Read an Excerpt
Jolene had been dead for six months.
Six long months.
Nia Hollister lay on her bed, staring up at the ceiling as she tried to will herself to sleep, but sleep wasn’t coming. It wasn’t getting any easier. Nothing was easier. Sleeping. Living. Moving on with her life.
But how was she supposed to get on with her life, when her cousin, her best friend, her only family was gone? Murdered . . . dead and buried, brutalized by some monster for reasons that Nia couldn’t even fathom.
Even after six long months, she still felt like she had a hole in her chest the size of the entire state of Virginia.
The fact that the man who’d killed Joely was dead made no difference, not to her. It changed nothing. It helped nothing, eased none of her pain. Not even watching as they’d lowered his worthless corpse into the ground had helped.
That should have helped, right?
He was dead—the man who had killed her cousin was dead. That should give her closure, right?
Did people really think having closure helped?
It sure as hell wasn’t helping her. Knowing who did it . . . how did that help?
Exhausted, sick at heart, and still as miserable now as she had been the day she’d found out the truth, Nia sat up in her bed and rummaged around on her bedside table until she found a mangled pack of cigarettes.
She’d stopped smoking three years ago. She’d started again five and a half months ago. She kept telling herself she’d stop, and she knew she needed to, but she just couldn’t work up the energy to care.
Right now, she couldn’t quite give a fuck if she was polluting her lungs—what did it matter? Right now, she was having a hard time finding anything that mattered.
Sighing, she lit a cigarette and climbed out of bed, moved to stare out the window. It was dark and quiet. She was far enough outside the city that the lights from town were muted and she could see the stars.
There had been a time when she had loved nights like this.
Now she hated them, hated the quiet, hated the peace. It seemed like that was when she heard it the loudest. Heard her. It was just her imagination, but it seemed so real.
Joely’s screaming . . . God, how she must have screamed. Had she begged? Had she pleaded?
Heedless of the smoking cigarette in her hands, she pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes, as though that might keep her from hearing the screams, might keep her from thinking about her cousin.
Her best friend.
The woman who’d been murdered by some sick-ass bastard who was now rotting away under six feet of dirt. She should take comfort in that, Nia reckoned.
But she couldn’t. Didn’t. It just felt too . . . unfinished.
Blowing out a breath, she lowered her hands and eyed the cigarette. “Going to catch my damn hair on fire,” she muttered. Putting it between her lips, she inhaled. As the smoke filled her lungs, she tipped her head back and stared up at the darkened ceiling.
Yeah, it felt damned unfinished.
But Joe Carson had been found with Joely’s watch on him, and her clothing and other evidence had been found at the cabin where he’d been squatting.
What were they supposed to do?
In some sick, convoluted way, it even made sense, once somebody had explained things to her.
Hope Carson had left her abusive ex-husband and spent two years on the move, because she feared he might come after her. Finally, she’d decided she was going to settle in with her friend Law Reilly. The ex must have been watching her pretty damn close. Timing-wise . . . no. Nia didn’t quite buy the timing bit, because her cousin had been grabbed before Hope had arrived in Ash, Kentucky, but the cops had shrugged it off.
There wasn’t any secret that she was friends with Reilly. Reilly had confirmed she had been making plans to come stay with him. They’d speculated that Carson had just made a lucky guess, or suggested maybe he’d had some inside knowledge—their suggestions hadn’t meant shit to her.
So, Hope arrives in Ash and her ex-husband waits until she sort of settles in, and then he kills Nia’s cousin. Leaves her body right where Hope can all but trip over it. Trying to scare Hope into running . . . just trying to scare her? Warn her? This will be you if you don’t toe the line?
“It’s all so fucked up,” she whispered. “Damn it, Joely, what am I supposed to do? Why can’t I let go?”
But there wasn’t any answer.
Leaning her brow against the chilled glass, Nia smoked her cigarette and suffered the miserable silence alone.
Her name had been Mara Burns.
She’d been his first—a man didn’t forget his first. His first fuck. His first love. His first wife.
His first kill.
He’d had different firsts . . . Mara had been his first kill, and she’d been . . . sweet.
It hadn’t been planned.
At all. It had been back in college and she had been a hot, sweet little bitch, but the first few times he’d tried to ask her out, she hadn’t given him the time of day.
That changed his senior year—and she’d been the one to ask him out. As a ploy to make a boyfriend jealous, mostly, and he had known. They’d gone out, fucked in his car. Then she whispered for him to hit her. To choke her.
He hadn’t. But he’d imagined it.
When he took her home, she’d mocked him, but he’d been so caught up in those images, he had barely noticed. That night, he’d dreamed about it. Choking her. Hitting her.
Thoughts of it consumed him.
Weeks passed, turned into months, they rarely spoke, but he saw her, and each time, it made those fantasies burn hotter. Brighter.
One night she’d been walking home from her job. He’d seen her . . . because he’d been watching. Watching. Dreaming. He had offered her a ride. Because it was starting to rain, or maybe because she wanted to taunt him some more, she’d accepted. But then he hadn’t taken her home and she had put her bitch-face on. He’d backhanded her.
Instead of getting pissed, or scared . . . she’d been turned on.
They went back to the quiet, secluded little area outside of Lexington where they’d fucked that first night, and they went at each other like animals. They started out in the back of the car, moved to the trunk, and eventually ended up on the ground.
He’d hit her, and she would come. He’d squeeze her neck until she almost blacked out, and she’d come harder. For hours.
But then, toward the end of the night, as he was driving into her, chasing another climax, his fingers digging into her silken neck, he’d squeezed, and squeezed, and squeezed . . . he’d let go, watched as she sucked in a ragged breath of air right as he climaxed so hard it had almost hurt, and he’d thought about how he hadn’t wanted to let go.
Then, when she was smiling at him, he’d closed his hands around her neck.
For reasons he couldn’t understand then, he’d started choking her again. And that time, he hadn’t stopped. Not when her heels beat on the ground, not when she had torn at his hands with her nails, real fear beginning to flicker in her eyes. Not even when her bowels and bladder had released.
His mind had remained cool, detached throughout all of it, even as his heart had raced at the thrill.
His first kill.
Yes . . . Mara had been one of the most beautiful firsts of his life. A man didn’t forget his first. He’d worried for years somebody would discover her, discover what happened to Mara, and somehow link her back to him.
But in the end, she wasn’t the one who was coming to haunt him.
Hers wasn’t the face he dreamed of at night now.
And she wasn’t the reason he had been forced to put a stop to his games for a while.
Because he couldn’t indulge in those games, he was all but burning, all but dying to feel that thrill again, the pleasure he found only when he took a life. She wasn’t the reason he felt like a ticking time bomb, one that burned hotter, brighter, every damn day.
No, that honor belonged to one Jolene Hollister and one Lena Riddle. Jolene had almost gotten away from him, had screamed bloody murder . . . and Lena had heard her screaming, had called the cops, had stirred up too much attention.
Six months. It had been six months.
He knew how to wait.
Sometimes he felt like a lump of coal under extreme pressure, like he’d emerge a diamond—after a bit of polishing and cutting down.
Other times, he just felt like he was going to explode and right now was one of those times. Six fucking months.
It was worse being in here in this crush of people.
A wedding was a big deal in a small town like Ash, though, and Lena and Ezra hadn’t spared any expense. The Inn was full to bursting. The reception had been going strong for more than an hour and he had no doubt it would keep going for another hour at least.
He couldn’t even make a quiet escape, though. It would be too easily noticed.
So he waited, chatted, and danced.
He danced with the bride, he danced with the bridesmaids, he danced with the flower girl, he danced with the married women whose husbands wouldn’t dance, and he danced with the tittering, blushing girls who were still learning how to flirt.
He danced with so many women . . . so many.
Tall, short, lean, lush.
Short hair that barely brushed their jawline, long hair that fell to their hips. Hair upswept to leave their shoulders bare. Jewelry sparkled and glowed against toned and tanned flesh.
Over by the bar, he spotted Roslyn Jennings talking with the bride, her curves poured into a dark green dress that clung so lovingly. Gold glinted at her neck, ears, and wrists.
On the dance floor, he saw Hope Carson, dancing with her beau Remy Jennings, wearing a dress just like Roslyn’s, the same deep, deep green. But where Roslyn looked like a witch, Hope looked like some fey woodland nymph. Sweet and innocent and lovely. She wore little jewelry, but there were flowers in her short, shiny hair.
Then there was the bride, her deep red locks glowing against the white of her dress, pearls at her neck, gold on her fingers.
All the women . . .
Hunger pulsed inside him, driving him mad, making him greedy and desperate.
Desperate—but not too desperate.
Not so desperate he’d get foolish again. Not here. Not now.
At present, he had a girl—just barely out of college—wrapped around him, and it pissed him off. Perhaps it turned him on a little as she pressed her breasts against his arm, smiling up at him and trying to act like she was so much older than she really was. But she was just a child. Besides, he also had a lady nearby who would notice before much longer and although she would understand, he didn’t want her upset.
Especially not by an obnoxious little bitch like this.
As she swayed a little too close, he dipped his head and murmured, “Estella . . .”
“Star. I’m going by Star now. Estella is so old,” she said, giving her lower lip what she probably thought was a seductive stroke of tongue.
“Estella Price,” he repeated. “I don’t know why you keep rubbing against me like that. I’ve known you since you were in diapers. I’m pretty sure I probably even changed one or two.”
He hadn’t. But it had the desired effect. She turned almost as red as the lipstick she’d slicked on her mouth and jerked away from him. Suppressing a chuckle, he lost himself in the crowd and headed toward the cash bar. He needed a drink, and he wanted to see if he couldn’t work his way out of here yet.
If he didn’t escape soon—
This wasn’t where he wanted to be . . . wasn’t where he needed to be. Except the whole damn town was here.