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Nestled in a horseshoe-shaped cove on the Gulf of Mexico, Jacob's Pass, Texas, was a gorgeous little town with a dark past.
By day, the pastel buildings shimmered like jewels in the heat, but come twilight, a pervasive uneasiness settled over the picturesque landscape. Doors were locked, window blinds drawn. The entire community seemed to hold a collective breath as if waiting anxiously for dawn to come and banish the night creatures back to their holes. It had been that way for over thirty years...ever since the first body had been found.
Emma Novick glanced at the sky as she strode toward the pier, where she'd left her car. The day was slipping away. Already the sun had started to sink below the treetops and in another hour, dusk would be upon her.
But it wasn't the old murders that made Emma worry about the coming dark.
She fingered the scar at the base of her neck as a chill slid over her. Sometimes when she lay alone in her bed at night, she could still feel her assailant's hands on her body, his hot breath on her face. But it did no good to dwell on her fears. The attack had been over a year ago. It was over and done with. She'd survived the brutal assault and her testimony had sent the perpetrator to prison. He wouldn't hurt her, or anyone else, ever again.
The only thing she had to be afraid of now was her loneliness. And the gnawing dread deep inside that she would grow old alone, that she would live a life devoid of passion and love because she couldn't let go of the past.
Couldn't stop dreaming about a man who no longer existed. May never have existed except in a young moonstruck mind.
What frightened Emma even more were those rare occasions when she took a long, hard look at herself in the mirror and allowed herself to witness the passage of time. She was still a young woman, not even thirty, but she thought she would be married with a family of her own by now.
Instead, she spent her days catering to the whims of her tyrannical employer, whose sole joy in life was making those around her miserable.
At the thought of Helen Corbett, Emma hurried her steps. She hadn't meant to linger so long in town, but her outings were few and far between these days and the June weather was so perfect. Hot, yes, but a hint of rain cooled the breeze that blew in from the gulf.
Still, Emma knew she should have headed back hours ago. Helen would be upset by her tardiness, and when Helen Corbett got upset, there would be hell to pay.
But her brief escape had been worth it, Emma decided. With the wind whipping at her skirt and tossing her dark hair, she felt younger and more carefree than she had in years.
She supposed it was silly to feel old at twenty-nine, but on days when Helen was especially difficult, Emma swore she could actually feel her youth waning.
She considered herself strong and resilient—she would never have returned to Jacob's Pass otherwise, no matter how sweet the deal—but Helen Corbett could try the patience of a saint.
Always difficult, the woman's disposition had deteriorated as rapidly as her health. She'd never quite recovered from a stroke two years ago that had left her confined to a wheelchair for the better part of six months.
It had only been through sheer determination and a plain old stubborn streak that she could now get around with a cane and her speech patterns were almost back to normal, although her voice had grown quite feeble in the past year.
She was thin and birdlike, but her appearance had always been deceptive. Beneath the frail-looking demeanor were a backbone of steel and a heart of stone. Helen Corbett was not a kind woman, but there had always been something about her that Emma admired and respected.
And, of course, at one time they'd shared something in common—a complete and utter devotion to Ash Corbett.
Helen's grandson had been the apple of her eye and the love of Emma's life until he'd taken off without a word twelve years ago. Neither woman had been the same since he left, and perhaps that was why Emma could exercise more restraint in dealing with the cantankerous Helen than her own family could. Emma understood better than anyone how desolate and bitter life could be withoutAsh.
Lifting her face to the warm sea breeze, she paused to admire the scenery as she neared the pier. The tiny cove was dotted with fishing vessels and motorboats putting back in for the day and she loved to watch them. Loved imagining herself at the prow of some great ship, arms spread wide as Ash's powerful hands held her steady and safe.
But she wouldn't think any more about Ash today. What was the point? He'd been gone for over a decade. Dead for all she knew. He'd left town one night without looking back...just a few short weeks after the gruesome discovery was made on Shell Island.
Not that there was any connection. No matter the rumors at the time, Emma refused to believe that Ash had been a part of that depravity, that...evil.
Besides, he'd only been a baby when the original murder occurred, and Emma was a firm believer in the one-killer theory. The other scenario—that two brutal psychopaths had preyed on the same tiny community eighteen years apart—was unfathomable.
The first victim had been a young high school teacher named Mary Ferris. She'd been missing for nearly two weeks when her mutilated body had been found in the cove. Faced with a jittery community, the local police chief had insisted that the murder was an anomaly. The poor woman had either fallen victim to a jealous lover or a deranged drifter passing through town. There was no need for mass panic and, anxious to believe they were still safe in their homes, the towns-people had eagerly accepted the explanation.
And then eighteen years later, another mutilated body had been found on Shell Island by some teenagers who'd gone there to party.
A search of the tiny islet had turned up six more bodies in varying degrees of decomposition. A forensic anthropologist called in to help with the identification had concluded that the women had died within a five-year period of one another.
Four of the victims were from Houston, two from nearby Corpus Christi, and one from farther south in Brownsville. Only one victim remained unidentified, and she had apparently been dead longer than the others.
According to the forensic anthropologist, all of the women had been in their mid-to late-twenties and all of them had been tortured.
Emma had been seventeen at the time, just starting to spread her wings, and she vividly recalled the terror that gripped the community in the aftermath of the discovery. Her father, like every other parent in Jacob's Pass, had clamped down on her extracurricular activities to the point of suffocation. If not for her secret assignations with Ash, Emma would have gone stir-crazy.
But as close as she and Ash were at that time, she'd never told him of her deepest fear...that whatever had happened to those poor women on Shell Island could have been prevented by her.
Perhaps it was hubris on her part to take on that kind of responsibility, but Emma had known something terrible had occurred on the island long before the first body was ever found. She'd been gripped with a terrible feeling of foreboding the moment she first set foot on the beach.
If only she'd said something then, but who would have believed a twelve-year-old kid? The authorities would have chalked it up to an overactive imagination and maybe they would have been right. Maybe what she felt that day had been nothing more than the culmination of the legends she'd heard all her life.
Those legends were the reason she'd gone to the island in the first place. Her seventh-grade class had been studying local culture and she'd badgered her father into borrowing a boat and taking her out to the island because it was so steeped in history and folklore.
Until the 1950s, Shell Island had been inhabited by a handful of families who, like the Amish, eschewed modern conveniences, but one by one they'd migrated to the mainland until all that remained on the tiny clump of land were the abandoned homes and an old stone church.
For a while, rumors of dark ceremonies and ritualistic worship had followed the inhabitants to the mainland, but once the families moved on, the stories were eventually forgotten.
Except for teenagers looking to party and the occasional ghost hunter or archaeologist, no one ever went to the island anymore. Legend had it that the island was an old Indian burial ground, and at the time, Emma thought all the talk among her classmates had probably fueled her imagination. She hadn't said anything to her father about her uneasiness, but as they'd walked through the deserted houses, she'd become more and more agitated.
And when they reached the old church, she hadn't been able to go inside. She couldn't physically make herself step through the door. It was as if some dark force held her back.
Five years later, the first body had been found in that same church. Emma had no way of knowing whether one of the poor victims had been inside the day she stood trembling on the threshold, or whether her trepidation had been a premonition of what was to come.
She hadn't talked about that experience to anyone, even Ash. Especially not to Ash, because she hadn't wanted him to laugh at her. Hadn't wanted him to think of her as an immature child prone to exaggerations. Bad enough that he'd caught her spying on him.
Tucking her short hair behind her ears, Emma searched the water. This time of day, Shell Island was barely a speck against the deepening horizon, but she spotted it easily because she knew exactly where to look.
Funny how after all this time, when she let herself reminisce, that same sensation of dread came back to haunt her.