The woods had always been Autumn Reed’s sanctuary. But discovering the latest victim of “The Huntsman” near her campgrounds made her afraid. When FBI agent Nathan Bradshaw rented one of her cabins, she was relieved not to be alone…despite the fierce attraction between them. A lifetime of betrayals had made Autumn wary.
Nathan won’t allow his growing feelings for Autumn to distract him. The Huntsman killed his sister, and catching him is a sacred mission. But with Autumn fitting the profile for the Huntsman’s victims, Nathan’s torn between a need to protect her and to use her. The idea of losing her is turning him into a desperate man…
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Clearing leaves from the paths around the Trail's Edge campground leading to the Appalachian Trail was a full-time job. As luck and financial misfortune had it, Autumn Reed had plenty of free time. She hadn't rented a cabin in weeks, not since the news broke that a serial killer was stalking female hikers on the trail. She fit the general description of his victims, which made it that much more disturbing.
She'd procrastinated starting the task all day and with the sun setting low and casting shadows, she wished she had come out earlier. The trail after dusk was pitch-black, and she knew better than to be alone on the trail after dark.
Autumn called to her dog, Thor, feeling better with him at her side. He outweighed her by twenty pounds and his build was enough to intimidate anyone who had the idea she would make a good victim. He was the one constant in her life. She could always count on Thor.
Thor looked back at her from thirty feet ahead, but he didn't heel. The wind blew, rustling dry leaves in a symphony she usually found pleasant, but now she feared would mask footsteps. She turned in a circle, looking around her. She and Thor were alone.
She called to Thor again. It wasn't like him to disobey, but if he had caught sight of a squirrel or rabbit, he might be thinking about giving chase.
"Thor, heel." She spoke sharply to make sure he knew she wasn't playing around.
Thor ignored her. His attention was focused on the woods, his back arched and his legs locked. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. What had Thor seen? Was it a hiker? The trail had been empty for weeks. Maybe it was a bear. Though it was rare for them to wander this far down the mountain, a bear would pose more danger to Thor than he'd realize. One swipe of a bear claw would send Thor sprawling.
She called to her dog again, her feet sliding in the mud as she jogged toward him, scanning the tree line for a bear. "What's gotten into you?" She reached his side and heard a low growl in his throat. Despite his size, Thor wasn't an aggressive dog. What was wrong?
She followed his line of vision into the woods, peering through the gray and brown tree trunks, wondering what had Thor so riled.
The view hit Autumn hard, knocking the wind from her lungs. Suspended from a hickory tree and swinging slightly in the wind was a figure wrapped in ivy vines. Were those dirty hiking boots? Were those wooden arrows? Why did it smell like charred wood? The scent was heavy in the air.
Horror washed over her and she gasped in air, doubling over and emptying the contents of her stomach on the ground in front of her.
As quickly as horror had struck, so did fear. Grabbing Thor's collar, she dragged him toward her cabin. She stumbled, the heel of her boot once again getting caught in the mud. Scrambling to her feet, she didn't let go of Thor's collar. She needed to call for help, but she needed to be somewhere safe.
Entering her log cabin and bolting the door shut behind her, she reached for the satellite phone on the counter. She dialed 9-1-1 with shaking fingers.
Calming the fear that pulled her vocal cords tight, she managed to choke out a few words. "I need help. I just found a dead body."
Nathan Bradshaw caught the call from his police scanner. A body had been found near the Appalachian Trail at a campground called the Trail's Edge. A woman had called it in to police. A witness? Besides not having an arsenal of resources at his fingertips, the lack of a witness had been one of the most difficult parts of the case. No one had lived to provide a description of the serial killer stalking the trail, and if anyone had seen anything, the person wasn't coming forward with information.
A quick internet search revealed the address of the Trail's Edge campground, and Nathan plugged the location in to his GPS. The body wasn't as close to the trail as the other victims, most of whom had been found in the backcountry, farther away from civilization. A break in the killer's pattern or an unrelated murder?
The only way to find out was to be on the scene.
Nathan had been tracking the Huntsman for weeks, from Boling Springs, Pennsylvania, to Smithsburg, Maryland. The killer was consistent, which made it more infuriating that no one had caught him. Nathan was growing better at predicting his movements, and it was a matter of time before he got inside the killer's head and caught him.
Nathan needed to find justice for his sister. His mother, his former brother-in-law, his niece and his nephew were counting on him to catch Colleen's killer.
Nathan arrived on the scene in thirty minutes amid a flurry of activity. FBI agents were combing the area, shouting commands at the park rangers who'd been called to assist. The local police were on the scene, as well. Nathan scanned for a familiar face, irritation flickering when he spotted special agent-in-charge Roger Ford talking to a tall, slender woman. Nothing about her said law enforcement or park ranger. She had to be the witness.
Roger Ford, Nathan's former brother-in-law and the current lead investigator on the case, wanted nothing more than for Nathan to disappear. Ford was a good agent, but he was by the book. By the book wouldn't catch the killer. But Nathan had no bounds to what he was willing to do.
Ford had ten years more than Nathan on the job and he was using his considerable weight and connections to shut Nathan out. Punishment for what had happened between Nathan and Ford's sister, or maybe Ford didn't believe Nathan could be objective, but either way, Nathan had made a promise and he wasn't backing down.
Nathan knew the exact moment Ford spotted him. Their eyes connected across the distance, hostility plain on Ford's face. Nathan gave Ford credit for blatant honesty. They'd never gotten along and Ford hadn't pretended otherwise. The woman Ford was speaking with turned, as well, looking over her shoulder in Nathan's direction.
Nathan hadn't seen her before, but his gut reaction was strong and swift. Even at this distance, he could see she was beautiful. She was nearly as tall as Ford, her body lithe, her brown hair pulled into a ponytail and her arms crossed over her chest. She wore khaki pants and a blue-and-gray windbreaker, a style he had seen on several hikers he had spoken with during the course of the investigation.
Approaching Ford was a bad idea, but Nathan needed to speak to the witness. More than finding out what she knew, he wanted to talk to her. The impulse was so strong, he hadn't realized he'd left his observation spot until he was standing next to her, facing Ford. She smelled of the outdoors, like fresh pine and earth.
"What are you doing here? I told you to stay away from my crime scenes," Ford said, annoyance clear in his voice. "You're worse than the press."
"You know why I'm here," Nathan said. When the FBI had refused to assign Nathan to the case, citing he couldn't be objective because he was too close to one of the victims, Nathan had taken a leave of absence from the Bureau to investigate on his own time. The killer had proved to be smart and had avoided the FBI's traps. If they wanted the killer in custody, they'd need to work outside the box. The red tape of the FBI didn't allow anything outside the box.
Nathan introduced himself. "Special Agent Nathan Bradshaw."
"Stop misleading the witness. You're not working this case," Ford said.
Curiosity gleamed in the brunette's eyes. She ignored Ford and extended her hand. "Autumn Reed. This is my campground. I am the person who found the body." Her voice quavered and he shook her hand. It was trembling.
Ford gritted his teeth. "Why don't you either enjoy your vacation or go back to work on another case instead of impeding my work on this one?"
Abandoning this case wasn't an option for him. Colleen's killer deserved to pay, and Nathan would see that she and his family had justice. "You know I can't walk away from this one."
Ford's face didn't relax even a fraction of an inch. He believed it was most important to follow protocol, and Nathan on the scene flew in the face of the rules.
"If you won't walk away, I can force you to stay away. Don't make a nuisance of yourself," Ford said.
Nathan tucked his hands into the pockets of his pants. "I don't plan to be a nuisance. I plan to catch a killer."
Autumn rubbed her temples, a massive headache throbbing. Fifteen minutes after she had made the emergency call, park rangers, CSI and local police had converged on her land. The FBI had arrived later.
The most recent arrival was a man who had taken post next to her. His serious expression and deep-set eyes drew her to him. Whatever his reason for being on the scene, Autumn was glad he was. Though he hadn't cracked a smile, an air of strength and bravery surrounded him. Her instincts about people were usually pretty good, and her instincts told her Nathan Bradshaw was a good friend to have.
He was handsome, almost too handsome. She felt a little guilty for thinking about his looks under the circumstances, but it was hard not to notice. His dark hair was cropped close to his head in a look she liked. Broad shoulders tapered to a lean waist, and the tailored cut of his black wool coat suggested wealth and style. Not the best jacket for hiking, but it looked great on him.
Special Agent Ford continued to talk about the investigation. "The sheriff mentioned you live here with your brother. Where is he?"
The mention of her brother chilled Autumn to the core. She believed what she had seen in the woods to be the work of the Huntsman. No one had outright said it, but she knew it. Her concern for her brother increased tenfold. "Blaine is hiking the trail. I haven't heard from him in a few weeks."
"The sheriff tells me your brother has been in trouble around here," Ford said.
The sheriff of their town, also known as her former fiancé and Blaine's ex-best friend. What had he told them about her and Blaine? "My brother has been hiking for months. I haven't heard from him in weeks." Not since the news had reported on the murders along the trail, which had amplified her anxiety. Though her brother was a gentle man, if he knew anything about the murders, he would keep his mouth shut.
"Is that unusual?" Ford asked.
Blaine was a free spirit and Autumn worried it would get him killed. "Not unusual for Blaine. I've been concerned about him. He could be in danger." The skitter of fear never seemed to go away completely. Until Blaine was home, she would worry about him.
"A male doesn't match the profile. Our killer targets women."
Another tremor of fear traced up and down her body. She could become one of the victims.
"Why don't you give her a few minutes? You can see she's taking this in. We've invaded her home and her land," Nathan Bradshaw said.
Gratitude for Nathan surged inside her.
Special Agent Ford snorted. "We are not doing anything. You'll return to your hotel room and forget we've found another victim. In the morning, check out and go home."
Nathan didn't move. Autumn had watched animals circle each other over territory. This was about the same.
"I know this situation is difficult." The warmth in Nathan's tone surprised her. It was the first time someone had expressed empathy for what she had been through tonight. The coldness in her chest lifted slightly.
"I control this crime scene. You need to leave. We can't have anyone compromising evidence," Ford said.
Autumn looked between the two men. "Do I have to leave, as well?" She hadn't considered the possibility the FBI would want her to vacate the premises until they finished their search. Where would she go? She had friends in town, but since her father's funeral, she had been keeping to herself. What could she do with Thor if she had to leave?
Ford moved closer to her. "Your cabin isn't part of the crime scene."
Crime scene. Her home, the place where she had always felt the safest, had become a crime scene. She wished her brother was home to help her. For that matter, she wished her father was there. Anyone to take away some of the loneliness and emptiness, emotions that were amplified by her fears. They had once been happy at the Trail's Edge. They'd talked about their home being like a resort and their jobs nothing like work. Those memories were only a few years old, but they felt dim and distant.
"Are the cabins part of the crime scene?" Nathan asked.
Anger gleamed in Ford's eyes. "Not at this time." The words were punctuated with irritation.
Nathan retreated a step and faced Autumn. "What do you think about renting one of these cabins to me for a few days?"
Autumn swallowed hard, trying to think of a diplomatic way to handle this situation. She needed the income from renting one of the vacant cabins, but she didn't want to place herself on the wrong side of Special Agent Ford. He could make life difficult for hersuch as by insisting she leave the Trail's Edge for an extended period or leaking to the press that a murder had occurred at her campground. If the threat of the Huntsman didn't frighten away business, a murder on the premises surely would. Her business may not recover, and then what would she do? Her options were limited.
"I have a few empty cabins for rent," Autumn said slowly. "But if Special Agent Ford and his team need a place to stay, I think it's fair to offer them first dibs." There. She hadn't lied to Nathan and she had given Ford priority, even if something about him rubbed her the wrong way.
"We're staying at a motel in town," Ford said, jutting his jaw. "Our mobile unit won't make it up these paths. But that shouldn't matter. We don't consider this location a hot zone."
Regardless of what the FBI thought, how would she ever feel safe again with the overarching sense of violation and terror that had clung to her since the moment she and Thor had seen the body? "How can you know he won't return?"
Special Agent Ford lifted his brow as if her question amused him. "We know his profile. We know how he behaves. Now, if you don't mind, I have some questions I'd like to ask in private."
"I'm more comfortable with Nathan staying with me." Where had that come from? The words had popped out of her mouth before she could censor them. She didn't know who looked more surprised Nathan or Ford. If he was planning to question her about Blaine, she wanted someone else in the room as a buffer. She would become defensive about her brother, and her irritation with Sheriff Daniel would shine through.
"Let me stay. You know I'll ask her the same questions you're planning to," Nathan said.
Ford set his jaw. He looked between her and Nathan.
After a few moments of hesitation, he let out his breath sharply. "Ms. Reed, tell me what you were doing before you found the body."
Nathan moved closer to her, and the air around her heated. His stance was protective, almost as if he wanted to shield her from this unpleasant conversation.