Colby agent Russell St. James knew the exact moment Olivia Westfield discovered she was the daughter of the infamous "Princess Killer."
Ever since, being her bodyguard had become twice as hard. Each day, he shadowed her; each night, he held her through her tormenting nightmares. But was her father guilty? Her mother his accomplice? The answers lay deep in Olivia's memories, and the closer she got to the scene of the crime, the more she ...
Colby agent Russell St. James knew the exact moment Olivia Westfield discovered she was the daughter of the infamous "Princess Killer."
Ever since, being her bodyguard had become twice as hard. Each day, he shadowed her; each night, he held her through her tormenting nightmares. But was her father guilty? Her mother his accomplice? The answers lay deep in Olivia's memories, and the closer she got to the scene of the crime, the more she remembered. Russ had a job to do: safeguard Olivia and give her the future she deserved. Even if that future didn't include him.
DEBRA WEBB, born in Alabama, wrote her first story at age nine and her first romance at thirteen. It wasn’t until she spent three years working for the military behind the Iron Curtain—and a five-year stint with NASA—that she realized her true calling. A collision course between suspense and romance was set. Since then she has penned more than 100 novels including her internationally bestselling Colby Agency series.
Polunsky Prison, Polk County Texas, Monday, June 3, 3:00 p.m.
Olivia Westfield paced the stark interview room to which she had been sequestered. She paused long enough to take a breath and reminded herself that she needed to remain calm. Any visible sign of anticipation or anxiety would be a mistake. Though she was not an attorney, she had sat in enough courtrooms with her boss, who was the best criminal attorney in San Antonio, to know how to lead a witness, especially a potential hostile witness. During the next few minutes, it was immensely important that she lead.
It had taken her a week to get this interview, and then the warden had only been persuaded by her boss's connection to an esteemed Texas senator with the right amount of clout. The prisoner Olivia was here to see was the most infamous death row inmate in Texas's history. Since she was not his attorney, the interview had been extremely difficult to secure. The opportunity both terrified and exhilarated her.
Raymond Rafe Barker had spent twenty-two years in prison, seventeen on death row. In all those years he had not provided the locations of all the missing bodies of his many alleged victims, including those of his three young daughters. In a mere seventeen days he would be executed by lethal injection for his alleged heinous crimes. Olivia wanted his story—the whole story. But what if he was innocent?
The tangle of nerves that had been twisting inside her for days tightened to a hard knot. Was she making a mistake doing this? Revealing herself to the man who could very well change the course of the rest of her life? Only her boss knew the reason for her need to meet the convicted murderer and learn the real story of what happened all those years ago in a small Texas community. Eventually the world would know; it was inevitable. The ramifications were immense, the impact potentially widespread.
Mistake or not, ultimately she had to do this. Whatever the consequences, living the rest of her life without knowing the truth was something she simply could not do. The past twenty-plus years of her life had been built on too many deceptions. From this moment forward she wanted the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. Want didn't begin to describe what Olivia felt. She needed the truth; she needed answers.
The door of the interview room opened. Olivia snapped from her disturbing thoughts. She mentally and physically braced for the impact of meeting the man who was a convicted serial murderer, a coldhearted sociopath according to the law. An inmate who had maintained his silence all this time as to what really happened so many years ago. This man, who held the key to those answers, was also her biological father.
That reality stole her breath yet again.
Two prison guards escorted Rafe Barker into the room. The leg irons around his ankles and the belly chain coiled about his waist rattled as he was ushered to a chair at the table in the center of the small interview room. One of the two chairs stationed around the table was drawn back.
"Sit," one of the guards ordered.
Unable to drag in a gulp of air even now, Olivia watched the prisoner's every move. He hadn't looked at her yet. She wasn't sure how to feel about that or the possibility of whether or not he would recognize her, for that matter.
It had been twenty-two years since he'd last seen her.
For God's sake, what had she been thinking coming here?
Barker glanced at the guard on his left, then followed the instruction to be seated. He settled into the molded plastic chair. The second guard secured the leg irons to the floor and the ones binding Barker's hands to his waist to the underside of the sturdy table.
"We'll be just outside, Ms. Westfield," the first guard said to Olivia. "Just knock on the door when you're finished here." He shot a glance at the man he obviously considered a monster before meeting her gaze once more.
"Thank you." Her voice was a little shaky and she regretted that outward demonstration of apprehension. Be strong, Liv.
When the door had closed behind the guards, Olivia drew in a deep, steadying breath and crossed to the table. She sat down and met the gaze of the man now studying her intently. From what she understood he spent twenty-three hours per day confined to his cell and it showed in the pale skin stretched across his gaunt face; a face that narrowed down to slumped shoulders and a rail-thin body covered by generic prison garb. But the most startling aspect of his appearance was the faded brown eyes. Eyes that perhaps had once been the more vivid chocolate color of hers. The high cheekbones and slim nose were as familiar as the reflection she considered in the mirror each morning.
Genetically speaking, this was her father. No question. No doubts. Her heart pounded with the rush of emotions she couldn't quite define. Anger, defeat, regret. .one, or all, maybe.
"Why are you here?" he asked.
The rustiness of his voice made her flinch. His speech croaked with disuse and age that belied his true years. The warden had told her that Barker rarely spoke to anyone. He had refused to grant a single interview with reporters or cold-case investigators or to cooperate with the doctors who'd attempted to analyze him during the past two decades.
His question—four little words—churned those already turbulent emotions, making her quake inside with a vulnerability she wanted desperately to deny. "That's a good question." She cleared the rasp of uncertainty from her own voice. "I suppose I felt compelled to see you before it was too late."
In seventeen days he would be dead. More of those troubling emotions stirred deep in her belly. Emotions she shouldn't feel for a stranger a convicted killer. The faint idea that he might not be guilty toyed with her desire for justice.. for hope that he was not that heinous monster.
"Do you know who I am?" he ventured, his eyes searching hers for any indication of what she was thinking beyond her vague response. Obviously he felt something, curiosity maybe. Was it even possible for him to feel anything else?
This man who had been labeled pure evil was her father. Dear God. He was her father. Sitting face-to-face with him, she could not deny that glaring fact. Part of her had wanted to latch onto the idea that it could be a mistake. The photos she had seen from the trial more than twenty years ago had not adequately prepared her for this. She hadn't seen him like this, in person, since she was five years old. Basically, she remembered nothing from that time except in her dreams.
As far back as she could recall, the nightmares had haunted her sleep. The screaming the blood. The darkness and then the soothing humming—a tune she hadn't been able to identify. Not that she'd really tried. She shook off the images and sounds that tried to intrude even now. Her adoptive parents had blamed the images and sounds on a scary movie she'd watched with a cousin. Another of their well-meant deceptions.
So many, many lies.
"I know who you are." She clasped her hands in her lap to prevent him from seeing the shaking that had overtaken her body. As hard as she tried, she couldn't make it stop. Good thing she wasn't in a courtroom right now. Prosecutors ate nervous defense attorneys and their assistants for breakfast.
Raymond Barker was the Princess Killer. The man charged and convicted of the murders of more than a dozen young girls. The man who had been charged with murdering his own daughters. That was the real reason Olivia was here. She'd had no choice in the matter. The media had gotten it wrong. The police who investigated the murders had gotten it wrong.
Olivia was this man's daughter. If Rafe Barker hadn't killed her, was it possible he hadn't killed anyone? Made sense that if she was alive, her sisters would be, too. She needed an answer to that, as well. Olivia had studied the case. She knew the details, at least the ones that had played out in the media. She had interviewed the detectives who investigated the case, but she had not been allowed to see the actual case files. The detective who'd been in charge, Marcus Whitt, had told her straight up that he didn't appreciate her nosing around.
Giving herself grace, she had only just learned the identity of her biological parents two weeks ago. Before she'd gotten to the point of actually moving forward, Clare Barker had been released from prison—her conviction overturned—and that had changed everything in her opinion. Olivia had tried unsuccessfully to find her.
Her mother. The woman who had professed her innocence for more than two decades. If she was innocent, why hadn't she come to Olivia? Had she contacted the other two women? Sarah, who had been named Sadie by her adoptive parents, and Lisa, named Laney by the folks who adopted her? Olivia had no idea where her sisters were but she intended to find them. The three of them needed to face this challenge together. Time was running out and desperation had lodged deep in her soul.
But what if her sisters didn't know? Olivia's adoptive parents had kept their secret for twenty-two years. As much as she loved the people who had raised her, that decision had been the wrong one. She should have known the truth long ago. What if her sisters didn't want to know? Was it fair for her to impose her personal quest upon their lives?
Rafe cleared his throat, the saggy muscles there working as if the words he intended to utter were difficult to impart. "Whatever you believe about me, I'm thankful you came."
The air she struggled to draw in trapped beneath her breastbone. The ache it generated made speaking as hard for her as it appeared to have been for him. "I need you to tell me the truth about what happened when I was a child."
The prospect carried monumental implications even beyond the potential added pain to the families of the victims. Her chest tightened at the conceivability of what his long-awaited words might mean for all those damaged hearts what they might mean for her. For her sisters women she didn't even know.
He had refused to talk from the moment he and his wife—Clare, her mother—were arrested. Today, he had just over two weeks to live. Why not tell the world the truth? Unless, of course, the truth was that he, in fact, was the heinous killer society thought him to be.
Clare Barker had relentlessly stood by her story that she was innocent. According to what Olivia had gleaned, as the investigation of the case had progressed, the bodies of eight young girls, ranging in age from twelve to seventeen, had been recovered but several others remained unaccounted for. Clare insisted that she knew nothing about any of the abductions or the murders. Both Clare and Rafe had been respected members of the community of Granger. No one had suspected either of the slightest legal infraction yet numerous sets of remains had been exhumed from the woods just beyond their own backyard. A backyard where their daughters, including Olivia, had played.
The reality of that fact made her sick to her stomach. But who was the killer and who was the oblivious bystander? Someone was lying, because Olivia was alive. That had to mean one story or the other was wrong, at least to a degree.
He studied her for a long moment with those too-familiar brown eyes. "The truth you seek will not ease the torment your soul suffers, I fear." He looked down as if he also feared his eyes would give away his true thoughts.
How dare he make such a statement! His suggestion that he had even the most remote concept of what she might think or feel infuriated her. "What about all those other families who want nothing more than to bury their dead? Will you take your secrets to your grave and twist the dagger once more?" She shook her head. "Maybe you are the monster they say you are. Whether you are or not, the truth can't hurt you now. But it could help others." Including her. Her whole life felt out of sync.
He inhaled a sharp breath. "I'm no monster. What I am is a fool. I slept in the bed with her every night and never had the vaguest idea what she was doing right under my nose. I don't deserve to live. My blindness is inexcusable." The craggy features of his face tightened as he visibly fought for composure. "I can't do a thing to bring those girls back and I don't know that the truth, if I had it to give you, would comfort their families. Dead is dead. The only good thing I accomplished was to get the three of you to safety. I wanted you to have a normal life. I didn't want my legacy to haunt your life." He moved his head side to side. "That may be impossible now. You shouldn't have come here. You took too great a risk."
Her fury exploded with a ferocity she could scarcely contain. "How can you pretend to know what's best for me? You have no idea who I am. What about the others? My sisters. Where are they?"
"They're alive and well," he assured her. "Whatever you believe," he said, his eyes watery, "my only concern is for your continued safety. That's why I called the Colby Agency. They're supposed to be protecting my girls."
This announcement startled her, momentarily shoved aside the fury and the tangle of emotions funneling inside her. "What're you talking about?" She'd sensed someone following her the past few days but she hadn't spotted anyone. Finally, she'd decided it was her imagination. With the lifealtering discoveries she'd made over the past fourteen days, she couldn't trust her judgment or her instincts. "There's no one protecting me." She was perfectly capable of protecting herself.
"The only thing I ever wanted was for the three of you to be safe and happy." The sadness in his eyes looked convincing enough. "She would've killed you, too. I made sure you were out of her reach. Until now. When her sentence was overturned, I had to do something. I reached out to the only people I felt could be trusted. The Colby Agency. Their reputation speaks for itself."
A barrage of questions whirled like a cyclone inside her head. "I haven't heard from any Colby Agency." How could he sit there and pretend to care about her welfare?
"They're watching you," he promised. "Protecting you from her. Her release is the only reason I broke my silence."