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Red letters dripped like blood down the front of the freshly painted house.
Smaller letters marched across the newly whitewashed porch floor.
The painted words seemed to taunt Catherine Miller as she trudged to the back of the old farmhouse and grabbed two nearly empty paint cans from the dilapidated shed. Hopefully, she had enough to cover the vandalism. She snagged a couple of paint pans, tucked paint rollers under her arm and carried everything to the porch. Ten minutes, and she'd be done.
Good. Eileen would be finished with chemo in an hour, and Catherine didn't want her grandmother waiting. She was too sick, too exhausted, too frail to be left sitting in a crowded hospital waiting room. At sixty-seven, Eileen's clock was running down, and Catherine wished desperately that she could wind it back up again. She couldn't, so she'd purposed to spend every moment she could making sure Eileen's last weeks and months were comfortable and pleasant.
That meant getting rid of the vandalism before Eileen got home.
She touched a finger to the dry red paint. Not even tacky. Whoever had vandalized the house had done it soon after Catherine and Eileen had left for the hospital. Some punk kid. She was sure that was what the sheriff would say if she called.
She'd put her grandmother through enough already. She wouldn't bring her home to vandalism or to police poring over the property. She'd cover the paint and keep what had happened locked safely away with all the other things she couldn't share.
The sun blazed from the blue summer sky, the breezeless air hot and arid. Sweat trickled down her temple and neck as she poured dove-gray paint into a pan. Whoosh. One letter gone. Swish. Another disappeared. She should have felt satisfaction, but she felt nothing. Not anger. Not irritation. Not dismay, disgust, horror.
She covered another letter and wiped sweat from her upper lip, surveying the fresh paint. Not even a shadow of red peeked out from under the gray. Perfect. Eileen would never know what had happened, and that was the only thing Catherine cared about. She dipped the roller in gray again, sweeping it over the e and r, the silence of the old farmstead only broken by the swishing of paint on wood. Nothing moved. Not the tall grass and weeds that pressed up against the perimeter of the yard. Not the leaves on the trees.
The stillness ate at Catherine as she worked, nudging at the back of her mind. Four years in the state prison had insulated her from the world, but not from people and life. There had been little silence in her cell block and even less time alone. Here, in the small town where she'd grown up, she seemed to always be alone and silent. Even when she was in a crowd. Even when Eileen was close by.
She grabbed a fresh roller, poured white paint into a clean pan and slicked it over the red letters on the porch. Almost done. There'd be plenty of time for the floor to dry before she picked Eileen up from chemotherapy.
Something rustled to her left, the tall weeds that edged the property swaying. No breeze to blow them, but they moved again, twitching to the left and right as she watched.
"Who's there?" she asked, sure a bird would fly out of the overgrowth. Instead, soft laughter drifted from the weeds, the sound chilling her blood.
"I said, 'who's there?'"
"Murderer!" The taunt whispered out, and Catherine stiffened.
She'd been out of prison for two months, and in that time, vandals had broken a window, slashed her car tires and egged the house. The sheriff had been out three times, but he hadn't been able to track down the perpetrators. Kids with too much time on their hands. That's what he'd said, and Catherine had believed him, because she hadn't wanted to believe an adult was trying to chase her out of town.
But, then, in Pine Bluff, just about anything seemed possible. Here, the guilty wandered free and the innocent rotted in jail.
Just once, her rational self said.
The weeds rustled and a tall figure stepped out. Broad and muscular, he stood at the edge of the yard, a ski mask pulled over his face.
Catherine didn't think so, and she tensed, setting the paint roller in the pan without taking her eyes off the man. "Go home."
"Go home," he mocked, chuckling softly.
"I'm going to call the police," she said, backing toward the front door.
"I don't think so," he responded and loped toward her.
She lunged for the door, yanking it open, terror squeezing the breath from her lungs as an arm wrapped around her waist, a hand slapped over her mouth.
"Let's go inside." He pressed her toward the yawning doorway, and she shoved back, raking her hand down his knit ski mask, slamming her elbow into his ribs. Prison hadn't taught her much, but it had taught her how to fight.
He cursed, his grip loosening, and she broke free, lifting the paint roller, swinging at his face. Paint splattered across his ski mask, and he stumbled back.
She didn't wait. Didn't try to fight more. Just jumped off the porch and sprinted across the yard, heading for the dirt road that connected the homestead to its nearest neighbor.
Footsteps pounded behind her, closing in fast.
She turned left at the road. A quarter mile, and she'd be at the Morris place. Empty for years but finally sold to a man that Eileen said spent more time away than home.
Please, let him be home.
Her breath panted out, the old broken mailbox that marked the beginning of Morris property just ahead, the curve in the road that hid the house from view just beyond it.
She was so close.
God is smiling down on you, my sweet girl.
The voice echoed from a past so far away that Catherine wasn't sure it had ever been hers.
And then she was yanked back with so much force she flew. Off balance, arms flailing, she beat at her attacker, jabbed at his eyes, tried to pull the mask from his face, screaming, screaming. As if someone might hear. As if rescue might be just a moment away.
His fist clipped her jaw, and she reeled, stars and darkness dancing at the edge of her vision.
Please, please, help me.
The prayer danced, too, slipping into her muddled thoughts, breaking her cardinal rule to never ask for help. She'd clung to her faith through rocky times, but the past few years had been stagnant and empty of hope, her faith shriveled and dry from lack of care.
If she could care again, would God save her?
Sun-scorched earth burned through her T-shirt.
On the ground, his hands around her neck, his breath fanning her cheek.
"How's it feel to be on the other side, Dark Angel?" he whispered, his grip tightening, his knee pressing into her stomach.
She gagged, clawing at his wrists, trying to break his iron hold. No air. No breath.
Just hot dirt and hot sun and cold blue eyes staring into hers.
She let go of his wrists, dug her thumbs into his eyes, air filling her lungs as he shoved her hands away. One more scream. Another.
And his hands tightened on her throat again.
A scream broke the silence of Darius Osborne's first day of vacation. Not an excited scream. Not an it's-summer-andwe're-letting-loose scream. A terror-filled, panicked, help-me scream, that made his hair stand on end.
Another scream followed the first, choked off at its zenith. He dropped the paint scraper, grabbed the hammer, racing around the side of the old farmhouse and onto the dirt road.
He stopped there. Waiting. Listening.
The hot summer day was silent again.
Not a breath, not a movement.
"Hello?" he called out, glancing up the road toward the distant highway, then down it toward the curve in the road and the dead fields of the neighboring farm.
"Help me!" A woman stumbled into view, burnished red hair gleaming in the sunlight, welts raised on the pale column of her throat. He knew her. Knew of her anyway. Everyone in Pine Bluff did.
The Dark Angel of Good Samaritan. Injured, terrified.
He ran toward her, scanning the area as he slid an arm around her waist.
"What happened?" he asked.
"Someone attacked me," she rasped, her eyes hollow, her face expressionless.
"Where is he?"
"He ran when you called out." She gestured to the curve in the road, the tall, brown grass and weeds. Anyone could be hiding there.
"Come on." He urged her toward his house, her backbone prominent beneath his hand, every vertebra pressing up against her shirt. Too thin. That's what he'd thought the first time he'd seen her on the news.
Too thin, but beautiful.
The perfect neighbor because all she wanted was exactly what Darius didto be left alone.
Only, she hadn't been left alone.
The welts on her neck, the bruise on her jaw proved that.
"Who was it? Someone you know?" He opened his front door, ushering her inside.
"I'm not sure. He was wearing a ski mask." She shivered, and he pulled a throw from the back of the sofa and wrapped it around her shoulders, his fingers brushing her neck.
She flinched, tugging the blanket close.
"What else was he wearing?"
"Dark pants. Long-sleeved dark shirt. He was tall. Maybe a couple of inches shorter than you." Her teeth chattered, but she looked him straight in the eye, her gaze direct, her blue eyes dark and lifeless.
"I'm going to call for help, then I'll see if I can find him." He pulled out his cell phone, dialing 911 as he took his Glock from the gun safe in the hall closet.
Catherine watched as he loaded it, her expression never changing. The media had said plenty about her incarceration and release. They'd said plenty about her, too. Interviews with supposed friends, with people she'd worked with and with the family of the people she'd been convicted of murdering. There'd never been an interview with her, though. Just photos and videos of her leaving prison, her expression as empty as it was now.
"Stay here, okay?" he asked.
"I'll stay for as long as I can," she responded, and he frowned, hot air sweeping in as he opened the door.
"You need to stay here as long as it takes for me to make sure you're safe."
"My grandmother is at the hospital getting chemotherapy. I need to be there to pick her up in less than an hour."
"Someone tried to kill you. I think your grandmother will understand if you're late."
"My grandmother can't know what happened." She touched her neck, but it was the only indication she gave of her feelings or her fear.
"Unless she's blind, she's going to be asking a lot of questions. How are you going to explain this?" He touched the bruise on her jaw, and she tensed, her eyes flashing with life for the first time since he'd seen her on the road.
"I'll tell her whatever I have to to keep her from worrying."
"Your choice, Catherine, but remember, you won't be able to tell her anything if you're dead. Stay in the house. I'll be back as soon as I can." He stepped outside, listening to the noisy starlings fighting over rotten food near his overflowing trash bin, waiting for a sign that the perp had followed Catherine.
Not even a hint that things weren't what they should be.
Darius ran down the porch stairs and across the yard, scanning the landscape and the sun-baked dirt road. A scuffed area just beyond the curve in the road gave the first hint of what had happened. He crouched over it, examining the heel digs ground into the dirt and the footprints that led into deep cover.
He followed them into the heavy overgrowth, head-high weeds and dried grass pressing in close, reminding him of far-off days and late-night treks through planted fields and desert scrub. Different place, different circumstances, but the adrenaline was the same, the skin-tightening feeling that he wasn't alone was the same.
Sirens screamed, their warning swelling and then ending abruptly. Help had arrived. If the perp was close by, he wouldn't be for long. Not with the police on-site. Darius slipped through the tangled vegetation, following a trail of broken branches and crushed grass, the Glock a comforting weight in his hand.
He'd spent four years as a Navy SEAL working in enemy territory in Afghanistan searching out top-ranking al Qaeda operatives, and he'd never gotten tired of the hunt. Even now, stateside and working as a security contractor, he loved this part of the job the most.
Cat and mouse.
Him against the enemy.
He followed the trail deeper into the field, then back through sparser growth and out into Catherine's property. An old farmhouse jutted up from the middle of an overgrown yard, its front door swinging open.
Darius approached cautiously, his senses alert, his nerves alive with anticipation. Cans of paint sat on the porch, a gray paint roller abandoned beside them. A red shoe print marred one whitewashed floorboard, and letters were painted across the width of the porch floor. Someone had covered them with a thin layer of white paint, but they were still easy to read.