound clanging through the chamber of endless dark walls. Silky hair streamed around her shoulders in a tangled puddle as she lifted her head. Her eyes resembled two black pools of terror. Her naked body protested as his gaze raked over it. Nipples jutted out. Flesh quivered. Goose bumps skated up her veiny, overheated skin. Lithe long legs curled tighter to her chest to hide her treasure.

His laugh tore through the putrid air. Then he curled his fingers around her bony arm and dragged her toward him.
CHAPTER TWO


HE WAS CHOKING HER. Dragging her across the floor. Embedding his hands in her hair, yanking it from the scalp.

“You shouldn’t have told, Lisa. You should have kept quiet.”

She gritted her teeth, refusing to beg for freedom. How could she have been such a fool? Four women had died because she’d worn blinders.

Maybe it was her turn.

He tossed her body against the cold concrete, and she spotted a wooden box. Dear God.

A coffin. Just her size. He had planned this out. Had built it just for her.

A protest died on her lips as his hand connected with her cheek. She flew backward, her head striking the cement wall. Stars danced and twirled in front of her eyes. The scent of blood assaulted her. Other fetid odors followed.

Then she passed out.

When she awakened, she was lying inside the box. Her limbs ached, felt heavy, as if they’d been weighted down. Heat clawed at her skin, robbing her of air. She looked into his eyes, begging, pleading for mercy. But he had the eyes of a devil, as if the fiery heat had eaten away his soul.

Then he dropped the lid on top of her, shutting out the light. She sucked in air, felt sweat stream down her face into her hair.

The hammer slammed against the wood. He was nailing it shut.

She tried to scream, but her throat was so raw and dry that her voice died.

A sob welled inside her. He couldn’t do this. She was only twenty-five. She had so much to live for.

A job. Maybe another man and a child.

She tried to turn, but the wooden walls scraped her sides.

Then the song began. His grating voice whispered its eerie drone, “Just a rose will do….”
LISA CRIED OUT, her heart pounding. The room spun as she jerked upright.

Perspiration trickled down her forehead. She gripped the sheets with clammy hands, searching the darkness. The curtain fluttered in the sultry breeze from the window. The scent of honeysuckle drifted through the opening. The smell of grass followed, and heat lightning flashed across the sky.

Had she left the window open?

She normally locked everything securely at night.

Panicked, she threw her legs over the side of the bed and listened for an intruder.

The wind whistled. A tree limb scraped the glass pane. Shadows hung outside like bony hands, clawing at her in the pre-dawn light.

She flipped on the light, but it flickered and went off. Her breath rattled out, tense in the night. Had she lost power, or had someone disconnected the electricity?

She searched for the baseball bat she kept under the bed. Wished she’d gotten up enough nerve to buy a gun.

A squeaking sound splintered the quiet, and her breath rushed out. She clenched the wooden bat and tiptoed toward the bedroom door. From the doorway, she could see the small bath, den and galley-style kitchen. She’d purposely chosen the open plan because there was no place for an intruder to hide. She hesitated at the door, peered through the black emptiness. The light she kept burning in the den had been extinguished, too.

A shadow floated across the window.

Someone was outside.
BY 8:00 A.M., Brad stood in the midst of the stifling hot task force room the FBI had designated for the Grave Digger #2 case, and drew a line across the whiteboard to indicate the time the second victim, Mindy Faulkner, had been reported missing. So far, the task force consisted of himself and Ethan, two local Atlanta detectives, Anderson and Bentley, Captain Rosberg, and two Buford cops, Officers Gunther and Surges, who’d been on the scene when they’d found the first victim. They were expecting a profiler from Quantico at some point, but she hadn’t yet arrived.

Outside, horns honked from the heavy morning traffic, sirens wailed as the ambulances rushed to Crawford Long and Grady Hospitals and a construction crew from a neighboring building cluttered the background with noise. Rush hour was in full swing, the commuters slogging through the downtown maze from the interstates, while locals hit Atlanta’s subway system, MARTA, and Georgia Tech and Georgia State students dragged themselves from coffee houses to their first class.

The temperature was already soaring in the high nineties. Warnings to parents not to leave their children or pets in a car alone, along with talk of heatstroke among the elderly, filled the news, the drought another reminder that Mindy wouldn’t last long if they didn’t find her soon.

Brad gestured toward a roll-away map and pierced it with different colored push pins indicating where the first victim, thirty-one-year-old Joann Worthy, had disappeared, then where her body had been found.

“Okay, what do we have so far?” he asked.

Officer Gunther raised a thumb, the sweat stains beneath his armpits growing. The city air-conditioning must be on overload because the system in the building wasn’t working, and they were all melting in the sweltering temperatures, suit jackets tossed aside and sleeves rolled up for relief, although none seemed forthcoming. “We canvassed the lake area, interviewed the neighbors within a five-mile radius of where the body was found. No one saw or heard anything suspicious.”

Brad grimaced. Just like the first time. “Do we have the M.E.’s report or word from forensics yet?”

“Nothing definite from forensics,” Ethan said. “Preliminary autopsy shows multiple contusions to the body, lacerations on hands, wrists, blunt force trauma to the head, signs that the perp attempted to sexually assault the woman, although he didn’t rape her.”

“He’s varying from White then,” Brad said. “But if he failed at rape, he may be impotent, as White was.”

“It probably adds to his agitation,” Ethan added.

A chorus of mumblings rushed out in agreement.

“We looked for a connection between Worthy and White, but so far, we haven’t found one,” Brad said. “Mindy worked at the hospital where White died, but she wasn’t on duty the night he was admitted.”

Ethan spoke up next. “I’ll interview White’s old cell mate, Curtis Thigs. He was released on parole a few days ago. Then maybe I’ll talk to some of the other inmates.”

“Good luck,” Detective Bentley said with a chuckle.

Brad shot them a menacing look. Nothing about this case was funny. “We need to cross-check for other parolees recently released, mental patients as well.”

“I’m on it,” Captain Rosberg said.

“Any leads on the lumber for the coffin?” Brad asked.

“We’re still checking it out,” Detective Anderson said. “It may take awhile. Construction crews in and around Atlanta are too many to count.”

“Make it a priority.” Brad gestured toward his partner. “How about the first vic—a boyfriend in the picture?”

Ethan shook his head. “According to her roommate, she hasn’t been seriously involved with anyone for some time.”

“He’s choosing them at random?” Captain Rosberg asked.

“Maybe.” Brad still didn’t know what to think. White had chosen all coeds. Joann Worthy had been a computer consultant. “Where was the Worthy woman last seen?”

“A sushi bar around the corner from her apartment.” Ethan consulted his notes. “No, wait, after that, she went into a dance club called Johnny Q’s on Marietta Street.”

“And no one saw a man with her?” Brad asked.

“Two guys hit on her, but she brushed them off,” Ethan added. “Got a description. We’re following up. Last the bartender saw, she stepped outside for a cab.”

“The cab companies?”

“We’ve shown her picture. No one remembers picking her up.”

Shit. A dead end.

Ethan rapped his knuckles on the wooden table. “We’ll keep looking into her activities and friendships, though, see what we can find.”

“How about our latest missing woman…Mindy Faulkner?” He nearly choked on the name.

“Thirty, slender, dirty-blond hair, five-four, one hundred and ten pounds, blue eyes,” Captain Rosberg stated.

“He varied again. Joann Worthy was a brunette,” Brad said. “Mindy’s a blonde.”

Everyone nodded and made a note of the detail.

“According to a nurse at First Peachtree Hospital where she works as an R.N., she left the hospital yesterday afternoon around three,” Rosberg continued. “None of her coworkers have seen her since. And her landlord says she didn’t show up at her apartment after work or last night.”

“So, we’ve got several hours unaccounted for,” Detective Bentley said. “He could have picked her up anywhere.”

Brad nodded. “Let’s get busy. The first GD kept each victim seven days and nights. This copycat held his first victim for only three. The clock is ticking.”

The group dispersed, each officer heading out to his assigned part of the investigation.

Ethan’s boots hit the floor. “You think there’s a significance to the time period he’s holding them?”

Brad twisted his mouth in thought. “Yeah. White said God made the world in seven days and nights. This guy leaves a cross, keeps his vics three days. If he’s following White’s twisted logic, maybe the resurrection of the Grave Digger is symbolic of Jesus coming back to life.”

Ethan cursed. “On the third day, he rose from the dead.”

Brad nodded. “And Mindy’s paying for it.”

Ethan gave him an odd look, almost sympathetic, although neither man did sympathetic. “I know you’re beating yourself up over this, Booker.”

Of course his partner would see through him. Hadn’t Ethan’s own family been killed two years ago? It had turned him into a hard-ass, one who took too many risks sometimes.

Brad cursed. “Mindy might die because she knew me. And the first body was dumped near my house. He’s taunting me, shoving the blasted case in my face.”

“We’ll find her,” Ethan said, although Brad knew the words were lip service. There were no guarantees. And so far, no concrete leads.

“I’ve made a list of all the men I’ve crossed in the past five years,” Brad said. “I’m running their names to see if anyone might be on parole or have connections nearby.”

“Good plan.” Ethan shrugged into his jacket. “Have you thought about talking to Lisa Langley?”

“Hell yeah, I’ve considered it.” Brad threw down his pen and scrubbed his hands over the back of his neck. “But I can’t put her in jeopardy again.”

Ethan jammed a cigarette into his mouth, but didn’t light it. He’d been trying to quit smoking for months, but kept falling back on the habit in times of stress. Not that their job wasn’t always stressful. “I know you don’t like it, and neither do I, but we have to do everything we can to save this girl.”

As if Brad didn’t know that.

But bringing Lisa out of hiding to do so didn’t seem like the smartest idea. Besides, he wasn’t sure she could help.

Or maybe he was losing his edge again. His perspective.

Because Brad Booker, man with no mercy, had found a heart when he’d heard Lisa’s tale of horrors. And when he’d pulled her from that grave and held her, he’d felt a personal connection.

He couldn’t afford to have a heart. Not with Mindy’s life on the line.

“You’re right.” He loosened his tie, cleared this throat, swallowed back bile. “I won’t tell Lisa on the phone. I have to see her in person.” He owed her that much.

Ethan nodded. “Keep in touch. I’ll call you after I talk to White’s cell mate.”

Brad pocketed his cell phone. The last thing in the world he wanted to do was track down Lisa and inform her that another Grave Digger was haunting the city, or make her relive the nightmare of her attack.

But he had to save Mindy’s life. And if Lisa remembered anything new that might help, he needed to talk to her.
LISA MUST HAVE IMAGINED the shadow. Still, she couldn’t fall back to sleep, so she sat in the rocking chair for hours, staring at the window.

Early morning, the shadow reappeared. Footsteps clattered outside.

Lisa reached for the phone to dial 911 when a knock sounded at the door. She nearly jumped out of her skin.

For a few seconds, she could barely move, the fear she’d grappled with for the past four years paralyzing her. Then sanity returned, and she dragged in huge gulping breaths, trying to calm herself. A serial killer wouldn’t announce himself at the door.

Only hers had four years ago. She’d actually been dating him and hadn’t known it….

Besides, how had the window gotten open? And why had she lost power when it hadn’t been storming?

The knock jolted her again, and she raced to her bedroom, yanked on a full-length cotton robe and belted it, then pushed her disheveled hair from her face as she hurried to the door.

She rarely had visitors. Mrs. Simmerson from across the valley occasionally stopped by with homemade goods, and occasionally Ruby dropped by for a visit, but never this early in the morning. Someone had rented the cabin about a half mile down the road, but she hadn’t met him yet. She didn’t intend to, either.

“Miss Long, it’s your new neighbor. Name’s Aiden Henderson.”

She tensed at the sound of the man’s voice. It was deep. Scratchy. A smoker’s voice. “What do you want and how do you know my name?”

“The real estate agent told me.” He cleared his throat. “I…the power went off, so I thought I’d check and see if it was just my place or everyone else’s.”

He could see hers was off, too, couldn’t he?

“My phone isn’t connected yet,” he continued. “Or else I’d call it in.”

She stood on tiptoe and looked through the peephole. The entire mountain and valley were dark. “I’ll call in the power loss. Someone probably had an accident and hit a transformer.”

“Probably.” A tense second followed but he didn’t leave. A sliver of early morning sunlight illuminated him enough for her to see what he looked like. He had light brown, wavy hair, was probably in his late thirties and wore jeans and a black T-shirt with boots. A scar marred his lower arm, making her wonder if he’d been in an accident. He was big, too, almost six feet, at least two hundred and thirty pounds.

William had been shorter and a mere one-eighty, but he’d crushed her like a matchstick doll.

And something about this man seemed familiar. But she couldn’t think where she might have met him. Then it hit her. “I saw you in town, didn’t I?”

“I think so. At least I recognize your car,” Aiden replied. “But you looked like you were in a hurry so I didn’t introduce myself.”

She shivered and rubbed her hands up and down her arms. Had he been following her?

“I received some of your mail in my box yesterday.” He indicated a couple of envelopes with a beefy hand, and she froze, wondering if it was a trick to lure her to let him inside.

“You can just slide them beneath the door.”

He fidgeted, then stooped and did as she’d requested.

“Thanks.”

“And here’s your paper.”

“Just leave it on the porch.”

He stuffed wide hands into his jean pockets. “You don’t happen to have any coffee brewed, do you? I forgot to buy some when I went to the store.”

So he’d been grocery shopping. “No. Listen, I really need to go. I’m late for work.”

“Oh.” Disappointment laced his voice, and he peered toward the window. Then a smile tilted his mouth. “Well, if you need anything, I’m right down the road. Since we’re neighbors, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.”

She doubted it. “All right, thanks.”

“I put my number on one of the envelopes.” He shrugged, a frown pulling at his lips. “Listen, the newspaper mentioned that a woman had been murdered in Atlanta and another one abducted. You being single, living alone, you ought to be careful. We’re not that far from the city.”

Lisa froze, her nails digging into the wooden door. How did he know she was single?

A breeze fluttered the trees, rattling the windowpane, and she shivered, grateful when he finally ducked his head and loped down the porch steps. She slid to the window and watched as he disappeared down the dirt road. But his words rushed back to haunt her.

A woman had been murdered in Atlanta. Another woman was missing.

A wave of pure panic overcame her, making her body tremble.

William White is dead. You’re safe.

But curiosity won out, and she jerked open the door and grabbed the paper. The headlines startled her into shock: The Grave Digger Returns!

Her chest in a spasm, Lisa staggered to the couch, sank onto the fabric and dropped her head between her knees to keep from passing out. No, William was dead. Brad had told her so himself.

It was impossible that he was back.

Her stomach rolled as she lifted her head and skimmed the article. A copycat. He’d killed one woman so far. But the MO was the same. He’d buried the woman alive. And he’d taken a second victim already. Special Agent Brad Booker was working the case.

Her sense of peace shattered. She clutched her throat, the suffocating feeling returning.

Brad Booker’s face materialized in her mind. Handsome, sharp, chiseled features framed a visage that revealed no emotion. He had an almost stoic smile. And cold, whiskey-colored eyes that remained detached most of the time.

He had dragged her from that dark grave with his bare hands. Had been kind to her during the trial. A Rock of Gibraltar.

Yet he’d kept his distance since.

Because he had seen the woman William White had turned her into. Had known what a fool she was for not realizing the truth sooner.

Humiliation flushed her face as she remembered waking in the ambulance, naked and dirty, then looking into Brad’s anxious eyes and seeing the horror of what had happened to her mirrored back.

Brad Booker had seen her shame. He would always look at her with pity.

As William White’s final victim.

Still, sometimes in the heat of the night, when loneliness held her in its icy clutches and her past haunted her, she wished that things could have been different.

She hated William White. He’d stolen something from her that day, something she’d never get back….
AS BRAD DROVE TOWARD Ellijay, the city traffic gave way to winding country roads, lush green farmland, sparsely populated areas dotted with clapboard houses and trailer parks, then rolling hills and mountains. Apple orchards filled the countryside, advertisements for the apple houses painted across barns and on homemade signs. The buzzing traffic sounds faded to a purr, the pace slowing as he put more and more distance between himself and the city.

But the two-hour trek passed in a tense blur, the beauty of the countryside diminishing as the heat wave sucked the life from the flowers and trees, turning green grass and leaves a dull brown.

A deadly kind of brown that reminded Brad of the Grave Digger and the grisly details of his crimes. No wonder Lisa liked living in the mountains. After enduring the grueling months of the trial and media publicity, she must find the serenity of the countryside, the fresh clean air and small-town atmosphere therapeutic.

Before he’d left the office today, he’d reviewed the transcripts of Lisa’s trial, searching for clues that might lead to where the Grave Digger could be holding Mindy. But at the time of the trial, Lisa could only describe the place as dark, cold, a small prison built in a fortress. Maybe a basement, an old warehouse, an abandoned building in the country.

It could have been anywhere. White had beaten Lisa unconscious before he’d stuffed her into that box, put it in the back of his SUV and driven her to an isolated patch of woods between Cumming and Dawsonville. Then he’d dug her grave. He was calculating. Sadistic. Showed no remorse.

He’d known just the right amount of time it would take for the victims to die, exactly how long they could breathe underground before they expired, and had timed his phone calls so the police had arrived too late each time.

Except for Lisa.

Had the man miscalculated? Or had he found a sudden moment of conscience, changed his mind and decided to let Lisa live? Or had Lisa been stronger than he’d realized, able to hold on to life longer?

White hadn’t broken once during the interrogation. He’d been cool. Unemotional. Exhibited sociopathic behavior.

Even during his prison confinement, White had never revealed his secret hiding place, the reason he’d started his crime spree, or admitted to a second party helping him. According to the prison psychologist, White had been abused as a child. Then he’d suffered a head injury when he was a teenager that had caused him to experience a psychotic break in his twenties.

The sun nearly blinded Brad as he wove through the small town of Ellijay. Midmorning, Lisa would be at work at the Love ’N Play Day Care. He passed several small storefronts, an antiques shop, a small, old-fashioned diner, an ice cream parlor and bookstore, along with the town library, courthouse and police station. A beauty shop, an arts and crafts store that sold handmade items on consignment, and a bridal boutique occupied one corner. About a block from the center of town, an old white house had been converted into a day care. A white picket fence decorated with colorful wooden cartoon characters, including a life-size Mickey and Minnie Mouse, encircled the center. Ancient oaks and pines flanked the property, offering privacy and shading the outdoor playground, although the earth looked parched, the ferns and flowers drooping with heat. Squeals and laughter floated through the air as dozens of children built imaginary castles and roads in the sandbox, played on the jungle gym and monkey bars and pushed each other on the swings.

He frowned. These kids were innocent.

Was that the reason Lisa had chosen to work with children? To return to that time and place before she’d known the ugliness that existed?

Had he ever been that young and innocent himself?

No.

Pushing aside his own bitter memories, he scanned the area for Lisa. When he didn’t see her outside, he strode up to the front door of the day care and went inside. A plump receptionist with dark curly hair and a gap between her front teeth sat at a desk, the director’s office to the right.

“Welcome to Love ’N Play. I’m Deidre, what can I do for you, sir?”

“I’m here to see Lisa Long.”

“Do you have a child in her classroom, Mr….?”

“Brad Booker.” He didn’t want to alarm her or reveal he was FBI. “No…um, but I’m considering moving to Ellijay and enrolling my child.”

She pasted on a friendly smile, revealing dimples. “Well, she’s in class right now. But the kids are going to be dismissed in a few minutes, if you could wait.”

“Yes, that would be fine.”

“You can watch the class through the window if you want.” Deidre gestured to the hallway, toward a glass partition on the upper half of one wall. “Lisa’s an excellent teacher and day camp worker, one of our most loving helpers. The kids just adore her.”

He was certain they did. The sight of the small children stirred unease in his gut as he peered through the glass. He’d never attended preschool, had never been around kids much, either, and he felt out of place.

Music chimed through the room, and the boys and girls danced in a circle, waving bright, colorful scarves, twirling and giggling, some bumping into one another and tumbling to the floor with laughter. Lisa stood in their midst, waving a purple scarf around her head, swaying and laughing with them. She stooped and picked up a tiny girl, then twirled her around until the child giggled. Suddenly a chorus of other voices begging for the same treatment broke out. Lisa laughed and, one by one, gave each of the kids an adoring grin and followed suit, her skirt swirling around her.

Brad’s chest tightened. She looked so damn happy, carefree even. So different from the traumatic woman during the months of the trial that he wanted to freeze-frame the image and leave her undisturbed by this latest horror.

Knowing she couldn’t see him, though, he took an extra few minutes to study her. Her heart-shaped face had always seemed so delicate and pale, yet now a slight tan gave her a healthy glow, and her hair seemed shinier, blonder, with natural highlights. Her too-thin body seemed rounder and more sexy, her arms more muscular, as if she might have been exercising or working out in the yard.

Today, she wore a simple white cotton blouse with gathers up the middle, accentuating her curves, along with a denim skirt that swirled around her ankles. Dainty sandals on her feet revealed long narrow toes with red-painted toenails.

His body stirred with desire….

He’d known that beneath the battered woman there was a beauty. But he hadn’t imagined how sexy and tempting she’d be when that traumatized look faded, and she actually smiled.

The few times he’d visited since the trial, he’d noted the wariness reflected in her big blue eyes. Had known that seeing him was a reminder of the worst time of her life. Another reason he’d stayed away.

She suddenly glanced up and spotted him. He felt like a voyeur for spying on her, but hadn’t been able to resist. Once again, as he feared, the smile froze on her face, the light in her eyes diminishing rapidly.

He fisted his hands by his sides, hating to shatter her happiness. But he had no choice.

Another woman’s life was hanging in the balance.
THE MINUTE LISA HAD READ the paper this morning, she’d known Special Agent Brad Booker would visit today.

Her stomach clenched as their gazes met. For a moment, she thought his whiskey-colored eyes flickered with emotions. Regret. Need. Loneliness. Maybe even…attraction.

But the look disappeared so quickly she was certain she’d imagined it. In fact, his jaw snapped rigidly tight, indicating his mind was on one thing and one thing only—this latest case. He was all FBI.

But during the trial, when he’d sat by her side, she’d sensed the bottled-up rage that simmered below the surface of the tight-lipped, hard-edged agent persona. She felt that rage teetering on the verge of exploding now.

“What is it, Lisa?” Ruby asked. “Honey, you look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”

She had. The ghost of a past she’d left behind. “I…” Jamie and Peggy tugged at her skirt, and she jerked her attention back to the children. “Time to collect our scarves,” she said, adding a light tone to her voice to hide the turmoil riddling her. “Dance over to the box and put them inside. Then get your backpacks ready to go home.”

The kids ran toward the cubbyholes and grabbed their bags, then Ruby gathered them into a circle to hand out the day’s artwork, butterflies they’d created from clothespins and tissue paper. Finally, Lisa lined them up in the hallway for car pool, hugging each one goodbye before Ruby connected them with their ride.

Hoping to stall as long as possible, Lisa hurried into the room and began straightening up.

Ruby gathered the art supplies. “Go on and speak with that man, I’ll finish up here. You shouldn’t keep him waiting.”

Lisa bit back the truth, hating to lie to her friend. But Ruby was a born mother and would worry to death if she knew the facts about Lisa’s past. She’d been trying to build a new life here, to escape the pitying looks and questions. She couldn’t let the ugliness from her past color her new world.

Only now Special Agent Brad Booker had shown up at her workplace, threatening that tiny bit of peace. Because he was here to talk about his investigation. The Grave Digger. The past one. And the present.

He had to look for a connection. On some level, she understood that, but she didn’t like it. And another part of her, the feminine part, resented the fact that work was the only reason a man like Brad would visit her.

“Go on, scoot.” Ruby whisked a hand toward her, and Lisa relented, retrieved her purse and walked into the hall.

Brad approached her, his broad shoulders squared, his face devoid of expression. He didn’t immediately speak, seemed to understand that she needed time to process his appearance.

Just as she remembered, his skin seemed naturally bronzed and his short clipped hair was as black as coal, as if somewhere in his past he had Italian ancestry. God, he was an intimidating man, handsome as sin but rock-hard, with unforgiving eyes.

He was undeniably the sexiest man she’d ever seen.

She remembered rousing in his arms after he’d pulled her from the grave, and had felt an instant connection to him. With Brad, she’d never been afraid.

At least not physically. But emotionally…he scared her to death. He made her want to feel again. To take a chance.

But discussing the Grave Digger was something she couldn’t handle.

Besides, he had demons haunting him that were every bit as awful as hers. Demons she knew he’d never talk about, just as she didn’t about her own.

“I knew you’d come,” she said, when he started to speak. “But we’re not going to visit here. Let’s go to the coffee shop.”

He gave a clipped nod, his gaze scrutinizing her. She wondered if she had glue on her clothes, or if he was simply remembering the way she’d looked during the trial, the way she sometimes still saw herself. Her hand automatically went to her neck to feel for the amethyst that her mother had given her, but then she remembered it was gone. William had stripped it off, just as he’d stripped her soul.

The old familiar humiliation crawled back up her spine. When Brad found her, her entire body had been black-and-blue with bruises, her cheeks, nose and lips purple and swollen, her eyes red-rimmed and bloodshot from lack of sleep and crying, her long blond hair chopped in ragged tufts from where William had sawed it off like a savage.

So ugly.

She jerked her gaze in front of her to keep from covering her face and hiding at the memory. She’d thought she’d cried out all her pain four years ago.

It was amazing how quickly it resurfaced.

They walked along the sidewalk, down the block, the light summer breeze fluttering the trees, whipping her denim skirt around her ankles, and bringing the faint aroma of Brad’s cologne, some masculine woodsy scent that she still remembered from the ambulance ride. She’d been grasping for a lifeline that night, latching on to anything positive to will herself to stay alive. His scent had been one of them.

His low, soothing, husky voice another. The feel of his hands, the third. The connection had been so potent that sometimes in the night when she was alone she swore she could still feel his fingers stroking her palm.

Pots of geraniums, marigolds and impatiens filled the window boxes and planters in front of the stores, adding color, although the normally cheerful signs of summer that usually lightened her moods did nothing to alleviate her anxiety today. In fact, they only reminded her that even when beautiful things flourished, ugly ones might be festering below the surface.

Five minutes later, they scooted into a booth at Daisy’s Diner, the small local hangout, where food and gossip were a daily ritual. They both ordered coffee, although Lisa dumped sweetener in hers, then added a cube of ice to cool it, and cradled her cup in her hands. Anything to stall, to keep her from reaching for Brad and begging him to make this nightmare go away.

Brad’s dark gaze skated over her, relentlessly calm, haunted. “You said you knew why I was here?”

Lisa nodded, unable to look into his eyes, his face, to see the pity. She felt him watching her, studying her as he had through the trial, as if she were a fragile piece of glass that might shatter any second. Wondering if he should call a shrink. Would she be able to hold it together long enough to testify?

The case had all hinged on her. He had been relentless in pushing her for details…details she’d tried so hard to forget.

Lisa shivered. “He’s…he’s back, isn’t he?”

Brad reached out to touch her hand, then pulled away as if he shouldn’t. “No, it’s not William, Lisa,” he said in that gravelly voice that made her wish she wasn’t so weak, that she had the courage to look him in the eye and admit her attraction. “He is dead, just like I told you.”

“Then a copycat killer?” she said quietly.

“I’m afraid so. We found the first victim a few days ago.”

Anger simmered in his voice. Yet the protective tone underlying it also aroused something deep inside her. Something she hadn’t thought about in ages. She had clung to Brad’s promise while William had tormented her. Knowing that he was out there looking for her, that he wouldn’t give up, had kept her alive.

“He’s kidnapped another woman now. Her name is Mindy Faulkner.”

Lisa closed her eyes. Hearing the woman’s name made it more painful. Made her real. How did Brad do his job? “I’m sorry, Brad….”

He reached out again, and this time covered her hand with his own. Lisa tensed, savoring the comfort, the warmth of his skin. He had wide palms, soft but slightly callused. Long fingers, blunt nails. She’d memorized those in the ambulance, as well.

How many times had she lain in bed at night, aching for someone to hold her? Thinking about those hands? His strong arms. Wanting him to touch her. Soothe her. Stir some life back into her endlessly listless body.

If only she’d met him before she’d met William White.

Before he’d tainted her….

Brad cleared his throat, ran a finger over her palm. “I hate to ask you to do this, Lisa, but I need your help.”

She sighed, disappointment mushrooming inside. Had she really hoped he’d come because he wanted to see her?

“How can I help you, Brad? I don’t know this woman or anything about this copycat man.” Not like I did last time.

Guilt flared in his eyes. Damn it, she didn’t want his guilt or pity.

“It’s been four years, Lisa,” he said in a low voice. “Except for the length of time the killer keeps the victims, and the fact that he leaves a cross instead of a rose with each one, this guy is copying the original crimes to a tee. He’s either read the trial transcripts, talked to White or he was a second party to the first crimes. Maybe there’s something you’ve remembered during the last four years that might help us.”

“No…” Lisa shook her head, denial mounting. “There’s nothing more to tell…you know everything. And there wasn’t a second man.”

“You might have repressed his memory. Maybe he was there in the shadows, just watching, or maybe—”

“No.” She fidgeted with the coffee cup, took a sip, pushed it away, disgusted. Maybe she hadn’t remembered everything that had happened. But God, she didn’t want to… And Brad couldn’t ask that of her. He’d seen what White had done to her. The horrid pictures. The brutal details.

“Maybe something about the place he held you,” Brad insisted in an even voice. “White never revealed the location during the interrogation or his prison stay.”

Lisa stared into his cold eyes. How could he do this to her? Ask her to remember. To revisit that evil tunnel of darkness. “I can’t do this, Brad. Please, stop it.”

Suddenly shaking all over, she jumped up and ran outside. Heat suffused her, the sun scalding her as she ran toward the day care parking lot and the safety of her car. Dust flew up from her sandals, and she nearly stumbled over a crack in the sidewalk, but she forged on, her stomach heaving as she grabbed the car door, swung it open and collapsed inside.

A minute later, Brad stood beside the car, holding open the door, towering over her. “Listen, Lisa.” A muscle ticked in his jaw as if he was angry, but anguish laced his voice. “This woman…I know her. She…we dated.” His voice dropped a decibel, riddled with fear, more guilt. “I can’t let her die.”

A shudder overtook her. Brad had met someone. Had fallen in love. And like a foolish girl, Lisa had harbored hope that one day he might see her as someone other than a victim.

She chewed on her lip, fighting to steady her breathing. Four years ago, Brad Booker had been her savior. She wouldn’t be alive now if it weren’t for him. How could she possibly turn him down?

Tears blinded her as she righted herself. She trembled, feeling blistering hot and freezing cold at the same time. It had taken every ounce of courage she possessed to move on with her life, to try to forget the horrible things William had done to her.

If she traveled down that road again, willing up memories, reliving it, she might not survive a second time….
CHAPTER THREE


BRAD GRIPPED HIS HANDS by his sides as Lisa drove away. He had the sinking feeling that he’d screwed up in some major way. Maybe he had been insensitive. Coldhearted. A bastard.

Even cruel to have come here.

He’d seen Lisa fidget, and remembered her tears over the lost amethyst that her mother had given her. It had been the only thing she’d had left of her, and White had torn it from her just as he’d torn her clothes. Brad would never forget the day Lisa had told him. Her mother had given her the ring on her fourth birthday, and explained that amethyst had been worn by royalty in the fifteenth century and was supposed to control evil.

But the amethyst, made into a necklace, certainly hadn’t done its job with White.

All day Brad’s imagination had pummeled him with horrid images of what Mindy was enduring. He’d had to ask for Lisa’s help. Details from Lisa’s trial, the inhumane treatment, then Joann Worthy’s bruised face passed through his mind. He leaned against the car, heat beating down on his back.

The ritualistic behavior of other serial killers compounded his worries. Sometimes they changed MOs. Their depravity escalated. Who knew what this new guy was capable of? If he’d only gotten started…

Mindy was a nice woman, a nurse with a bright smile and kind heart. She helped others selflessly, had tried to be the woman he desired.

But Brad hadn’t had his head in the game.

Because another woman occupied his mind.

Now the case dominated his mind. Not Lisa Langley in particular, he told himself. He’d simply found a soft spot for a victim. Had felt guilty over his part in not preventing the abduction.

And hell, he’d be lying if he didn’t admit he’d imagined holding her, kissing her, taking her beneath the sheets and proving to her that every man wasn’t a sadistic animal. He’d fantasized about making slow, easy love to her until he put a smile on her face that would wipe out the sorrow White had left there.

But that meant nothing. A sexual attraction, that’s all it was. No emotional attachments.

Brad Booker didn’t need anyone. Didn’t want to get involved. Couldn’t allow himself to.

He brushed at the dust coating his slacks, climbed in his sedan and cranked the engine, grateful for the blast of the air conditioner. An old-timer stopped by his pickup truck and studied him, his wife shifting a foam container of leftovers in her hands as she, too, peered at him. The diner probably served as a boiling pot for gossip. Brad supposed they didn’t see too many strangers in town. They were automatically suspicious.

Had they overheard his conversation with Lisa in the diner? Were they Lisa’s friends, trying to protect her?

If so, he should be happy she’d found solace in these north Georgia mountains. Friends in the small town.

And one day she might find a lover.

He pinched the bridge of his nose, ignoring the stab of unease at the idea as he debated over what to do. Drive back to Atlanta? Spend the night?

What good would staying do?

He had work to do to find Mindy. And Lisa knew how to contact him.

But she obviously thought he was a bastard. And he had been. Otherwise, Mindy might not be in danger.

And Lisa wouldn’t have run from him as if he was the devil himself.
LISA WANTED TO RUN AWAY.

Again.

She clenched the steering wheel with a steel grip and guided the car through town toward her cabin, trying to plan a route of escape. But where would she go this time? And how far would she have to run to escape the demons? Would she need to change her name again? Get a different type of job?

The bitter memories of the days and nights of her captivity rolled through her head. Day one—the blindfold. The tauntings. The darkness. The unbearable heat. The stench of blood and decay. Day two—his evil touch. The beating. The sick mind games. The constant fear pressing in her belly. Day three—the box beneath his bed. The sounds of his breathing. The claustrophobia. The hints of what he wanted….

Day four—the hunger. The dry, parched throat from pleading with him for water. The dreams of dying just to escape.

Gasping for air, she hit the power button to roll down her window and gripped her stomach, fighting nausea. A breeze rushed in, hot air filling the car. Dark clouds floated across the sky, obliterating the sun, but the weather forecast had predicted no rain. Yet the green-tipped mountaintops rose in front of her, the open pastures and farmland offering a sanctuary. Cows grazed in the fields, lazily gathering around a watering hole. A farmer in overalls was riding his tractor. An elderly woman in a bonnet stood with a hoe, examining her vegetable garden, a plump yellow squash in one hand. So picturesque. Safe. A perfect place to grow old and raise a family.

She thought she’d escaped the ugliness when she’d moved here. But in a heartbeat, one quick flash of time, Brad Booker had brought it all back.

She hated him for it.

Yet she ached to turn the car around and seek solace in his arms.

Blinking to clear the tears and regain control, she forced herself to concentrate on the beauty surrounding her. In the fall, when the apple trees were heavily laden, their fruits spilling to the ground, she gathered the Granny Smith apples and baked dozens of pies. Last year, she’d canned and frozen at least a bushel, had made homemade applesauce, apple butter and jelly. She’d savored the tart tastes, the miracles of nature.

How could that nature include humans so depraved that they fed on the weaker at heart?

Humans like William. And now this latest sick man.

How did Brad Booker continue to do his job without the atrocities of it eating at his soul?

She was still shaking when she sped up the driveway to her cabin, the serenity she normally experienced at the sight of her log home lost in the emotions warring within her.

Brad had suffered the atrocities—she’d seen it in his eyes. Heard it in his voice.

And there were the recriminations.

He was blaming himself now for this woman’s disappearance. As she’d once suspected he might have blamed himself for her abduction.

But it hadn’t been his fault. Just as it wasn’t this time.

Brad was the good guy.

William had been psychotic. And she had been a fool for not believing Brad the first time he’d hinted that her old boyfriend was trouble.

Her emotions in a tailspin, she glanced down the valley at the cabin where the stranger had just moved in. He’d been lurking outside her place this morning. Who was he really? What did she know about him?

Panicking, she threw open the car door and bolted up the graveled drive toward the house. Warm sunshine splintered through the dark clouds, the afternoon heat engulfing her as she opened the door and slipped inside. She slammed the door and locked it, then leaned against the wooden frame, trembling. She was safe. No one had followed her. She could hide out here forever.

The quiet seemed eerie around her.

Then the truth assaulted her. She’d chosen this cabin because it was at the top of the hill, away from strangers, from the town, so no one would bother her. Yet the location had isolated her from others to the point of preventing her from making friends.

Because she had wanted it that way.

The kitchen cupboard in the corner, filled with dozens of jars of apple butter and jelly she’d canned, mocked her. Dozens of jars—but she lived alone. All alone.

She had no one to share them with. Wouldn’t allow anyone close enough to even consider offering a dinner invitation.

She dropped onto the sofa and heaved for air, the realization that she’d locked herself away in a self-imposed prison filtering through the haze. William had taken everything from her the day he’d kidnapped her. Had stolen her innocence. Her trust in men. Her dreams of the future.

She glanced around at the bookcase, the sofa table. Empty. Only a few pictures of family. No boyfriend. No hopes of ever having one.

Only a framed photograph of her mother, and a picture of her father, sat on the table, one she’d clipped from the newspaper. He looked austere. Imposing. But he’d actually smiled, obviously primed because the article declared him a brilliant surgeon.

He never smiled at her now. Since the trial, she was no longer daddy’s little girl. Although they occasionally spoke on the phone, conversations remained brief to prevent any tracing so she could remain hidden. Of course, they had argued long before William had entered her life. Her father’s goals for her had been different from her own. He wanted her to be a social star, she wanted none of the limelight.

And she’d hated it even more when all the publicity about the trial had focused on her.

Sure, she’d told herself she was healing.

But this morning’s headlines, seeing Brad Booker again, knowing another woman was suffering as she had—the fear, the paranoia, the anger all came crashing back.

How could she say that she was happy here when she refused to open the door to a neighbor? When the least little shadow or sound sent her skittering into near cardiac arrest?

When she would choose to run and hide rather than help another woman escape the horrors she had experienced? What kind of coward was she?

And how much more was she going to allow William to take from her?
BRAD KILLED THE ENGINE. Although he needed to work the case, he wasn’t quite ready to head back to Atlanta. He phoned Ethan for an update, but they were still chasing leads. They desperately needed to find out where the killer had taken Mindy.

Had Lisa remembered something that might help?

How do you know this guy is using the same place to hide his victims? He could be anywhere.

His stomach growled, adding to his irritation. He might as well grab something to eat before he faced the two-hour drive. The waitress glared at him as he entered the cafе, as if she’d seen Lisa running out, and wondered what he’d done to her. Great. Now everyone in Ellijay would probably think he was a bad guy.

Hell, who was he kidding? They’d be right. He’d just thrown Lisa back into her nightmarish past.

Besides, he couldn’t show the locals his credentials without revealing Lisa’s identity, something he’d sworn not to do.

The diner was rustic, with knotty pine walls and plank flooring. Photographs of antique cars and local scenery hung along one wall, and a collection of antique farming tools filled a case in the corner. Checkered tablecloths and fresh daisies on each table gave the restaurant a homey feel, the smells of homemade vegetable soup and pies wafting through the air.

He ordered a bowl of Brunswick stew and a glass of sweet iced tea, his gaze automatically scrutinizing each patron. Mostly old-timers. Three women wearing outdated Sunday dresses gathered at a round table eating coconut cream pie and sipping coffee. Two farmers conversed over the blue plate lunch special—meat loaf, green beans and mashed potatoes with gravy. A handful of teenagers stuffed into a booth laughed over their milkshakes and burgers. A real southern small town.

Everyone appeared friendly, seemed to know one another. A safe place to raise a family. Nothing like the city, where psychos could hide among the masses.

Yet was Lisa really safe here?

Not if there had been an accomplice, or if this latest killer came looking for her.

Brad finished the stew, paid the bill and headed back to his car, knowing the clock was ticking. He was just about to leave when his cell phone rang. He winced, then checked the display, bracing himself for bad news from his partner.

A private number showed up, instead. “Brad Booker.”

“It’s Lisa.”

He closed his eyes, his gut knotting at the sound of her strained voice. “Are you all right?”

A long sigh escaped her, heartfelt and labored but resigned. “Yes. Where are you?”

One hand tightened around the steering wheel. “Getting ready to leave town.”

“To go back to Atlanta?”

“Yes.”

A breathy quiver followed his reply, then she whispered, “I…I’m sorry, Brad.”

He scraped a hand through his hair, the sweat-coated strands sticking to his fingers. God, why was she apologizing? She had every right to hate him. “Don’t, Lisa, it’s all right. I shouldn’t have come—”

“No,” she said, her voice stronger, “you obviously care about this woman, she’s missing… I…I’ll help you if I can.”

He heard her insinuations. She thought he and Mindy were involved. He should correct her. But why bother? He did care about saving Mindy. And he couldn’t get involved with Lisa.

“Do you want me to come by?” he asked quietly. “We can talk.”

A heartbeat passed, pulsing into a tension-filled minute.

“No.”

He chewed the inside of his cheek and fiddled with the radio. “All right. Call me if you need anything.”

“Wait.” She hesitated again, then said, “I mean yes. Come over….”

He scrubbed a hand over his face at the sound of the waver in her voice. She’d been crying. “Are you at the cabin?”

“Yes.”

He cranked the engine and shifted into gear. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

He disconnected the phone and sped away from town, battling his own emotions. The reason he’d almost screwed up so badly before. He couldn’t repeat that mistake a second time. Mindy’s life was at stake.

But Lisa’s soft anguished voice taunted him as he climbed the mountain.
SHE WAS IN THE BOX AGAIN. She couldn’t breathe. The darkness was closing around her, choking her….

Lisa caught her head between her hands, rocking herself back and forth, tears falling as the trembling continued.

The wooden edges brushed her sides. Held her captive.

It was dark. Hot. So hot the air felt like a furnace. And she was suffocating, her throat muscles clawing at the air for a breath.

Then she was cold. Chilled and aching. Shaking uncontrollably.

He had left her there all day. Hidden away as if she didn’t exist. Her cries had done nothing but elicit rage that he unleashed on her.

Her battered body was too numb to move now. Or maybe it was the cramped position in the box. She’d long ago lost track of the time. Had she been here hours? Days?

The panic that streaked through her wouldn’t dissipate. It ate at her, chewed at her nerve endings relentlessly. The air felt stifling. How much more of it was there?

She closed her eyes, willed herself to drift away. To another place. To another time when life existed. When sounds meant something other than his sinister laugh or her own terrified cries.

The front door creaked open. The floor squeaked like cheap linoleum. A muttered curse reverberated through the room, and she knew he’d entered. Could smell the sweat and stench of his body. His boots scraped against the side of the bed as he sat down and kicked them off.

She froze, praying he would have mercy and release her. Or at least end the torture and kill her tonight.

The box springs protested as he stretched out on top of the bed. The mattress sagged, pressing into the box with his weight. Then he began to move. Slowly at first. The screech, screech of the bed was redundant, grew faster, the mattress sagged deeper and harder against her box. His breathing became erratic.

A sob caught in her throat as she realized what he was doing.

The mattress dipped and squeaked again, the noise intensifying, the movements more rapid as his breathing grew more and more excited. Finally a bellow. Pain? Pleasure? Rage?

Then he jumped off the bed, cursing loudly. She felt the box moving, being jerked, dragged from beneath the bed.

But instead of opening it, he was hammering it shut, tighter…pounding, pounding, pounding….
“LISA!”

It took her several seconds to realize that she had lapsed back into her nightmares. Even when she was awake they haunted her.

It took her another minute to realize the pounding was real. Someone was knocking at the door.

She hugged her arms around herself, panicking. Had the killer found her?

“Lisa! It’s Brad. Let me in, or I’m going to bust down this door.”

Jerking back to reality, she fidgeted with her hands, then finally willed her legs to be strong enough to stand. Brad’s voice broke through the haze again, and she rushed to the door, nearly stumbling over the braided rug on the floor and knocking a magazine off the end table in her haste. She’d phoned him only a few minutes ago, told him to come over. But then she’d sat down, started remembering….

“Lisa!”

“Just a minute.” She fumbled with the door lock, her hands shaking. Finally, she unfastened the lock and chain, then opened the door.

He stalked in, his dark eyes stormy. “For God’s sake, are you all right? You scared the hell out of me when you didn’t answer!”

Then his gaze met hers, and he must have read the truth in her eyes, because he reached out for her. She fell into his arms, clutched at his shirt and let him hold her.
TIME PASSED IN A BLUR of nonreality. He had lost time before. Had awakened with only a hazy memory of where he’d been or what he’d done. And it was happening again….

It had to be the medication.

He opened his eyes, his stomach convulsing as pain rifled through his temple. The dull throb became more incessant as it filtered through the rest of his body. He felt so damn weak. Just like before. But he’d been given a second chance at life.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, though. Dark. Painful. Dreary.

He was supposed to be happy. Full of life. A strong, virile man. Able to do things he hadn’t done in a long time.

Fading sunlight fluttered through the blinds, slicing diagonal rays across the room. He rolled to his side to block it out, then stared in shock at his hands.

They were bruised. Dirty. Covered in blood.

Dried blood. Dark. Crimson. Crusty.

Blood also stained his shirt and pants. Red clay caked his fingernails and his boots. Scratches marred his hands and arms, as if he’d been pawed by an animal. His shirt was torn, the rip revealing more deep gashes on his chest. And he was sweating profusely.

What the hell was happening to him?

His head reeling, he turned sideways, swung his legs over the side of the bed and swayed, dizzy. Grabbing the edge of the mattress to keep from falling, he held himself steady while the room settled. More sweat coated his body and ran down his neck and back. The stench of some foul odor assaulted him. Swamp water. A sewer maybe.

He scanned the room, questions ticking in his head as he read the hands of the clock: 6:00 p.m.

The last thing he remembered was walking out the door twenty-four hours ago.

With unsteady hands, he reached for his pills and choked one down. Were the dark images that had slipped into his dreams real, or had he’d imagined them?

The blood on his hands indicated that he hadn’t simply dreamt of vile acts, but that he’d performed them. That he had enjoyed them. That she had deserved it.

That tonight he would lose time again, that he would fade into the abyss of darkness where a monster’s soul stole his body, that he would continue to do so until someone stopped him.

But they would have to catch him first.

And that was not an option.
CHAPTER FOUR


BRAD TRIED TO STEADY his raging heart as he held Lisa, but the familiar fear that had gripped him four years ago returned with a vengeance. When she hadn’t immediately answered the door, he’d nearly gone out of his mind with worry. And now, feeling her in his arms again, her chest rising and falling as she gulped in air, her slender frame trembling against him, the scent of her feminine shampoo invading his senses, he was helpless to do anything but stroke her silky hair and mutter nonsensical words.

Damn it. He had to get a grip. His career depended on it. And so did Mindy’s life.

Slowly, forcing his brain back into professional mode, he eased away, studying her as he would a stranger.

Except Lisa wasn’t a stranger.

Her face had lost the rosy color and bright smile she’d worn at the day care when she’d danced with the children, the change a stark reminder that he’d resurrected the painful memories that she’d tried so hard to bury.

“Brad…I’m sorry. For a moment everything rushed back.”

Anger ripped through him. “You don’t have to apologize, Lisa. For God’s sake, I know I’m the last person you want to see.”

She dropped her hands from his shirt, backed away, hugging her arms around her waist as if he’d called it right, and she had no idea what she’d been doing. Long lashes fluttered over pale cheeks that now looked drawn with worry.

“Are you all right?” he asked, knowing good and well she wasn’t.

“Yes, I’m fine.” The same valiant look she’d managed to wear during the trial slid back on her face.

He shuffled, dragged a hand through the short strands of his hair. It was a mistake for him to have come here.

“Sit down,” she said quietly. “I’ll get some coffee.”

He gave her a clipped nod, forcing detachment into his expression as she hurried away from him to the adjoining kitchen. Figuring she needed time to assimilate, and he needed it to regain his bearings, he turned and surveyed her small cabin. He’d been here maybe a half-dozen times over the past four years, and the homey atmosphere never ceased to amaze him. Yet her new home felt more impersonal.

Lisa didn’t keep clutter or knickknacks, no small ceramic kitty cats or collections as she had in her other apartment. To break the awkwardness when he’d first visited her here, he’d asked about that, but she’d turned sheepish and merely shrugged. He’d finally decided that she didn’t want the space to feel cramped—a remnant of her traumatic days in the box where White had locked her. She needed open spaces, room to breathe….

After growing up in a foster home and sharing a room with other orphans, he understood about feeling crowded.

The den was a tasteful smattering of blue and yellow, with a soft plump denim couch, throw pillows and an oversize chair in yellow-and-blue plaid. A few magazines, mostly educational and arts and crafts ones, were stacked neatly on the pine coffee table. A photo of Lisa in her mother’s lap graced the end table, another five-by-seven of her and her father at her high school graduation beside it. Lisa looked so young and happy, full of dreams for the future. But her father…Brad had never quite gotten a good reading on Liam Langley. Not during the questioning when she was missing, or during the trial afterward. He wondered if the two of them stayed in contact.

He noticed a small clay cup on the bookshelf, misshapen and painted bright orange. It seemed out of place, until he realized one of Lisa’s students had crafted the cup. Beside it stood four framed photos, each one a group shot of the kindergarten classes she’d taught since moving to Ellijay. Several childlike drawings also decorated her refrigerator. Maybe adding these touches was a sign she had begun to heal, to let others into her life.

Even if they were children….

Lisa approached him, carrying a tray with two mugs, creamer and sugar, and a pot of coffee. The temptation to reach out and help her taunted him, but he sensed her skittishness and refrained, vowing to be patient. She filled a thick clay mug for him. So she remembered his preference for black. Was that all she remembered about him?

She dropped an ice cube in her own to cool it, and he almost smiled. He hadn’t forgotten her small habit. Just as he’d never forget anything else about her.

Her gaze finally shot upward and met his, and he grimaced at the wariness darkening her eyes. Yes, she obviously remembered more—his promise to her that he’d protect her. His failure to do so. That it was his fault she’d spent days being beaten and tormented by William White.

And when she looked away, a blinding clarity that he’d never wanted to face sank in—she would never forget that he was at fault, or forgive him.
LISA CRADLED HER MUG to her like a lifeline. “Tell me about this woman that’s missing, your girlfriend.”

Brad’s gaze shot down to the coffee in his cup, his jaw tight. “She’s thirty years old, a nurse at First Peachtree Hospital in Atlanta.”

“How did you meet her?” Lisa asked, then silently chastised herself. Hearing the details of Brad’s personal relationship was none of her business and would drive home the fact that she hadn’t had one in years. And that the last relationship had gone horribly wrong….

“At the hospital,” he said, seeming nonplussed by her question. “When I went to talk to the doctors after White died.”

Lisa gasped. “She knew William?”

He shook his head. “No, she wasn’t on duty the night he was hospitalized.”

“Oh, my goodness.” Lisa gasped again. “Are you sure the same man kidnapped her and that woman, Joann Worthy?”

Brad nodded. “He’s calling the reporter White used to deliver his messages, Wayne Nettleton.”

“Why him?” Lisa asked.

“He must have enjoyed the way Nettleton sensationalized the story about White. White admitted he chose Nettleton because of his propensity for printing gruesome details.”

His gaze met hers as if to study her reaction. Lisa sipped her coffee in an attempt not to reveal her surprise or disgust. Wayne Nettleton was a sleaze.

“We’ve questioned him just like before, but so far, he’s clean,” Brad said. “He has an alibi for the nights both women were reported missing, although it’s shaky.”

“Where was Mindy when she was abducted?” Lisa asked, trying desperately not to picture the scene in her mind.

“She left the hospital when her shift ended, around three. Caught the MARTA train. She doesn’t have a car. Never showed up at her apartment that night. Police have questioned neighbors and no one saw anything.”

“Does she have family?” Lisa asked softly.

“No.”

Lisa’s heart ached for her. If they found her, she’d need a support group to recover. Then again, Lisa’s own father hadn’t exactly been Mr. Mom after the attack. Not that he ever had been. After her mother’s death, he’d closed himself off, thrown himself into work. She’d tried to get his attention by being the perfect child.

But she hadn’t been perfect.

And he’d seen all those flaws at William’s trial.

“We found the first woman in the woods near Lake Lanier,” he said quietly. “I don’t know if you read the entire article, but he buried her in the woods surrounding the lake by my cabin.”

Lisa set her cup down with a clatter. “Brad…you think this is personal?”

He shrugged, but the bitterness that suddenly darkened his whiskey eyes to brown confirmed the answer. “He’s throwing it right in my face. How can it not be?”

“Don’t do that.” Lisa automatically reached for his hand, then drew back at Brad’s rigid posture. “This isn’t your fault, Brad.”

Just like it wasn’t when I got attacked.

He shot her a closed look, daring her to argue, then downed his coffee with one big gulp. “Let’s stick with the case. I’m running a check on everyone I’ve had contact with the past five years. Maybe something will turn up there.”

“And I suppose the police are questioning her friends and neighbors.”

“Yeah, just like they did Joann Worthy’s. But if this killer sticks to the same time frame as he did with Joann, Mindy has only a couple of days at best.”

Lisa moaned quietly. Was Mindy suffering now? Wishing her abductor would go ahead and kill her, as Lisa had wished with William? Or was Mindy holding on, clinging to life, praying Brad would find a way to save her?

“We’ve set up a stakeout in the wooded area where Joann’s body was found,” Brad continued. “But I don’t expect him to choose the same burial spot twice.”

Lisa shivered.

“I’m sorry, Lisa, I didn’t mean to resurrect the memory of your experience.”

“Forget it.” She quickly dismissed his apology, although the image of her own grave flashed in her head like a still photograph that had been framed in her memory forever. “Do you have any suspects in mind?”

“My partner’s gone to question White’s old cell mate. He was paroled a few days ago.”

Lisa’s hand tightened around her mug at the implications. William’s cell mate was free. Knew William’s secrets. Even where he might have held her and the other women.

He might be copying William’s crimes.

And if he did, would he choose her as one of his victims?

The appearance of her new neighbor suddenly resurfaced, and her suspicions mounted. “Brad, I’m sure I’m being paranoid, but this morning a strange man came to my door.”

Brad’s head jerked up. “What happened?”

Lisa explained about the visit. “He said his name was Aiden Henderson.”

Brad jotted that down. “I’ll definitely check him out.”

Lisa fidgeted. “Like I said, I’m probably being paranoid. But he brought me the paper and specifically mentioned the story about the missing woman.”

Brad frowned. “It could be a coincidence.”

Or maybe he’d known William, and he’d come here looking for her, only pretending to be a neighbor.
BRAD SAW THE WHEELS turning in Lisa’s mind. She knew that a copycat killer meant danger for her.

“Lisa—”

Her phone jangled, and she startled, hitting the table with her knee and sloshing coffee onto the tray. Her gaze flew to him, and he maintained a guarded expression, not yielding to the voices in his head urging him to reach out and calm her. She grabbed a napkin to blot up the mess, but the phone trilled again, and her fingers were trembling, so he took the napkin from her.

“Let me clean it up while you answer that.”

She swallowed, hesitating another second, then stood and checked the caller ID. With a pinched look between her brows, she retrieved the handset. “Hello, Dad.”

Brad poured himself another cup of coffee, stood and paced to the window in the kitchen to offer her privacy, although his body was wound as tight as a spring. He had a feeling he knew the reason Liam Langley had phoned.

And he would not be happy with Brad’s visit with his daughter.

Langley hadn’t held back his opinion of Brad or minced words to soften the blow four years ago.

Not that he’d blamed him.

In fact, Langley had discovered Brad’s checkered past, the man he’d almost killed as a teenager, and threatened to tell Lisa. Brad had had to walk away. He hadn’t wanted Lisa to remember him as a teenage killer.

“I’m fine, Dad,” he heard her say. “No, really.” She paused and twisted the phone cord in her hand. “Yes, I’ve heard about the copycat.” Another pause. “No, I’m not coming back to Atlanta right now. Dad…” Irritation laced her voice. “Listen, I have a visitor, let me call you back.”

Another long paused followed, and Brad imagined Dr. Langley grilling her over the identity of her guest. Finally she replied in a low whisper, “Yes, it’s Special Agent Booker.”

She glanced up at him in apology, and he shrugged, although his gut clenched. He didn’t know why the man’s opinion of him rattled him, but it did.

“Dad, no—”

Lisa sighed audibly, gave Brad a helpless look and held the phone away from her. “He wants to talk to you.”

Brad nodded, not surprised, then crossed the small kitchen-den combination in three strides and took the handset. “Dr. Langley, Booker here.”

“You son of a bitch, what the hell are you doing there?”

“I came to check on Lisa. I do that from time to time.”

“I warned you to stay away from my daughter,” Langley snapped. “You are not fit to be in the same room with her.”

Brad grimaced. He didn’t need reminding that he wasn’t good enough for Lisa.

“I had to see her,” he said in a low voice.

“I saw the story about that poor woman, Joann Worthy, in the paper,” Langley said. “For God’s sake, Mindy Faulkner works at the same hospital I do. The police have crawled all over the place asking questions. They even questioned me.”

Brad silently grimaced. “I’m sorry, sir, but they’re simply doing their jobs. I assume you realize we’re dealing with a copycat killer.”

“And my daughter is in danger again.” Langley’s voice rose a decibel. “That’s why you’re there, isn’t it?”

“Not exactly,” Brad said.

“What do you mean? You haven’t been seeing her, have you?” Langley hissed in distrust. “I thought we settled that issue four years ago.”

That issue? Although Brad knew Langley was right, he still balked at his attitude. “No, this is not a personal visit.” But not because he didn’t want it to be.

“Then what is it? You think she might know something to help you now, so you want to dredge up the past. I won’t let you do that to her, Booker.”

“I don’t like upsetting her either, sir, but we have to do everything possible to stop this maniac.”

“But how could Lisa possibly help you? She told you everything at that blasted trial.”

“We think this man might have known White. Maybe he was a cell mate or buddy, someone who White confided in. He might know where White took his victims—”

“My daughter has a name, goddamn you,” Langley snarled. “Use it.”

Brad cleared his throat, his own patience teetering on a thin line. “You don’t need to remind me,” he said in a warning voice. “But if this copycat is taking his victims to the same place White used, it would help if we could find that building, and Lisa might know where it is.”

“Like I said, my daughter has been through enough, Booker. If she’s buried that memory, it’s for a good reason. Now I don’t want her involved in this at all.” He heaved a breath. “In fact, I tried to talk her into coming here to stay. If not, I’ll hire a bodyguard for her.”

“Dr. Langley, I don’t know if that’s necessary now—”

“If he’s a copycat, following White, why wouldn’t he come after Lisa? As you pointed out when you forced her to testify, she’s White’s only surviving victim. For all we know she may be the reason this psycho started up again.”

Brad clenched his jaw, unable to argue the point. It was, perhaps in reality, the very reason he had driven here himself. “I swear, Dr. Langley, I will protect her this time.”

“You expect me to trust you with Lisa’s safety?” Langley shouted. “You sure as hell didn’t protect her the first time.”

“I know that.” Anger mounted within Brad. Every day he wrestled with the guilt that ate at him. It was like a sore that wouldn’t heal. But he angled his head away from Lisa, refusing to upset her any more than necessary. “If this lunatic comes after Lisa, he won’t get her. I’ll give my life before I’ll let that happen.”

“Your life won’t be worth anything if he succeeds,” Langley said. “Because if one hair on my daughter’s head is harmed again, I’ll kill you with my bare hands.”
LIAM LANGLEY STARED at his perfectly manicured hands. The hands of a surgeon. A man who saved lives.

A man who had failed to protect his daughter.

Gripping his desk with a shaky sigh, he forced the rage that had eaten at him for four long years at bay, rage that had only slightly dissipated with White’s death.

Anxious now that the police might make some connection between him and Mindy and the night White had died, he accessed the only file that could condemn him and deleted the information, then fed the printout on his desk into the shredder.

He should have destroyed the papers a long time ago, but no one had asked any questions at the time.

Now, with Mindy missing and this copycat killer dredging up the past, he couldn’t be too cautious.

He had carefully constructed his career, had built his reputation on a genius IQ and refined surgical techniques, always acutely attuned to the latest cutting edge procedures.

Nothing would destroy the name he had built.

But he’d had to take action against White.

Lisa’s bruised body and anguished voice floated back in the dark recesses of his mind. That trial…no, the abduction had changed things for him. Had given him a different perspective on human life.

People claimed that doctors shouldn’t play God. He usually agreed. But the opportunity had presented itself for revenge, and he’d craved it.

White had deserved the fate that had been bestowed on him.

Liam refused to feel an ounce of guilt for it whatsoever.
“I CAN’T BELIEVE my father’s reacting this way, Brad,” Lisa said. “I haven’t spoken to him in months, and now he wants to call and boss me around like I’m a child.”

Brad adopted a smile, although it was tight. “Your father is just worried about you, Lisa. I can’t blame him for that. If I were in his shoes, I’d feel the same way.”

He meant if he really cared for her. She struggled to stave off the hurt his comment triggered.

And her father’s attitude toward Brad disturbed her. He’d bad-mouthed the agent after the trial, insisted Brad was no better than a criminal himself. They’d argued about Brad more than once, creating a wedge between them. But she couldn’t tell Brad. “I still refuse to stay with him,” Lisa said.

“It might not be a bad idea,” Brad stated. “His place is secure. He wants to hire a bodyguard.”

“No.” Lisa spun away, desperately grappling for control. “You don’t understand…it hasn’t been the same with us, not since…the kidnapping.”

The silence stretched taut between them, reverberating with the harsh truth.

“I’m sorry, Lisa.”

She closed her eyes, letting his deep voice wash over her, soothe her as she had all those days during the trial. Funny how Brad hadn’t been doting, had barely said anything specific, but his presence and quiet air of command had grounded her, given her comfort, hope for normalcy one day. And here in Ellijay, she’d thought she’d found it.

Gathering her strength, she turned back to face him. “I’m happy here, Brad. I like teaching, the mountains. I won’t allow another crazy person to rob me again.”

“Then help me, Lisa. I don’t want you or any other woman to suffer at this copycat’s hands.”

Willing her courage to sustain her, she nodded and moved back to the sofa. Her nerves still on edge, she picked up the small needlepoint pillow and crushed it in her hands. “All right. But I’m warning you, I still don’t remember where William kept me.”

Brad’s steadfast gaze didn’t waver. “Maybe if we talk through everything one more time, you might remember something new. If not the place, maybe a friend of William’s, a neighbor, an old roommate, someone who White might have confided in.”

“Okay,” Lisa said, grim but determined, “where do you want me to start?”

Brad hesitated. “At the beginning. When you first met White.”

She inhaled sharply, averting her gaze as the memories flooded her. “I was enrolled at Georgia State. I had seen William around campus. He played intramural hockey, said he was interested in sports medicine. We hung out at the Library—”

“The student library?”

“No, the Library, on Marietta Street. You know—the local hangout bar for college students. They serve drinks, play recorded music.”

“That’s right, now I remember us discussing the place.”

“One night he approached our table. I was sitting with two girls in my study group when he started talking to all of us, and he seemed…nice.” Lisa hesitated, remembering his act changing so abruptly.

“He fooled a lot of people, Lisa.”

She gave a wan smile, but shook her head as if she still blamed herself for not seeing through him.

“You two started seeing each other then?”

She nodded. “We didn’t really date exactly, just met at the bar, hung out at basketball games, attended a couple of concerts together.” She paused, struggling to recall the progression of their romance. Why she’d been attracted to William, when now just the thought of him made her skin crawl. When she’d taken off her blinders and first suspected that he had a dark side.

“Like I told you before, we saw each other for about six months. The last few weeks he changed. He was moody, charming one minute, then secretive the next. And he exploded a couple of times when I questioned why he was late.”

“But he never hit you before the abduction?”

Lisa shook her head, studying the stitching on the pillow, avoiding looking at him. “He raised his hand one time, but I shrank back, and when he looked at me and saw what he was about to do, something snapped, and he left the room. I didn’t hear from him for a week that time.”
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