Alone in the Dark

Alone in the Dark

4.5 13
by Karen Rose
     
 

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The New York Times bestselling author of Closer Than You Think returns with a breathtaking new novel of suspense in the Cincinnati series—one that crosses the line between danger and desire, and justice and revenge.
 
Homicide Detective Scarlett Bishop has seen enough bad guys slip through the cracks and innocent

Overview

The New York Times bestselling author of Closer Than You Think returns with a breathtaking new novel of suspense in the Cincinnati series—one that crosses the line between danger and desire, and justice and revenge.
 
Homicide Detective Scarlett Bishop has seen enough bad guys slip through the cracks and innocent victims go unavenged to know that good doesn't always prevail. So far she’s been able to lock away her rage and her vigilante fantasies. That lock is about to break.
 
Former Army Ranger Marcus O'Bannion is a fierce champion of victims’ rights. His secret past gives him good reason. He believes he’s seen the depths of human depravity, but then his investigation into the murder of a young girl who once asked for his help lures him and Scarlett down a dark, dark road—and straight into the crosshairs of a dangerous, powerful underground ring that deals in human trafficking. To stop them, Scarlett and Marcus have to be just as cunning and just as ruthless. But first they have to make it out alive.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
12/14/2015
The latest romantic thriller from Rose (set in Cincinnati, like 2014’s Closer Than You Think) deftly mixes a family crime saga and the horrors of human trafficking into a murder investigation. When detective Scarlett Bishop gets a call from newspaper publisher Marcus O’Bannion in the middle of the night, she’s drawn into a murder case that touches on both of their dark pasts and includes a huge criminal operation specializing in slavery. Rose doesn’t shy away from big casts—there are dozens of characters at play here, all well-defined—or explicit brutality, especially during the subplot in which the head villain tortures and kills members of his own organization to uncover a traitor. The copious (and extremely hot) sex and often-graphic violence combine into a solid tale that’s marred only by a lazy cliché when Scarlett taunts a suspect about the possibility of being sexually assaulted in prison. That blemish aside, it’s a gripping story, with enough groundwork laid for plenty of sequels. Agent: Robin Rue, Writers House. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Karen Rose and her novels:
 
“Few writers succeed at [romantic suspense] as well as Karen Rose.”—The New York Times
 
"High-wire suspense that keeps you riveted."—Lisa Gardner
 
"High-octane suspense that never lets up."—Karen Robards
 
“Intense, complex, and unforgettable."—James Patterson
 
"A high-octane thrill ride!"—Lisa Jackson
 
"Takes off like a house afire."—Tess Gerritsen

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780451466747
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/02/2016
Series:
Cincinnati Series
Pages:
736
Sales rank:
84,812
Product dimensions:
4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Praise

Also by Karen Rose

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-one

Chapter Thirty-two

Chapter Thirty-three

Chapter Thirty-four

Chapter Thirty-five

Chapter Thirty-six

Epilogue

Dr. Marc Conterato for always having an answer when I say, “I need an injury that does [fill in the blank].”

Kay Conterato, Mandy Kersey, Sonie Lasker, Terri Bolyard, and my husband, Martin, for always being there when I get stuck.

Prologue

Cincinnati, Ohio

Tuesday, August 4, 2:45 a.m.

Where is he? He promised he’d be here.

Controlling her panic, Tala looked around, quick, furtive glances. All she saw were the neighborhood residents, going about their business. Of course, at this time of the night, very little of their business was good.

Nobody noticed her. Nobody had followed her. She hoped.

She shrank back into the shadows, deciding to give him another minute. She had to get back before they discovered she’d slipped away. If they hadn’t already.

And if they had . . . her life was over. Maybe literally. And not only her life. She’d risked the lives of every member of her family, too. If she was caught, all of their lives would be forfeit. Yet she’d risked it. Because of the baby.

Everything she did was for that little bundle who smiled and cooed because she wasn’t yet old enough to know how bad the world really was. Tala would sell her soul to keep the baby safe, to keep her from being sucked into this hell—as Tala had been when she was only fourteen years old.

That had been three years ago. Three years that had aged her a lifetime. Three years that had stolen the light from her mother’s eyes and turned her proud father into a shell of a man. Her parents were frozen, powerless, because they feared for their children. Tala understood that. But she also understood that things couldn’t continue as they were. So she’d bided her time, waiting for the perfect moment.

This was about as perfect a moment as she was going to get. Please come. Please.

If he didn’t come, it would all have been for nothing.

A footstep had her spinning around, her eyes frantically searching the darkness as her pounding heart began to race. A man approached, a large man. Tala’s fists tightened and she shifted her weight, preparing to flee in the event it was not the man she expected.

His step was slow. Careful. He lifted his hands, palms up. “It’s me. I won’t hurt you.”

Her heart settled. He had the most beautiful voice. It had been what had drawn her to begin with. She’d heard him singing quietly, sitting by the pond in the park where she was allowed to walk the ridiculous dog whose diamond-studded collar would have fed her family for a year. His voice had been so sweet it had made her want to weep.

And she had. She’d stood that day, listening, the tears streaming down her cheeks. Later, she’d paid for that stolen concert. She’d paid dearly. Still, she’d stopped to listen again when she walked the dog and saw him at the pond. She’d stopped every night for a week. Because that, like this, had been worth the risk. She’d been caught a second time a few nights before. Punished even more viciously.

Still . . . she hadn’t been able to help herself. His song had drawn her, making her reckless. But even as her heart sang mournfully along with him, even when he’d turned to see her standing there, tightly clenching the ridiculous dog’s leash in her fist, even when he’d asked her why she cried . . .

She hadn’t said a word. Not until today.

She hoped she wasn’t making the biggest mistake of her life. Because she was putting her life and the lives of everyone she loved in his hands.

“Yes,” she whispered. “I’m here.”

He came closer, his face still in the shadows. “I’m Marcus,” he said simply. “Tell me why you cry.”

Marcus. She liked his name. Trusted his voice. But now that she was with him, her tongue seemed to be tied in knots. The secret she’d kept for so long . . . It was stuck deep within her. The words would not come. She backed away. “I’m sorry. I . . . can’t.”

“Don’t go. Please.” He took a step closer, keeping his hands in front of him, where she could see them. “What’s your name?”

She swallowed hard. “Tala.”

His lips curved encouragingly. “It’s a pretty name. Why do you cry, Tala?”

“Why do you?” Because he had been. She’d seen his tears when he’d thought no one was watching.

His faint smile faded. “I lost my brother. He was murdered. He was only seventeen.”

She swallowed hard. “My age.”

He nodded. “Will you let me help you, Tala?”

“I . . . I can’t pay you.”

He shook his head. “I don’t need your money. I don’t want it.”

Oh, she thought, suddenly realizing what he did want. Dread overwhelmed her, and she took another step back. Then she stopped, lifted her chin. Made her lips curve in what she knew to be a sensuous way. She reached for the waistband of his black jeans, steeling her voice to be as sexy as she could make it. “I understand,” she purred. “I can make you feel good.”

He blinked, looking shocked. Then horrified. “No.” He took a giant step back. “Stop. You don’t understand. That’s not what I want. I don’t want anything from you. I just want to help you.”

Tala’s hands dropped to her sides. “Why? Why would you help me? I’m no one.”

He shook his head again, slowly. Sadly. “Everyone is someone,” he murmured, then exhaled. “Why do you cry, Tala?”

His voice dipped deep, touched her soul. Made her eyes fill with hot tears. “It’s dangerous,” she whispered. “They’re dangerous. My family will die if I’m found here.”

His dark brows knit together. “Who are you afraid of?”

“The man. His wife. They . . .” She averted her eyes, ashamed. “They own us.”

Marcus shifted, jaw clenching, eyes narrowing. “How? Who?”

At the edge of her vision she saw the glint of moonlight on metal—but she was a split second too late. The flash of fire, the boom of thunder, the burning agony in her stomach, the scrape of asphalt on her face . . .

“Tala!” Marcus was shouting, but his voice was far away. So far away. “Don’t die, dammit. Don’t you die.”

She didn’t want to die. She hadn’t yet lived. Her family . . . She needed him to save her family. She opened her mouth to tell him so. “Help Mala . . .” Her mouth moved but no sound came out. There was not enough air to carry her voice. Say it. Tell him. She forced herself to inhale, forced the word out in an agonized huff: “Malaya.”

And then a second burst of thunder tore the air, followed by the shock of a great weight crushing her. Marcus. He’d been shot, too. Suddenly she could no longer draw even the shallowest breath.

I’m going to die. Her family was going to die. And the man called Marcus . . . he’d only wanted to help her. But now he was going to die, too.

Chapter One

Cincinnati, Ohio

Tuesday, August 4, 2:49 a.m.

Detective Scarlett Bishop left her jacket in her car on purpose. Partly because it was too damned hot and sticky to even consider wearing a stitch more clothing than was absolutely necessary. But mostly so that the weapon holstered under her arm—the Glock she normally kept concealed under a jacket—would be readily seen.

She wasn’t in the mood for any shit tonight.

Taking a look around, she frowned at the sight of the nearly deserted street. On any given night, this was where dealers and prostitutes peddled their wares. But nobody was peddling anything tonight, which made Scarlett uneasy. Something had sent them scurrying into their hidey-holes, and whatever that something had been, it wasn’t likely to have been good.

There was no evidence of the man who’d called her here—asking her to come alone. Normally she would have been suspicious enough to bring backup. But the man’s voice . . . She would admit this to no one but herself, but hearing his voice again after so many months had shaken her soundly. The number on her cell phone’s caller ID was unfamiliar, but she’d never forget his voice, no matter how long she lived. When she’d heard it again on the phone tonight, it had stirred her from a sound sleep to full alertness. Nine months had passed without a single spoken word between them. And why would there have been? Her presence would bring him and his family only pain, remind them of their loss.

But tonight he’d said, “Can you meet me? Alone? Please. As soon as humanly possible.”

“Why?” she’d asked.

“It’s . . . important.”

“All right,” she’d said. “Where?” But he’d already hung up. A second later a text had popped up, specifying this street corner.

The last time he’d called her out of the blue, his information had led her to four dead bodies. So, without hesitation, she’d done as he’d asked. But now he wasn’t here.

The only visible signs of life on the street were the two homeless people eyeing her with unabashed interest from their spot on the stoop of the boarded-up building nearest to where she stood. She took two bottles of water from the trunk of her car, conscious of three other people peeking out from the windows of the building across the street. She handed a bottle to each of the two elderly people tucked up against the building for the night, their belongings in a shared shopping cart. Tommy and Edna were regulars on this corner. She’d known them for years.

“It’s hot,” Scarlett said quietly.

“A real scorcher,” Tommy agreed, his teeth flashing white against his dark skin as he struggled with the bottle’s cap, crowing when he twisted it off. “Whatchu doin’ here this time of night, Miss Scarlett?” he asked, exaggerating his deep drawl as he said her name.

“Tommy,” Scarlett chided gently, glancing up and down the street. Still no sign of her caller. “Whatchu doin’ out here in this heat? You know it’s not good for your heart.”

Tommy sighed dramatically. “My heart’s done for already. It got all trampled on by you, Miss Scarlett, when I asked you to marry me for the very last time.”

Scarlett’s lips curved. Tommy was a rascal, but she genuinely liked him. “If I’d said yes, that really would be bad for your heart. You couldn’t handle me.”

Tommy’s laugh was raspy from a lifetime of smoking. “You’re right ’bout that.” He lifted a finger in warning. “And don’t be telling me to go to the Meadow. I been there three times this week. That pretty Dr. Dani says I’m right as rain.”

The seventy-year-old woman next to him snorted. Edna had lived on the streets of Cincinnati for as long as Scarlett had been a cop. “He’s full of shit, that one is, but he’s telling the truth about the Meadow. He did go this week. Once.”

Scarlett lifted her brows. “And did Dr. Dani say he was right as rain?”

Edna shrugged. “Acid rain, maybe.”

The Meadow was the local shelter and that “pretty Dr. Dani” was Danika Novak, ER doc and sister of Scarlett’s partner, Deacon. Dani volunteered most of her free hours to the shelter and had roped most of their circle of friends into helping her, Scarlett included.

Scarlett shook her head but didn’t push. It wouldn’t do any good. She’d found permanent housing for both Edna and Tommy a couple times over the years, but they always came back to the street. Which was bad for their health but, at times, beneficial to Scarlett’s investigations. The two were a reliable source of information about the neighborhood.

She looked around again, but there was still no sign of the man she’d come to meet. “Have you two heard any trouble tonight?”

Edna hid her water bottle in the deep pocket of the smock she never seemed to be without, then pointed to her left. “You wanna look maybe three alleys down that way, honey. Gunshots. Three of ’em.”

Scarlett’s heart stuttered. “Why didn’t you say so before?” she demanded.

“Because you didn’t ask,” Edna said with a shrug.

“Gunshots happen ’round here,” Tommy added. “We got to the point where we don’t pay them no nevermind unless they’re shootin’ at us.”

Scarlett shoved her temper down. “When was this?”

“A few minutes ago,” Tommy said, “but I don’t know ’xactly when. Don’t got no watch,” he added in a yell, because Scarlett had already started to run, her dread building.

Her phone had rung thirteen minutes ago. If he’d been shot, he could be dead by now. He couldn’t be dead. Please don’t let him be dead.

She skidded to a stop when she got to the alley, her vision drawn first to the motionless body on the ground. It isn’t him. The victim was far too small to be him.

She drew her weapon with one hand, holding her Maglite in the other as she cautiously approached. She swept the beam of her light over the victim, a female who appeared to be of Asian descent. Who was she? And where was he? Another sweep of her light up and down the alley revealed no one else.

Scarlett crouched next to the body, her heart sinking. The victim, who appeared to be in her late teens, lay on her back, dark brown eyes staring up at the sky, wide and unseeing. So young, she thought. Setting the Maglite on the asphalt so that it illuminated the victim’s face, she pulled a glove on to her left hand, keeping her weapon firmly gripped in her right.

Pressing her fingers to the victim’s throat, Scarlett found no pulse, which was no surprise. But the young woman hadn’t been dead long. Her skin was still warm.

Her lower torso was bare, her white polo shirt cut away to just below her breasts.

A bullet had entered three inches below her sternum but, based on the amount of blood on and around the body, it had probably not been immediately fatal. Cause of death was far more likely to have been the small hole in the victim’s left temple. The exit wound behind her right ear was the size of Scarlett’s fist.

The girl had been pretty before someone had taken out a chunk of her head.

Not him. It couldn’t have been him. Scarlett couldn’t believe it. You just don’t want to believe it. Which was fair enough, she supposed. Where was he?

Picking up the flashlight, she ran the beam over the body. Blood had been wiped from the exposed skin of the victim’s midriff, the balled-up and blood-soaked remnant of her torn shirt lying on the ground next to her hip. Someone had attempted first aid.

“He tried to save you,” Scarlett murmured aloud.

“Tried. Failed.”

Her head jerked up. He was here. The man who’d dominated her thoughts, her dreams. For months. The man who once again had called her out of the blue to the scene of a homicide.

Marcus O’Bannion.

The voice she remembered so well had come from behind her, deep in the shadows. Holding her weapon at her side, she rose, turned, and aimed the Maglite at the alley wall, illuminating long legs, a broad torso, and wide shoulders, all clad in black. He leaned against the brick, shoulder to the wall, arms crossed over his chest. He was looking down, his face obscured by a dark baseball cap.

He lifted his head and her heart stuttered again. His skin was ashen, his expression grim. He didn’t blink at the bright light.

She hadn’t heard him approach, wouldn’t even have known he was there had he not spoken. He’d been quiet in a way that few men could manage. He’d been Army at one time, she knew. Now she also knew that whatever he’d done for Uncle Sam, he’d been very well trained.

“Where did you come from?” Scarlett managed to ask calmly, despite the fact that her pulse pounded wildly in her throat.

“The street,” he said, indicating the way she’d come with a jerk of his head.

“Why?”

“I was chasing the guy who did that,” he said flatly, nodding at the body with another jerking motion.

He hadn’t moved his arms, not once. Scarlett crossed the alley, stopping a foot from where he stood. Now she could see that his shoulders were hunched, his back curved unnaturally. She could also see the little lines bracketing his mouth. He was in pain. “Were you hit, too?” she asked.

“No. Not like her.”

“What happened?”

He still didn’t blink. Kept his gaze fixed on the broken young body. “You got here fast.”

“I don’t live far.”

He met her gaze then, and she drew a breath, instantly riveted. Just like the first time she’d seen him. He’d been on a stretcher that day, his wounds nearly fatal. Wounds he’d received saving the life of a woman he didn’t even know. But his eyes—and his voice—had made everything inside her wake up and take notice. Tonight it was the same.

“I know,” he said quietly.

She blinked, surprised. They’d never discussed anything as personal as her home address during their brief conversations in his hospital room all those months ago. “What happened, Marcus? Who is she?”

“I don’t know. Exactly. Her name is Tala.”

“Tala what?”

“I don’t know. We didn’t get that far.” He tilted his head, listening as the sound of sirens filled the air. “Finally,” he muttered.

“You called them?”

“Five minutes ago. She was still alive then.” Pushing away from the wall, he straightened carefully, and Scarlett was surprised once again. At five-ten in her bare feet, she rarely had to look up to meet a man’s eyes, but she had to lift her chin to meet his.

She realized she’d never seen him standing. She’d seen him lying down, first on a stretcher and then in a hospital bed—and then sitting in a wheelchair at his brother’s funeral.

The sirens were getting louder. “Quickly,” she said. “Tell me what happened.”

“She asked me to meet her.”

Scarlett’s brows shot up. “She asked you to meet her? In the middle of the night? Here?

His nod was curt. “I was surprised, too. This isn’t where I’d met her in the past.”

Okay . . . “Where had you been meeting her, Marcus?” she asked softly. Warily.

His eyes narrowed dangerously, his jaw clenching. “It wasn’t like that.”

She’d angered him with her insinuation. Too damn bad. He was a grown man meeting a young woman in the dead of night. A young woman who was now dead. “Then tell me what it was like.”

“I’d see her when she walked her dog in the park near my place. She was always crying. I asked her what was wrong—several times—but she never said a single word, even though I could tell she desperately wanted to. Then tonight I got a text, asking me to meet her at the same corner I texted to you. I called you because I thought she might need . . . protection. I knew you would help her.”

She struggled not to let his words affect her. “But things obviously went very wrong.”

“Obviously,” he said bitterly. “She wasn’t at the corner, but I saw her peeking out from this alley, so I followed her here. As soon as she started talking, the first bullet hit her.”

“The one in her gut.”

“Yes. I ran to the end of the alley.” He pointed to the end opposite from where Scarlett had entered. “But the shooter was gone. I called 911, then ran back to her and tried to stop the bleeding.” His jaw clenched harder, a muscle twitching in his cheek. “I hoped you’d get here before the cops. I was going to tell you what I knew and then leave her with you.” He hesitated. “I figured everyone would jump to the same conclusion you just did.”

“Was she a prostitute, Marcus?” she asked levelly.

He looked her in the eye. “I don’t know. I only knew she was in trouble of some kind.”

That was the truth, Scarlett thought. But not the whole truth. He was holding something back. Something important. She wasn’t sure how she knew. She just did. “How did she know how to reach you?”

“I left her my card on the park bench. Stuck it between the wood and the iron frame.”

She frowned. “Why did you leave it for her? Why not just give it to her?”

“Because she never came close enough. Not once. She always stayed at least twenty-five feet away.” His mouth tightened, his eyes growing dark with fury. “And because the last time I saw her, she was limping. She was wearing sunglasses—with big frames. But not big enough to hide the bruise on her cheek.”

Scarlett got the picture. “She was being terrorized by someone.”

“That was my take. The last time I saw her, I didn’t say a word. I just held up my card, then stuck it in the bench and walked away.”

“When was that?”

“Yesterday afternoon. Around three.”

“All right. After she was shot in the stomach, you started first aid. What happened then?”

He looked away. “I didn’t hear him. He must have circled around. Came up behind me. I was talking to her, telling her to hold on, not to die. That help was coming. I wasn’t paying attention.” His throat worked as he swallowed hard. “I should have been paying attention. He shot me, then . . . her. In the head.”

Scarlett drew a careful breath. “He shot you? Where?”

“In the back.” His lower lip curled in disdain that seemed self-targeted. “But I’m wearing a vest.”

“A vest? Why?” she asked coolly, even as her heart thumped in relief. The size of the exit wound in the victim’s head indicated a very large-caliber weapon fired at close proximity. Had Marcus not been wearing a vest, Scarlett knew she’d have come across a very different scene. “Did you expect violence?”

“No. Not like this. Never like this. But I always wear the vest now.”

“Why?” she asked again, watching in wary fascination as twin flags of color stained his cheekbones.

“My mother made me promise.”

That Scarlett could believe. Marcus’s mother had lost her youngest son nine months before and had very nearly lost Marcus, too. Scarlett could understand a mother’s demand for that promise.

Except . . . why would his mother believe that Marcus would be targeted again? Instincts prickling to alertness, Scarlett left the question for later. “And then?”

“The hit knocked me flat. On top of her.” He touched his finger to his chest, then held the finger up for Scarlett’s inspection. It was dark red. The black fabric of his shirt had hidden the stain. “Hers. When I got my breath back, I pushed off her. Then I saw . . . I saw what he’d done. I tried to go after him, but by the time I got out of the alley, he was gone again. I circled the block, but everyone had scattered, including the shooter.”

“So then you came back to meet me?”

A one-shouldered shrug. “To meet someone. Either you or the first responders.”

Who’d now arrived, a cruiser coming to a screeching halt at the far end of the alley.

Scarlett glanced at the cruiser, then looked back at Marcus’s face, needing the answer to one last question before the officers arrived. “You said you were going to leave once I got here, when she was still alive. Once she was dead, why did you come back? There was no need to continue first aid, and the shooter might have come back again. Might have realized you were still alive. Might have tried to shoot you again. Why did you come back?”

He looked down at the dead girl, his expression stark. “I couldn’t leave her alone in the dark.”

Cincinnati, Ohio

Tuesday, August 4, 2:52 a.m.

Chest heaving, Drake Connor took a quick look over his shoulder, then slid into the passenger seat of the waiting car and slammed the door. “Drive.” He leaned into the cold air coming out of the AC vent, took in huge lungfuls as he tried to slow his breathing. If he’d run that fast on the track last year, he’d have a roomful of trophies.

Frowning, Stephanie pulled away from the curb. “Where is she? And why are you so sweaty?”

They were moving at a damn crawl. “Just drive, for God’s sake.” Gripping Stephanie’s knee, he shoved it down, sending the Mercedes lurching forward in a squeal of tires.

“Fuck!” Stephanie slammed on the brakes, taking them back to a crawl. “You want to get us arrested? Where is she?”

He focused on the side mirror, watching for flashing blue lights. I should have shot them both when I first saw them. Together. His gut still twisted with fury. “Back in the alley.”

“So I was right,” Stephanie said with contempt. “I knew something was up. The bitch was two-timing us. You shouldn’t have left her there all alone. God only knows what she’s doing with Styx. He’s butt-ugly, but he’s got the best shit around. He’s probably got her on her back right now.”

She was on her back, all right, Drake thought grimly. And it served her right. “Yeah. Probably.”

Putting on the left blinker, Stephanie shot him a wary glance. “I’d have thought you’d be more worried. Styx can’t be clean. I’m betting he has every disease in the book. If she’s doing him for free party Chex, he’s polluting our pool as we speak.”

“We’ll just have to find another place to swim,” he ground out through clenched teeth. He grabbed the wheel when Stephanie started to turn left. “Just where the hell do you think you’re going?”

Stephanie blinked. “Back to get her. We can’t just leave her here.”

“I said drive, goddammit.” He could hear the sirens now. “The cops are coming. Get us out of here.”

Stephanie hit the brakes so hard they both pitched forward. “The cops? What did you do?”

He met her frightened eyes with a cold, hard stare. “She’s dead. So if you don’t want to go to prison, you will drive like a bat outta goddamn hell.”

“Dead?” Stephanie’s mouth opened and closed like a fish. “You killed her? You killed Tala?”

“I never said that.” He had, but he was never admitting it to anyone. “But we’ll be blamed. So get us home, or so help me God, you’ll end up just like her.”

Hands shaking, Stephanie obeyed, heading out of the city. “Why did you kill her?”

“I didn’t say I did.”

“So you found her there? Dead?”

“Yeah,” he lied tonelessly.

“Did Styx kill her?”

“It’s possible, I suppose.”

“Oh my God. This is terrible. This is just . . . Oh God. Mom and Dad. They’ll know. I’m gonna be . . . Hell. They’re gonna know I took her out.” Stephanie was breathing hard, nearly hyperventilating. “They’re gonna find out. They’re gonna kill me.”

“They’re not going to kill you, because you are going to pull yourself together. Nobody’s going to find out anything.”

“Because you say so?” Stephanie cried. “Don’t be a fool. She’ll be on the news. They’ll report a body on the news. My parents watch the news.”

In her current hysterical state, Stephanie was a neon sign screaming, “Guilty.” Calm her down, he thought. Take a breath. Take the tension down.

“So?” he asked, his tone now level. Reassuring. Convincing, even. He shrugged carelessly. “She got out. How can they possibly know you took her unless you tell them? She was an addict. She wanted to score some blow. She crossed the wrong dealer, and he blew her and her boyfriend away.”

Stephanie went still. “Her what?”

“Her boyfriend. She was with someone, there in the alley.”

A shuddered-out breath. “Who?”

“I don’t know. Some old guy.”

“A cop?”

“Don’t think so. Doesn’t matter now anyway. They’re both dead. Neither of them is going to say a word.”

“But what . . . ?” It was barely a whisper. “What if he was a cop? If she was talking to a cop . . . Maybe she was telling him everything. Maybe the cop told his partner. Maybe she told them about my family. Maybe the cops will—”

“Maybe you’d better concentrate on driving,” he interrupted, his tone still calm, still smoothly menacing. “We wouldn’t want to have an accident.”

“No,” Stephanie whispered, and she seemed almost dazed. “We wouldn’t want that.”

She was blowing it all out of proportion. It was more likely that Tala was turning tricks in that alley and the guy was a simple john. Or maybe even a pimp. Tala was far too scared to say a word to anyone. But just in case Stephanie was even a little right . . .

Even if the dead guy wasn’t a cop, if he’d told anyone about Tala, there could be trouble. Drake needed to find out who the guy was, how the asshole had met Tala, and who he’d talked to about her.

Cincinnati, Ohio

Tuesday, August 4, 3:35 a.m.

Scarlett Bishop was watching him.

Under normal circumstances, Marcus O’Bannion might have welcomed the openly appreciative stare of a beautiful woman as he lounged, shirtless and sweaty. But these were not normal circumstances and Scarlett Bishop was no ordinary beautiful woman. She was a homicide detective.

Sitting in the back of an ambulance having his vitals taken by a paramedic was about as far from lounging as a man could get. And the detective’s stare was not appreciative. It was watchful. Worried. Wary.

Because Scarlett was smart. She should be a lot more than worried, he thought. She should be scared. Because I am. Not of the fact that the bullet could very well have ended him, but because, for just a moment, he’d wished it had.

I’m tired. Tired of the greed and the violence and the twisted perversion going on all around him. He was tired of seeing the hopelessness in the eyes of the victims. He was tired of being too late. Because even if he could save every victim, he couldn’t erase what had been done to them. Tonight he hadn’t even saved the victim.

Tala was on her way to the ER, where they’d pronounce her DOA. Because she’d reached out to him for help. I should have been paying attention. I should have kept her safe.

He’d known she was being abused. The fear in the young woman’s eyes had been real, tonight and every time he’d seen her in the park. She trusted me. And I let her down.

“Your pressure is normal,” the paramedic said, removing the cuff from his bare upper arm. “So’s your pulse.”

Marcus had told them that would be the case, but they hadn’t listened to him, insisting on checking him out. He knew his body. Knew what it felt like when its functions weren’t normal. But they were only doing their job, so he mustered a nod and a rusty, “Thanks.”

“You really should go in for an X-ray,” the paramedic continued. “Just because the vest kept the bullet from piercing your skin doesn’t mean it didn’t do serious damage. You may have a broken rib or two.”

“I don’t,” Marcus replied quietly, his focus on Bishop, who’d finally turned back to the crime scene. Starting where Tala’s body had lain, she was slowly walking an outwardly spiraling circle, taking in every detail with eyes that he knew missed very little.

Abruptly she dropped into a crouch, leaning forward to check out what looked like a pile of trash swept into a crevice along the alley wall—until her black braid slid over her shoulder. Impatiently, she stripped off her gloves and coiled the braid into a figure eight, fixing it to the back of her head with some elastic gizmo she pulled from the pocket of her jeans. Her movements were quick and practiced, which came as no surprise. Unpinned, the tip of her braid nearly reached the small of her back. It likely got in her way often.

It would have been more practical—not to mention safer—to have cut it long ago. It would be a major vulnerability in a hand-to-hand fight, giving her opponent an easy way to immobilize her.

It would also give her lover something to hold on to as he . . . No. Not going there. Not today. But his mind already had, just as it had many, many times over the past nine months.

Ruthlessly corralling his thoughts, Marcus watched her motion to the CSU photographer, pointing to the asphalt, then pull on a new pair of gloves as the man snapped a picture.

She reached into the trash and drew out something that glinted in the beam of her Maglite. A bullet casing. A big-ass bullet casing. No wonder my back hurts so much.

She dropped the casing into an evidence bag, then rose fluidly to continue her search of the crime scene. She was, he thought, everything he remembered. Tall and proud. Lithe and graceful. Strong, yet compassionate. Too compassionate for her own good. Her job was eating her alive. There were shadows in her eyes that had nothing to do with lack of sleep. He knew this because he saw the same haunted expression in the mirror.

She was haunted, too. Still, she’d come when he’d called. Just as she’d done before.

And just as before, he’d sensed a . . . connection between them, something more than the physical attraction he hadn’t even tried to deny—not in his waking thoughts or in his dreams. He wasn’t sure exactly what the connection was, but he knew deep down that Scarlett Bishop would understand.

Understand what? he demanded bitterly. Me. She would understand me. The choices he’d made. The secrets he kept. The razor-fine edge that he walked. The darkness that drew him ever closer. She would understand. She might even help him.

Which was why he’d left her alone and would continue to do so. Because as much as he yearned for the solace she might provide, he refused to drag her down with him.

Her gaze shifted from the crime scene to the man with a shock of bright white hair who’d just joined her in the alley—FBI Special Agent Deacon Novak, Scarlett’s partner on the Major Case Enforcement Squad task force. Marcus actually knew Deacon better than he knew Scarlett, having met the man at a handful of social gatherings coengineered by Marcus’s stepfather and his cousin Faith, most recently the party celebrating Faith and Deacon’s engagement. Marcus had been happy for them. Deacon seemed to be a decent man.

Too decent, he thought. He couldn’t see Novak approving of any of the blood-soaked fantasies of revenge that flooded his mind as a crime-scene tech placed markers on the asphalt, next to the mess that had been Tala’s blood and brains.

She was only seventeen. And she’d been gunned down like an animal.

A sheet of white paper attached to a clipboard appeared in his vision, blocking his view of the carnage. “If you’re not going to let us transport you to the ER,” the paramedic said in a disapproving tone, “you need to sign this form.”

“I’ve had broken ribs before. I’m just bruised,” Marcus said, glancing at the form long enough to sign it before returning his attention to Bishop. She was now walking toward him, Deacon Novak at her side.

Marcus pushed to his feet, biting back a grimace. His back throbbed like a bitch, but he had his pride. It was bad enough that he was shirtless while Scarlett and her partner were fully clothed—Deacon in a suit and tie, no less. Talking to them from a sitting position was simply not going to happen.

Scarlett met his eyes for a brief moment before turning to the paramedic. “Well?” she asked crisply. “What’s the verdict?”

“Contusions,” the paramedic said. “Possible broken ribs.”

She frowned. “So why isn’t he en route to the ER?”

The paramedic shrugged. “He’s refused transport.”

“Because it’s only a bad bruise,” Marcus muttered. “Can I have my shirt back?”

Her glance flicked down to his bare chest, then shot back up to his face like a rocket. “I’m sorry. Your shirt is evidence now, along with the Kevlar vest, but my partner brought you something to wear,” she said, her tone coolly efficient.

“Marcus,” Deacon said pleasantly.

Marcus nodded once. “Deacon,” he said in the same pleasant tone.

Deacon held out a plain black T-shirt. “Good to see you’re not dead.”

Marcus clenched his teeth against the memory of the shots fired at close range. “Yeah,” he said bitterly. “That would have left an even bigger mess.” He tugged the shirt over his head, managing to swallow most of a groan as fire streaked across his shoulders and down his back.

“I heard that. You need to go to the hospital,” Scarlett said firmly.

“No. I don’t.” Marcus took an experimental deep breath, happy when both of his lungs inflated properly. “I’ve had enough of hospitals to last me a lifetime. Nothing they can do for broken ribs anyway.” He gave the medic a nod. “But thanks for checking me out.”

“Whatever,” the paramedic said, shaking his head as he slammed the ambulance doors closed and drove away.

Then it was just the three of them at the end of the alley, standing in a little bubble of silence as CSU processed the scene fifty feet away. Scarlett and Deacon were waiting for his statement, he knew. Suddenly wearier than he’d been in months, Marcus straightened his spine, his gaze arrowing in on the patch of bloodstained asphalt. He had to be careful. He was tired, and he was in pain. But most of all, he was filled with cold rage. In this state he could easily reveal more than he should.

Clear your mind. Tell them only what is relevant to catching Tala’s killer. Everything else was not their business.

He cleared his throat. “Her name was Tala. She was only seventeen.”

Cincinnati, Ohio

Tuesday, August 4, 3:45 a.m.

“Tala what?” Scarlett asked evenly, thanking God that the man had put a shirt on. Not staring at his chest had taken a sizeable portion of her concentration. Now she could focus on his words. Now I can do my damn job. A girl was dead. The victim deserved justice, not the half-assed efforts of a homicide detective who couldn’t keep her hormones in check.

Scarlett was glad Deacon had arrived. In the moments she’d stood in the alley alone with Marcus O’Bannion, she’d lost her professional perspective. Her emotions had taken over—and a few of those emotions hadn’t left her feeling proud of herself. She’d felt jealous of the dead girl, for God’s sake, because he’d been meeting her. Then disappointment that he’d been meeting her. All combined with a nearly obsessive refusal to believe that whatever Marcus was up to could be wrong in any way.

She believed too deeply, too blindly, that he was a good man. That he was a hero.

“She never said her last name.” Marcus didn’t look at them as he spoke. He was staring at the crime scene, at the spot where the girl had died. “I didn’t get the chance to ask.”

Because the girl had been shot. As had Marcus.

“What did she get the chance to say?” Scarlett asked.

Marcus clenched his jaw. “That her family was in danger. When I asked from who, she said, ‘The man and his wife, they own us.’”

Scarlett’s heart sank.

Deacon muttered a curse. “Owned exactly how?” he asked.

“I started to ask, but that’s when the first shot was fired and she collapsed. The only other words she said were ‘Help’ and ‘Malaya.’ Then she was gone.”

“Malaya.” Deacon was already typing on his phone. “She could have been talking about a place. A reference to modern-day Malaysia.”

“Or it could have been a word,” Marcus added quietly. “Tagalog for ‘freedom.’”

“Tagalog,” Scarlett murmured. “A dialect of Filipino, right?” Which would make sense. The girl’s ethnicity was Southeast Asian. That included the Philippines.

Marcus nodded once. “Yes.”

Deacon glanced at him with interest. “You speak Tagalog?”

“No. It’s also a newspaper based out of Manila,” Marcus answered.

“How do you know that?” Deacon asked, more curious than suspicious.

Marcus shrugged. “My family is in the newspaper business. My grandfather read five papers before breakfast every morning when I was a boy. He collected the front pages of papers with famous headlines. One was from the Malaya, on the day Marcos was exiled. I asked him what it was all about and he told me that ‘malaya’ meant freedom.”

“You remembered that, after all this time?” Scarlett asked. “That was nearly thirty years ago. You couldn’t have been more than four or five years old.”

Another shrug. “I remember nearly everything he ever said. This one word was very important to him, though. He’d been in the Philippines during the war, made friends with some of the locals. They were prisoners together. In Bataan.”

As one, Scarlett and Deacon winced. “Rough,” Scarlett murmured.

“Yeah. ‘Malaya’ was one of the first words my grandfather learned there.”

“So what do you think Tala meant?” Scarlett asked.

“I think she wanted me to help free her family. Trouble is, I don’t know where she came from. I don’t know where her family is being kept.”

“Detective Bishop said you met Tala at the park,” Deacon said.

“Not exactly. I never actually met her until tonight. I’d only see her at the park. Up until tonight it’s been me asking her questions and her running away without answering.”

“Where is this park, and when did you first see her?” Deacon asked.

“Near my house. Two weeks ago. About one a.m.”

Scarlett lifted her brows in surprise. “You go to the park at one in the morning?”

“Not normally. Normally I go midafternoon, but it’s been so hot lately that I’ve been going after dark, around eleven.”

“You’re a runner?” Deacon asked him.

“I was. Haven’t done any running in the last nine months.”

Not since he’d nearly been killed, Scarlett thought, the events of that day seared into her memory. A bullet had pierced his lung as he’d protected an innocent young woman who’d been targeted by a sociopath. They’d nearly lost Marcus that day.

Marcus returned his attention to the crime scene. “I have an older dog with a heavy coat,” he went on quietly. “She has a bad heart and doesn’t do well in the heat, so I walk her after dark. Two weeks ago I got tied up on a project at work and it was after one when I got home, but BB needed to be walked, so we went to the park. It was deserted, so I . . .” He hesitated, shrugged uncomfortably. “I was sitting on a bench letting her sniff the grass when Tala came down the path with a standard poodle, all groomed in that frou-frou show-dog style. The dog’s collar caught my eye before Tala did.”

“The dog had a reflective collar?” Deacon asked.

Scarlett was stuck back on “It was deserted.” It was deserted, so you what? she wanted to ask. Because he was blushing again, just like he had when he’d admitted he’d promised his mother he’d wear Kevlar. She tabled the question for later.

Marcus shook his head. “No. The collar was diamond-studded.”

Both Scarlett and Deacon blinked. “Diamonds?” she repeated. “Are you sure they weren’t rhinestones? Or CZ?”

“Pretty sure. The collar had a brand tag sewn in it—one of the exclusive jewelers in Chicago.” He gave them the name. “When I called the store to inquire, the jeweler told me they haven’t sold that model in a while. He suggested that I check on eBay.”

Scarlett frowned. “Why am I not surprised that you already called?”

Marcus shrugged. “I was hoping to identify her later. At first I was just appalled. I mean, who’d put that kind of collar on a dog? And what was a girl her age doing walking the dog at one a.m.? Alarm bells started ringing in my head, so I stood up and started to walk in the opposite direction, but . . .” He sighed. “She was crying.”

“So you stayed?” Deacon asked carefully.

Marcus leveled him a sharp glare. “Only long enough to ask her why she was crying and if she needed help. She just turned and ran away. I started to follow her, but BB can’t run anymore. By the time I picked up the dog, the girl was gone.”

“When did you see her again?” Scarlett asked, her mind suddenly filled with the image of him cradling an old dog in his arms.

“The next night, but not as close-up. I went back at one in the morning, sat on the bench and waited, but she stayed back so far that I didn’t see her. But I did see her dog. She wore black, but the poodle is white, so he showed up through the trees. I called out to her, but she ran again. Then the third night, she came close enough that I could see she was crying again.”

Scarlett studied Marcus’s face. He was holding something back. “What made her come close the third night?”

He hesitated, then rolled his eyes. “I’m not sure. Maybe because I was singing.”

Again she and Deacon blinked. “You were singing?” she echoed. “As in . . . a song?”

He scowled at her. “Yes, as in a song. I was all alone the first night. Or I thought I was. I sometimes sing when I’m alone. I thought if I sang again she might come closer.”

Fascinating. His blush had deepened, his shoulders hunching defensively. He thought she was going to laugh at him. Nothing could be further from the truth. She was drawn by his voice, too. When he spoke she heard music. The saddest music she’d ever heard, she’d thought the very first time she’d heard him speak. That he used that voice to make actual music was no surprise.

“I sing when I’m alone, too,” she said quietly. “Mostly because nobody wants to hear me. I take it that Tala wanted to hear you.”

The stiffness in his shoulders melted a bit. “Yeah. I guess she did.”

“What were you singing?” Deacon asked.

His jaw tightened. “Vince Gill. ‘Go Rest High on That Mountain.’”

Scarlett sucked in a breath, the ache in her chest sudden and sharp. She’d heard that song too many times, at too many funerals. The first funeral at which she’d heard it still haunted her nightmares.

That the most recent one still haunted Marcus was evident from the pain on his face.

“I understand,” she whispered. He met her eyes, and she could see that he believed her.

Deacon was looking at them, confused. “I don’t. What is that song?”

“It’s a country song,” Scarlett said, holding Marcus’s gaze. “Vince Gill wrote it for his brother, after his brother’s death. It’s often played at funerals. It was played at Marcus’s brother’s funeral.” Her throat grew thick, and she swallowed hard. “It was a good choice.”

Marcus’s eyes flickered, gratitude mixing with the pain.

Deacon let out a quiet breath. Critically wounded while taking down Marcus’s brother’s killer, he hadn’t attended the seventeen-year-old’s funeral, but he had seen the boy’s dead body in its shallow grave. As had Scarlett.

As had Marcus. Scarlett wished she could have kept him from having that picture in his mind. He was clearly still grieving. Seeing his brother’s body tossed into a grave like so much trash would make healing that much harder. This Scarlett knew from experience.

“I see,” Deacon said quietly. “So Tala was drawn by the song that night. Did she speak to you then?”

Marcus shifted his body, staring at the crime scene once again, breaking their connection. “No. She never spoke until tonight. I kept going back to the park at one a.m., hoping she’d tell me why she was so afraid. After the first few nights, I brought my guitar with me. I thought maybe she’d find me less threatening if my hands were full, but that wasn’t the case. She let the dog approach close enough for me to pet it, but the closest Tala came to me was twenty-six feet.”

Twenty-six feet? Scarlett frowned, then nodded when the detail clicked in her mind. “The length of the poodle’s retractable leash.” She glanced at Deacon. “It’s the size for large dogs. I have one that I use when I walk Zat.” She returned her attention to Marcus. “Did you see the poodle’s ID tags when you petted it?”

“There was only a name tag attached to the collar—no rabies or license tags. The name tag said ‘Coco.’ Tala came to the park for seven straight nights and would stay long enough to hear me sing a song or two. On the eighth night she didn’t show up, or the two nights after that, so I started going to the park during the day, at all different times. We finally crossed paths again late yesterday afternoon. About twelve hours ago.”

“When she was bruised and limping,” Scarlett murmured.

An angry nod. “Yeah. Someone had roughed her up. At the time I didn’t think it had anything to do with me, because I never saw anyone following her when she walked the dog. Now I think it must have been because someone knew she was meeting me. She’d be alive otherwise,” he added bitterly.

“You told Detective Bishop that you left your card on the bench,” Deacon said, “and that Tala texted you to meet her here. Can we get the number she called from?”

Marcus handed Deacon his phone. “She asked me not to call her, told me she was deleting the text so she wouldn’t get caught. I didn’t call the number, but I did run it. It’s disposable.”

Deacon frowned. “How did you run the phone number?”

“I run my family’s newspaper, Deacon,” he said mildly. “I have all kinds of ways to get information.”

Deacon narrowed his eyes in annoyance. “None of which you plan to tell me.”

“Of course not.”

Deacon looked like he’d argue, but decided against it. “Fine. What else can you tell us?”

Marcus looked at Scarlett, his expression suddenly grimly uncomfortable. “You asked me if she was a prostitute and I said I didn’t know. That’s true. But she was accustomed to . . . pleasing men.” He sighed. “When I offered to help her, she said she couldn’t pay me. I told her I didn’t want her money. She got this desperate, revolted look on her face. Then, in the blink of an eye, she changed into this sultry temptress. Went for the button of my jeans. Said she could make me feel good.” His jaw hardened. “I told her no, that I didn’t want that, either.”

“And then?” Scarlett asked quietly.

“She looked hopeless. Asked why I would help her. Said she was ‘nobody.’” His shoulders sagged. “She believed that. She also believed her family was in danger.”

“Did she mention sisters or friends?” Deacon asked. “Do we know what kind of family she wants us to help? Are they blood relatives or simply other captives?”

Marcus shook his head. “She only said ‘my family.’ My first thought was that the man and his wife used her for the sex trade.”

Scarlett pulled up a photo of the victim that she’d taken with her phone, showing it to Deacon. “My first thought, too,” she said.

“Young and pretty,” Deacon agreed. “Just the type sexual slavery operations go for. How was she dressed when she walked the dog in the park? What I mean is, did it look like she was dressed for seduction? Was she on the clock, just taking a break during business hours?”

“She was wearing a polo shirt and old jeans,” he said. “She looked like any other high school kid.”

“Walking a dog with a diamond-studded collar,” Deacon murmured. “Well, whoever she was protecting, whatever their relationship, they had to have been very important to her. Her ‘owners’ trusted their hold on her enough to let her walk their dog, knowing she’d come back.”

“Did she have an accent?” Scarlett asked. “How was her English? Did she sound like she’d been in this country for a while?”

“Her English was flawless, but she did have an accent.” Reaching behind him, Marcus pulled a dark baseball cap from the back pocket of his jeans. “You can judge for yourself. I recorded the conversation.” A hesitant pause, followed by a shrug. “I recorded every interaction after that first night.”

Scarlett stared at the cap, then up at his face. “You have a microphone in your hat?”

“A camera, actually. It’s hidden on the edge of the bill.”

Deacon’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”

Marcus’s jaw set. “I wanted to be able to protect myself in case I was being set up.”

Deacon took the cap, his eyes narrowing further. “And exactly who would be setting you up, Marcus?” he asked softly.

Marcus’s spine straightened, his face taking on the stony expression of a soldier preparing for an interrogation. “I don’t know.”

There was frustration in his tone, she thought. And honesty. Or maybe that was just what she wanted to hear. “The same people that made you promise your mother you’d wear Kevlar?”

Chapter Two

Cincinnati, Ohio

Tuesday, August 4, 3:50 a.m.

The same people that made you promise your mother you’d wear Kevlar?

Startled, Marcus stiffened, then one side of his mouth quirked up as he glanced down at her, grudging respect in his eyes. Scarlett Bishop didn’t miss a detail. So tread carefully here. For her sake as well as his own. “Maybe. And before you ask—no, I don’t know who ‘they’ are.”

“But ‘they’ are threatening you?” Deacon asked. “Why?”

The Fed didn’t miss much, either. Over the months, Marcus had come to respect the sharp eye and quick mind of his cousin Faith’s fiancé. As a team, Scarlett and Deacon were scary-good investigators. Which was one of the reasons Marcus had consciously and consistently avoided them both whenever possible. “I don’t know,” he said again.

“Who else knew you would be here tonight?” Deacon asked.

Marcus frowned, startled once again. “You think I was the target?”

“You were wearing Kevlar and a camera,” Deacon pointed out dryly. “You tell me.”

Marcus hadn’t even considered it, but he did now. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time someone had taken a shot at him. That the bullets he’d taken last November were the first to actually require a hospital stay was pretty damn close to a miracle. He had a few projects brewing, but none were at a flashpoint, none hot enough to warrant such a physical retaliation. Past projects . . . It was possible. He’d stepped on an awful lot of toes.

“I’m a newspaper publisher,” he finally said carefully. “My staff breaks stories that make people unhappy. Sometimes there are threats. Most of them are nothing to worry about. I can’t think of anything right now that especially would be. I don’t think I was the target tonight.”

“Unfortunately, we’re going to have to be the judges of that,” Scarlett said, the softness gone from her tone. She was a cop again, her jaw hard, her eyes sharp. “A girl is dead. If one of your ‘threats’ is responsible, we need to know. And don’t even consider telling me that you won’t reveal your sources,” she snapped, interrupting him before he could do exactly that. “You called me because you knew I’d help that girl. Don’t stand in my way now.”

She was right, he had to admit. He had called her. He had involved her. “I’ll have it to you within the hour.”

“What will I get?” she asked warily.

“A list of the threats I’ve received.” Those he was willing to share, anyway. Some of the threats were not credible. Others had already been dealt with. Others would be far too revealing, especially to this pair of investigators. He’d pick and choose the ones that would do him no damage. “How far back do you want me to go? Six months? A year? Five years?”

She blinked once. “You keep a list?”

“My office manager does. Just in case.”

She glanced at Deacon. “How far back do you think? Three years?”

Deacon shrugged. “It’s as good a place to start as any.” He turned his odd bicolored eyes on Marcus in a cool stare. “I’ll need your gun.”

Marcus was glad he’d had the opportunity to get used to Deacon’s eyes in the less stressful, more social environment of their family get-togethers. Otherwise he might have been startled into making an admission he’d regret later. They were half brown, half blue, each iris split down the middle. At first glance, the sight was unsettling. A little mesmerizing. Marcus was certain that Deacon used his eyes to the greatest advantage during interrogations.

Now Marcus simply returned Deacon’s stare without a blink. “What makes you think I have a gun?”

Deacon rolled those odd eyes. “Because you’re wearing Kevlar and a damn camera,” he said once again. “You’re wasting my time, Marcus.”

Yes, he was, Marcus realized, and was suddenly ashamed of himself. Because as soon as he gave them his gun, they’d let him go. Scarlett would walk away to do her job. And he’d be alone again. Which was even more pathetic than it sounded in his head.

“You’re right.” He dropped to one knee and removed the pocket-sized Sig from its ankle holster, then straightened his spine and placed the gun in Deacon’s outstretched palm.

Deacon sniffed the barrel. “You didn’t fire tonight.”

“No. I drew my weapon, but the shooter was gone. It was fired two days ago at the range. Your CSU guy did a gun-residue test before you got here. It was negative.”

Deacon didn’t blink. “You could have worn gloves.”

“I didn’t.” He ventured a glance at Scarlett, found her gaze watchful. And aware of him in a way that she probably shouldn’t be. In a way that made his skin heat. In a way that had nothing to do with fury and everything to do with . . . want.

“What about your knife?” she asked, her cool tone at odds with the look in her eyes.

Caught off guard, he blinked, his brain backtracking quickly. “My knife?”

“You cut her shirt,” she said quietly, “when you tried to stop her bleeding. The knife you used will have her blood on it. Where is it?”

Annoyed for allowing himself to be surprised, he dug in his pocket and pulled out the folding knife he never left home without. “I want it back,” he muttered as he dropped it into the evidence bag she held out.

She tilted the bag toward the crime-scene unit’s spotlights so that she could examine the knife’s hilt. “This is very nice.” She glanced at him again. “Army issue?”

If she knew he’d been Army, she’d been checking up on him. He wondered how deep she’d dug, how much she’d learned. “Surplus store,” he said, uttering the half-truth smoothly. The knife he’d handed over to Bishop was the same one he’d carried through combat. It had saved his life more times than he wanted to count, and he’d found himself curiously unable to part with it when his tour was up. When the time had come to turn in his gear, he’d bought a replacement of the same make to give back to the Army. He’d carried the knife since the day he’d come home from the Gulf . . . just because. Okay, fine. It was a security blanket. He was man enough to admit that. Just barely.

He hadn’t started carrying the gun until after he’d worked at the newspaper for a few months—and made a few enemies right here in Cinci. The list had grown considerably over the years, but he wouldn’t undo a single deed he’d done.

Except . . . Damn, he hoped Tala had been the target. He didn’t want to consider that she’d been killed because of him. He looked up, troubled. “She was just a kid.”

Scarlett’s shoulders sagged, softening her almost military stance. “Your brother Mikhail’s age,” she murmured, compassion darkening her eyes. “I’m so sorry, Marcus.”

Meeting her gaze, he felt it again. That spark between them. That connection. “Thank you.”

Discomfort flickered across her features a split second before her shoulders straightened and her expression grew cold and piercing. In the blink of an eye she was back to being a cop. “We don’t have any reason to hold you,” she said brusquely, “but we’re sure to have more questions. You don’t have any upcoming travel planned, do you?”

Well, he thought sourly. Her allotted moment of compassion was evidently over. He opened his mouth to reply with something sarcastic but stopped himself. He wasn’t being fair. Her compassion was still there. It had always been there. He’d seen it the day she’d stood beside his hospital bed, then again at his brother’s grave, even though she’d kept to the very back of the gathered crowd. He could see it now, lurking behind the piercing focus of her eyes.

She didn’t want it to show and he could respect that. For now. “No,” he answered quietly. “I’m not planning to go anywhere.”

She gave him an assessing look. “Because you’re going to search for Tala’s killer.”

He lifted a shoulder. “I make my living digging for news, Detective.”

“Don’t,” she said sharply. “Don’t go looking for the shooter or anyone else. Send me that list of people you’ve annoyed and any other recordings you made of Tala in the park—as quickly as you can.” She handed him her card. “My e-mail is at the bottom.”

He already knew her e-mail. He already knew almost everything about her—everything he could dig up legally from afar, that was. Well, he allowed, mostly legally. And mostly from afar. Because he’d been way too curious about this woman since he’d opened his eyes to find her standing over his hospital gurney, her gaze dark and wary. And full of respect.

He’d seen it again tonight, he realized. Respect. When he’d come back to make sure Tala’s body was properly cared for. When he hadn’t left the girl alone in the dark. It had been too long since he’d felt true respect for himself. He’d once done the right thing simply because it was the right thing to do. His self-respect had kept him from giving in to the ever-growing temptation to deliver his own brand of justice to the slimy, perverted sons of bitches responsible for making the news he dug up for a living. But his self-respect dwindled every time the slimy SOBs won, every time he failed to remove a threat from the community. Every time a child went to bed afraid because the slimy SOB still slept in the next room.

Now the only thing that stayed his hand was his fear of falling so deep into the abyss that he could never pull himself out. Delivering one’s own brand of justice was a slippery slope. Marcus O’Bannion knew this from experience.

But tonight he’d seen respect in Scarlett Bishop’s eyes, and suddenly he wanted to see that again. Desperately. He’d been too curious about this woman from afar for far too long. Maybe fate had finally done him a favor. Maybe Scarlett had crossed his path for a reason. Maybe she was his way back into the light. Or maybe he was just so pathetically lonely that he’d believe anything that allowed him to spend a little more time with her. I’m okay with that, too.

“I’ll go straight to my office from here.” Marcus lifted his brows, watching her face. “If you’re done with me,” he added, just mildly enough that she could take his words as either an invitation or a challenge. Either would work, for now.

Her eyes flickered for the briefest of moments before control returned. She’d drawn a breath, slow and deep, and he wondered which of the two she’d chosen. Invitation or challenge?

“You didn’t say you wouldn’t go looking for Tala’s killer,” she stated flatly.

No, he hadn’t. Nor would he make that promise, because it would be a lie. “So . . . you’re done with me?” he asked, then watched in fascination as the color rose in her cheeks.

“Goddammit,” she hissed. “You’re going to get yourself killed for real this time.”

It was possible, he supposed. It had always been possible. He turned to Deacon Novak. “Am I free to go?” he asked formally.

Deacon blew out an annoyed sigh. “Yes, you are free to go. Just don’t get yourself killed. Faith likes your family, and I’m finally starting to feel like they might not totally hate me.”

Marcus nearly smiled. “Maybe not totally.” Not at all, really. Deacon Novak had a charm that had thrown his family off-balance, making them laugh in the midst of their grief. He had a way of making Marcus’s mother, brother, and sister smile even on their very worst days, and for that Marcus would be forever grateful. Faith had been a tireless source of emotional support after Mikhail’s murder, blending into the O’Bannion clan so seamlessly that it almost seemed she’d always been around. Getting close to the cousin they’d never known was the only good thing to come from the last nine months.

That, and meeting Scarlett Bishop, who was still scowling at him. “Seeing as how you make your living digging for news, should we expect to see Tala’s murder in the headline of today’s Ledger?” she asked.

“No. Today’s printed edition has already gone to press.”

“What about the online edition?” Scarlett asked, her disapproval clear.

It made him wish he could promise her anything she wanted, just to erase that look from her face. But he wouldn’t lie to her. “I guarantee someone else will run with the story as soon as Tala’s body hits the morgue. Wouldn’t you rather we publish the truth first?”

She tilted her head slightly, her eyes gone speculative. “How much of the truth do you intend to tell?”

“Are you asking me to hold back details, Detective?”

“Would you, if I asked?”

He should be offended. Conceptually, her request went against everything a newspaperman believed in, but Marcus was no ordinary newspaperman. He’d used the Ledger to punish evil ever since he’d taken the helm five years before. His investigative team followed normal news leads, but often took on special projects—exposing the lies of abusive men and women who’d managed to evade punishment by Children’s Services or the courts. Men and women who’d hurt their families and would go on hurting them unless they were stopped.

His team didn’t always play fair, and from time to time they’d acquired information in ways that crossed the legal lines. But they did so to protect victims. They knew they couldn’t save the world, but they could positively impact their little corner of it.

Honoring Scarlett Bishop’s request wouldn’t be that different from his status quo. But he didn’t want her to know that, so he shook his head. “It’s unlikely. It would depend on what you wanted me to hold back. I want that girl’s killer found, too, but I do have a responsibility to report all of the news. Not just the news you approve. What detail were you wanting to withhold?”

“The location of the park where you met, the shell casing we found, and her last words.”

It was exactly what he’d expected her to say and exactly the details he’d already planned to omit. “That’s three details.”

She ignored him. “You may print her photo and where she was killed.”

“All that?” he drawled. “Am I allowed to quote myself as an eyewitness?”

“That’s up to you,” she said. “I thought you might want to keep your involvement on the down-low.”

He did, but he knew it was too late for that. “That’ll be hard to do, given that I’ll end up in your police report. I’ll end up front-page news on my competitors’ papers.”

“I can’t keep you out of the report. Sorry.” She did look a little regretful, actually. “I could lock it down, but too many people saw you here.”

“Then it’s already out there,” he said mildly. “I’ll do no harm by including it.”

Regret vanished, annoyance taking its place. “Then please make sure the photo of Tala you use is from the portion of the video you took in the park—where she’s still alive.”

Marcus frowned at her. Now he was offended. “Do you really think I’d use a photo of her dead body, Scarlett? What kind of man do you take me for?”

“A man who makes his living selling newspapers,” she said quietly.

Touché. He glanced at Deacon. “Give my best to Faith, will you?” He dipped his head in a nod to Scarlett. “Detective. You’ll get those files within the hour.”

Cincinnati, Ohio

Tuesday, August 4, 4:05 a.m.

Scarlett frowned as Marcus O’Bannion disappeared from view. “Do you think he’ll withhold the details?”

“I don’t know,” Deacon murmured. “Marcus is hard to read.”

That was an understatement, she thought. Just when she’d started to figure him out, he’d gone all newspaperman on her. “He has another gun somewhere.”

Beside her, Deacon’s snow-white brows lifted in a way that told her he’d come to the same conclusion. “Why do you think so?”

“Because there’s no way he’d bring only a knife to a gunfight.”

“He had the SIG.”

“In an ankle holster that he couldn’t get to that easily. The man wore Kevlar and a spy camera, for God’s sake. He expected trouble. He would have brought a bigger gun that he could have instant access to.”

“I agree, although it’s only important if he fired it.”

“No GSR on his hands,” she murmured. “But like you said, he could have worn gloves.”

“Either way, it’s our word against his. Do you think he fired his other gun?”

“I don’t think he shot Tala. If I did, I never would have let him walk away. But he could have fired on the shooter.” She bit at her lip. “I don’t like that he hid another gun from us.”

“Agree again.” Deacon tilted his head, watching her a little too carefully. “Why would he?”

She glanced up at him sharply. “You ask me like I know him. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve talked to him and still have fingers left. You know him a hell of a lot better than I do.”

“But he called you tonight. Not me. Not us.”

That was true. I knew you would help her, he’d said. But Deacon could have helped her, too. He could have called us both. But he called me. Only me. That the knowledge left her feeling warm to her toes annoyed the hell out of her. “Because he was meeting a seventeen-year-old girl,” she snapped. “He didn’t want it to look any worse than it already did. He said he knew I’d come to help her. That’s all there is.”

“All right,” Deacon said in his soothing voice, the one that grated like nails on a chalkboard. “Whatever you say, partner.”

She gritted her teeth. “Dammit, you know I hate it when you talk like that.”

“I know.” His sudden grin cut through her irritation. Deacon had a way of defusing her temper, helping her think more clearly. Initially it had annoyed her, but after nine months of working with him, she’d come to appreciate his rare gift.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and meant it. It wasn’t Deacon’s fault she was out of sorts. She laid that firmly at her own feet. Being around Marcus O’Bannion never failed to leave her unsettled and . . . anxious. Scarlett hated being anxious. She drew a breath, found her center. None of this was about her, anyway. This was about a seventeen-year-old girl on her way to the morgue. “I haven’t been sleeping well lately. It’s left me a bit tight.”

“Uh-huh.” Deacon’s expression said that she was fooling no one. “So why did he lie about his gun?”

She replayed Marcus’s words in her mind. “He didn’t lie. He said, ‘I drew my weapon.’ He never said he drew the baby gun. But if he recorded the whole thing . . .”

“His gun would be caught on his cap-cam.” Deacon shook his head. “Although I doubt he’d have been so free with offering us the video if it had anything incriminating on it. That he didn’t tell us about the other gun has me wondering why.”

She reached for the ball cap Deacon had dropped into an evidence bag, inspecting it from all angles. Clever little thing. “Does this store the video in the camera, or does it feed to a drive somewhere else?” she asked, all too familiar with Deacon’s penchant for gadgets.

“If the camera has storage, it’s probably not big enough for more than a minute or two of video. I’d bet he sent the feed to an external drive wirelessly.”

“What’s the range?”

“Depends on how much Marcus spent on the camera. With his bucks, I’m sure it’s top-of-the-line, so maybe a few hundred feet. But he lives a couple miles away and . . .” He let the thought trail, then rolled his eyes. “Sneaky sonofabitch had the hard drive in his car. He could have handed the whole thing over to us before he walked away, but he didn’t.”

Sneaky sonofabitch indeed. Any residual warmth from Marcus’s earlier trust dissipated like mist. “He’ll delete the gun part before he sends over the video, won’t he?”

“Most likely. Unless he stopped recording when the bullets started flying.”

She lifted the cap so that it was level with her line of sight, squinting at the camera in the edge of the bill. “How would he have turned this thing on and off?”

“Through his phone. But not the one he showed us. That was a throwaway.”

“I figured that one out for myself.” She sighed. “What’s your take on Marcus?”

“I don’t think he shot the girl, either, if that’s what you’re asking. I think we’ll find the footage from this camera supports every word of his story about Tala. But he wasn’t telling the whole truth about the enemies who’d want him dead. He was startled when I asked him if he could be the target.”

Yes, she thought, Marcus had looked startled. And dismayed. And maybe even guilty at the notion that he’d inadvertently caused the girl’s death. “That was good intuition on your part.”

Deacon shrugged. “Reporters tend to make a lot of enemies. I know I don’t like them.”

Scarlett’s lips curved. Deacon had very good reasons not to like the press. His snow-white hair and the wraparound shades he wore during the daylight hours made him easy fodder for the media. The heat of the summer meant he wasn’t wearing his signature black leather overcoat, but every reporter in town had captured him on film wearing the thing during the winter, so the damage was long done. Deacon Novak was larger than life, which meant the cameras were trained on him.

Better you than me. She’d been quoted by reporters in her role as a cop plenty of times. That was part of the job. But she’d once been personally involved in a news story and didn’t care to repeat the experience. The very memory was enough to tie her stomach into knots.

“He’s listed as the paper’s publisher,” she said. “The Ledger used to be second in town, after the Enquirer, but he’s built up the readership substantially since he took over five years ago, when he came back from Iraq. Yet I’ve never seen his name as a byline. He’s not one of the reporters going out and pestering people for a story.”

Deacon tilted his head. “So you’ve checked him out pretty thoroughly, huh?”

Scarlett felt her cheeks heat. “Yes, last year when we were looking at the O’Bannions as suspects.” Nine months ago, when they’d been trying to catch a killer, Marcus had saved a girl’s life, and Scarlett had desperately wanted to believe him to be the good guy he appeared to be. “I wanted to know what kind of man he was.”

“And?”

“I think he’s basically good, but the media do disrupt lives while they’re getting the story. And rarely do they care.”

Deacon was watching her too closely, with that look in his eye that meant he was seeing far more than she wanted him to see. “That sounds like the voice of experience talking.”

“It is.” And it would be a shame Scarlett would carry for the rest of her life. “I had a friend back in college who died because a reporter broke a story that should have been dealt with privately. He got the big byline and my friend got a pretty angel to stand over her grave.”

“You blame the reporter for her death?”

“Partially, yes.” And partially Scarlett blamed herself. “But ultimately I blame the sick, sadistic sonofabitch who murdered her.”

“Oh. I thought you meant she’d committed suicide.”

“No. She was killed by her ex-boyfriend, but she might have survived had that damned reporter kept his mouth shut.” And you, too, Scarlett. She’d trusted that damned reporter, told him things far better left unsaid. Because I was a million kinds of stupid. “I’ve wanted to see her killer pay for more than ten years, but I have to admit there were times I wanted to make the reporter pay, too. His callous disregard for the consequences of his actions led to the death of an innocent woman.”

“You don’t want to believe that Marcus is that kind of journalist.”

No, she didn’t want to, but she wouldn’t trust so blindly. Never again. Of course, the proof would be in the article he printed about Tala’s murder. He had the power to withhold the facts the police wouldn’t have told the public. She knew his paper had cooperated in the past, but she’d never interacted with Marcus directly. “Like I said before, Marcus isn’t credited as a reporter with his paper. He owns the paper and is listed as the publisher. That opens the field to anyone impacted by any story he allowed to be printed. He is responsible for the actions of the reporters on his staff who break stories that make people unhappy.”

“So our suspect list could be anyone who blames any reporter Marcus has ever employed. That could be a big list. Luckily he keeps track of the specific threats.”

“True, but I don’t think he wanted to admit that the threats to his life were credible—to us or to himself. Yet his mother made him promise to wear Kevlar, so they must have been credible to her. Which means his family—or at least his mother—knows about them, too.”

“I agree. So if the killer was someone Marcus pissed off through his paper, then Marcus was the target and Tala was simply collateral damage.”

Scarlett turned, her gaze dropping to the asphalt where Tala had bled out. “But my gut tells me this is more about Tala than Marcus. She asked him to meet her here. She was shot first. And the killer doubled back to make sure she was dead. It’s more probable that Tala was the target and Marcus was collateral damage. Or a loose end. In which case, all we have to go on is her body, her first name, her last words, a shell casing, the general vicinity of where she lived, and the name of a poodle with a diamond-studded collar.”

“And the fact that a man and his wife ‘owned’ her,” Deacon said grimly.

Scarlett considered it. “We’ve closed cases starting with far less. If we’re dealing with human trafficking, we’ll need your Bureau contacts.” Deacon was officially on loan from the FBI to Cincinnati PD’s Major Case Enforcement Squad, but he’d integrated into the group so completely that most days she forgot he was still a federal agent.

He nodded. “I’ll check with my SAC and find out who’s trafficking people in this area.”

“I’ll get a cleaned-up copy of Tala’s face and a photo of the dog from Marcus’s video files once he sends them to us. We’ll start canvassing the area around the park where she and Marcus met, see if anyone remembers seeing her.”

“If she mainly walked the dog at night, that could be a problem.”

“Or a blessing. She’ll be more memorable. We can also check with the area vets. A fancy dog like that will have been well cared for.”

“What about eyewitnesses on this block?”

“The dealers and hookers may have seen something, but they all scattered before I got here.” Scarlett checked her watch. “It’ll be sunrise soon, so none of them will be back till sundown tonight. Tommy and Edna may have seen something. They knew the shooting had happened in this alley. They didn’t mention seeing anyone fleeing, but I didn’t stick around long enough to ask that question.”

“Tommy and Edna?”

“The homeless man and woman sitting on the stoop three blocks up. I’ve known them for years. I’ll ask them on my way out. I’ll tackle ID’ing the girl as soon as I get to the office.”

“And I’ll get started with the Bureau’s trafficking team. Call me when Marcus sends you the video files and the list of threats.”

“As soon as they hit my in-box. See you in the office.”

Cincinnati, Ohio

Tuesday, August 4, 4:35 a.m.

“Motherfucker,” Marcus muttered as he eased his body into the chair behind his desk, glad that it was too early for anyone else to be in the office yet. The paper had gone to press at two a.m., which meant that Diesel and Cal were home snoring and Gayle and the rest of the day shift wouldn’t be in till nine.

His staff would fret, especially Gayle, his office manager. She’d been his mother’s social secretary when Marcus was born, then later she’d become his nanny—his and his brothers’ and sister’s. She’d retired from her nanny position when Mikhail, the youngest, had hit middle school, coming to work for Marcus at the paper. But her retirement from nannyhood never really took. Gayle tended to hover, more so even than his mother.

Both women had been driving him crazy, watching him like a hawk ever since he’d been released from the hospital nine months ago. They’d do so again when the story broke. Mentally he prepared for the hovering to commence.

He unlocked his desk drawer and pulled out the laptop he used for confidential matters. If there was anything on the Tala video—for example, the fact that he’d had another gun, the serial number of which had been filed off—he’d save the original on this laptop, then send a modified version to the cops.

He hadn’t minded turning the Sig backup over to Scarlett this morning. It was so new he’d only fired it at the range, so even if they ran it through Ballistics, they’d come up with nothing. He didn’t even mind if she knew he’d had another gun. But he had no intention of handing over his PK380. He’d had the gun for too many years. Besides, though he didn’t think a ballistics check would turn up anything incriminating, he was taking no chances.

If he had to turn over a PK380, he had several others, most of which were properly registered. He’d give her one of those.

Marcus believed in keeping his privacy. Which was why he actually had several “confidential” laptops. No one laptop held all the data on any given project, so if one happened to fall into the wrong hands, the project would be only partially compromised. And because none of his confidential laptops were listed as company assets, they couldn’t be subpoenaed should he or his staff ever draw the attention of law enforcement.

Like he had this morning.

It wasn’t supposed to have gone down like that. He was supposed to have handed Tala over to Scarlett Bishop and walked away, having done a good deed. Instead . . .

His hands stilled on the keyboard. Instead, an innocent young woman was dead and he had plunked himself on the cops’ radar, front and center.

Why did you come back? Scarlett had asked. Why had he? Why hadn’t he gotten away while the getting was good?

I couldn’t leave her alone in the dark. No, he couldn’t have. Even if it meant having the cops on his tail for a while. That Scarlett Bishop was one of those cops would be either boon or bane. Time would tell. Either way, he’d handle it.

So handle it. Give her the files you promised so she can do her job.

The video of Tala would be more valuable to Scarlett’s investigation than the threat list, so he connected the laptop to the hard drive he’d stored in the back of his Subaru, hoping he hadn’t moved out of range during the events of the night. The camera hidden in the bill of his cap transmitted about five hundred feet, but Marcus had run around the block looking for the shooter. He found the file and clicked it open, crossing his fingers. Hopefully the camera had captured something worthwhile, something he hadn’t seen with his eyes.

“What a fucking waste,” he muttered in the quiet of his office as he stared grimly at Tala’s terrified face on his laptop screen, knowing that in a few seconds he’d see her die. He listened once again as she worried about her family.

He heard himself demand to tell him who she was afraid of. Heard her whispered reply. “The man and his wife,” she whispered. “They own us.”

And then—a split second before he heard the shot—he saw it. A flicker in her eyes. Terrified recognition.

Not only had she seen who shot her, she’d known the shooter.

“Sonofabitch,” he snarled, ignoring the short stab of pain in his back as he leaned forward too quickly, his gaze locked on the screen. Please, please, let the camera have gotten something.

The video lurched, the camera on the bill of the ball cap sweeping across the bricks of the alley in a blur as Marcus had spun to see behind him. When the picture refocused, the entrance to the alley was empty, just as he remembered. He’d begun running then, the camera jumping all over the place as he looked for the gunman—or woman—but when he got to the end of the alley, the shooter was gone.

The camera spun again as he’d turned back to see Tala lying on the asphalt, her polo shirt already soaked with blood.

“Sonofafuckingbitch.” The oath cracked out of the speaker as he watched himself run back to start first aid. “Tala!”

Marcus sat back with a sigh. The camera had picked up nothing more than his eyes had. The video would be of no use to Scarlett Bishop.

Still, he rewound and watched again, this time focusing on Tala’s mouth, turning up the volume at the point where he’d started first aid, hoping the camera’s microphone had picked up more words than those he’d relayed to the police.

But once again there was nothing new. Tala hadn’t said anything else, at least not loudly enough to be recorded. He disconnected the hard drive from his confidential laptop, hooked it up to his official, on-the-books office computer, and sent the video files to Scarlett Bishop as he’d promised.

He glanced at the clock. Plenty of time before Gayle arrived. He needed to check the list of threats she’d been compiling for the past few years. He didn’t believe there was any chance that he’d been the target, but if Gayle found him looking at the list, she’d know something was up. More importantly, if he was still here when she arrived, she’d take one look at him and know he’d been hurt. She’d make a fuss, and then the whole staff would be in his business. Worse still, she would tell his mother.

He’d always trusted Gayle to keep his secrets, and she’d never betrayed him, not even once in all the years he’d known her. And he’d asked her to keep some very big secrets. But she’d made it clear from the beginning that his physical health was one area that she would not keep from his mother.

Marcus wasn’t sure his mother could stand the shock of hearing he’d been shot again. She seemed to be holding on by the slimmest of threads since Mikhail’s murder. Hell, even his sister, Audrey, had been minding her p’s and q’s. She hadn’t been arrested once in nine months.

Marcus would not be the one to upset the family apple cart. Not right now. He needed a few hours’ sleep, a hot shower, and an ice pack for his back before he let any of them see him. But he’d promised Scarlett Bishop the list of threats, and Marcus O’Bannion kept his promises.

Once he’d sent her the list, he’d focus on the story. He’d give it to Stone. His brother was currently between the assignments he did for the magazine he worked for—probably because he didn’t want to leave the country while their mother was still so fragile. Whatever Stone’s reasons for remaining local, he was available to write the story of Tala’s murder.

And importantly, Stone was one of the few people Marcus trusted with all of the details. He’d make sure that Stone omitted the facts Scarlett had requested, but his brother was a hell of an investigator. Marcus had a better chance of finding Tala’s family with Stone’s help.

He picked up his phone and speed-dialed Stone’s cell. Not surprisingly, Stone answered on the first ring. His brother didn’t sleep any more than Marcus did.

“What’s up?” Stone asked, the television in the background going mute.

“I have a story I need you to cover.”

“Where? When?”

“Now. Here in the office. On your way, can you stop by my place and pick me up some clean clothes?” He didn’t want to be seen going into his apartment wearing bloody jeans. “And walk BB for me?” He shifted, the bruise on his back a reminder. “And get the Kevlar vest from my bureau drawer. Should be second from the bottom.”

Stone was quiet for a moment. “Um . . . why?”

“I’ll tell you when you get here.” He brought up the threat list on his computer and sighed. “You should wear a vest, too. Just to be safe.”

Another pause. “Safe from what?”

“I’ll tell you when you get here,” he repeated. “Thanks,” he added, and hung up before Stone could ask any more questions.

Marcus skimmed Gayle’s list, his eyes going a little blurry, his lack of sleep starting to catch up with him. Coffee, stat. His brain needed to be alert so that he could catch all the threats he didn’t want Scarlett or Deacon to see. If they saw certain information on this list, they were smart enough to put two and two together and realize he was doing far more than reporting the news. He didn’t want to leave any bread crumbs leading back to him or his core staff, the handful of men and women he’d trusted enough to bring into his real business—the real reason he’d kept this newspaper alive for years after it should have died a natural death, like most other city dailies across the country.

He had a feeling Scarlett would respect his real business on a conceptual level. She might not agree with his tactics, however, and her disapproval could risk the livelihood—and the freedom—of the people who trusted him as much as he trusted them.

Unfortunately, not one of those trusted people was here to make the damn coffee. He pushed to his feet to make it himself so that he could focus on keeping his promises.

Cincinnati, Ohio

Tuesday, August 4, 4:45 a.m.

That Marcus had another gun was a given in Scarlett’s mind, and the fact of it had gnawed at her all the way home from the crime scene. He’d handed over his knife and his backup pistol, but not his main gun. What else was he hiding? And why?

He makes his living with the news. That explained it all. The press was made up of a bunch of slippery weasels, lying as easily as they breathed, always angling for the big story. She’d never met a newsman or – woman who cared who they hurt. Still she found herself hoping that Marcus was different. That he was the hero she wanted him to be.

You’re setting yourself up for a major disappointment. More than likely he would run Tala’s story, then go on to the next, never looking back.

Scarlett downshifted as she turned onto the narrow road that ended in front of her house, creating a T with her street. The downside of living at the top of one of the city’s steepest hills was that skilled driving and a four-wheel-drive vehicle were required to make it to the top during the winter. But snow and ice were months away, and her little Audi, while rather elderly, was more than ready to take on the climb.

On those rare blizzardy days, she drove her ancient Land Cruiser. Twenty-five years old and affectionately called “the Tank” by her and her brothers, it had been bequeathed to Scarlett by their late grandpa Al. Too big to fit in her garage, it sat in her driveway most of the year, unused. It was a pain in the ass to park anywhere in the city, and gas mileage was practically zero, but it had plowed straight through six-foot drifts in the past, and Scarlett planned to keep it for another twenty-five years. Being unaffected by even the worst weather left her free to fully enjoy the benefits of living at the top of the hill—the most obvious being the killer views of both the city and the river from her upstairs windows.

That those upstairs windows enabled her to see anyone approaching by car or foot was an advantage that hadn’t originally attracted her to the house, but had become something on which she relied. Being able to identify who’d come calling gave her time to transform herself into whichever Scarlett Bishop she needed to be by the time she answered the door—calm, loving, patient Scarlett Anne for her mother, professional not-about-to-lose-it Detective Bishop for her father, just-one-of-the-guys Scar for her brothers, or let’s-drink-wine-and-gossip Scarlett for any of the very small circle of girlfriends she’d trusted with her address.

Her mother, of course, presented the most critical challenge. Scarlett had to find a way to hide the aggression and violence that churned within her, shoving it down deep so that she could maintain the calm, collected persona she’d adopted for her mom for nearly a decade. Seeing who her daughter had truly become would break her mother’s heart, and Scarlett would walk over hot coals before she allowed that to happen. Jackie Bishop had suffered enough loss already. Scarlett would be damned before she added to her mother’s pain.

Greeting her father required the same burying of her aggression and rage, but for a very different reason. Her dad, a decorated Cincinnati PD cop, would report her state of mind to her superiors, getting her grounded so fast her head would spin. It would kill him to do it, but he would without hesitation. To protect me from myself. Because I’m not strong enough for the job. Her father had once said that she wasn’t tough enough to survive the stresses of the police force. That she was too emotional, her heart too tender.

So she’d spent the last ten years proving him wrong.

Only to realize that he was right. She was too emotional. She’d been too angry for too long. She was a powder keg ready to blow, a danger to herself and others. Which made her unfit to serve. She knew this, but she didn’t know any other life. So she protected the one she’d built.

Unfortunately, her entire family was very perceptive, so Scarlett had spent the last ten years hiding her true self without completely disengaging. It was an exhausting tightrope to walk. But her brother Phin had broken relations with them all, and it was killing her parents, so Scarlett walked the line.

She was a good daughter. A good sister. The favorite auntie. She was even relearning to be a good friend.

Deacon’s sister, Dani, and his fiancée, Faith, had drawn Scarlett into their circle of friends. Dani was a doctor and Faith a psychologist, and both women saw too much. Spending time with them would have been threatening enough, but their circle also included Meredith Fallon, another shrink—one of the most perceptive Scarlett had ever known.

Girls’ nights were difficult, because they required Scarlett to share confidences and have actual fun while keeping up her guard. Her fledgling friendships with these women often felt like a minefield, but she had not been able to make herself back away. It had been ten long years since she’d had a true friend. Her heart seemed to soak it up, like rain falling on parched earth. She had a sudden urge to call them now and tell them that Marcus had called her tonight.

But I won’t, of course. She’d kept her obsession with Marcus O’Bannion to herself for nine long months. That he’d called tonight meant nothing without that context. It only means something if he’s been obsessing about me, too. That the thought made her heart beat faster was pathetic. If he’d been interested, he would have done something about it. He would have called.

But he did call.

Scarlett frowned. Tonight’s call didn’t count. Tonight’s call was about helping Tala. If he’d been interested at all in me, he would have called months ago.

Like you called him? the little voice in her mind asked sarcastically.

“Shut up,” she muttered aloud. But it was true. She could have called him at any time over the last nine months. Why hadn’t she?

Because you’re scared.

Not entirely true. “I’m cautious,” she said, intending it to come out firmly, but she could hear the defensiveness in her own voice. So? So what? “Anyone would be under the circum—”

Halfway up the hill her thoughts scattered, a weary groan escaping her lips. Another advantage to living on a steep hill was being able to see her own driveway as she approached. It should hold only the Tank, but right now it didn’t. The sleek black Jag parked next to her battered old Land Cruiser filled her with a guilty dread. What the hell was he doing here anyway? It wasn’t even dawn.

Like you don’t know. Why does he ever come by? And how many times would she have to tell him that it was over before he stopped? She sighed heavily. She didn’t want to deal with Bryan right now. It had been a long, long time since she’d wanted to deal with Bryan.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t hide behind her window curtains this time. You’re going to have to talk to him.

The last few times Bryan had stopped by uninvited in the middle of the night, she’d been home. Which he hadn’t known because, after spying his Jag struggling up the hill, she’d decided against coming to the door. Having no energy to rehash the same arguments again, she’d gone back to bed and pulled the covers over her head, leaving him to sit in the driveway.

The first time he’d stayed only a few minutes. But the periods of waiting had grown longer each time. Three nights ago he’d arrived a little after two a.m. and stayed almost an hour, getting out of his car at the end to pound on her door, demanding she let him in. She hadn’t fooled him. He’d known she was home. She’d been halfway down the stairs when her neighbor opened her window and shouted that she’d call the cops if Bryan didn’t stop making such a racket. A minute later his engine had roared and he’d sped away, making Scarlett feel like a worm.

You are a coward, Scarlett. It was true. She’d rather deal with a psycho killer hopped up on meth than hurt the feelings of an old friend.

She made it to the top of the hill and parked behind her Land Cruiser, careful not to block the Jag’s exit. She didn’t want to give him any excuse to linger. She got out of her car and quietly closed the door. Her neighbor still had amazing hearing despite being eighty-five years old. Not only would Mrs. Pepper wake up, but the little old lady would make sure to catch every word. By dawn’s early light, the entire neighborhood would know. Her neighbors were good people, but nosy as hell. And everyone would have advice.

Still in his car, Bryan pointed at her front door, but she shook her head. The last time she let him in “just for coffee,” he’d refused to leave. It had been super-awkward.

Bryan got out of the Jag, slamming his door hard enough to make Scarlett’s teeth clench. Staying on his side of the car, he glared at her over the car’s low roof. “Where have you—,” he started, way too loudly.

“Sshh!” Scarlett pointed to the surrounding houses, all of the windows still dark. “Do you mind?” she whispered fiercely. “You’ll wake the whole neighborhood.”

He blew out a frustrated breath. “I’m sorry,” he whispered back. “I was just worried.”

No, she thought. You are just horny. Just like every other time he stopped by. If he was here, it meant that he was “between relationships,” as he termed it, but Scarlett knew better.

Bryan Richardson was a total womanizer, moving from woman to woman with ease. He made no promises, so he told no lies. Most people thought he should have settled down long before now, but most people didn’t know what Bryan had been through.

Scarlett knew, though. Because she’d gone through it right along with him. Their shared nightmare had fused them in a way that was utterly unhealthy, creating an on-again, off-again thing they’d had since college. Friends with benefits. A way to take off the edge when her physical need began to cloud her rational mind. Someone to turn to when the loneliness grew too big to bear.

That Bryan would never be her happily-ever-after any more than she would be his had never bothered Scarlett at all. Not until nine months ago, when she’d heard Marcus O’Bannion’s voice for the first time, when she’d stood at his bedside in the hospital, watching him fight for his life after he’d been shot while saving the life of a woman he’d never seen before.

Why? she’d asked Marcus then.

Because it was the right thing to do, he’d whispered back.

It had changed everything. And nothing at all. She was still alone and might always be. But now what she had—or had never had—with Bryan bothered her a great deal. She’d told him that they were done, that he needed to find another port in the storm, but obviously not firmly enough.

End this now. For both of your sakes.

“I’m a cop, Bryan,” she said quietly. “Just like I’ve been for the past ten years. You’ve never worried about me in the past.”

He slowly walked around the Jag, coming to a stop an uncomfortable six inches from where she stood. “I’ve worried about you every day of my life since the day I met you, but I didn’t think you’d be too happy to hear it, so I kept it to myself,” he said, his voice carrying a thread of tension that went beyond sexual frustration.

Something was wrong. But then again, something was always wrong with Bryan. He had issues. Jagged scars, deep inside where no one could see. As do I. Their shared issues had been the glue that had held their relationship together. But the glue had lost some of its stick.

“So why tell me tonight?” she asked.

He lifted his hand to stroke her cheek, but she flinched, shifting so that he touched only air. His hand dropped to his side and his mouth curved bitterly. “Because I feel you moving away from me and I don’t know why. It’s been almost a year since we—”

“Hooked up,” Scarlett said flatly, because that was all it had been. “And it’s been more than a year. It’s been eighteen months.” His confused frown made her sigh. “The last time was before Julie,” she supplied dryly.

“Oh, yeah.” His lips curved, but his eyes remained oddly distant. “We had a good run, Julie and I.” His slight smile faded. “When it was over I came to you, but you said you weren’t in the mood.”

That had been a month after she’d met Marcus. “No, what I said was that I didn’t want to hook up anymore.” Her cheeks heated at the memory of the times she’d given in and had casual sex with him. At how little she’d expected for herself. At how very reckless she’d been. “I still don’t, Bryan.”

Scarlett had turned him away that night and all the other nights he’d shown up at her door thereafter. When Bryan had tried to cajole her into changing her mind, all she could hear was Marcus’s deep voice in her mind. Because it was the right thing to do.

Bryan’s gaze dropped abruptly, then winged back up a moment later, troubled. Wounded. “Did I do something wrong? Something to hurt you?”

Pity pricked at her heart. “No, Bryan. You haven’t done anything wrong and you haven’t hurt me. You’re exactly who you’ve always been.”

His tension draining away, he leaned in far enough to press his face into the curve of her shoulder while taking care to touch her nowhere else. He breathed in deeply, drawing in her scent. “Then let’s go upstairs,” he whispered. “I need you tonight. It’s been too long.”

She took a step back, coming up short when her ass hit her car door. Bryan remained frozen in place, his back bent, his shoulders hunched.

“I’m sorry, Bryan,” she whispered. “I can’t. I’ve told you this, over and over.”

“Can’t or won’t?” he asked harshly.

“Either. Both.”

“Why?” he asked, his whisper barely audible.

“Because even though you haven’t changed, I have.”

He exhaled, dropped his chin to his chest. “Is there someone else?”

“No,” she said honestly. Not yet. Maybe not ever. She drew a deep breath. “But maybe I want there to be.”

He looked up then, eyes narrowed. “But that isn’t me.”

“No.” She smiled to soften her words. “We both know that you’re not forever material.”

“True,” he murmured. That it hadn’t even seemed to occur to him to deny it made her want to cry. He straightened slowly, studying her. “Are you forever material?”

Tears rose to burn her eyes because she knew exactly what he was asking. Was she even capable of being some guy’s happily-ever-after? Importantly, could she be Marcus’s happily-ever-after? “I don’t know. I’m just as messed up as you are.”

He was quiet for a long moment, and she instinctively knew he was thinking about that day, that horrible, horrible day. The day that had changed their lives so irrevocably. It might as well have been yesterday, the memory was so vividly clear. So much blood. In all the years she’d been a cop, she’d never yet seen another crime scene with so much blood.

She blinked, startled out of the memory by the feeling of soft fabric touching her face. Bryan held a cotton handkerchief and was using it to dry her wet cheeks. The tears in her eyes had spilled without her realizing it.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

She made herself smile. “For what?”

“For not being forever material. I wish I could be. But I can’t. Not even for you.”

Touched, she cupped his cheek. “Maybe when you meet the right person it’ll seem easy.”

Again his eyes narrowed, this time in discovery. “You’ve met that person.” He crossed his arms over his chest, going from wistful to menacing in a heartbeat. “Did he hurt you?”

“No. It’s not like that. He’s just . . .” She sighed. “He doesn’t know.”

“Then he’s blind and stupid,” Bryan declared, and the wicked gleam she knew so well was back in his eyes. “I could help you forget him,” he suggested slyly.

Scarlett shook her head, more than a little glad that the moment was over. “I appreciate your offer to make the sacrifice,” she said. “But the answer is still no.”

“Coffee, then?” he said.

“Sorry, not now. I have a body on its way to the morgue.”

He frowned, lightly lifting the thin strap of her tank top with his pinkie before letting it snap back against her shoulder. “You dress like this while you’re on duty?”

Her cheeks heated. It was on the skimpy side as tank tops went, baring her shoulders and hugging her curves. Neither her top nor her low-riding jeans were the proper attire of a law-enforcement professional. But I didn’t get dressed for work. She’d dressed for Marcus. She thought now about the way his dark eyes had followed her as she’d processed the crime scene. He’d noticed.

“I have a jacket in the car.” A jacket she’d deliberately left off at the crime scene.

Bryan’s frown didn’t falter. “I thought you were off duty today.”

Scarlett blinked, then set her jaw. “How did you know that?”

“I called your mother last night and asked her,” he said unapologetically.

“You asked my mother?” she asked, incredulous at first, then resigned. Her mother had always had a soft spot for Bryan. “How did my mother know?”

“She asked your father.”

Scarlett sighed. “And of course he knew.” Her father knew nearly everything that went on in CPD, especially when it concerned the three of his seven children who’d followed in his footsteps to join the force. She tilted her head to one side, studying Bryan’s face in the harsh glare of the streetlights. “Why did you call my mom looking for me, Bryan?”

His shrug was careless. “You’d been pushing me away. And I was . . . lonely.”

“What about Sylvia?”

“Ancient history. We broke up six months ago. Kathy followed Syl, and then there was Wendy.”

“What happened to Wendy?”

A one-shouldered shrug. “We broke up two weeks ago.”

Scarlett lifted an eyebrow. This was the Bryan she’d known since their freshman year of college. His slew of recent visits now made sense. Had he and Wendy still been a thing, he would not be standing in Scarlett’s driveway. “So you came to me,” she said.

At least he had the good grace to look ashamed. For a second anyway. Then he lifted his chin, his jaw taut. “I came by a few other times last week, but you weren’t home.”

The accusing way he said it made her wonder if he knew she really had been home those times, too. It made her wonder how he’d known she was home the last time, when he’d banged on her front door with his fists. Because she didn’t want to admit she’d been hiding under her bedcovers, she didn’t ask that question. “I work odd hours, Bryan. You know this.”

He gave her a pointed look. “I also know when your car is parked in your garage. It smells like dirty socks.”

She let out a breath. Damn diesel fuel. “I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t want to hurt you.”

“Well, I’m about to hurt you,” he said flatly. “So brace yourself. I saw Trent Bracken downtown last week, eating lunch with the senior partner of Langston and Vollmer.”

Scarlett flinched, feeling like she’d been physically slapped. Then the fury hit, and she had to take a deep breath to keep it contained. Trent Bracken should be on death row, not lunching with the most powerful law firm in town. “Why?” she asked hoarsely.

Bryan’s mouth twisted. “Because they just brought him in as a junior partner. His win record in the courtroom is ‘legendary.’ That was the word the partners used in the memo they sent out to everybody in the firm.”

“Fucking bastards.” Scarlett had to take another breath, this one to keep from throwing up. “They’d hire a murderer?”

“They would and they did,” Bryan said bitterly. “They said his ‘horrific experience with the justice system’ had given him a passion for ‘defending the rights of the innocent.’”

Scarlett’s knees wobbled, and she leaned against her car for support. “The innocent,” she whispered. “Michelle was innocent. Don’t they care that he killed her?” Huffing a bitter laugh, she answered her own question. “Of course they don’t. They’re just like the animals who got Bracken off in the first place.” Defense attorneys looking for any possible loophole, not caring that they pushed a killer back on the streets. “Of course they’d hire scum like him. They are scum like him.”

“I thought you should know in case you met him in court. I didn’t want you blindsided.”

New tears had risen to burn her eyes, and she blinked them away. “So that’s why you’ve been coming to see me? To tell me about Bracken?”

He nodded, then shrugged. “And for sex,” he admitted.

Her chuckle was unsteady at best. “Hell, Bryan. Go home and get some rest. Maybe you’ll meet someone new tomorrow.”

“Maybe,” he said sadly. “Who is he, Scarlett? At least tell me that.”

She frowned, still in enough shock over Bracken’s new mockery of justice that it took her a second to process Bryan’s question. Oh, she thought, and then the memory of Marcus’s voice was filling her mind, soothing the frayed edges.

She wasn’t willing to tell anyone yet. Not when it could, quite literally, be all in her mind. “There isn’t a ‘he.’ Not until one of us makes a move. Assuming one of us ever does.”

“If he’s not dead, he’ll make a move,” Bryan predicted grimly, then turned and walked back to his car. “I guess I’ll see you . . . when I see you. Next month for sure.”

Scarlett nodded, still feeling sick. “For sure.” When Michelle’s friends would gather by her grave on the anniversary of her death and remember the woman whose loss had scarred them all. She stepped out of the way as he slammed the door of his Jag and revved the engine loud enough to wake everyone on the street. Peeling out of her driveway with a squeal of tires, he set off down the hill at a speed far too high to be safe. Scarlett might have whispered a prayer for his safety . . . if she still believed in prayer. Which she had not since the moment she’d found Michelle’s body in that alley, covered in blood.

The thought of bodies and alleys jerked her out of the past. Tala. Michelle had never gotten her justice, but Tala sure as hell would. Digging deep for the anger that had kept her going for ten long years, Scarlett straightened her spine, marched up her front steps, unlocked the door, and stepped inside. As she locked the door behind her, the sob she’d been holding back barreled up from her gut like a tornado, stealing her breath. Slumping against the foyer wall, she slid to the floor, burying her face against her bent knees as she rocked herself for comfort, her keening cries echoing in the empty space.

The uneven patter of claws on her newly laid hardwood floor cut through her tears, giving her a moment’s warning before a sandpapery tongue licked her cheek. Choking on a wet laugh, she threw her arm around the three-legged bulldog whose life she’d saved the day she’d brought him home from the shelter. “Hey, Zat,” she whispered, still surprised at how quickly he’d wormed his way into her heart.

She sat there with the dog for several minutes, then pushed herself to her feet and climbed the stairs to the one bathroom she’d finished remodeling. A shower, clean clothes, and some coffee, and she’d be ready to start searching for Tala’s identity. And her killer.

That the search might include more interactions with Marcus O’Bannion shouldn’t seem like a silver lining, but it did. “And who knows,” she murmured as she turned on the shower. “Maybe I’ll be the one to make the first move.”

Chapter Three

Cincinnati, Ohio

Tuesday, August 4, 5:15 a.m.

“You’re here awful early, boss.”

Shock had Marcus jerking his gaze from his laptop to frown at the woman who leaned against his office doorframe, looking sleep-rumpled, her curly hair all over the place and her clothes crushed and wrinkled.

Jill Ennis was not supposed to be here by herself. She was not one of his trusted staff. Not yet. And maybe not ever.

She’d never done anything overtly untrustworthy, and her work was impeccable, but she gave off an odd vibe that made Marcus uncomfortable, though he wasn’t sure why. He would have fired her months ago, except that she was Gayle’s niece, which put him in one hell of a bind. Jill’s parents had died five years before, and she’d moved in with Gayle. She had graduated from high school a year ago and Gayle had asked Marcus if he would give her a job while the girl decided what to do with her life.

Marcus had never been able to deny Gayle anything, so he’d said yes. Jill had been tasked with updating their Web site, and she did good work. But recently she’d started college and had taken to coming in after hours to finish her work on the site, often having to be almost kicked out when the others went home at two a.m., when the paper went to press.

“Why are you here?” he asked, wondering what Jill had overheard.

“I was working on an ad layout for a new client and couldn’t get it quite right. I fell asleep at my desk. I dreamed someone was cursing, then woke up and realized it was you. What’s going on?”

Ignoring her question, Marcus refocused his attention on the list of threats that filled his computer screen. The last time he’d seen the list was more than nine months ago, and it was far longer than he remembered—with too many totally capable of taking a shot at him. Or at someone standing next to him. He couldn’t give this entire list to Scarlett Bishop. She was smart enough to see patterns. To figure out that he was doing a lot more than simply publishing the news.

“You wouldn’t keep falling asleep at your desk if you weren’t burning the candle at both ends,” he grumbled. “I pay you well enough that you shouldn’t need to go to school after working here all day.”

“You pay me far too well,” Jill said mildly. “That’s never been an issue.”

He looked up from the list. “Then what is the issue? Why are you killing yourself like this? You know I don’t care about any stinkin’ degrees.”

Her lips curved, but it was nowhere close to a smile. “You don’t really want to know the answer to that question, Marcus.”

Startled at the anger behind her words, Marcus shoved his own irritation back down, made his voice civil. “Try me.”

“Okay, fine.” Jill crossed her arms loosely over her chest and gave him a look that reminded him of Gayle when she’d scolded them as children.

“Your aunt could freeze me with that look when I was a kid,” he commented, leaning back in his chair, wondering what could have put that expression on Jill’s face.

“I know. She said that Stone was always able to charm her out of it and into giving him cookies, but that you would always confess whatever misdeed you’d done.”

“That’s pretty accurate,” he said. Of course, there was one childhood “misdeed” that Marcus had never confessed to Gayle or to anyone else, partly because he was ashamed. Partly because he was worried about the impact the truth would have on his mother and Stone. But mostly because he’d been only eight years old at the time, a traumatized little boy in a situation no child should ever have to face.

He hadn’t needed to confess to Gayle. She’d seen the whole thing and had kept his secret for the past twenty-seven years. Her love and care had ensured that his eight-year-old self hadn’t fallen into the abyss that called to his adult self. He sat here today because Gayle had never given up on him.

Now he faced her furious niece calmly. “But I’m not a kid, Jill, and you’re not Gayle. I’m your boss.” He let the sentence hang, hoping to see some respect in her eyes. When she continued the staring contest, he sharpened his tone. “Why don’t you tell me exactly what it is that I don’t want to know?”

Jill squared her shoulders. “You’re looking at the threat list. Why?”

Marcus stiffened in shock, the anger he’d been controlling for hours suddenly collapsing into an icy ball in his gut. How had she known that? He hadn’t trusted her with the true mission of the paper, so he’d kept her access to sensitive information to a minimum. “How do you even know that such a list exists?” he asked quietly.

“My aunt told me.”

Impossible. “No, she didn’t tell you. I’m sure of that.”

Gayle was the only person Marcus would ever have trusted with the task of cataloging the threats to his life. She would never have told anyone outside their specific small circle.

“Okay, fine. Aunt Gayle didn’t tell me. I hacked into her computer and figured it out for myself.” Her jaw jutted out, her gaze daring him to condemn her.

The hairs lifted on the back of his neck. Something was very wrong here. And considering he’d just witnessed a seventeen-year-old girl being gunned down in front of him, that was saying something. Jill’s mild manner a few minutes before had been a facade. She was furious with him. He wondered how long she’d carried her rage.

“When?” he asked.

“The day Mikhail died.”

“Was murdered,” Marcus corrected, his words clipped. “Mikhail was murdered.”

“Fine.” Her tone was as cold as his. “The day Mikhail was murdered, I came into the office and found Aunt Gayle pale as a ghost, clutching her chest. It was her heart.”

Marcus sat straight up in his chair, his bruised back protesting the movement. But he barely felt the pain because panic had gripped him. “What? Gayle had a heart attack?”

“Yeah. A ‘little one.’ Not that she’d ever admit it to any of you,” she added bitterly.

Marcus closed his eyes. Gayle hadn’t come to see him in the hospital the first week. He hadn’t seen her until Mikhail’s funeral. He hadn’t asked why because he’d figured she’d been grieving, too. She’d raised Mikhail from infancy. His murder must have cut her in two. But he’d never suspected, never even thought that she could have . . .

“Gayle had a heart attack,” he whispered, unable to find any other words.

“I believe that’s what I just told you.” Jill blew out an annoyed breath. “This is where you’re supposed to say, ‘Why didn’t she tell me?’”

He opened his eyes, met her angry gaze. Figured that on some level he deserved it. “I don’t have to ask. I already know why. Gayle puts everyone else’s needs first. She always has. If you think I don’t know that, you’re wrong. And if you wanted me to feel guilty for not knowing she’d been sick, for expecting her to come in and work in the office afterward, then you hit the jackpot. I knew she’d be devastated by Mickey’s murder, but I never once suspected it had pushed her heart over the edge.”

“It wasn’t Mickey’s death that pushed her over the edge. She hadn’t even heard about that yet. It was you, Marcus.”

His eyebrows shot up. “Me? She heard I’d been shot, and that caused her attack?”

“No. She had her heart attack that morning, hours before you were shot. I found her clutching her chest with one hand and a piece of paper with the other. I called 911 as soon as I realized what was happening, told her to try to relax, to be still, but while I was on the phone with the operator, she closed the document she was working on and hid the piece of paper she’d been holding. All while she was gasping for breath.”

He could see it happening, which just made him feel even worse. “So you wanted to see what she’d been working on that got her so upset. I guess I can understand that. I take it that she’d been updating this threat list.” He glanced at the screen, searching for a threat credible enough, terrible enough to send a fifty-five-year-old woman into heart failure.

“Yeah,” Jill said flatly. “She’d been cataloging the threats to your life, Marcus. For years.”

“I know. I asked her to.”

“I figured you must have. That’s why I’m angry with you.”

“I suppose that’s fair.” Because he was now angry with himself. “I shouldn’t have put that responsibility on her shoulders.”

Jill’s glare could slice through steel. “No, Marcus, you really shouldn’t have. Aunt Gayle is too old to be worrying about you.”

Marcus frowned. “Wait just a minute. Gayle isn’t old. I agree that she doesn’t need to be worrying about me, but she’s only fifty-five. She’s always been healthy.”

“Not anymore, she’s not.”

New panic slithered down his spine. “Just how bad was this heart attack?”

“Bad enough. The doctor told her that she should be retiring soon.”

“She only has to ask. She knows I’ll take care of her.” He heard a note of desperation in his own voice, but he didn’t care. Gayle was family, his second mother since he was old enough to remember. “A house in Florida, a nurse to live with her . . . Whatever she wants.”

New ire sparked in Jill’s eyes. “She won’t retire. She’s too devoted to you and your family. And now that Mickey’s gone, she doesn’t feel like she can leave your mother.”

“Then I’ll tell her that she’s retiring.”

“No. You’re not supposed to know, and if Gayle finds out that I told you, she’ll be angry with me.”

Frustrated, Marcus looked back at his screen. “She didn’t log anything on that day, and none of the threats since then have been serious enough to worry about. Certainly nothing so dire that she had a heart attack. Did you find the paper she was holding?”

“No.”

“And she never mentioned it? If it was so terrifying that it caused her heart to jump its track, I would have thought she would have warned me at least.”

Jill shrugged. “Maybe in all the chaos of Mickey’s funeral and your hospitalization, she forgot.”

“She wouldn’t just forget. Not something like that.”

Another icy glare. “What part of heart attack didn’t you hear, Marcus? Heaven forbid that she think about something besides you and your precious family for once—like her health.”

The temptation to snap that he was still Jill’s boss burned on the tip of his tongue, but he bit it back. Because she was right. He swallowed hard. “How long was she in the hospital?”

“Four days.”

Three of those days he’d been in ICU. “Where?”

“Luckily not at County. With you and Stone ending up there, it would have been difficult to keep the news of Mikhail’s murder from her. When I heard what happened to Mickey, hell, what happened to all of you . . .”

“You were afraid that she’d have another heart attack.”

“Yeah, and her doctor agreed. We were able to keep her away from the news—not an easy feat with Aunt Gayle. I broke it to her three days later, with her doctor present. By then Stone was okay and you were at least out of ICU. I could assure her that you two were going to be all right, so that it wasn’t all bad news.”

“She loved Mikhail,” Marcus murmured.

“I know,” Jill said, her tone softer. “She was devastated when I told her. But her heart didn’t fail again, so I was relieved.”

“Didn’t she wonder why we didn’t come to visit her in those first few days?”

Jill’s tone hardened again. “No. She didn’t want me to tell any of you that she was ill. She made me promise to tell your mother that she’d taken a little vacation. But by the time she was stabilized, I’d gotten the news about Mikhail’s murder and that you and Stone were hurt, so I didn’t say anything to anyone. Nobody even asked where she was.”

“My mother did.” The words came out in an accusatory tone, which was okay, because Marcus was now pissed off with Jill and to some extent with Gayle, too.

Gayle had mothered him when his own mother had fallen into such a deep depression that she hadn’t been able to care for him and Stone herself. It was Gayle who’d put Band-Aids on his skinned knees and elbows, helping him with his homework and teaching him to ride a bike.

And when he was eight years old, it was Gayle who’d sat beside his bed night after night when the nightmares would wake him up—men with cold eyes and big guns, the terrified sobs of his brothers, the gunshots that somehow sounded even louder than they’d actually been. He’d woken scared and screaming for months and months to find Gayle sitting beside him, crooning soft promises of safety. Until he’d told her he’d grown out of the dreams. In reality, he’d just learned how to lie quietly in his bed, pretending to sleep. But he’d always had the assurance that if he called out to her, she would come.

She’d been there for him for almost as long as he could remember. But he hadn’t been there when she’d needed him. He’d been in the hospital, true, but Gayle hadn’t known that. She had denied him the opportunity to take care of her, and that stung. But he was far more upset on his mother’s behalf than his own.

“My mother called her phone, looking for her,” he added harshly. “When Gayle didn’t answer, Mother sent someone to her house to find her, but there was no one home.”

Jill’s chin lifted, her lips pursed thin. “Sorry, but that wasn’t my problem. Your mother had lots of people waiting on her hand and foot. She didn’t need Aunt Gayle fetching and carrying for her, too.”

Wow. This—Jill’s contempt for his family—was the bad vibe he’d felt all along.

“My mother didn’t try to find her because she needed her to fetch and carry,” he said evenly. “She did it because she didn’t want Gayle to hear about Mikhail on the news. From a stranger. She was worried, because Gayle had simply vanished. Because Gayle is her friend, despite what you seem to think.”

Jill glared at him a moment longer, then looked away, her jaw still squared and angry. “I’m sorry,” she said stiffly. “I was trying to do right by my aunt. Working for your family has required her to sacrifice her own needs and wants too many times. Certainly more than you all deserv—” She drew a deep breath. “More than she should have,” she amended.

More than we deserved? Marcus had never looked at it like that before. Gayle had always been there. She’d never complained, never behaved like it was a burden or a sacrifice, and he’d never questioned her presence or her motivation. She loved them. That was all he’d needed to know. But now he wondered . . .

Shit. I do not need this right now. He’d promised Scarlett Bishop the list of the people who’d made threats on his life. He owed it to Tala to find out who she’d been and where she’d been living, because despite what Deacon and Scarlett had theorized—and everything he’d just learned about his threat list—he still didn’t believe the shooter had been targeting him.

The man and his wife, they own us. Discovering where Tala had lived would likely lead to her killer. Help. Malaya. Malaya. Freedom. She’d feared for her family. Marcus hoped it wasn’t already too late to save them.

But this thing with Jill, this simmering contempt, it was important, too. The young woman obviously did not like him or his family, which made Marcus wonder why she’d wanted to work for him to begin with. Which made him remember how all this had begun.

Jill had known about the threat list.

“How did you know I was looking at the threat list, Jill?”

She blinked at the subject change, surprise displacing the anger in her eyes for the briefest of moments. But the surprise was quickly quashed and the anger was back. Anger and defiance . . . and fear. She was afraid of him. Yet she stood steadfast, her body language that of a soldier prepared to defend to the death.

What the hell? What the hell did she think he was going to do to her? What did she think they’d done to Gayle all these years?

“I put an alarm on the file,” she said. “Whenever anyone opens it, I get an alert sent right to my phone. The buzz from the alert woke me up.”

He regarded her cautiously. “You’re handier with a computer than you let on when I hired you.” It made him wonder what else she’d seen in the year she’d worked for him.

She shrugged. “I wasn’t expecting you to access the file, if that makes you feel better. I was watching over my aunt. She had a heart attack when she was looking at that file. She hasn’t had any issues since, but if she did, I needed to know. I caught the first heart attack in time out of sheer luck. I can’t count on being that lucky twice.”

That made a certain kind of sense. “I guess I can respect your reason.”

Her lip curled in a slight sneer. “But?”

But . . . he didn’t believe her. She was too quiet. Too careful. She’d had access to Gayle’s files for nine months.

And if she’s seen too much?

Gayle’s niece could be a real problem.

Offering to pay her to keep her silence didn’t seem like the best of ideas. He already paid her far more than the going rate for graphic designers.

You pay me too well. That’s never been the issue.

So they were back to why she burned the candle at both ends, working for him all day and taking classes for her degree at night. Then sometimes, like tonight, coming back to work through the night, just to make a deadline. Why?

“But,” he said, “I now realize that there is much I don’t know about you.”

She rolled her eyes. “Jeez. Y’think?”

He ignored her sarcasm. “I asked you why you were killing yourself for a degree and you answered by asking me why I was looking at the threat list. I don’t get the connection.”

“No, I don’t suppose you do. Why did you ask my aunt to catalog the threats?”

He was getting tired of her answering his questions with her own. “I needed to keep track of them.”

“That’s not a good enough reason.”

“It’s all the reason I feel compelled to give you,” he said. “I am your boss, after all.”

“Yes, you are. For now.”

He lifted a brow. “You plan to quit?”

Anger flashed in her eyes once again. “No, boss. I plan to have to find a new job when you’re murdered by one of the many people you’ve pissed off, and most employers do care about ‘stinkin’ degrees.’”

Ah. The pieces fell into place, relief settling over him. “You’re worried someone on that list will kill me.”

“So are you,” she challenged. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be here looking at it and cursing. Here.” She tossed him a flash drive. “The most recent, complete list.”

Reflex had him reaching out to catch the small drive, the movement sending a spear of pain through the bruise on his back.

Her eyes narrowed at the grimace he hadn’t been able to control. “Somebody got to you, didn’t they?” she asked. “You’re hurt.”

Fuck. “I’m not hurt. What do you mean, this is the most complete list?” He pointed at his screen. “This one isn’t complete?”

“No. The file you’re looking at is stored on the Ledger’s server. That’s the one that Aunt Gayle works on. She believes it’s complete, for what it’s worth.”

Marcus rubbed his eyes. “What have you done, Jill?” he asked, suddenly exhausted.

“I’ve been intercepting the mail for the past nine months. Any letter that’s just a garden-variety-I-hate-your-guts-and-you-need-to-die, I let go through. Aunt Gayle logs it in. The really vicious ones, I move to that flash drive so she doesn’t see.”

His head was starting to throb. “Why?”

“Because she loves you too much to be reading all that vitriol. It terrifies her that people want to kill you. I love her too much to let her sacrifice her health, so I took . . . liberties.”

“What other liberties have you taken?”

“I pay the bills and sort your mail.”

Both things Gayle was supposed to do. That didn’t sound like the Gayle he knew. But the Gayle he knew had had a heart attack without telling him, too. “What did you leave for her to do?”

“She keeps your calendar, answers the phones, schedules all those fancy meetings that you hate so much, and tracks the threats against you and your team—minus the ones I remove first, of course.”

“Gayle knows about the duties you’ve taken on?”

“Everything but the threats. She didn’t want to let me do it, but it was the only way I’d allow her to come back to work after her heart attack. She should have stayed home, but she said you needed her here since you were still recuperating from being shot.”

He closed his fist around the flash drive, not sure who he was angriest with—Gayle, for keeping this from him, Jill for aiding and abetting, or himself for being so blind. “I’ve been back for six months. She could have retired or quit or, heaven forbid, even told me the truth. What did she think I’d do? Fire her?” Like that could ever happen. “I’d cut out my own tongue before I’d even raise my voice to her.”

Jill’s lips curved, the small smile seeming genuine. “I know that. That’s why I’ve let this go on so long. She believes that you still need her. That you’re still ‘not yourself’ since Mikhail died. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not. I don’t know. But I do know that Aunt Gayle needs to be needed. And I give her what she needs.”

Marcus found his anger draining away. Jill was right about Gayle. The woman did need to be needed, and he and his family had probably taken advantage of that more times than he wanted to consider over the years, without even realizing it.

Opening his fist, he glanced down at the flash drive before lifting his eyes to Jill’s face. “Gayle always told me about the worst threats, so that I could be prepared,” he said, watching for any sign that Gayle’s niece knew more than she should.

Jill’s head tilted to one side, her eyes narrowing. “So that you could be prepared or so that you could eliminate the threat?”

She didn’t know, Marcus thought. But she suspected, and that was troubling enough. He chilled his tone. “Perhaps you should define ‘eliminate.’”

The pulse fluttered at the base of her throat, the color rising in her cheeks. She was afraid, but she didn’t blink. That could be very good or very, very bad. “You were a Ranger, Marcus. You own every gun known to man, and very few of them are registered.”

How she knew about his Army background and his gun collection would be a question he’d table for later. “Yet you stay.”

She lifted a shoulder. “Like I said before, you pay me well. And Aunt Gayle won’t leave you. I can’t tell her what I think. She won’t believe you are capable of doing any wrong. She thinks you walk on water.”

Because Gayle loved him. Of that, Marcus had never had a single doubt. “You didn’t answer my question, Jill,” he said, letting menace creep into the words. “Define ‘eliminate.’”

She swallowed hard. “I saw the patterns in the threats that came in before I took over. Some were just . . . noise. People spouting off. But others were serious. They got bad, then worse, then . . . they stopped.”

Marcus stared at her as the seconds ticked by. He’d admit to nothing, not until she made an accusation. Finally, she dropped her gaze, focusing on her feet. “Did you kill them?”

He had to admire her guts. “No,” he said quietly. At least he hadn’t killed any of them yet. But he’d been tempted so many times. “I have other means.”

Her swallow was audible this time, and his admiration grew when she lifted her chin, locking stares once again. “Legal means?”

Damn, the girl really did have a spine. He smiled at her, very nearly amused. “Mostly.”

“That’s all you’re going to say?” she asked, her voice rising an octave. “‘Mostly’?”

“That’s all you asked.”

She drew a breath. “All right, if that’s the way the game is played. If you’re caught doing something that falls outside of ‘mostly,’ will my aunt be in trouble with the law?”

He regarded her carefully. “Aren’t you worried about yourself?”

“Of course, but I’m more worried about Aunt Gayle. If she gets arrested . . . Her heart couldn’t take that.”

“You assume Gayle knows about any activities that are less than ‘mostly.’”

“I assume nothing,” she said stiffly. “I know there are parts of Gayle’s hard drive that I couldn’t access. I also know that she has a separate, secret e-mail account that I couldn’t break into. She clearly has something to hide. I just want her safe. And alive.”

That Jill hadn’t been able to hack into their protected, encrypted files made him feel a little better. Unless she was lying to buy his confidence. Always a possibility.

He tossed the flash drive in the air and caught it again. “You said you were worried that one of these threats could be real, that I’d get killed, and that you’d lose your job. But you didn’t think to warn me?”

“No. I figured you couldn’t be too worried. You never checked the file yourself.”

“I thought you didn’t set out to monitor me.”

“I didn’t. It was merely a side benefit. Are . . . Are you going to fire me?”

He probably should. She was too smart and knew a little too much. But he’d keep her close for now so that he could monitor her. “No. You love your aunt, as do I. You acted to protect her. You shouldn’t have needed to. I should have realized I was asking too much of her, long ago. I won’t make that mistake again.”

“Thank you.” Her rigid shoulders relaxed, and she drew a deep breath, as if she were bracing herself. As it turned out, she had been. “So, are you going to tell me what’s in the secret files that my aunt keeps for you?”

He gave her a cutting glance. “Don’t push your luck, kid.”

Her shoulders went rigid again. “You don’t trust me.”

“You’re damn right I don’t.” He pulled an ancient laptop from his desk drawer. This old beast wasn’t connected to any network, so if there were any viruses or Trojans on Jill’s drive, they’d do no damage. “Trust is earned. You haven’t earned mine yet.”

“But I still can?”

“That’s totally up to you.” He powered up the laptop, plugged in the flash drive, then gave her a cold look. “Your initial instincts were good, Jill. I’m not a gentle man. I’m not always a nice man. But I try to do the right thing, and I am loyal to those who have earned my trust and respect. I hired you because Gayle asked me to, but make no mistake—if you fuck with me, being Gayle’s niece won’t help you. Do you understand me?”

She swallowed audibly again. “I understand. Do you plan to tell my aunt?”

“No. But I will find a way to ‘discover’ her heart attack and make sure she takes it easy.” He’d also make sure that he limited Jill’s access to his business. He’d get one of his other staff members—someone he truly trusted—to intercept the mail from now on.

“Thank you,” she said on a shuddered exhale.

“You’re welcome. You should go home, get some rest.” The ancient laptop had finally opened the file on the flash drive, and he shifted his attention from Jill to his screen, dismissing her. The list she’d compiled was several steps up in vitriol compared to the sanitized list Gayle had been keeping, but he saw pretty quickly that none of the threats could plausibly be behind the shooting this morning. He’d choose the ones that were most likely to set Detective Bishop’s mind at ease about him having been the target.

“Why now?” Jill asked.

His head jerked up, his brow furrowing when he saw her still standing in the doorway. “I thought you were going home.”

She crossed the room to stand at the edge of his desk. “Why did you check the list now when you haven’t looked at it for the past nine months?”

He gritted his teeth. “None of your business, Jill. Now go home.”

“It is my business if it affects my aunt,” she insisted. “You came to check the list because you got hurt tonight. I don’t see any blood, so I guess you’ll be okay. But if you think someone on Gayle’s list or on that flash drive is trying to hurt you, they might hurt her, too.”

He met her eyes, held her gaze, made his own as threatening as he could. But even though she trembled, she didn’t stand down. This girl did have courage. Whether she had honor remained to be seen.

Again she swallowed audibly. “Who is Tala? I heard you say her name.”

He started to swear, but hesitated, unsure of what to do. Obviously she’d heard the tape he’d been listening to. He didn’t want to tell her anything, but he knew she would figure it out. Even if he didn’t have Stone write the story of Tala’s murder, some other news source would report it, together with Marcus’s presence at the scene. She’d put two and two together.

He wanted to fire her, but he knew it was too late for that.

The front door to the office suite opened. “Marcus?” Stone called from the lobby.

Jill jerked in surprise, glancing at the clock on the wall. “What’s he doing here?”

“I asked him to come,” Marcus said, and suddenly the solution was clear. “You want to earn my trust?”

Her expression faltered. “Yes,” she said slowly, uncertainly. “How?”

Stone’s heavy footsteps got louder, and then he stopped abruptly in the doorway, filling it easily. He blinked in surprise. “Jill? What are you doing here so early?” He lifted his brows at her appearance. “Or should I say late?” He gave Marcus a questioning look.

“I want Jill to assist you in investigating the story I called you about.”

Stone’s eyes grew huge and displeased. “What the hell?”

Jill’s eyes grew even larger. “Me?”

“Yeah, you. You said you wanted to be trusted. Do you still?”

Her eyes narrowed. Smart girl. “I don’t know.”

Meet the Author

Award-winning, #1 international bestselling author Karen Rose earned her degree in chemical engineering from the University of Maryland. For a number of years, she worked in the engineering field, earning two patents, but she began writing novels when scenes started to fill her mind and her characters would not be silenced. She is the author of the Cincinnati novels which include Alone in the Dark and Closer Than You Think, and the Baltimore novels which include Watch Your Back, Did You Miss Me?, No One Left to Tell, and You Belong to Me.  Since her debut suspense novel, Don’t Tell, was released in July 2003, she has written more than a dozen novels and been translated into twenty-three languages. Her books have placed on the New York Times, the Sunday Times (UK), and Germany’s der Spiegel bestseller lists.

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Alone in the Dark 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
tschnitzler 11 months ago
Karen Rose has such talent. The way she creates each character to be their own and make you feel like you really know this person is amazing. The book is fast-paced, it doesn't drag the reader down with details, and you have enough information from the past to understand the present. Highly recommend.
Judy_F 12 months ago
Karen Rose delivers another edge of your seat story in Alone In The Dark. Homicide Detective Scarlett Bishop loves her job but its beginning to take a toll. She has seen enough of the bad guys getting away with evil that its starting to effect her outlook on life. Former Army Ranger Marcus O’Bannion is skating a fine line with being on the right side of the law. As his job as the head of the local paper he sees crime escalating in his beloved hometown of Cincinnati. With a small group of trusted friends they seek to even the score on the criminals. Marcus recent investigation has him running into Detective Bishop. They met several months ago and neither has forgotten the other. Scarlet needs Marcus’s contacts to help bring a dangerous group of human traffickers to justice. As Marcus and Scarlet dig deeper into this evil world, their previous attraction becomes all consuming. But those that run the operation will stop at nothing to keep their business flourishing. Alone In The Dark is a pulse pounding, explosive read. It will keep you enthralled till the very end. The chemistry between Marcus and Scarlet is smoking hot and emotional. Another plus is characters from the first book in the Cincinnati series are back for another peak into their lives now. Karen Rose is an auto buy for me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I cried: child aduse, violence against women, sex and labor slavery, serial killers, and psychopaths. Great read!
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Sophia-Rose1 More than 1 year ago
I first encountered this author's work when I read this books predecessor in the series. It was this huge, chunk of a book, but it was full of all things good for those who enjoy psychological thriller romances or darker romantic suspenses. It gave me the taste for more and particularly more with the team of good guys I encountered in Closer Than You Think so it was not a hard choice to snap up this next book. It naturally follows the last book and establishes the inter-personal relationships from the last book, but would definitely work out of order or alone. And I do need to give a trigger warning if human trafficking, rape, and torture are troublesome for you that you might want to check out something different. Some things are referenced to past actions, but some are quite in the moment. Alright, so this book picks up several months after the big serial killer case involving Faith, her new-found family, other victims, and the newly established law enforcement team between Cincinnati PD and the local FBI. Deacon (hero from previous book)'s partner, CPD Detective Scarlett Bishop gets a call in the wee hours that she is very much needed. This call isn't from her boss, but from the man that she hasn't been able to get off her mind in six months. Marcus O'Bannion (Faith's relation) had been shot while protecting a total stranger from the serial killer. She was fascinated with him and particularly his voice when she sat in his hospital room in the dark and they talked. Now, he is calling her to help with a situation he encountered. Only when Scarlett arrives, it is too late and now instead of a rescue, they have a homicide on their hands. Marcus owns a newspaper and reporters are an issue for Scarlett. She wants to trust Marcus, but she gave her trust in the past and someone dear to her paid the ultimate price. But he is involved now and his connections and skills might bring justice for their victim. Marcus runs a newspaper he inherited from his grandfather, but the paper shields and is the outward arm of his secret and more rewarding work- gaining safety and justice for victims and survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. His latest, Tala, is now dead. She was a human trafficking victim and sold into slavery. Someone followed her to her secret meeting with Marcus and now she is dead. He feels the frustration of not being able to help her and he will find her murderer and rescue her family. And so begins the long twisting road as Marcus, Scarlett, and a host of others descend into the murky and dangerous world of human trafficking and the traffickers can see them coming and will stop at nothing to protect their empire even while wrestling amongst themselves for power and position. Marcus is their target and it’s a race to see who will get to whom first. But along the way, Marcus and Scarlett are forced to confront the darkness of their own pasts and share their secrets with each other as they come together as an investigation team and a couple. This will appear as one huginormous book and very intimidating at the start, but like the one before it, I got vested and it went by like it was barely novel-length. This story was big and had a large cast of characters. It is big because this is like two stories in one. There is a duality to it because on one side there is Marcus and Scarlett with their supporting cast working to solve the murder that blasts open into something much bigger and then on the other side is
ehaney578 More than 1 year ago
****WARNING: This book contains graphic violence and sexual content that is definitely not suitable for readers under the age of 18. Because of the nature of the physical and sexual violence, the content may be uncomfortable for some readers**** ALONE IN THE DARK is a remarkably complex read. I can easily compare it to a dish of lasagna. There are many layers of mystery, intrigue, danger and suspense beautifully and intricately placed. Every layer just as important and vital to the plot as the next. Marcus and Scarlett were perfect for each other. Both having secret past hurts that continue to affect their daily lives, making them stronger yet vulnerable at the same time. Kindred spirits finding shelter in each other’s arms and lives. Scarlett is a strong heroine and I admired her drive and her spirit. Marcus has been through unspeakable tragedies, but it’s those tragedies that have forged his strength and unbending will. I fell for him right alongside Scarlett. I loved the introduction of new characters. Each one complex and mysterious in their own rights. I am hoping for some love connections between a few of them and maybe a kick in the pants for others. What Karen Rose is brilliant at is character development. Her plots are always interesting, but the characters are what make the story, for me. Speaking of characters, Ms. Rose has given us a most evil villain, or should I say villains. Wow. I was amazed and repulsed at the depths of depravity. Many times, it was hard for me to get through the “bad buy” scenes because of the level of pure evil, bordering on insanity. ALONE IN THE DARK is chilling, engaging and a completely worthwhile read. ***I was gifted a paperback ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All conclusions reached are my own***