Winner of the National Reader’s Choice Award for Best Romantic Suspense of 2010!
After being made a scapegoat in a botched investigation that led to a child’s death, Aidan McConnell became a recluse. Still, as a favor to an old friend, Aidan will help on the occasional XI case. But under his handsome, rugged facade, he keeps his emotions in check–for fear of being burned again.
Reporter Lexie Nolan has a nose for news–and she believes a serial killer has been targeting teen girls around Savannah. But no one believes her. So she turns to the new paranormal detective agency and the sexy, mysterious Aidan for help.
But just as the two begin forging a relationship, the case turns eerily personal for Lexie–and Aidan discovers that maybe he hasn’t lost the ability to feel after all…
Thursday, 5:45 a.m.
Until last night, nobody had ever read Vonnie Jackson a bedtime story.
Though she’d lived for seventeen years, she couldn’t remember a single fairy tale, one whispered nightie-night, or a soft kiss on the cheek before being tucked in. Her mother had always been well into her first bottle, her second joint or her third John of the evening long before Vonnie fell asleep. Bedtime usually meant hiding under the bed or burrowing beneath a pile of dirty clothes in the closet, praying Mama didn’t pass out, leaving one of her customers to go prowling around in their tiny apartment.
They definitely hadn’t wanted to read to her. Nobody had.
So to finally hear innocent childhood tales from a psychotic monster who intended to kill her was almost as unfair as her ending up in this nightmare to begin with.
“Are you listening to me?” His pitch rose, her captor’s voice growing almost mischievous as he added, “Did you fall asleep, little Yvonne?” But that mischief was laced with so much evil it seemed to be an almost living, breathing thing, as real as the stained, scratchy mattress on which she lay or the metal chains holding her down upon it.
Most times, like now, the man who’d kidnapped her spoke in a thick, falsetto whisper, his tone happily wicked, like a jolly elf who’d taken up slaughter for the sheer pleasure of it. Every once in a while though, he got angry and dropped the act. Once or twice, when he’d said a word or two in his normal thick, deep voice, she’d feel a hint of familiarity flit across her mind, as if she’d heard him before, recently. She could never focus in on it, though, never place the memory.
Maybe she was crazy. Maybe she just recognized the twisted, full-of-rage quality that made men like him tick. She’d seen that kind all her life. She’d just never landed in the hands of a homicidal one Until now.
“Sweet little girl, so weary, aren’t you? I suppose you fell asleep, hmm?”
She shook her head. Even that slight movement sent knives of pain stabbing through her skull and into her brain. Whether that was from the drugs he’d been shoving down her throat, or the punches to the face, she couldn’t say. Probably both. The pills he’d given her hadn’t made the pain go away. Instead, they’d intensified it, brought her senses higher until every word was a thundering cry, every hint of light in her eyes as blinding as the sun. And every cruel touch agonizing.
The first beating had hurt. The subsequent ones had nearly sent her out of her mind. Only the solid, steel core of determination deep inside her–which had kept her going despite so many obstacles throughout her life–had kept her from giving in to the urge to beg him to just kill her and put her out of her misery.
“You must want to go to sleep, though.”
“No,” she whispered. “Go on. Don’t stop. I like it.”
Oh, no, she didn’t want to fall asleep, as welcome as it might have been. Because it was while she slept, helpless against sheer exhaustion, lulled by his sing-song bedtime stories or unable to fight the effects of the drugs, that he came in and did things to her. She’d awakened once to find him taking pictures of her, naked and posed on the cot. Though his face had been masked–one of those creepy, maniacally-smiling “king” masks from the fast food commercials–he’d re-chained her and scurried out as soon as he realized she was fully conscious. As if he didn’t have the balls to risk letting her get a good look at him.
Maybe he’s afraid you’ll escape and be able to identify him.
Yeah. And maybe a pack of wolves would rip him to pieces in his own back yard tomorrow. But she doubted it.
One of these times, she suspected she would wake up and find herself in the middle of a rape. So, no, she did not want to fall asleep.
“I don’t know, we’ve read quite a lot. I’m worried you might have nightmares–did you, last night, after hearing about the little piggies who got turned into bacon and sausage patties?”
She suspected the story didn’t end like that. If it did, parents who called it a bedtime story had a lot to answer for. As for her nightmares, well, she was living one, wasn’t she?
Vonnie swallowed, her thick, dry tongue almost choking her. “I’ll be fine. Please read to me some more.”
The words echoed in the damp, musty basement room in which she’d been imprisoned for three days now. Or four? She had been unable to keep track, even though she had noted the sunshine coming and going again through the tiny window in her cell. She had been too out of it, couldn’t make herself focus.
How long had been since the night he’d grabbed her? And when had that been? Think!
Monday. He’d attacked her while she walked the long way home from a nighttime event at her new high school, to which she’d just transferred since they offered more A.P. classes than her old one. Mistake number one. Her old school had been a block from her crappy home.
“Well, if you’re sure, I suppose we can read a little more about those naughty children.”
Knowing he expected it, she managed to murmur, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, dear. I’m glad you like this story. It’s no wonder their parents didn’t want Hansel and Gretel, awful, spoiled brats, weren’t they? Most parents hate their children anyway, but these two were especially bad.”
If it wouldn’t have caused her so much pain, she might have laughed at that. Because he was saying something he thought would hurt her, when, in truth, he’d just reinforced what she already knew. Her Mama had made that clear every day of her life.
Most parents would be proud of their kid for doing well in school, but not hers. All she’d said was that Vonnie had been stupid to transfer. Stupid to go to the evening event. Stupid and uppity, thinking getting into the National Honor Society mattered a damn when she lived on the corner of Whoreville and Main.
Normally she’d have been at work serving chicken wings and fending off gropey drunk guys by that time of night on a Monday. But no, she’d had to go to the meeting, had to act like she was no different from the smart, rich, white kids with their trust funds and their sports cars. She’d been cocky, insisting it was no big deal to walk home alone after dark through an area of the Boro where no smart girl ever walked alone after dark. Not these days, not with the Ghoul on the loose and more girls missing from her neighborhood every month.
The Ghoul–the paper had at first said he was real, then that he wasn’t. Vonnie knew the truth. He was real all right. She just wasn’t going to live long enough to tell anybody.
“Hansel and Gretel didn’t know that the starving birdies of the forest were eating up their bread-crumb trail, waiting for the children to die so they could poke out their eyes,” he read, not noticing her inattention. “It was dark and their time to find their way home was running out.”
Time. It had ceased to have any meaning at all. Minutes and hours had switched places: minutes lengthened by pain, hours shortened by terror of what would happen every time he came back from wherever it was he went when he left her alone in the damp, cold dark.
And Vonnie knew, deep down, that her time was running out, too.
“Did you hear me?” he snapped sharply.
She swallowed. “Yeah.”
“Good. Don’t you fall asleep. I’m reading this for you, not for myself, you know.”
She suspected he wasn’t reading at all, merely Wes Craven-ing up a real bedtime story.
“Now, wasn’t it lucky that they were able to find shelter?” he added. “Mm, a house made of gingerbread and gumdrops and licorice. Imagine that. Do you like sweets, pretty girl? Want me to bring you some candy? Sticky, gooey candy?”
She swallowed, the very thought of it making her sick. Not that she wasn’t hungry, starving even. But the foul-smelling air surrounding her, filling her lungs and her nose, made the thought of food nauseating. She didn’t like to think about the other smells down here–the rank of rotten meat, the stench of human waste. And something metallic and earthy, a scent that seemed to coat her tongue when she breathed in through her mouth.
Blood. At least, that was what she suspected had created the rust-colored stains on the cement floor.
Those stains had been the first things she’d noticed when she regained consciousness after she’d been kidnapped. And ever since, they’d reiterated what she already knew: This guy had killed before, and he intended to kill her. It wasn’t a matter of if, only when.
There was no escape, she was chained, drugged, and had been terrified into utter submission. She had no idea where she was, or when it was, or if the door led to a way out or just another chamber of horrors.
Vonnie didn’t even try to comfort herself with thoughts of escape. It did no good to pump herself up with the memories of all the other times she’d gotten herself out of difficult situations’put there through either her own gullibility or by her mama’s greed.
Don’t go there, girl. Just as much darkness down that path.
No, she didn’t want to think those thoughts. Not if they were going to be among the last ones of her life. Because so far, at least, this nightmare hadn’t included sexual assault.
“Well, maybe the candy shouldn’t be too sticky,” he said, tutting a little, like a loving, concerned parent, not that she had firsthand experience with one. “I know your jaw must hurt from when you made me hit you the other day. Maybe I could chew it up, make it nice and soft for you, then spit it into your mouth just like a mama bird with her little chick.”
Though she hadn’t figured there was anything left in her stomach, she still heaved a mouthful of vomit. But she forced herself to swallow it down. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing his mere words had made her sick. Nor could she let him know just how disgusting she found the thought. Giving the monster ideas to try on her when she finally did pass out was a stupid thing to do, and Vonnie Jackson might be beaten and chained, she might be poor and the daughter of a drug-addicted prostitute, but nobody had ever called her stupid.
“Why was she doing it, do you suppose? Why did she want them to eat all those sweets?” When she didn’t reply, his sing-song voice rose to a screech. “Answer me!”
“Fattening them up,” she said, the words riding a puff of air across her swollen lips.
“Yes! You’re so clever, that’s what they say about you. Such a smart, clever girl who was going to escape her pathetic childhood.” He tsked, sounding almost sad. “And you nearly made it, didn’t you Yvonne? Oh, you came so close! High school graduation next May, then off you’d go to college on one of your scholarships, never to see your slut mother or the hovel you call home again. All that work, all that effort. Wasted.”
She didn’t answer, didn’t even flinch, not wanting him to see that his words stabbed at her, hurting almost as much as his fists. Because getting out was all Vonnie had worked for, all she had dreamed of, for as long as she could remember. And the fact that this filthy monster had taken that chance from her made her want to scream at the injustice.
“Ahh, well, back to our story. Yes, indeed, the witch was fattening them up,” her captor said. “But do you know why?” He hummed a strange tune, repeating himself in discordant song, “Why, why, why? Do you know why?”
Her eyes remained open as she listened to that crooning voice deliberately trying to lull her into much-needed sleep. Her body wanted to give in to it, to let go. If she thought there was a chance she might never wake up, she would have gladly embraced the chance.
But she wasn’t that lucky. And she knew she would regret it when she awoke and found out what he wanted to do to her. So Vonnie forced herself to shake her throbbing head, knowing the sharper the pain the less she’d be inclined to give in. “Why?”
He laughed softly, not answering. Just as well. She probably didn’t want to know the answer to that question, given the way he was turning these nightly stories into tales from his twisted crypt of a mind.
“You’ll just have to wait and see. Patience sweet…”
His sibilant words were interrupted by the sound of banging coming from somewhere above. A voice called out. Before Vonnie could even process it, she heard a clang of metal. The small sliding panel in the door, through which he watched her, talked to her, and tormented her, was slammed shut. The narrow column of illumination that had shone through it, one single beam of blazing light in the darkness, had been chopped away like the head off a snake.
Another bang from above. She tried to focus on it, tried not to let the relief of his leaving make her give in to exhaustion. That noise, the way he’d reacted to it, was important, though it took a second for her to process why.
Then she got it. He had been startled. The creature had been surprised out of his lair by something unexpected. Or someone.
Oh, God, please.
Hope bloomed, relentless and hot. Someone else was out there. For the first time in days, she realized he hadn’t taken her to the bowels of hell but to somewhere real, a place that other people could come upon. A mailman, a neighbor? Anyone who could would help her?
“Help me. Somebody help me,” she whispered. “Please, I’m here!”
She didn’t think about what he’d do when he came back. Didn’t stop for one second to worry if he’d find some new way to punish her.
No. Vonnie Jackson simply began to scream as if her life depended on it.