USA TODAY bestselling author Marie Ferrarella starts off the new Coltons of Texas series with a bang — and a serial killer at large.
Just moments away from marrying a woman he doesn't love, police detective Sam Colton discovers his bride brutally murdered. The only shocking clue: the MO matches another notorious killer — Sam's long-imprisoned father. A copycat? The victim's sister was the last to see her alive — and heard arguing with her. Sam would bet his life that shy, impossibly sexy librarian Zoe Robison had nothing to do with the murder. But when he learns what the argument was about, the former foster kid's heart hardens. Yet as Zoe is targeted by a madman, Sam discovers just how far he'll go to save her.
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Zoe didn't remember screaming.
Didn't remember pursing her lips or emitting the loud, piercing sound less than a heartbeat after she'd opened the door.
Didn't remember crossing over the threshold into the room, or bending over Celia, who was lying faceup on the floor.
The exquisite wedding dress her sister had taken such all-consuming delight in finding was now ruined. There were two glaring gunshot holes in her chest and her blood had soaked into the delicate white appliqué, all but drenching it. The pattern beneath it was completely obliterated.
The whole scene, which was whizzing by and moving in painfully slow motion at the same time, seemed totally surreal to Zoe, like some sort of an ill-conceived, macabre scene being played out from an old-fashioned B-grade horror movie about a rampaging slasher.
And if the dreadfulness of all this wasn't enough, someonethe killer?had gone on to draw a bizarre red bull's-eye on Celia's forehead. There was a single dot inside the circle, just off center, and whoever had drawn it had used some sort of a laundry marker, so the bull's-eye stood out even more than it normally might have.
This can't be real, it just can't be real.
The desperate thought throbbed over and over again in Zoe's head. She'd just left Celia, what, a couple of minutes ago? Five minutes, tops?
How could all this have happened in such a short period of time?
Who could have done this to her sister?
Why hadn't she heard the gunshots when they were fired?
And for God's sake, what was that awful noise she was hearing now?
Zoe tried to see where it was coming from, but for some reason, she just couldn't seem to turn her head.
She couldn't even move.
The noise was surrounding her. It sounded like wailing, or, more specifically, like keening. It approximated the sound that was heard when someone's heart was breaking.
Zoe had no idea the noise she was attempting to place was coming from her.
* * *
"You realize this is probably going to be the happiest day of your life, you lucky son of a gun." The declaration, uttered by one of the men waiting to be ushered down an aisle and into a pew, was directed at the bridegroom. "It's all downhill from here," the older man chuckled.
Detective Sam Colton kept the half smile he had been sporting for the past half hour pasted on his handsome, tanned face and merely nodded.
Words were not his strong suit and he couldn't think of anything to say in response to that, other than the fact that if this was to be the happiest day of his life, it certainly didn't put the bar up very high.
And as for it being "downhill from here," well, he already knew that.
He was marrying Celia Robison, who some of the other detectives on the force had made very clear they regarded as being quite an eyeful, as well as a number of other cliched descriptions.
None of that had entered into the reason why he was standing here, waiting for everyone to take their seats so the ceremony could begin. Waiting for all this to be over with.
He was marrying the woman for one reason and one reason only.
She was having his kid and he'd vowed a long time ago that if he ever did happen to have any kidsmost likely by accident, which this washe was sure as hell going to be there for him or her. He wanted this kid's upbringing to be completely unlike his own. His childhood had involved his father killing his mother and then his siblings and him being scattered to the winds.
More specifically, they had all been sent off to different foster homes, but they might as well have been scattered to the winds for all the time they'd managed to spend together during all those awful, soul-scarring years.
No matter what it took, his kid wasn't going to go through that, wasn't going to feel abandoned, alone and ashamed because no one wanted him or her. If he had to marry Celia for that to happen, well, so be it. He'd managed to survive all this timeand had gotten as far as he hadby learning to roll with the punches. He'd roll with this one, too.
And in the end
Sam's head jerked up as everything within him went on high alert the second he heard it.
Part of his response was due to his police training, the rest had evolved based on pure survival instincts. The latter had been necessary in order to live through some of the foster home stays he'd been forced to endure.
"Did you hear something?" Ethan, one of his brothersthey had pretty much managed to find one another and reunite in these past few yearsasked him.
By now, Sam had broken into a run and ran past him without responding.
"I'll take that as a yes," Ethan said, answering his own question and hurrying after Sam.
Once they reached the hall, it was obvious the sound was coming from the bridal room. It grew louder and more jarring the closer they got.
"It's bad luck to see the bride before the wedding," Ethan called after Sam. It wasn't meant to stop his brother. Ethan was just stating a point of fact.
The next moment, as he came to a skidding halt behind Sam and took in the scene Sam was viewing, he muttered under his breath, "And this has got to qualify as the worst possible kind of luck a groom ever encountered."
For an excruciating, shattering moment, Sam froze several steps away from Zoe. At first, he wasn't even aware she was the one screaming.
He couldn't take his eyes off Celia.
It wasn't a sense of loss that was echoing through every fiber of his being. It was shock. Complete, total and utter shock, swaddled in disbelief. The shock was not tied to the fact that Celia was dead, but to the symbol he was looking at on her forehead.
He knew that symbol.
He recognized it from both photographs he'd seen originating from crime scenes, and from the nightmares that had haunted his earlier dreams.
That was the symbol his father, the infamous serial killer, Matthew Colton, used to draw on the foreheads of his victims.
But those victims were all men of a certain size and age who reminded Matthew of his older, far more successful brother, Big J. It had been Matthew's way of doing away, by proxy, with a man whom he hated with every fiber of his being and whom he blamed for everything that had gone wrong in his life.
Matthew killed men, not women. The thought echoed over and over in Sam's head. And while Matthew had killed his wife when she stumbled across his heinous secret, he hadn't made a practice of killing young women in their twenties. If nothing else, it would have come to light by now if he had.
Besides, Matthew Colton had been behind bars for twenty years. He couldn't have killed Celia.
Then who had?
This didn't make any sense.
The detective in Sam wanted to focus exclusively on the murderCelia was clearly already deadof the woman whom he would have married in ten minutes. The human side of him that was struggling to resurface after being buried for more than twenty years felt obligated to offer some sort of comfort to Celia's sister.
Zoe looked as if she was bordering on going into shockif she wasn't already there.
"Zoe" Sam began, then fell silent, at a loss as to what to say next.
But he didn't have to talk. The moment he said her name, she turned toward him. He saw the tears flowing from her eyes and the stricken look on her face just before she collapsed into his arms.
He barely caught her in time.
Sam held on to her awkwardly, as if he felt that making any sort of contact would wind up cracking his carefully built up, impenetrable walls.
"She's dead," Zoe sobbed. "I was just in here and now Celia's dead. Why did I leave her? She'd still be alive if I hadn't left the room. Oh, God, why didn't I stay?" she sobbed.
Sam looked over her head helplessly toward Ethan. He knew what to do at a crime scene, knew how to defend himself against a killer and knew how to handle himself in all the steps between. But when it came to dealing with something like someone else's grief, or a woman's tears, he hadn't a clue.
Completely at a loss, he looked toward his older brother for help.
Ethan picked up his cue effortlessly. "Why don't you come outside, Zoe, get some air?" he suggested gently, trying to take hold of Zoe's arm. He was ready to lead her out of the room.
But Zoe surprised even herself and remained firm. She shook her head adamantly from side to side.
"No, I can't leave, I can't leave Celia," she insisted, looking down at her sister's prone body.
Sam had already felt for the pulse he knew was no longer there. Celia was gone. Whoever had fired the shots knew exactly where to aim.
Rising to his feet, Sam took a firm hold of Zoe's arm. "You can't do her any good anymore, Zoe. Celia's dead."
"But why? Who?" Zoe cried, looking at Sam through fresh tears.
Her last thoughts of Celia had been angry ones. Her last words had been condemning ones.
How was she supposed to live with that now?
The guilt of thatand of leaving Celia alone to fall prey to her killer in the first placehad already begun to eat away at her.
"Those are my questions exactly," Sam replied evenly. There wasn't a shred of emotion evident in his tone as he asked her pointedly, "What can you tell me?"
"Sam, don't you think now isn't the time" Ethan began, trying to get Sam to treat Zoe with a little more compassion. Ethan's question indicated he thought the victim's sister looked as if she was a hair's breadth away from coming unglued. Asking her questions right now might just push the poor woman over the line.
But Sam apparently didn't see it that way.
"Now is exactly the time," Sam emphasized, looking at Ethan. "While it's all still fresh in her mind." And then he turned back to Zoe. "Zoe?" he asked, looking at her pointedly. "Did you see anyone walk into Celia's room after you left her?"
Zoe shook her head, wisps of blond hair coming undone and falling about her face and neck. "No," she responded hesitantly. "I don't think so "
"You don't think so?" Sam demanded, stretching out the key word and making it all sound almost like an accusation.
It only caused Zoe to look even more bewildered and at a loss.
"I don't know. I can't remember," she cried. "Everything's just a huge blur."
And the fact that it was, frustrated her beyond words. She would have raked through her brain with her fingernails if that would have somehow helped bring the missing details back into focus.
With Ethan looking on, Sam tried another approach. "All right, why did you walk out in the first place?" he asked.
She looked at him, stricken. How could she tell him what he wanted to know, knowing it would only humiliate him, embarrass him? Hurt him?
She would rather die herself than do that to him, especially at a time like this.
Dead or not, Zoe concluded, Celia didn't deserve a man like Sam.
"Zoe, why did you walk out?" Sam repeated more forcefully when she didn't answer him.
"We had an argument," she finally answered in a low, quiet voice.
"About what?" he pressed.
"Nothing important," Zoe told him, waving the subject away as fresh tears threatened to choke her for a second time.
Ethan attempted to step in again. "Sam, her only sister's just been murdered. She's clearly in shock.
She should see a doctor, not be interrogated right now. And yes, I know I have nothing professional to fall back on like Ridge or Annabel, or Chrisor even Trevor," he said, mentioning their other siblings, all of whom, unlike him, were in some branch of law enforcement. "But maybe you shouldn't be the one investigating this murder to begin with."
Sam gave him a look that most of the law enforcement agents in Granite Gulch had learned to steer clear of. "My town, my case."
"Your fiancée," Ethan countered.
Sam completely ignored the last detail. Instead, he looked at Ethan pointedly. "Did you happen to notice the mark on her forehead?"
Ethan had focused on the gunshots that had ended Celia's life and then on the victim's screaming sister. Now that his attention had been directed to Celia's forehead, Ethan looked and was immediately stunned.
Like a man in a trance, he raised his eyes back up to Sam's face. "Oh my God, is that?"
"Definitely. Just like his signature mark, except the red dot's off center." Sam paused, staring at the bull's-eye. "That might mean something."
"Yeah, that the old man hasn't figured out how to be in two places at once," Ethan said, pointing out the obvious. "He's in prison, Sam, where he's been for twenty years."
"Almost twenty years," Sam corrected. He was a stickler when it came to facts.
Ethan conceded the point. "Either way, he couldn't have done this. Besides, the old man only killed men who reminded him of his brother. Celia would have never been mistaken for a man, even in the dark." The second the words were out of his mouth, Ethan suddenly realized that Zoe was still in the room. "Oh, God, I'm sorry, Zoe. I didn't mean"
But Zoe waved his words away. She was far too numbed by what had happened to take offense at something so trivial.
"It's all right. I understand. And I want to help." She looked from one man to the other. "I want to help any way I can to find who did this to Celia."
"Right now, you can help by going and getting yourself checked out by a doctor," Sam told her, undoing the bowtie he had put on under protest for the wedding. He took his cell phone out of his pocket and began to put in a call for backup.
"I don't need to be checked out," Zoe maintained stubbornly. "I didn't hit my head. I found my sister, murdered. I don't think the doctor's got any kind of medication to treat that." She took a breath, struggling to center herself. "I'm sorry about screaming like that before."
Sam shrugged. "Under the circumstances, it's understandable."
"Okay," she said, moving on. "What can I do to help?"
It was obvious that although she'd always been regarded as the meek sister and as far as he knew, she had always kept pretty much out of the way and in the shadows, Zoe was not about to just fade away until such time as he could get around to questioning her at length.
But he definitely didn't want her underfoot, either.
"Okay, you want something to do?" he asked her.
She was almost eager as she said, "Yes."
"Tell everyone out there that due to circumstances beyond everyone's control, the wedding's been called offbut they can't leave, because someone has to take down their statements." He spared her a preoccupied look. "Do you think you can do that for me?"
For as long as she could remember, she'd always hated having to break bad news to anyone, let alone an entire gathering of people who had come expecting to have a good time. But this was something that clearly needed to be done and Sam was asking her to do it. She put her own discomfort aside and nodded.
"Yes, sure, of course. And I'll tell them how very sorry you are that this happened and they had to be put through this."