About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Lexi Simmons tensed at Sergeant Tomlinson's words flowing through her Bluetooth. Not again. She eased to a stop at a red light and gripped the steering wheel more tightly. "Where this time?"
"A couple miles outside Harmony Grove."
Harmony Grove. Home. She closed her eyes, dread sifting over her.
Tomlinson continued, "Look, you're from there. You might know the victim. So if you need to be excused from this one, all you've got to do is say the word."
She swallowed back the bile rising in her throat. Criminals who preyed on women were the worst. And Tomlin-son was right. She probably did know the victim. Harmony Grove was a tiny town.
"No, I'm all right. I can handle it. Give me what you've got."
A horn sounded behind her and she stepped on the gas. She had left Polk County Sheriff's Office five minutes earlier, looking forward to a girls' night out with her cousin Kayla. Dinner and a movie.
Her plans had just changed.
Tomlinson began relaying the details of the case in that impersonal monotone that underscored the subject's status as just another statistic. Each new case was a repeat of the last, five in all. Except this one had occurred in Harmony Grove.
She braked to a stop at the last traffic light before leaving town and disconnected the call. She would phone Kayla, leaving a message if she had to. Kayla would understand. Lexi's job came first. There was a reason she had changed her major from business to law enforcement, and that girl lying in the woods, cold and alone, was it.
Three miles before reaching the outskirts of Harmony Grove, the road ahead disappeared under a flashing display of red and blue. Other lawenforcement officers were already on site, securing the scene, keeping away the curious. So was the Polk County Sheriff's Office crime scene unit.
She slipped between two Harmony Grove Police Department vehicles and ground to a halt. This was the county's jurisdiction, but so close to the city limits that Harmony Grove P.D. had responded, too. Chief Dalton was there. His car was prominently labeled Chief of Police. If she was lucky, Tommy Patterson was the other officer who'd responded. At least her chances were fifty-fifty.
She swung open the door and before she could step from the car, a dark-haired, muscular figure crossed the clearing with brisk, sure steps. Alan White. She frowned. Yep, fifty-fifty. She never had been good with odds.
"Hello, Alan." She greeted him with the same stiffness that had characterized their interactions for the past six years.
"Lexi." The stiffness was as pronounced on his end as hers.
She stepped from the car, her gaze shifting upward. A blanket of steel gray wrapped the western sky and a musty-scented breeze whipped the ends of her ponytail into her face. The storm had been building for the past couple of hours, an ever-increasing threat. Now it was more of a promise.
She pursed her lips and swung the door shut. They had their work cut out for them without being hampered by one of central Florida's spring thundershowers. Of course, if this case was like the other four, there wouldn't be anything to gather. The killer had a knack for leaving behind no evidence except a body.
Her eyes circled the area. Up ahead, slashes of yellow interrupted the solid green of the woods. Crime scene tape. She headed in that direction.
Alan fell in beside her. "How much information have you gotten?"
Her gaze settled on him for several moments before she answered. If it was someone they knew, he would have told her up front. "White female, twenty to twenty-five years of age. Punched in the face several times, then strangled."
Same as the others. The pictures hadn't arrived yet. But they would. They always did. The creep got some sick thrill out of photographing his crime, step by step, and sending the pictures to the Ledger. Fortunately, the newspaper had turned them over to Lakeland P.D. right from the start, without a single one going to print.
"Is that all you've been told?"
"She was found by a couple of teenagers walking their dog in the woods."
Lexi stopped at a section of the yellow tape stretched between two trees. A few feet away Shane Dalton, Harmony Grove's chief of police, stood with his back to her. In front of him, two Polk County crime scene investigators took photos. Her colleagues. They would be there for the next several hours, scouring every square inch of the area, combing the body for clothing fibers, strands of hair, bits of skin under the fingernails, anything that might bring them one step closer to linking a person to the crime.
When she reached for the tape, her eyes met Alan's again and she hesitated. Something wasn't right with him. It wasn't just the customary stiffness. Deep creases of concern marked the bridge of his nose and anguish had settled in his blue eyes. What wasn't he telling her? "It's someone we know, isn't it?"
"I'm afraid it is."
She ducked under the tape and when she straightened, Alan had stepped in front of her. He was trying to shield her.
It wasn't necessary. She was a professional. And she wouldn't let her personal feelings get in the way of doing her job. Right now, that job entailed performing the best investigation she could to catch this monster and bring him to justice.
Summoning strength she didn't feel, she pushed Alan aside and moved past Shane Dalton. Not more than fifteen feet away lay a body, partially obstructed by a downed limb. Detective Vickers squatted, sitting on one heel to shoot another photo, further blocking her view. She moved slowly closer, longing with all her heart to run the other direction and never look back, while at the same time needing to know.
She took another step. It was definitely a woman, judging by the clothing: baby-blue silk sleepwear.
"Lexi, wait." Alan put a restraining hand on her arm.
She shook him off. Took another step. And another.
A torso appeared. A silk-clad leg. A bare foot extending from the hem of the pajama bottoms, toenails painted hot pink.
Then Detective Vickers straightened and moved aside, offering her an unobstructed view of their newest victim. Her eyes locked onto the scene and her brain shut down. Alan said something, but the words didn't register.
Matted auburn hair flowed over a blanket of dying leaves. Green eyes, one swollen almost shut, stared unseeing at the leafy canopy overhead. Blood had trickled from a cut on one cheek, but had long since dried. The mouth was hidden behind a piece of neatly applied duct tape, and a blackish-red ring circled the creamy white neck.
Lexi shook her head. The ground seemed to tilt beneath her and she took a stumbling step backward to steady herself. A scream of protest clawed its way up her throat, followed by a wave of nausea that almost brought her to her knees.
Alan's words finally penetrated her befuddled brain, several seconds too late. "Lexi, it's Kayla."
Alan reached for her, his heart twisting in his chest. The confident air she had stepped out of the car with had evaporated like drops of water on a hot tin roof, and her complexion had grown pasty white against the dark forest-green of her uniform. Suddenly, she seemed broken and vulnerable. And much younger than her twenty-seven years.
A sense of protectiveness surged through him, but she backed away from his advance. He didn't expect any different. She would stand alone before she would accept comfort from him.
He should have told her. He should have blurted it out when she'd first climbed from the car. But seeing her drive up had caught him off guard.
Seeing Lexi always caught him off guard.
He had known the Polk County Sheriff's Office would investigate. The body was found outside the city limits of Harmony Grove. But with all the detectives in Polk County, what were the odds that they would send Lexi?
So instead of preparing her for what she would find, he had plied her for information, hoping she'd already known. He'd been a coward. He hadn't wanted to be the one to tell her.
But he hadn't wanted her to find out like this, either. Now he was kicking himself. Hard. Actually, he hadn't stopped kicking himself since the moment she'd ducked under the crime scene tape. But this wasn't the first time he had kicked himself where Lexi was concerned.
"Lexi, I'm sorry." He stepped toward her again, wishing he could wrap her in a comforting hug. Just like old times. He settled instead for a steadying hand under her elbow. But that gesture wasn't any more welcome than the hug would have been. She jerked away as if touched by something vile, then spun and began walking back the way they had come. The younger of the two detectives started to follow herWayne Blanchard, if he remembered the introduction correctly.
Alan held up a hand. "Let me talk to her."
She probably wouldn't want his brand of comfort. But he knew Lexi, and she wouldn't want a colleague to see her break down, either.
A growing rumble followed him into the clearing, and he cast a glance skyward. Heavy black clouds rolled ever closer, the wall of rain already visible in the distance. He dropped his gaze to the retreating figure headed toward the vehicles.
"Lexi, where are you going?" She didn't need to be driving in her state of mind.
"I'm getting some things I need out of my car."
She couldn't be serious. "You're not really thinking of investigating that back there, are you?"
"I'm not thinking about it." She pressed a button on her key fob and the trunk popped open. "I'm doing it."
"Lexi, you don't have to do this. Let someone else work this one."
She stopped so suddenly he almost bumped into her. When she spun to face him, her eyes blazed. Her anger wasn't aimed at him, but he still had to stifle a grimace.
"This is my case." She jabbed an index finger at her chest. "I'm making it my number-one priority to catch this guy."
Stubborn, as always. He opened his mouth to object, then caught movement in his peripheral vision. Detective Vickers had emerged from the woods and was moving toward them.
Lexi cast a glance at Vickers, some thirty feet away, then turned suddenly and grasped both of Alan's upper arms. "Don't say anything." Her voice was a hoarse whisper. "They'll take me off the case."
"Maybe that would be best."
"No." Her eyes flicked to Vickers again and she lowered her voice even more. "This case is important to me. This creep is preying on women."
His jaw tightened. She was right. Kayla wasn't the first. Although the other murders hadn't happened near Harmony Grove, the sheriff's office had disseminated the information to all the agencies.
Lexi continued, her gaze imploring. "You of all people understand what that means to me."
Yes, he did understand. When her best friend was murdered seven years earlier, it had made an impact on her. Enough that she changed her major from business to law enforcement.
"He's taken Kayla now." She dropped her arms to rest a slender hand on his forearm. "Let me bring him to justice. Please, Alan."
She stared up at him with those pleading green eyes, tears pooled at their lower lashes, and all his arguments dissipated, drifting away on the rain-scented breeze. Somehow, being within ten feet of Lexi always turned his will to mush. He had never been able to deny her anything.
Even her freedom.
He released his breath in a heavy sigh. "All right. I'll leave it be. But if you need to talk, I'm here. I cared for Kayla, too."
All he got from her was a brusque nod.
Detective Vickers strode past them and stopped next to the crime scene van. Alan watched him, and then returned his attention to Lexi.
"Is there anything I can do?"
She started to shake her head, then drew her brows together. "Have Aunt Sharon and Uncle George been told yet?"
"I doubt it. No one had an ID until Shane and I arrived right before you did. Would you like me to talk to them?"
Relief flooded her features. "I'd really appreciate it if you would."
He nodded slowly, hesitant to leave her. But she would be all right. She would throw herself into her work and, at least for a brief time, be able to look at the situation through the impartial eyes of a homicide detective.
Then she would drive back to Auburndale, to her empty house. And there would be nothing to distract her. In those quiet, lonely hours, that was when it was the hardest. He knew. He understood. And he would give anything to be there for her.
But she had made her choice. Six years ago. Back then, he'd had hope in his heart, a ring in his pocket and a love that he'd thought would last for eternity. And she'd decided her future would be brighter with an up-and-coming medical-school student than a small-town cop.
Making his way to his patrol car, he slid into the driver's seat and shut the door as the sky opened up and proceeded to dump its burden. Through the raindrops on the windshield, he watched as Lexi shrugged into a raincoat and pulled its hood over her head. It was going to be a long night for her.
He had often wondered if she had regrets. Things obviously hadn't turned out as she had hoped because she was still single. But during all of their chance meetings over the past six years, she had never hinted at any interest in reigniting old sparks. She always eyed him with a sort of uneasy coldness, coupled with underlying hurt and anger.
As if he was the one who had dumped her.
He pulled onto the road, serenaded by the roar of the downpour and the swish-swish of the windshield wipers. A knot of dread settled in the pit of his stomach. Kayla was George and Sharon's only child. They wouldn't handle the news well. Neither would the class of second-graders who would return from spring break next week to find their beloved Miss Douglas gone. Kayla's absence would leave a hole in a lot of lives.
When he pulled into the Douglases' driveway, the garage door was up. The white Escort sat on the right, but the spot reserved for George's Silverado was vacant. Which meant Sharon was home alone.
He got out of the car, the knot in his stomach swelling to boulder size. He would stay with Sharon until George arrived. Then maybe he would go have dinner at Pappy's. Not that he would feel like eating. But the hometown pizzeria was always hopping.
In Harmony Grove, news traveled fast. And the more shocking the news, the faster it spread. Maybe Kayla said something. Or maybe someone saw something. He would look for any shred of evidence that might help them find whoever had done this to her.
Lord, help us catch this guy before anyone else gets hurt.
His thoughts turned to Lexi and a pang of tenderness shot through him. She was probably at that moment working on her investigation, doing her best to hold it together, the rain masking tears she would try so hard not to shed.
And, Lord, please give Lexi the strength to do what she feels she needs to do.