About the Book:
Out of darkness and danger
You can’t hide your secrets from Lathan Montgomery—he can read your darkest memories. And while his special abilities are invaluable in the FBI’s hunt for a serial killer, he has no way to avoid the pain that brings him. Until he is drawn to courageous, down-on-her-luck Evanee Brown and finds himself able to offer her something he’s never offered another human being: himself.
Dawns a unique and powerful love
Nightmares are nothing new to Evanee Brown. But once she meets Lathan, they plummet into the realm of the macabre. Murder victims are reaching from beyond the grave to give Evanee evidence that could help Lathan bring a terrifying killer to justice. Together, they could forge an indomitable partnership to thwart violence, abuse, and death—if they survive the forces that seek to tear them apart.
Read an Excerpt:
Minds of Madness and Murder. The glossy poster advertising today’s seminar was taped to the closed auditorium door. Someone had drawn tears of blood dripping from each of the M’s.
Lathaniel Montgomery’s gut gnawed at his backbone, but not because of the poster or the bloody tears.
Holy Jesus. How was he going to manage being in an audience surrounded by hundreds of people, with all their smells, all their memories?
Gill touched his arm like he always did to get Lathan’s attention. “Going in?”
“Yeah.” But Lathan’s feet had grown roots into the floor. He hated how nothing in his life was normal. He hated the fucked-up sequence of genetic code that had enlarged the olfactory regions of his brain. He hated that he smelled everything. And he especially hated the ability to smell the energy imprints of people’s memories. Scent memories. Memories that could overwhelm him and annihilate his reality.
Gill stepped up close and examined Lathan’s left eye—the eye the SMs always invaded first, the eye that would roll around independently of the other one, making him appear in need of an exorcism.
“Quit with the eye exam. I’m all right.” For now. Concentration kept the SMs out of his mind. Vigilance kept them under control.
“Your seat is directly in front of the podium. You won’t have any trouble reading Dr. Jonah’s lips. After the presentation, introduce yourself. He’ll recognize your name.” Gill gave him the don’t-screw-this-up look. “Convince him about the Strategist.”
Lathan’s freakish ability had generated leads for nearly every cold case he worked. Except for the Strategist’s.
“Explain how each person has a scent signature. Explain that you smell the same signature on thirty-eight unsolved murders. Explain that the FBI won’t do anything unless he confirms there is a connection among the kills.”
“Save the lecture. This whole fucking thing was my dumbass idea.” Could he maintain control of the SMs long enough to make it to the end of the presentation? “If I—”
“There is no if. You’re not going to lose control.” Gill had read his worries as easily as Lathan read his friend’s lips. “Maybe I should go in with you.”
“I don’t need you holding my hand.” Lathan showed him a raised middle finger—a salute they always used in jest, forced a smile of bravado across his lips, and then pushed through the doors before he made like a chickenshit and bolted from the building. Barely inside, the SMs hit. Millions of memories warred for his attention, tugged at the vision in his left eye. He sucked air through his mouth to diminish the intensity, to maintain control.
Never in his life had he been around so many people at once and been coherent. Maybe he should leave.
He clenched his fists. Knuckles popped, grounding him, giving him an edge over the SMs.
He strode down the steps toward the front of the room. Thank whoever-was-in-charge the presentation hadn’t started yet.
An empty seat in the front row had a pink piece of paper taped to it: RESERVED. Lathan would’ve preferred the anonymity of the back row, but he couldn’t see Dr. Jonah’s face from that far away. He ripped off the sheet and sat in the cramped space.
His shoulders were wider than the damned chair. His arms overflowed the boundary of his seat. The woman on his left angled away from him, the cinnamon scent of her irritation infusing the air. Typical reaction to his size. And with the tattoo on his cheek, she probably assumed he’d served a sentence in the slammer.
The woman on his right reeked. But it wasn’t her fault. The rot of her body dying was a stench he recognized, along with the sharp chemical tang of the drugs that were killing her so she could live. Cancer and chemo. Her emaciated features evidenced the battle she fought. And yet, she was here. At this presentation. She was a warrior. And he was a fucking pussy for bellyaching about the SMs.
His ears picked up a faint snapping noise. Clapping. Everyone applauded enthusiastically.
Dr. Jonah walked to the podium. His clothes were baggy and ill fitting, his face wrinkled, his head topped with a mass of fluttery gray hair. Even though he looked like he’d just awakened from sleeping under an overpass, he possessed the look of frazzled genius. The look of someone whose work mattered more than living life. The look of the nation’s most respected profiler.
A door on Lathan’s right opened. A young woman lugged a folding chair across the room. Toward him.
He held his breath.
No. She couldn’t be there for him. No one here knew him. Knew about him. Except Gill. And Gill wouldn’t—
She opened her chair and sat facing him. With an overly enthusiastic smile that showed the silver in her back molars, she started to sign.
He looked away. A long bitter whoosh of air escaped his lips.
He didn’t need an interpreter.
The combination of what little hearing he still possessed, speech reading, and his nose worked just fucking fine. Most of the time.
Anger burned a gaping hole through his concentration. The interpreter’s memories invaded the vision of his left eye.
“Baby, come on back to bed, just for a little while.” Cara threw back the covers. She’d strapped Big Johnnie around her waist. He pointed proudly perpendicular.
She glanced at the bedside clock. She was going to be late. It’d be worth it.
The SM continued to play in front of his left eye. His right eye focused on Dr. Jonah. Lathan pressed his left eye closed with his fingers to block out the images, but they projected on the back of his eyelid. Hard to focus on reality. Disorienting as hell.
His right-eyed vision of reality wavered. Almost like a double exposure, he was able to see the stage, see Dr. Jonah, but superimposed over it was the interpreter and her sex bunny having a girls-only party.
Lathan’s heart punched against his chest wall, pumping so hard he felt the echo of it in his damaged ears. Fuck. The SMs were about to stage a coup.
“I’m out of here.” Did he shout the words, whisper them, or even speak them at all? Didn’t know. Didn’t care.
He sprinted out of his seat and up the auditorium stairs, feeling the weight of hundreds of eyes watching him.
Gulping giant fish-out-of-water breaths through his mouth, he slammed through the door, burst into the hallway, and then barreled out the exterior door.
Away from the people, away from the damned interpreter, the SMs vanished. His sight returned to normal. He’d figure out some other way to talk to Dr. Jonah. No way was he taking that kind of risk again.
The stark fall afternoon held a hint of winter chill, but he didn’t mind. He was always hot, and the temperature suited his mood. He hurried across the lawn to his motorcycle.
A wisp of scent tickled his nostrils. The fleeting aroma possessed a sickening familiarity that felt out of place for his surroundings. He plugged his nose against the smell, refusing to allow one bit of air to enter his nose until he was on the road.
Someone grabbed his arm from behind.
His heart stopped. Adrenaline shot from his brain straight to his fist.
He swung at the same time he turned. Punch first, ask questions later—his body’s default reaction ever since the attack that cost him his hearing.
He barely stopped himself from impacting with the guy’s face. Lathan lunged forward a few steps, feigning aggression, expecting the guy to retreat, and he did, tripping over his own feet, almost falling on his ass. Good. That was one way to get someone to realize he took his personal space seriously.
“Don’t fucking touch me.” From the force of the vibrations in his throat, he had yelled the words. He didn’t care. He forced himself to breathe from his mouth. Didn’t want to look like more of freak than he already did by standing there plugging his nose.
The guy swallowed and nodded, then swallowed again. “I’m Dr. Jonah’s partner.” The guy’s mouth formed the words in perfect precision. “Dr. Jonah wants…return…presentation.”
The words you, to, do, new all looked identical when spoken. Conversation with a stranger was a recipe. Mix the bits of sound he heard with the speech he read. Sprinkle in the context of the sentence. And bake with the emotions he smelled.
Why would Dr. Jonah want him to return to the lecture? Why would Dr. Jonah stop the presentation to tell his partner to come after him? He wouldn’t. Lathan must’ve read the guy’s words wrong. He sure as hell wasn’t going to ask the guy to repeat himself. Every time he did, people spoke in such an exaggerated manner even God wouldn’t be able to divine the words leaving their mouths.
The guy opened his mouth to say more, but scratched at a spot on the side of his nostril, blocking every word from Lathan’s view. His ears only picked up random sounds, nothing that added up to a word. The best way to handle not understanding speech: silence. Anything else ended with people looking at him like he was stupid.
He sat on his bike and flicked the ignition switch. Underneath him, the engine pulsed; the vibrations traveled through his body. His heart, his breath, the engine all moved in one synergistic rhythm. The closest he ever got to music.
The guy stood in front of the bike, waving his hands like an amateur cheerleader to get Lathan’s attention.
He backed the motorcycle from the space.
The persistent little pecker jogged next to him.
Lathan kicked his Fat Bob into gear and shot out of the parking lot. He needed to be alone. Alone meant no SMs. He needed to be home. Home meant sanctuary. But every sanctuary was part prison.
“What time you off work, Evan?” Carnivorous anticipation spread across the trucker’s face.
At some point during every shift at Sweet Buns and Eats truck stop, Evanee Brown was grateful the label maker had run out of ink halfway through her name. The patrons spoke the name on her tag with a familiarity that made her stifle her gag reflex. If they had used her complete name… Well, full-blown barfing would’ve been bad for business.
She pasted a super-huge smile across her mouth and lied, “Oh, I’m, uh, working a ten so, hmm, whatever time ten hours from now is.” Hopefully, her voice carried the right amount of empty-headed dingbat. Acting stupid earned better tips than being smart.
“Evan, one of these times I’m passing through I’ll have to show you the inside of my truck. It’s real nice.” He stretched the words real nice into one long taffy-like string.
She smothered an eye roll.
The trucker was old enough to have known the original Casanova, yet still made the same X-rated offer every time he came in. She glanced at the clock hanging above the door. Any minute, Shirl—her replacement—should be arriving. Couldn’t happen quick enough.
“How about an Ernie Burger, rare, everything, side of onion rings?” She worked to maintain her light tone. She wanted the twenty-dollar bill he always left for her tip.
“You remembered my usual.” He smiled, his teeth a post-apocalyptic city—abandoned, jagged, decayed. “You know I can’t resist an Ernie Burger.”
She scrawled his order on the slip and then left the table, feeling the slime of more than one man’s gaze on her body. That was to be expected when the uniform requirements were four-inch heels, shorts that barely covered her ass, and cleavage. Lots of cleavage.
Ernie liked his girls barely decent, said it was the best business decision he’d ever made. He was right. Sweet Buns was packed twenty-four seven, three sixty-five. Most days, the tips were great. Hell, there wasn’t anywhere within forty-five minutes where she could earn as much as she made at Sweet Buns.
Ernie met her at the kitchen window with a pair of tongs in his hand and anger on his face. His sharply slashed brows met over his eyes, a scowl constantly gripped his lips, and the strange vibe of restrained violence intimidated most everyone and kept the patrons from being too grabby-feely. He looked like a homicidal hashslinger, but didn’t have any bodies stashed in the freezer. At least none she’d found.
Bald head glistening from working over the grill, he scanned the new order, then turned to flip a burger while he spoke. “Shirl’s in back. Today she’s green.”
“Kermit or neon?” Shirl changed her hair color as often as most people changed their socks.
“Kermit.” Ernie flashed one of his rare smiles in her direction and then hid it behind a frown. “You keeping up the maintenance on that little car of yours?”
Her Miata. The only thing that remained from her old life. Keeping it was impractical, stupid even, but she refused to lose everything. It was her beacon of hope that one day she’d have enough cash to drive it right out of Sundew, Ohio, and never look back. “I haven’t been driving much.” Code for paying-my-bills-and-trying-to-save-money-is-my-priority.
Ernie smacked two quarter-pound burgers on the grill. Flames hissed and sizzled over the meat. He didn’t look up. “After shift tomorrow I’ll change your oil and check it over for you. And I don’t want nothing for it.”
His offer percolated in a slow drip through her ears and finally into her brain.
He gave her a sideways glance. “You hear me?”
She’d forgotten how to flap her lips and make sound to form words so she rocked her head up and down on her shoulders. His unexpected kindness left her muddle-minded. When was the last time someone had been kind without expecting something in return?
When was the last time she hadn’t felt absolutely alone?
Ernie removed a burger from the grill and slapped it in the bun. He motioned with his head toward the back room. “Get out of here. Soak your feet in Epsom salts and stay off them for the rest of the night.”
His words, spoken at the end of every shift to every one of his girls, knocked her out of her stupor.
“Okay.” She started around back.
“Shirl! Order up!” Ernie yelled, his voice loud enough to be heard throughout the diner.
Shirl dashed down the hall, her heels clattering as loud as a shoed horse. Evanee handed her open checks to the green-haired girl like a member of the Olympic relay team passing a baton, then walked out the back door.
The first thing she noticed was the rumble, roar, and release of pressure from the eighteen-wheelers parked behind the diner. The noise was as constant as a heartbeat.
A brisk autumn breeze raised goose bumps on her skin. Sunshine melted them away. Tilting her face to the sun to soak up some vitamin D, she leaned against the building and pried her pumps from her swollen feet. Each shoe came off with an indecent sucking sound and left a deep red cleft around her foot.
Ahhh. The cold pavement was a delight against her hot soles.
She walked across the parking lot, her legs moving in an awkward flamingo step as they recalibrated to being flat-footed.
The hardest part of the day wasn’t the eight hours in the heels. It was this moment, when she had time to remember her belly flop off the cliff of comfort into the cesspool of white trash. From a safe, easy life to this truck-stop waitress existence. From trendy apartment to living behind Sweet Buns at Morty’s Motor Lodge. From privacy to sharing a room with Brittany, the town whore. From profound ignorance to the realization that everything good she used to have came from being a whore too.
But she wasn’t going to think about that. Nope. Not going to.
Halfway across the parking lot, she spotted Brittany’s special signal.
The ribbon tied to their doorknob used to be pretty-girl pink, but had long since faded to a shade of old and used.
“Damn it, Brittany.”
The steady stream of truckers kept Brittany bumping around the clock. At least she always made her guys rent another room for the hour. Unless she had a loaded one. Someone with thousands to burn. Being customer service–oriented, Brittany gave those guys a discount by letting them use her room—the one she shared with Evanee. They’d be in there all night, possibly even days.
Now Evanee stood eyeball to eyeball with being homeless for the night.
A weight bore down on her shoulders, threatened to buckle her knees, crush her into the pavement.
She shook her head, flinging the bad thoughts out of her mind like a dog shaking off water. There had to be a bright side. If she looked hard enough, long enough, she could find something good hiding behind every bad thing. Or maybe the search for good was just a distraction from the bad. She’d have to think about that one later.
She wasn’t homeless. Homeless meant no roof over her head, nowhere to go. She had her car and could drive herself anywhere.
She fished through the wads of cash and change in her tiny apron pocket, finding her key ring. Once inside the Miata, she locked the doors and then counted through the day’s tips. Some ones, but mostly fives, tens, even a few twenties from the most desperate of truckers who thought if they tipped high, they’d eventually earn some alone time with her.
With her tips from yesterday, she had enough cash for her car payment with twenty-three dollars left over. Not enough for another motel room. She shoved the money back into her apron pocket and set it on the floor.
The bow on the door fluttered on the breeze, its movement more effective than a neon sign flashing Sex In Progress. Heat scorched her cheeks. She felt like a slow-witted Peeping Tom staring at the ribbon, knowing all manner of sexual acrobatics were occurring inside the room.
Evanee started her car. The motor turned over with a quiet hum that instantly lifted her mood. No matter how impractical or how flashy, she loved her Miata.
With no particular destination in mind, she pulled out of Morty’s and headed toward the country, away from semis and people. She took one winding, hilly road after another until she found an isolated spot.
The road passed through a serpentine valley encircled by low, undulating hills. A barbed-wire fence ran parallel with the pavement. Cows probably grazed there in the summer, but this late in the fall, the grass had shriveled to spikes of straw. The lonesome beauty of the land, the way the hills folded around her, soothed something inside her she hadn’t realized needed comfort until that moment.
See, there was always a bright side. She would never have found this place if Brittany hadn’t confiscated their room for a conjugal visit with a horny trucker.
She pulled over and cut the ignition.
She could spend the night here. It’d be like camping out. Sort of.
Leaning back against the headrest, she let her eyes slide shut. Sometimes she forgot a world existed beyond Sweet Buns, Morty’s, and the constant rumble of semis.
Silence. Pure and perfect. The best thing she’d heard in weeks. The quiet lulled her into relaxation, into sleep.
Evanee startled awake with a full-body lurch. Her heart ping-ponged off the walls of her chest. Breath choked in and out of her lungs.
She’d had a nightmare.
Another nightmare in the infinite string of bad dreams she could never remember. But this time fear walked up her spine while she was awake, like the nightmare was just beginning.
“I thought you might be in trouble.” The words, muffled and muted through the closed driver’s window, didn’t disguise the voice’s sinister chocolaty smoothness.
Fight or flight or freeze? She froze, solid as an ice sculpture.
She glanced in the rearview mirror. Junior’s tow truck was parked behind her car. Confirmation. It really was him. She couldn’t remain paralyzed. Fight and flight stood on either side of her, better friends to her than frozen ever would be. She turned her head toward the window to face her stepbrother.
Junior’s straight nose, his plump lips, his sharp, handsome features captured the best of Zac Efron, Tom Cruise, and a young Robert Redford in a body that everyone in Sundew was irresistibly drawn to. Women fought for his attention, men wanted to be him, and everyone adored him for his wholesome nice-guy personality.
No one saw the real him, except for her. Junior Malone was nothing more than a beautifully wrapped package. Gorgeous on the outside, but inside he was something more vile than maggots squirming and writhing on rotting roadkill.
“Fuck off.” Anger and a childhood full of pain—caused by him—dictated her volume.
“Darlin’, I was worried about you. You’ve been out here awhile.” Sincerity, kindness, concern all sounded in his voice—all bullshit. His voice might be the sweetest siren’s song to everyone else, but she knew the real him. He didn’t have any feelings, except for the sadistic kind.
“How do you know how long I’ve been out here?”
He raised his palms in the air. “I’m sorry. It wasn’t my idea. I swear. Tiffany at Sundew National wanted me to make sure you didn’t skip town with their car.”
Their car? What kind of bank freaked if the payment was only a few days late? The kind in Sundew where the loan officer knew every mistake Evanee had ever made and expected her to dive head first into the shallow end of stupid. Again.
But what if Junior’s words were chock-full of lies and designed to manipulate her behavior?
Had he been tracking her? Had Tiffany told him to? Tomorrow, she’d get answers when she went to make her payment.
Evanee started the car, shifted into gear, and then slammed her foot down on the gas pedal. Her hip punched off the seat from the force. The Miata’s tires spun, she heard gravel flying, imagined the stones hitting Junior’s perfect face. Ha!
The engine sputtered. Died. The car coasted forward only a few feet.
Her heart sank down, down, down, until it rested on the pavement beneath the Miata.
Damn her and her genius idea to save money by canceling her cell phone service.
Hands in his coverall pockets as if he were out on a nature jaunt, Junior strolled the ten feet—all the further her Miata had gotten—to her. Each step closer squeezed the air from her lungs until the only sound was her wheezing.
“You got a leak in your fuel tank.”
“You did it.” She knew that as well as she knew his name.
“I’ll patch it for you. But I need you to get out of the car so I can jack it up.”
“I’m not getting out of this car.” She wasn’t going to give him what he wanted. Her.
“Aw…now don’t be that way. Come on out here. We can chat—you know, catch up on things—while I fix your car.” He paused, waiting for her to capitulate to his wishes.
She had never given in passively or politely, and she wasn’t going to start now.
“I saw Matt in town the other day.” His tone was innocent gossipy, but the words were a barbed whip, lashing her, raising painful welts of memory—of her choosing to stay in town for Matt, of her deluding herself into believing sex and money equaled affection, of him randomly casting her off like a used napkin.
“Dad’s watching Matt. Looking for that special moment when Matt sticks a toe out of line, and then he’ll arrest him. He’s not going to be passive like Sheriff Bailey was.” Junior and his dad hated Matt solely because being with Matt had made her untouchable. Matt was rich, prominent, and good friends with both the old sheriff and the mayor.
“Leave Matt out of this.” She didn’t want Junior’s dad, the shiny new sheriff, to cause Matt any problems.
“You shouldn’t be defending him.” Junior lashed the barbed whip again.
She heard the quiver of anticipation in his words—a warning. He pulled a tool from his coveralls pocket and held it in the middle of the driver’s window. The glass shattered. Shards sprinkled over her legs like glittering confetti. The glass hadn’t even stopped falling, and she was already scrambling across the console to the passenger side. Grabbing for her shoes, she jumped out the door.
Her heels were her only weapon. Fight her only friend.
Who would’ve thought death could smell so good? Lathan maneuvered the Fat Bob down the curvy country road. The aroma of autumn streamed over his face. Decaying leaves, emaciated grass, burning wood. The best-smelling time of the year was full of the scent of death.
Death. He should’ve stayed at the presentation, waited outside to talk to Dr. Jonah when it was over. Why hadn’t that twenty-four-karat thought occurred an hour ago? Thirty-eight kills by the Strategist, and Lathan had fucking walked away from his chance to prevent number thirty-nine. The real kick in the ass—he only worked cold cases. How many active cases were the work of the Strategist?
His insides turned into a cavernous tomb. Guilt echoed off the walls.
He opened the throttle on his Fat Bob and surged forward at a reckless speed, full concentration locked on navigating the twisting roads. Countryside blurred by him. Bad thoughts left behind, replaced by the thrill.
A tow truck parked in the middle of the narrow pavement forced him to slow.
Vehicles rarely traveled this far out into the country. Probably horny teenagers, frantic for a place to screw, had broken down and needed a tow. He skirted the edge of the pavement and started to pass.
The lollipop-red Miata on the other side of the tow truck grabbed his attention for only a second, but the woman standing in front of the car, waving her shoes at him, completely captured him.
Her skyscraper legs ended in a pair of miniscule black shorts. The neckline of her shirt plunged to the valley between her breasts. And those shiny black shoes she gestured with were hooker-sexy in her hands—he didn’t dare imagine what they’d look like on her feet.
Pressure built inside his torso like a dangerous case of indigestion. The air flowing over his face stung like a charge of electric current. His grip on the handlebars faltered. The bike wobbled. He felt unsteady as a kid without training wheels.
When he drove by her, the pungent scent of garlic permeated the air. Fear. Fear always stunk.
Was she frightened of his appearance? Typical reaction. One he counted on to keep people away. He steadied the bike, continued forward without increasing his speed.
Something was peculiar about her. Something felt peculiar within him.
No SMs tugged at his concentration or battled for his attention.
It was like they never existed, like he was…normal. Normal. Almost. He could still smell her fear—her emotions; he just didn’t get any SMs from her.
He had to meet her, discover what made her different from every other human being.
He gripped the brake. Hard. His Fat Bob fished around on the pavement. He turned the bike in a tight U-ey in the middle of the road and saw what scared her. A guy crouched in the ditch, nearly hidden by her car, creeping toward her as stealthy as a hawk stalking a rabbit.
“Behind you!” As he shouted the words—words he wasn’t certain she could hear over the roar of his bike—the guy sprang. Grabbed her arm. She whirled around, awkward in her movements, her limbs loose like a rag-doll ballerina. She pushed at the guy, tried to pull away from him, but the asshole shook her, shoved her. She fell to the pavement, landed on her ass and elbows, shoes bucking from her hands. Pain hacked across her face.
Every muscle, every tendon, every cell inside Lathan clenched. Fury zipped along his neuro pathways, then outward to his extremities. He shot forward on his Fat Bob, closing the distance between them in mere seconds. He didn’t even stop the bike, just dropped it and launched himself at the asshole, tackling him, driving him back until the car stopped their momentum.
Underneath him, the asshole’s muscles strained like a slingshot pulled back, ready to snap. Lathan tensed, bracing for the blow, the swing toward his ribs the only move open. “Go ahead. Fucking try it.”
The guy punched. Lathan blocked, then mashed his fist into the guy’s ribs. Lathan stepped back, watched the guy fold over, clutching his side. A plug to the ribs hurt, but it wasn’t on the scale of a knockout. Someone who buckled from a simple rib shot probably only picked on women and the weak. When confronted with someone he couldn’t easily dominate, this guy pussied out.
Lathan turned to the woman sprawled on the road.
She didn’t quite wear the holy-shit expression he expected, but she gaped at him with wide doe-eyes the color of the sky on a full-moon night. Flecks of gray twinkled in the irises. Her eyes drew him in, engulfing him in their depths. He swore he glimpsed a shard of heaven.
His heartbeat shifted to a lackadaisical rhythm. His breathing relaxed until the metallic mineral tang of blood mixed with the garlic of her fear. She was injured and still scared.
“Are you okay?” His gaze locked on her lips to read her words, but she didn’t speak. He’d read that telling a person your name put them at ease. “My name is Lathan.” He knelt next to her, careful to keep the guy in his peripheral vision, and held out his gloved hand to her.
She grabbed his hand with greedy strength. She sat up but didn’t release him. “I’m a funny.”
His eyes read her words, but his ears heard nonsense.
I’m a funny? Did she hit her head? Or was he not reading the words right? V’s and f’s looked exactly same. Vunny? Avunny? Didn’t make sense.
The guy lurched to his feet, reached into his shirt pocket, and removed a yellow paper. Stitched across that pocket was the name Junior. Great. Somewhere out there was a Senior, who was probably just as big an asshole as his son.
“She’s none of…business.” Junior’s volume was loud enough Lathan heard the essentials. He rose to his full height. He had at least four inches and fifty pounds on Junior.
Still clutching his hand, the woman scrambled to her feet and hid behind him. He had a solid hunch that if she could, she’d open a door on his spine, crawl inside, and hide until Junior left.
“She’s standing with me, holding my hand. I’d say she’s my business.”
Junior started yelling, the histrionic lip movements making it impossible to read any of the words. He jabbed the yellow paper toward her car.
Answers. Lathan needed honest answers, and SMs never lied.
The SMs. His heart skittered. He hadn’t paid any attention to controlling them. Hadn’t needed to. For the first time ever, they waited, patient as a shelf of DVDs for his attention. Whoa. What was going on? He’d figure it out later.
Watching an SM of Junior’s would take only a few seconds. He inhaled through his nose and let Junior’s memory play in front of his left eye.
He chased her down the hall.
Her glossy, black ponytail swung across her shoulders, its movement almost as sexy as the sway of her running hips.
She ran into her bedroom, slammed the door.
“Open it!” He put a pound of menace in his voice to disguise his satisfaction. He admired how she always ran, and when cornered, how she always fought.
“Leave me the fuck alone!” She screamed the words loud enough for everyone in the house to hear.
With a well-aimed kick, he busted the knob and charged into the room. She held her softball bat in a batter’s stance, prepared to slug his head off his shoulders and score a home run.
She opened her mouth wide, so wide he could see the back of her throat, so wide he wanted to shove his dick in the pink hole. But his naughty darlin’ would bite it off the first chance she got.
By now, she should know—her mom wanted them together.
Lathan opened his mouth, diffusing the amount of air going to his nose, and then pulled his attention away from Junior’s memory before he saw something he’d regret forever. With hardly any effort, the SM retreated to his preconscious. Complete vision returned to his left eye. Faster than ever before. But the urge—oh God, Junior’s urge—to ram his dick into her was overwhelming.
Nausea gyrated in Lathan’s gut.
Not his urge. Junior’s urge. Not his urge. Junior’s urge.
No amount of telling himself it was someone else’s memory eliminated the feeling that he’d done that to her. Why couldn’t the SMs be like watching a TV show? Something he could walk away from. Easily forget.
“What’re you—” Junior’s expression froze halfway between a snarl and a sneer. The scent of burning cinnamon choked the air around him—rage at not getting what he wanted. Her. That amount of anger led down a road named Violence and ended in town called Body Dump.
“Take the car and leave.” Lathan nodded toward the Miata. The car would have to placate the asshole. If it didn’t—he flexed his free hand—Junior would be leaving with a fractured face and his ’nads shoved so far up his chest cavity he’d need open-heart surgery to extract them.
He heard odd sounds. No, female sounds. The woman was talking, but he couldn’t link a meaning to the noises his ears picked up.
She tugged his hand but didn’t let go. Probably protesting him giving her car away.
Lathan spoke over his shoulder, but never let his gaze stray from Junior. “Give him your car. I’ll help you figure things out after he leaves.”
She leaned full-body against him, letting him take her weight, support her like a crutch. Her head rested on the wing of his shoulder, and she nodded her agreement against his back.
Soothing coolness spiraled through his insides. It was just a silly nod, but the gesture symbolized more. Trust. Her trust in him to make this decision for her and to keep her safe from Junior.
And he would keep her safe. It made him gut-sick that the same girl who was such a fighter in the SM was now a frightened woman. And why shouldn’t she be? Get knocked down enough times, it becomes harder and harder to get up swinging.
Junior smiled, a malicious upturn of the lips, the kind of smile a bully has right before he wallops on someone weaker. “Darlin’, I’ll see you soon.”
“No.” Lathan said. “You won’t call her. You won’t look at her. You won’t touch her. You fucking try it, and I’ll hand you your balls on plate. Then I’ll stuff them down your throat and enjoy every second of watching you choke to death.” He meant every goddamned word.
It was only after Junior hooked up her car and drove out of sight that she stepped out from behind Lathan, her gaze locked on the narrow place where the road disappeared from sight. And still she didn’t let go of his hand. Not that he minded. Not one bit.
Dusk had begun to settle around them, sucking away the light. In a few minutes, it’d be too dark to read her speech. He should tell her he had trouble hearing. But he wasn’t going to. For this one moment in his life, he was going to be normal. Just an ordinary man.
He shifted to face her, to see her mouth. “There’s no place for him to double back, so you don’t need to worry about round two. Do you want me to call the police?”
She closed her eyes and shook her head with an anguished expression. The scent of her fear had begun to dissipate, but he still smelled her blood.
Where was she hurt?
Her ebony hair was pulled up in one of those artfully messy hairstyles that showed off the contour of her neck and an expanse of pale skin leading all the way down to the hollow between her breasts. He forced his gaze away, searching for blood. Along the side of her left arm, streaks of red meandered to her wrist.
“You’re gonna need a Band-Aid at minimum, stitches at max.”
She looked down at her arm. Even in the dim light, he could see the color rinse out of her face. She’d better not pass out, not here, with only his bike for transportation.
“You don’t do well with blood, do you? Look at me.” He waited until her gaze shifted away from her arm. “Don’t look at it anymore. It’ll only make you feel bad.”
She didn’t look away from him. Pass-out crisis averted.
“Is there someplace you want me to take you?” Why was he all of a sudden a Chatty Chucky? Because she was being too quiet. He clamped his lips closed, forcing himself to wait for her response.
She didn’t move, didn’t look away from his eyes. Most people never met his gaze during a conversation; they ogled the tattoo on his cheek. The black feather started on his cheekbone and angled downward toward his chin, the spine of it torn apart with jagged edges that dripped blood down his jaw and neck. How could she not stare at it?
After a full thirty seconds where her lips didn’t as much as twitch, he concluded she was in shock—in no condition to make decisions. After the sick shit he’d seen in Junior’s SM, she had a right to take a mental time-out.
“I live a few miles from here. I’ll take you to my house and help you figure out what you want to do next.”
She’d finally spoken. Maybe she wasn’t as far gone as he’d assumed.
He started toward his bike lying in the ditch. Whoa. He didn’t remember dropping his Fat Bob so carelessly.
She trailed behind him, still attached to his gloved hand. Not once in his life had he ever held a woman’s hand. He’d never known how intimate cradling a smaller palm against his could be, or how protective it’d make him feel, or how strongly he’d desire to rip off the glove and touch her skin to skin. Not going to happen. Ever.
He tried to release her, but she remained fastened to him. A selfish part of him reveled in her desire to cling to him. He raised their hands between them to catch her eye. “I need to get the bike out of the ditch.”
Her brows rose an infinitesimal degree. Embarrassment flashed in her eyes at the same time the spoiled dairy scent of it hit his nose. She dropped his hand and stepped back.
“Hey, no worries.” You have no idea how much I’d sacrifice to keep hold of you. He clenched his empty fist a few times to eliminate his hand’s memory of what it felt like to hold hers.
While he hauled his machine onto the road, he didn’t look away from her. She stood bereft in the middle of the pavement, staring out over the pasture. Emotions infused the air around her. Shame. Hate. Embarrassment. Sadness. Fear. Desperation.
He recognized that tangled combination of scents. Knew them intimately. Knew the feeling of being hurt and vulnerable and powerless to stop the pain. Knew how memories, like the one he witnessed, had left wounds on her soul and Junior had just ripped off all the scabs.
She was raw, bleeding emotionally in front of him, and yet holding it together by a spider’s thread. He could see the effort in the way she stood straight and stiff.
Fury simmered low in his gut. After he got her squared away, maybe he’d pay a visit to Junior. Show the asshole what it felt like to be the victim.
He walked the bike to her. After he straddled the seat, he held out his hand to her. She grabbed him, her grip hungry.
“Climb on up.”
She tossed her leg over the seat, using his hand to balance her weight.
He sat at the same time she did, her body settling against his back.
Holy Jesus. He couldn’t activate the ability to think. His brain short-circuited from her nearness. Everything disappeared but the feeling of her open thighs wrapped around his ass with nothing but a tiny pair of black shorts and his jeans between them.
Her sweet, musky scent, almost like honey, but better—way better—folded around him like a celestial pair of wings. The scent of her entered his nose and flowed into his lungs, then out to his extremities, spreading a cooling wave of solace that he wanted to savor but couldn’t. Not with her perched behind him, waiting for him to drive down the road.
He placed her hand against his stomach, pressed it tightly to him. His abdominal muscles twitched under her touch.
“Hold on.” He let go of her hand, and she slid her other arm around his waist. She pressed her front to his back, holding as tightly to his body as she’d held his hand. She was a clingy little thing. Not that he minded. Her touch felt like—what was the word he wanted to use—kismet. Exactly as he’d always imagined a lover’s touch. Two pieces fitting together perfectly.
He kicked the machine in gear, trying to ease it forward instead of moving with his normal burst of speed. She rested her head on his spine, nestling her cheek across the fabric of his shirt before settling.
His heart grew, straining against his chest wall, threatening to come up his throat in a shout of absolute ecstasy.
Lathan eased the Fat Bob next to his back porch steps and cut the engine. The woman’s tenacious grip around his waist had never faltered. He felt another bout of shivers roll over her. Those sinful shorts of hers pushed the boundaries of decency and definitely weren’t seasonal for November in Ohio, especially not for riding on the back of a motorcycle.
He waited for her to loosen her hold. She didn’t. “Honey.” He didn’t know her name, but the endearment belonged to her better than any name he could imagine. “You can get off now.”
Immediately, she released him and climbed off the bike. That was good, but a woolly mammoth–sized problem remained—how to snap her out of her emotional free fall. He set the kickstand and got off the bike. She hovered close like she expected Junior to materialize at any moment.
Anger at Junior—at what he’d done to her, at what he had wanted to do to her again—heated Lathan’s blood, singeing his veins and arteries. He clenched his fists tight, popped each of his knuckles, and wished his hands were wrapped around Junior’s throat. “You don’t have to worry about Junior. You’re safe with me.”
She latched onto his hand again, squirming her fingers between his gloved ones.
He squeezed her hand to reinforce his words.
She squeezed back, and some of the anxiety eased in her eyes.
Damn. He liked her touching him.
“So…” Jesus, what was he supposed to say? His mind tornadoed around in his skull, looking for words. He walked up the steps and turned to see her. The back-porch light cast a warm glow across her skin, giving her a heartier color than she naturally possessed. The mass of her hair, so perfect before the ride, now sagged precariously close to her ear. Wispy tendrils had escaped, shooting out at awkward angles around her head. She didn’t look one millimeter less beautiful. “I built the place myself. It’s not fancy, but it’s mine.”
She didn’t say anything, but her gaze darted around, taking in the wide porch spanning the entire length of his house and the small yard that ended abruptly in a thick screen of trees and underbrush.
He led her into his home. With no hesitation, she followed him across the threshold. She had to be way the fuck out of it to have no anxiety about this situation. Not only was he a stranger to her, but he was a big man. Size alone intimated most people. Add on his face tattoo, and most everyone avoided him. He guided her through the wide-open kitchen to the living room.
“I don’t normally have company.” He sniffed the air, making certain Little Man hadn’t found a dead animal in the woods and dragged it through the dog door. Again. “You sit and rest. I’ll get a bandage for your elbow, and then we’ll figure things out.”
She let go of him and sat on his sofa. Stared at her lap.
He immediately missed her touch. Her mouth moved, but the angle was wrong for him to see her lips. He picked up the erratic sounds of speech.
She looked up. Desperation lit her eyes. “…I sleep.”
What could she have possibly said that ended in I sleep? Her emotional scents were all over the universe—no help at all. Without the context of the entire sentence, he couldn’t even be sure he’d read I sleep correctly. He knelt at eye level with her and covered her hands with his.
She stared into his eyes—his eyes, not the image on his cheek. Heat flared up his neck and onto his face. She looked at him—saw him, the real him. How did she do it?
“I’ve got a favor to ask. When you talk to me, look me in the face.” He should explain, but he wasn’t going to. “Please.”
“I’ll be better after I sleep. I always am.”
The sounds and sight of her speech matched perfectly, but he still wasn’t certain what she meant. “You want to take a nap?”
“I have to.”
The seriousness of her gaze worried him. “You have to?”
“I’ll be better after… I promise.”
Huh? Maybe she knocked her head when she fell. No, she had landed on ass and elbows. “Ohh-kaay…” He drew the word out, showing his confusion.
She shifted her legs up onto the couch, laid her head on the arm, and heaved a deep breath. Her eyelids fluttered shut. He waited for them to open again, but they didn’t. The tangled scent of her emotions faded, and her honeyed scent signature intensified, enveloping him in a vaporous caress. Only one thing magnified a person’s scent signature. Sleep. She’d been trying to tell him she felt the adrenaline crash coming on. Damn. It had hit her hard.
He should go into the kitchen, make himself a peanut butter sandwich, a steaming pot of coffee, a large helping of rational behavior. Instead, he ass-planted on the opposite end of the couch, submitting to the urge to watch over her, to make sure nothing bad happened to her.
She frowned in her sleep. Shifted. Straightened out her legs until her feet ran into his thigh. She heaved a slow breath, her expression settling, as if touching him soothed her. It sure as hell felt good to him.
He memorized the length and width of the lines across her Achilles tendon and the rise and hollow of her anklebones. Shiny new skin, raw patches, and dry scabs covered her toes, the back of her heel. Her feet were a map of misery.
Stop staring at her feet like Little Man drooling over a bone. Touch her—skin to skin.
Fear plunged into his heart sharp as a scalpel. No. He couldn’t allow his bare skin to contact with another human’s flesh. He refused to regress to his childhood—lost in a blur of other people’s memories, not being able to find his reality. Touch amplified his ability. Touch incapacitated him. When he’d started wearing the gloves, he’d gained a critical piece of control.
And yet, he yanked off his gloves. His heart rate, his breath rate jacked up to an almost unbearable level.
What the fuck was he doing?
Not listening to logic. He pressed one finger to her ankle. A wave of calm crested over him, quieting his racing heart, dowsing his ragged breathing, and abating the fear of losing control. No SMs. Millimeter by millimeter he settled his entire hand over her, circling her ankle, thumb meeting middle finger. Her skin was cold over the sharp bones.
No SMs. None. How was that possible?
He didn’t believe in God, but maybe, just maybe, she was created for him. An Eve to his Adam.
What was he thinking? Crazy, crazy, crazy thoughts.
She probably had a brain defect that prevented scents from linking to memories. His olfactory region was overdeveloped. Maybe hers was underdeveloped.
He pulled his hand off her ankle.
Distance. He needed distance between them. He grabbed his gloves and headed for the back door. He glanced at her only once, to make certain she still slept, then left the house.
An endless plateau of white surrounded Evanee. No sky, no walls. Just white trailing off to infinity.
The White Place. Such a childish name, but she’d named it when she was a child.
She opened her arms wide, tilted her face skyward, letting the tranquility of the space cradle her body. The silence settled her mind. The color calmed her soul. The aloneness healed her heart.
Over the past few months, she’d longed for this escape. But the White Place chose when to admit her. It was a gift granted only in the worst of times.
Growing up, she came here every time she slept. This place rejuvenated her fragmented emotions, granted her the strength to fight, and gave her the will to live when the easier option was suicide.
It’d been a decade since her last visit. Too long.
A sound. She caged the breath in her lungs to listen. Sound had never existed in the White Place.
Fear whispered over the back of her neck, the backs of her arms, the backs of her legs. She was in the presence of a predator. She could sense its malicious energy, its malevolent intent.
The sound—clearer this time.
Humming. The sweet dulcet tones clashed with the suffocating terror coursing through her.
She lowered her arms to her sides, cinched her hands into fists, and turned.
A child, a little girl, her body in profile. Her pink shirt, her hands, her baby-doll blond tresses matted with reddish mud. The glare of color against the pristine white was repulsive. Wrong.
Adrenaline squirted into Evanee’s system. Every muscle mobilized, ready to fight. Or run.
Why was she afraid of a dirty kid?
She could only see the side of the girl’s face, but that was enough to see her beauty. She was the kind of child women were jealous of because they knew how stunning she’d be when she matured. The kind of child every father feared having because the boys wouldn’t leave her alone. The kind of child parents couldn’t help spoiling.
The girl extended her arm, hiding something in her fist. “You must take this.” The girl’s petulant tone raised goose bumps over Evanee’s skin.
“What do you have?” Evanee’s voice quivered.
One by one, the little fingers opened to reveal the child’s treasure.
Round. Puckered. Ashen white. Misty blue circle in the middle.
Evanee’s legs wobbled. She stumbled back, opened her mouth to cry out, maybe to scream, but something invisible, immovable, immense grabbed her throat, choked off the sound, and stopped her. She was locked inside the husk of herself, unable to move or breathe or fight.
The girl turned. One side of her face was sweet child perfection, the other an abomination. Blood and flesh congealed in her empty eye socket. Rusty brown smears mixed with scarlet trailing down her cheek, some slithering into her mouth.
Gray spots speckled Evanee’s vision. She was going to pass out; maybe she was going to die. She’d never feared death, used to wish Junior would just kill her instead of playing with her. And disappearing right now from the mess she’d made of her life would be easier than working her way out.
But she didn’t want to die. She wanted to live.
She had an absurd desire to hold Lathan’s hand again. Even though the tattoo on his face made him look more intimidating than anyone she’d ever met, he’d protected her from Junior and that vaulted him way past stranger-danger status to good-guy-hero level.
“You.” The girl’s voice was a command. “Take this.”
The gray spots spread, turned blinding yellow, then black, blotting out the girl. Unable to struggle, unable to breathe, unable to utter a sound, Evanee mouthed the word she wanted to say. No.
“Don’t say no to me.” The girl’s tone deepened beyond its natural level, dipping into the range of the demonic.
The Thing holding Evanee released her. Her knees folded neat as a shirt on the display table at Gap, bringing her down to eye level with the girl. Air sucked into her oxygen-starved lungs. The girl opened her mouth, hurling blood over Evanee in a vindictive arc. The warm slickness of it touched her tongue. Before she could spit it out, its heat snuck down her throat and burned in her belly.
Her arm rose to take the eye. She screamed—she didn’t raise her arm. The Thing did.
The girl dropped the still-warm eye in Evanee’s palm. Across the girl’s face spread the smirky smile of a spoiled child who’d just gotten her way.
Lathan strode down the lonely road. Shimmering stars pierced the charcoal sky, casting silver light on the pavement meandering among the low hills. A chill breeze carried the feral scents of coyote and possum. Predator and prey.
He stepped into his driveway and headed for his back door. The brisk walk to find the shoes she’d lost out on the road had been exactly what he’d needed to unscramble his thoughts and figure some things out. Some things he couldn’t allow himself to forget.
Not getting any SMs from her was intriguing, but it had to be just a random, happenstance occurrence. She was nothing more than a woman he was helping for the night, and he couldn’t let himself forget that. No matter how miraculous it felt to touch her.
He trudged up the porch steps and through the door. The stench hit him before he made it across the threshold. Garlic. And something rotting, decomposing, dead.
Damn that dog and his fetish for decaying carcasses.
Honey lay on the couch, her gaze locked on Little Man—his two-hundred-pound mastiff. An unfortunate underbite left Little Man’s bottom teeth protruding and made him look like Satan’s best beast rather than man’s best friend.
“That’s Little Man. He’s harmless.” He set her shoes in the middle of the kitchen table so Little Man wouldn’t turn them into tail-wagger toys and looked around for the dead animal. “He won’t hurt you. He’s really just an overgrown puppy.”
She sprang off the couch, hurdled the coffee table, crashing into him with full-body impact. He caught her tightly to him, smelling her fear, feeling it in the butterfly tremors shaking her body.
“I should’ve warned you that he might come in.” He inhaled the scent of her hair—cooking oil, nectarines, and sunshine. “He comes and goes through a dog door in the laundry room.”
Her arms slid around him, holding him so tight she could’ve been his second skin.
His heart crashed against his chest wall. His breath tangled up in his lungs. His gut stung with warmth. She settled her head over his heart. Could she feel it pounding? He squeezed his eyes shut, letting the pleasure of holding her entwine with the regret of knowing this was the first time, the last time, the only time he’d ever be able to hold another human being.
Her lips moved against his chest. He heard the stammering sounds of her speaking.
Dream. He’d caught only one word of what she’d said. Did she think Little Man was a bad dream?
He half dragged, half carried her to the couch and sat. She didn’t let go of him and ended up across his lap, her buttocks pressing into his dick. Blood drained downward and swelled into his groin. Lava-hot sweat erupted from his pores. Shame formed a molten lump in his gut—knowing what she’d been through, he shouldn’t be reacting to her this way. He shifted, moved her down his legs so she couldn’t feel his arousal, and then started blabbing to distract her.
“The worst thing Little Man would ever do is lick you. His tongue is six inches wide, seems two feet long, and he slobbers. A lot.” Lathan bent his head to see her mouth, hoping for a smile, but she stared at her hand, her lips pulled back over her teeth in repulsed horror.
She lifted her hand, her slender bicep straining and bulging as if whatever she clutched in her fist weighed too much to raise.
Her fingers fanned opened.
Lathan stared at the object she held. His heart stalled and his brain shuddered to a stop, leaving him thoughtless for a few picoseconds, before everything turned back on and shifted gears in a direction he sure as hell didn’t want to go.
An eye. A human eye. In her hand.
Lathan blinked, not quite believing the message his eyes were sending his brain.
“What the… Where’d you get that?” He scented the air and visually scanned his home—only himself, Little Man, and her. No one else had been inside. Nothing was missing or out of place. “Did you leave the house?”
She didn’t answer. She looked and smelled befuddled, dazed, stunned.
“Did you find it outside?”
Why did she have it in her hand? What would possess her to touch it, pick it up? His innards lurched and sank down into his gut. Was the owner of the eye still alive? He suspected they weren’t, and that meant there was a body outside. Nearby.
But he would’ve smelled a body. He was just out there.
Her hand fell, the enucleated orb went with it, bouncing once, then rolling, iris over white, to a stop in the crevice between the cushions. Her body wilted; her head thunked against his shoulder.
He grabbed her chin, shaking her face. “Honey. Wake up. I need some answers here.” But she was twelve-rounds-with-the-champ out. Fuck.
He cradled her limp form against him and reached into his pants pocket to get his cell phone. He took a picture of the eye, sent it to Gill, and followed up with a text.
Human eye on my couch.
Gill was gonna hit an eleven on the freak-o-meter. Either that or think Lathan was trying to punk him. A moment later, Gill responded.
A little late for Halloween.
You fucking with me?
IDK, but I’m pretty sure where there’s an eye, there’s a body.
Don’t move. Don’t touch anything. I’ll contact Eric on my way.
For the first time since he’d been hired as a special skills consultant, he was going to demand a favor from the FBI, and they would grant it—without question—for the man who had closed more cold cases than everyone else combined. The most important condition of his contract was that his privacy, his total seclusion, be maintained at all times.
He shoved his arm under Honey’s legs, lifted her tight against his chest, and stood.
“Little Man. Come.”
The dog didn’t move. Didn’t blink. His attention focused on the eye.
Lathan nudged the dog’s thick haunch with his boot until Little Man gave him the look. The I-swear-I’ll-never-chew-on-the-table-legs-ever-again-if-you-just-let-me-have-it, please, please, please look.
“No. Leave it.” He put the You’re-not-allowed-to-play-with-it-or-eat-it tone in his voice. “Little Man. Come.”
Little Man heaved a giant sigh that fanned his massive jowls outward, but stood and headed upstairs. Lathan followed, carrying Honey. By the time he got into the bedroom, Little Man was settled on his mastiff-sized dog bed in the corner.
Lathan laid Honey in his bed. Her body was deadweight and awkward, so he adjusted her arms, her legs, her head as if she were a life-sized rag doll until she looked comfortable.
He tore off his gloves, pressed his fingers to her neck, and concentrated on finding her pulse. The steady pressure of her heartbeat tapped against his fingertips with a Morse code rhythm all its own. He laid his other hand on her chest, just below her clavicles, to ensure the rise and fall of her breathing. He tried not to notice how close his hand was to her breasts. Failed.
The side of his hand rested next to the gentle slope of her breast. If he fanned out his pinkie finger—no. He pulled his hand away.
She must’ve just passed out.
He went into the bathroom, soaped up half the stack of clean washcloths, and washed the lingering scent of decay from her hand.
Her skin was rough and red, her fingers knobby and strong, her nails ragged and short. She had the body and clothing of a stripper, but he expected something more faux sexy than torn-up fingernails and blistered feet. What kind of job abused her hands and her feet? Nothing seemed to fit.
He had questions and not one answer. What was her name? Why didn’t he get SMs from her? Why was he able to touch her? Where the fuck did she get a human eyeball?
He stared at her face as if the answers were written in the delicate arch of her brows or in the gentle curve of her lashes. Or in the small sickle-shaped scar at the corner of her mouth that curved upward, giving her the curious appearance of smiling out of one side of her mouth, while the other side frowned.
Her eyelids fluttered. Opened.
“How are you feeling?” That question was more appropriate than interrogating her on how she came into possession of a human eyeball. He’d wait until she was fully conscious before tripping down that trail.
“Cold. So cold.” Goose bumps pimpled over her bare skin. She scooted toward where he sat on the edge of the bed, wrapping herself around his hips, seeking his body’s warmth.
He should get the heavy sleeping bag from the closet. He should cover her with it and leave the room. He should, he should, he should. He didn’t. He pulled off his boots and eased into the bed. She latched onto him before he fully reclined.
She molded herself to him. His shoulder her pillow, her arm around his middle, one of her legs draped over his thighs, her knee just a few miniscule inches from his groin. Everything vanished, except the vivid sensation of her feminine curves burrowing into him, seeking his safety, his comfort, his warmth. She was cool where he was on fire. She was soft where he couldn’t bend. She was sweet where he felt bitter.
She fit into his arms, against his body, and into his soul like she was designed especially for him. He wanted to believe he could have a happy ending with her, but his reality was a cruel, hard place where good things just didn’t happen. Or if they did, they never lasted.
Evanee’s muscles clenched, and she startled from the sudden sound of a phone vibrating.
“Shhh… Honey, it’s just my cell.” Lathan whispered against her hair, his breath warm against her skin.
Tension evaporated. What exactly was it about his voice that calmed her? Was it the timbre, the accent… It wasn’t quite an accent, more like a lisp, but not? Maybe it wasn’t his voice. Maybe it was him calling her Honey. Maybe it was him taking care of her—not advantage of her—when she had been as rational and coherent as a zombie. The bleeding feather tattoo on his cheek made him appear more intimidating than any man she had ever met, and yet he had saved her from Junior, and that bought her complete trust. Something not one person in her life had ever earned.
“It’s just Gill letting me know he’s arrived. He’ll be handling things, or at least seeing that they get handled privately.” He slid away from her, just far enough to look down at her.
His pale-gray eyes stood out against his tan. No, it wasn’t a tan. He was thickly freckled. Seriously freckled. Boyishly freckled. She should’ve realized that from the rich reddish-brown of his hair. A smile tugged at her soul. How could she think his tattoo frightening when paired with a face full of friendly freckles?
“You’re feeling better.”
It wasn’t a question, but she nodded anyway.
“I’ve got to let Gill in. He’s gonna have some questions for you.”
“Questions for me? About Junior?” She hated the tremor in her voice and cleared her throat. “I don’t want to press charges or anything. That’d just piss everyone off.” Not only would Junior be mad, Sheriff Rob would be angry, and Mom would be furious—at her—for causing Junior trouble.
While she spoke, Lathan’s gaze focused on her mouth. The way he looked at her reminded her of how a man concentrated on a woman’s lips before coming in for a kiss—like he was calculating angle, pressure, distance to the target.
“Not about Junior—”
Bzzzz. Bzzzz. Bzzzz.
“Take a few minutes—however long you need—then come downstairs.” He got out of bed and headed for the doorway. A colossal black dog rose from the corner and followed Lathan. A shudder ripped through her.
That she’d had a nightmare wasn’t new; that she remembered it was astounding. The dream had felt so real, and the part about waking up with the eye in her hand—total mind fuck. Only when she woke up in his bed with him staring down at her did she realize the entire thing had been one long, gruesome dream.
Evanee heard Lathan open the door downstairs, heard him talking, but his words were a low murmur of indistinguishable sound.
“Where’re your gloves?” The guy—must’ve been Gill—didn’t quite shout the words, but his tone of disbelief carried up the stairs. “What the fuck does it matter how loud I talk? The louder the better, right?”
Lathan said something, his voice hushed and quiet.
“She? You’ve got a woman up there? In your bed?” Astonishment laced with consternation dominated Gill’s voice.
Time to go downstairs before Gill got the exact wrong idea, which wouldn’t be hard—until a few moments ago, she had been contentedly snuggling with Lathan. He was the bright side to the whole Junior situation. A situation she was gonna have to deal with.
Her stomach suddenly felt wrong. Sweat exploded from her pores, dripped down her face, soaked her clothes. Her skin flamed and itched like she’d rolled in a poison ivy patch. Her insides grew hotter than asphalt on a one-hundred-degree day.
It couldn’t be the stomach flu. Not now. A groan of impending calamity escaped her mouth.
“What’s wrong?” Lathan stood in the doorway.
“I’m going to be sick.” Somehow, she got out of bed, got into the bathroom, and got draped over the porcelain bowl. Thank God and all his fat little angels, the toilet was hygienically clean.
Her stomach contracted. Her throat opened. She wretched a cruel sound halfway between a cough and a sob, but nothing came out. Stomach contracted. Throat opened. Again and again, her innards tried to turn themselves inside out.
A cold cloth pressed against her neck.
She wanted to thank Lathan for that small kindness, but something inside her was wrong. Really wrong. Not just I’ve-got-the-flu wrong, but I’m-going-to-die wrong. Part of her felt light, untethered from her body, like she was a helium balloon floating into the sky. The other part felt her muscles, her organs tensing, fighting, rallying to save her. Save her from what?
“I need to go to the hos—” Her stomach clenched, choking off the rest of her words. The force of it lifted her body off the ground. Fire scorched up her throat. A scream erupted as black, curdled foulness spewed from her mouth in a giant wash.
She fell forward, unable to hold herself upright. Her eyebrow cracked against the porcelain bowl. Stars winked in front of her eyes.
Lathan snagged her arms, yanked her away from the bowl, and held her back against his chest.
His hands warmed her bare skin. Heat spread up her arms to her shoulders, across her chest to her heart, then pumped outward to her extremities. His hands were twin IVs of feel-good plugged directly into her veins. The pain in her stomach, the throb in her head diminished and then vanished completely. She felt surprisingly all right compared to how she’d felt only seconds ago. Weird.
Lathan shifted her around so she faced his chest and gathered her closer to him. His touch was so gentle, so caring, so intimate it almost brought tears to her eyes. She nuzzled her cheek against his shirt, concentrated on the fabric scratching against her face. Anything to distract herself enough to keep actual tears from forming.
“Gill. Take us to the hospital.” The command in his voice harbored no room for question.
She turned her head to see Gill standing only a few feet away from them. He stared at the toilet, his expression as impassive as plastic. He looked exactly like a full-size, real-life version of the Ken doll Rob had bought her as a butter-up-the-kid present before he’d married Mom. Gill had wavy blond hair and surfer boy looks—or maybe the actual Ken doll had been a Malibu Ken and that’s why Gill reminded her of a surfer.
It wasn’t fair, wasn’t his fault he reminded her of that Ken doll, but she instantly disliked him.
“No hospital. I’m fine now.”
Lathan drew back from her enough to see her face. “What did you say?”
“I don’t need to go to the hospital. I’m okay. Really. I’ll end up racking up a five-thousand-dollar bill, just to be told I ate something bad.” She needed cash to get out of Sundew before she ran into Junior again. If she saved every penny, she might have enough money to start over somewhere new in two or three months.
Lathan stared at her, his eyes intense, penetrating, like he saw beyond her skin and muscle and bone to the person buried beneath a lifetime full of shit.
“You want to borrow a toothbrush?”
Heat blazed across her face. She slapped her hand over her mouth and nodded. Dear Holy Mother of Mercy, please don’t let him have smelled my breath.
He unwrapped his arms from around her. She suddenly felt exposed, naked, like he’d taken her clothes with him. She didn’t look at Ken Doll while Lathan got her a toothbrush, but she felt his gaze roaming over her, judging her clothes, her body, her motives.
Call her childish—she couldn’t help herself—but she looked at Ken Doll, crossed her eyes, and stuck out her tongue.
He tilted his head, a look of confusion on his face. “I think she should go to the hospital. That”—Ken Doll pointed at the toilet—“isn’t normal.” His voice was as deep as a seventies radio announcer’s. And just as sexist—speaking about her as if she weren’t standing four feet away from him.
“No. I’m fine.” She snapped the words a little too quickly, a little too loudly to pretend she’d been trying to be polite. Which she hadn’t. She should be nicer. The guy really hadn’t done anything other than remind her of the past.
Ken Doll looked beyond her to Lathan. “I’m pretty sure she’s withdrawing from something. Heroin maybe.”
“Heroin?” She was only two decibels away from shouting the word.
“Cocaine?” Ken Doll asked her directly.
“Cocaine?” One decibel.
“Pain pills. Ritalin. Doesn’t matter. You should still go to the hospital.” Ken Doll snagged her arm, just like Junior had earlier. “Then after our interview, you can choose to enter detox. Or you can always choose jail time instead.”
“Get your hands off me.” She yanked on her arm, struggled to get out of his grasp, but each of his fingers was firm as a handcuff.
A roar of animalistic rage filled the bathroom, the sound so primal, so startling that both she and Ken Doll froze.
“Let her go!” Protectiveness surged beneath Lathan’s skin, tapping into some dormant animal instinct to defend his own. No one touches her. The words were a subliminal message floating to the surface of his awareness.
He charged forward and slammed his fist down on Gill’s forearm.
Gill released her arm and clutched the muscle and tendon Lathan had just bruised. “What—?”
Lathan bulldozed him in the chest, propelling him away from her. Only when Gill’s ass met the wall did Lathan’s momentum stop.
No one touches her.
Burnt cinnamon exploded in the air. “You want a fight?” Gill shoved himself off the wall and raised his fists—never one to back down from a challenge.
“No one touches her.” Lathan heard his own words. Must’ve yelled them. Didn’t care. His anger throttle was wide open, speeding fury though his system, charging his muscles, centering his mind on one thing—the irresistible compulsion to punish Gill for touching her.
Honey seemed to materialize in front of him. “Lathan. No.” She put her hands on his chest and pushed him back. Without question, his body yielded to her. Through his T-shirt, the coolness of her palms seeped into him, dousing the anger burning inside him more effectively than if she’d just removed the key from his ignition.
“Honey, I know you’re feeling better, but you shouldn’t get in the way of two grown-ass men getting ready to throw down.” A little pride might’ve leaked into his words. He might’ve even smiled. She was feisty and fearless, and he was determined to keep that alive in her. He never wanted see her as lost and wounded as she had been out on the road.
Gill slashed his hand through the air, beckoning for Lathan’s attention. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” He glanced at Honey, silent accusation on his face.
No one touches her.
“She doesn’t do drugs.” Lathan tapped the side of his nose but used his middle finger in a subtle fuck-you gesture. It was a game they’d played since they were kids—how to tell the other one to fuck off without words and without anyone noticing.
The side of Gill’s mouth twitched once in acknowledgment. Some of the anger released, but the tension remained in his shoulders and arms. “I could’ve sworn she was using.”
“She’s not.” If drug abusers could actually smell their own brains rotting the way Lathan could, it’d probably scare at least half of them into treatment. The other half probably didn’t have enough cerebral cells left to make a cognizant decision.
“Something is going on.” Gill stepped up to the toilet, put the lid down, but didn’t flush. His instincts had always been bull’s-eye. Something was going on, something only Lathan could smell.
“She vomited blood. But not her own.” None of her innate honeyed essence was in it. He’d bet his Fat Bob that the eye and the blood came from the same source, but he’d need a side-by-side comparison to be certain.
“Blood?” Honey stood in front of him, her hands still on his chest, her gaze still on his face.
Damn, he loved how she constantly sought to touch him.
“Why would you think I threw up blood?”
Any normal person wouldn’t be able to smell the blood, wouldn’t be able to tell it wasn’t hers, wouldn’t have opened his mouth and said something so profoundly revolting.
He stepped away from her, crossing his arms in front of his chest. He didn’t want to look at her, was tempted to turn away and end the conversation, but she spoke before he acted on his thoughts.
“Why would you say that?” Her teeth drew back over her lips and he recognized the expression. Revulsion. “Tell me.”
“When a person vomits blood, it always looks like that.” At least no one else could smell the itchy pepper scent of his lie.
Her eyes narrowed. “But why would you say the blood wasn’t mine?”
How was he going to get out of that one without either owning up to the truth or pleading the insanity defense? Neither was an attractive option.
Gill moved forward, getting too close, getting into her space, forcing her attention to him. “Well, that’s an interesting addition to the problem downstairs. How about you start handing me some answers.” Gill met Lathan’s gaze with a you-can-thank-me-later smirk.
She tilted her chin up, her eyes turning into twin sapphires of challenge. “I am not pressing charges. And I’m not going to talk about it anymore.”
Lathan heard both her nots clearly.
“You’ll talk. I’ve cracked harder gutter roaches than you. So let’s start with a kindergarten question. Where did you get the eye?”
Lathan didn’t like how Gill treated her, but he recognized the method. Intimidation to get capitulation.
“What eye?” Confusion furrowed deep rows across her forehead. A tremor started in her shoulders, rippled outward down her arms and her legs.
“Save the I-have-no-idea-what-are-you-talking-about greeting card for someone who celebrates that holiday.” Gill paused, waited for Honey to answer, but she met him stare for stare, finding no threat in his silence.
“What eye?” She directed the question to Lathan.
“The eye you had in your hand.” How could she have forgotten? Holding a human eye in your hand wasn’t the sort of memory that got misplaced.
She scanned his face like she was trying to decipher the truth of his words.
“That wasn’t real.” She shook her head in short, quick movements. “It was part of my nightmare. How do you know about it? Did I talk in my sleep?”
Gill shoved his cell phone in front of her face. No doubt showing her the picture Lathan had taken of the eye.
Her mouth and nose took on a greenish hue. Her cheeks and forehead blazed with red, mottling her face into shades of Christmas colors. She looked ready to call Ralph on the porcelain phone. Again. She inspected both of her hands. “But there’s no blood. There’s no blood. There would have been blood.”
“I washed your hand.” He doused the flame of hope brightening her face. Guilt kicked him in the ribs.
She froze, motionless as a baby deer in a semi’s headlights. Garlic choked the air, stinging Lathan’s nostrils. She was terrified. Nearly as frightened as she’d been of Junior.
“You’re going to have to do better than”—Gill pushed his lips out in a mocking female pout—“I had a nightmare.”
Lathan clenched his teeth to keep from calling Gill out. Intimidation to get capitulation, he reminded himself.
“But I-I did. Have a nightmare. I’ll tell you everything I know, but it doesn’t make sense. Dreams aren’t real. Right?” She glanced back and forth between the two of them, question wrinkling her forehead. “I didn’t think so. It’s finally happened. I’ve gone nuttier than trail mix.” Her eyes took on the slightly unfocused look of someone replaying a memory. She began telling them everything.
Lathan had no problem hearing and reading her words. The story she told was something he’d expect to read in a Stephen King horror novel. And completely implausible. Maybe she hadn’t just been in shock out on the road; maybe insane was her baseline. Even as the thought crossed his mind, he X’ed it out, fully aware he was choosing to ignore all the evidence to the contrary.
She began shivering again, her arms, her legs, her chest covered in pimply goose bumps.
“When I woke up with…with it in my hand, I thought it was just part of the dream.”
She believed every word she spoke. If she lied, he would have smelled it as easily as he smelled his own lie.
“Wow.” Gill reached into his pocket. “I apologize. I didn’t introduce myself.” He flipped open his wallet to his FBI badge and credential. “I’m Special Agent Gill Garrison. Do you seriously want to fuck with me?”
“Here’s what’s going to happen.” Lathan gave Gill a look built on unspoken words. Let it go. For now. I’ll explain later. “She’s going to brush her teeth, then get back in bed and take a nap. She’s tired, she’s sick, and she’s had a shitty evening.”
The sharp jump of muscle across Gill’s jawline showed his anger, but they had twenty years of trust built between them that Gill wouldn’t ignore.
“This isn’t done.”
“I know.” Lathan handed her the toothbrush that he’d been gripping in his hand the entire time. She spoke to Gill, but her words were too muffled for Lathan to decipher.
Gill smiled at her as warmly as an abominable snowman and sat on the closed toilet lid. “Babe, I’m not moving. I’m guarding evidence.”
“Don’t call her babe.” He might not know her name, but he knew it wasn’t Babe. “He won’t bother you. He’s just going to sit there guarding his throne like the king of assholes.”
Gill scratched his knee with his middle finger.
She ignored Gill and began brushing her teeth. Gill ignored her and played with his cell phone. Lathan couldn’t ignore the reek of hot tar coming from both of them. Mutual dislike.
Lathan waited until she finished before he spoke to her. “Is there someone you want to call?”
“What…ime is it?”
Time and dime looked the same. Dime just didn’t make sense in the sentence.
He yanked his cell from his pocket. “Eight thirty. Why?”
A pretty blush added color to her pale features. “Can I stay until morning?”
“You can stay as long as you like.” He meant it. More than he wanted to admit.
“I have to be at work at eight. Could you take me? I’ll pay you for the gas.” Her mouth fell open. “Oh, my God. My money. My apron. My keys. I left everything in the car. I should’ve—”
“Listen.” He waited a full ten seconds for one hundred percent of her attention to land on him. “I don’t want your money, and I’ll help you get your stuff from Junior.” He motioned her to go into the bedroom, but followed her only as far as the doorway. He pointed toward his dresser. “Pick something of mine to wear. You’ve got vomit on your clothes.”
She started to look down at her shirt, but he caught her chin. “Don’t. It’ll only make you sick again.” He released her. “Toss your clothes out the door, and I’ll wash them for you.” He closed the door behind him and waited in the hallway, but his imagination remained in the bedroom with her. He pictured her grasping the hem of her shirt with both hands and pulling it up over her head in a long, languorous movement. Her bending, the fragile bones of her back jutting as she shimmied out of her shorts. Her walking across the room to his dresser, her limbs as graceful as a dancer. Leaning over the dresser to pull open a drawer.
The door opened. She wore one of his sweatshirts. The sleeves were a crinkled-up mess where she’d pushed them up so her hands could poke out. The shirt was three times wider than her and snugged the tops of her knees. Somehow, on her, it made one fuck of a sexy dress.
He bit his tongue just to make sure it wasn’t hanging out the side of his mouth.
“Thanks for offering to wash them.”
He took the bundle of clothes from her. “Get some sleep.” He turned to walk away, but she grabbed his hand. Her skin was cool and rough.
“Thank you. For—”
He could see her mind replaying what happened out on the road with Junior.
He couldn’t think of any words to say. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. Heat exploded across his face when he realized just how intimate the gesture was. He dropped her hand and turned away.
Gill was coming up the stairs carrying his evidence kit. He must’ve left the bathroom when they walked across the hall to the bedroom. Surprise widened his eyes, then judgment narrowed them.
While Gill recorded and catalogued the eye and the vomit, Lathan threw her clothes in the washer and then spent the next three hours walking the perimeter of his property with Little Man, searching for the scent of a corpse or blood, or anything that might indicate someone hurt nearby. Nothing. He returned to the house and found Gill waiting for him at the kitchen table, a steaming mug of coffee in his hand.
Lathan sat across from Gill. “She really believed she dreamed about the eye. She wasn’t lying. I would’ve smelled it.” How much should he tell Gill about tonight? Enough to give an explanation. Not enough to embarrass her. “She was attacked tonight. The asshole was going to rape her. She was in shock. I brought her here. I figure she’ll have a more rational explanation after she gets some sleep.”
Gill dipped his head once, acknowledging Lathan’s words. “She’s still a suspect.”
“You don’t even know if a crime’s been committed.” Even as he said the words, he knew how weak they sounded. Human eyes weren’t something you’d accidentally run across on a nature walk.
“I called Eric to update him on your situation. The team’s caught a case in West Virginia.” Gill’s eyes were colder than a glacier. “It’s more than an odd coincidence that they’re working the murder of an eight-year-old girl. Blond hair. Wearing pink. Left eye missing.”
About Abbie Roads:
Abbie Roads is a mental health counselor known for her blunt, honest style of therapy. By night she writes dark, emotional novels, always giving her characters the happy ending she wishes for all her clients. Her novels have finaled in RWA contests including the Golden Heart. Race the Darkness is the first book in the Fatal Dreams series of dark, gritty romantic suspense with a psychological twist.