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Blake Corwin was about to raise a woman from the dead.
He didn't like it, and God knew if he had any viable choices left he would have left Samantha Dawson in peace and found another way to go about this. But there was no other way, no other hope except this woman who had suffered more in six months than most people suffered in a lifetime.
"She won't talk to us, you know," his partner murmured.
Blake furrowed his brows, trying to stop the frustration he felt from seeping into his expression. He adjusted the shoulder holster under his sports coat and directed a questioning look at the other man before continuing up the snowy path to the farmhouse up ahead.
"What makes you say that?" he asked, stepping over a fallen log.
"Look around you, man." Rick Scott gestured to the isolated area. "There's a reason why she requested a safe house out of the city. No chance of any human contact."
He tried not to let their surroundings affect his sense of purpose, but he had the sneaking suspicion that Rick's assessment was accurate. Aside from the rambling white-and-green house, the land stood barren. Very few trees, grass covered by a thin layer of silver frost, and not another structure in sight. The nearest house was a mile away, and when they'd pulled into the long winding driveway earlier, Blake's chest had tightened with what he could only describe as a sense of doom.
He hated this place, hated everything it represented. Fear. Despair. Torment. The woman living here was isolated from the world, and it tore him up knowing he was partly responsible for it. A madman had put Samantha Dawson in this desolate farmhouse, but Blake's inability to catch a killer was keeping her there.
"I feel like I'm walking in a freezer." Rick shivered and pulled the zipper of his light jacket all the way to the collar. "Are you sure we're in Illinois? Seems like Antarctica."
Born and raised in Chicago, which boasted some of the coldest winters in the country, Blake merely chuckled. "Poor kid. Why don't you go back to L.A. and crawl under a palm tree?"
Rick frowned. "Don't make me pull out my gun, Agent Corwin."
"Do it. I'd love to see you explain to Knight why you shot hisand I quotebest agent."
"You're never going to let that go, are you?"
Blake offered a grin, knowing just how much it pissed Rick off. Funny, how when Blake caught a serial killer he rarely received a word of praise from Michael Knight. But when he found his supervisor's lost dog? Well, that was almost worthy of promotion.
"Who brings his dog to work anyway?" Rick grumbled. He kicked a pile of slush as he walked.
"Hey, don't look all upset. It's not my fault that Jasper was hiding in the storage room when I walked in."
Rick frowned again. "You didn't see Knight licking my boots when I brought in Butcher Betty."
"As I recall, I was there too, slapping the handcuffs on her," Blake pointed out.
Their good-natured banter died as they reached the rickety wraparound porch. A lone wicker chair sat in the corner, and hanging above the front door was a set of wind chimes that jingled cheerfully each time the cold late autumn breeze swept by. Yet there was nothing cheerful about this house, with its disheveled exterior and the layer of lime-green paint peeling and cracking on the front door.
Blake glanced around and saw that there wasn't a doorbell. Reaching out, he rapped his knuckles against the solid wood, then turned to Rick as they waited for an answer. "Think she's home?"
"She's home." Rick crooked his finger to the left. "Her car's here."
Blake couldn't believe he'd missed the pale-beige vehicle parked in the detached garage a few feet from the house. Maybe it was just the frigid November air freezing his senses. Or hell, maybe this goddamn case had finally gotten to him.
The sound of footsteps pulled his attention back to the door in front of him. His senses kicked back into place, ears perking up at what sounded like a padlock being scraped open. The clicks that followed told Blake that Samantha Dawson had not one, not two, but a total of five locks on her door, as well as a security system that beeped incessantly as the person inside deactivated it.
A fortress in a farmhouse.
Not that he blamed her for taking such precautions.
"She used to be a swimsuit model, you know," Rick remarked in a low voice.
"Well aware of that."
They stood patiently until the door opened. When it did, Blake found himself staring down the barrel of a steel-black shotgun. By instinct, he almost reached for his own gun, but when he met the eyes of the woman in front of them, he reconsidered.
She appeared more frightened than menacing. Her big gray eyes, surrounded by thick sooty eyelashes, looked so haunted that Blake's throat tightened with an emotion he couldn't quite place. He'd read her file, knew what haunted her, but somehow he hadn't expected to see the overwhelming fear lining each delicate feature of her face. And what a face it was. High cheekbones, lush pink lips, a straight aristocratic nose. In the old days men would've started wars for a woman like this.
"What do you want?" she demanded, voice deadly and gun still aimed directly at Blake's heart.
"Samantha Dawson?" he asked, though he didn't need her hesitant nod of confirmation to know who she was.
Her pictures hardly did her justice. She was a natural beauty, tall and slender, with caramel-colored hair that fell past her shoulders in waves. And damn, those eyes were mesmerizing, so gray they reminded Blake of an overcast sky. She wore jeans and a bulky blue sweatshirt.
"What do you want?" she repeated.
She didn't lower the gun, not even a fraction of an inch, and he glanced at his partner for help.
Reaching into his pocket for his ID, Rick flashed his badge at the brunette. "Special Agent Rick Scott. The man you're pointing the gun at is my partner, Blake Corwin. We're with the FBI."
Rick's words had been meant to reassure her, but they obviously fell short of the mark. Her jaw only tightened and her shoulders stiffened as if she were gearing up for a boxing match. "Do you have a warrant to search my house?"
Caught off guard, Blake answered for his partner. "What? No."
"Are you here to arrest me?"
"Of course not," Rick said, offering a tentative smile.
Her eyes flashed. "Then I have nothing to say to you."
The door slammed in their faces so swiftly that Blake blinked in surprise. He heard the padlock scrape shut, but the fact that she didn't turn any of the other locks told him the woman was still behind the door, waiting for them to leave.
He sucked in a long breath and looked at Rick.
"Well." Rick's voice was quiet.
Feeling the onset of a headache, Blake rubbed his temples. "We can't leave. You know we can't leave without speaking to her."
Samantha Dawson was their last chance, and they both knew it. If she didn't agree to help them, the Rose Killer might slip out of their grasp and disappear into the shadows forever. How many more women would the guy murder before he was stopped? The death toll currently numbered three. Three women. Women who were somebody's daughters, somebody's wives and mothers. All gone. Except for Samantha Dawson, and of course, this latest victim.
Three dead, but two very much alive. Not a moment of mercy and compassion on the creep's part, of course; he'd left them believing they were dead. And as long as Blake and his fellow agents at the Bureau had anything to say about it, they would continue to be dead. At least until the bastard was caught and thrown behind bars.
"She's our last hope," Rick continued with a heavy sigh. "The longer Elaine Woodman stays silent, the more time this psycho has to keep killing."
The ache in Blake's temples grew stronger. It had only been three weeks since Elaine Woodman's attack, but it felt like months, especially considering that drawing information out of the young woman had been all but impossible so far. "We have no guarantee that Samantha will be able to get through to her," he said.
"But it's a chance. Elaine is too traumatized to talk about her experience, not with the shrinks, the cops, us. But another victim? Samantha Dawson has a better chance than any of us to get Elaine to open up."
Blake saw the truth in Rick's words, felt the same flickering hope that had brought him to this farmhouse, but he couldn't help but wonder if their need to catch this madman might end up hurting these surviving women.
The fear in Samantha Dawson's eyes flashed through his brain, agony he couldn't even imagine. Did they really have the right to make her experience it all over again? Sure, she'd changed her name, she was under the protection of the Bureau and hidden away in this no-horse town, but she sure as hell hadn't looked at ease when she'd opened that door.
No matter how far the Bureau had gone to keep Samantha Dawson safe, Blake knew without a doubt that she didn't feel that way.
"Come on, let's try again," Rick finally said, reaching out and knocking on her door once more.
"Get off my property," came the muffled reply.
"Miss Dawson, please"
She cut Rick off with, "I'm holding the phone in my hands right now. I'll call the sheriff and have you charged with harassment if I don't hear the sound of your footsteps leaving my property."
"Let me talk to her," Blake said quietly.
With a nod, Rick shoved his hands into his pockets and allowed Blake to take the lead.
"Miss Dawson, you can call the sheriff if you want. Nobody's stopping you." He spoke gently, trying to offer comfort he knew she didn't feel. "I'm just asking you to listen to what we have to say before you make that call."
In response came a lengthy silence, and he'd almost given up hope when he heard the soft, "I'm listening."
"We're not here to make you relive what happened to you." He almost cringed, seeing the lie in his words. "We just need your help." With a breath, he continued. "He's attacked another woman. He left her to die, Samantha, but she didn't. She fought like hell to stay alive, just as you did."
Another long silence, this time broken by the sound of a lock being grated open again. When the door opened, she still held the gun, but at her side this time.
"Why are you telling me this?" she whispered, her face wrought with emotion.
"Because you're the only one who can help us."
Wariness and fear battled in her gaze. "Help you do what, Agent Corwin?"
He drew in another breath. "Help us catch him."
She shouldn't have let them in. She shouldn't be making coffee for them, shouldn't allow them to sit in her living room as if they belonged there, as if what they had to say was of any interest to her.
Sam stood at the cedar work island in the middle of the spacious country kitchen, hands trembling as she reached for the handle of the coffee urn. As she poured the hot coffee into one of the mugs she'd grabbed from the cabinet, it spilled over the rim and splashed onto the counter. She watched the brown liquid soak into the wood.
God, when she'd looked out the window and seen those two men charging up her driveway
her heart had nearly stopped beating.
And then when they'd uttered her nameher real name the fear had tripled. Nobody was supposed to know where she was, just the people sworn to protect her.
She shot a glance through the open doorway at the two men on her beige sofa, then stifled a sigh. FBI. That did make them her protectors. She guessed. But the desperation she'd seen in their eyes once she'd opened that door told her this visit wasn't about keeping her out of harm's way.
It was the exact opposite.
She wiped up the coffee stain as best as she could, then quickly filled the other mugs, set them on a tray and walked into the living room.
"Thank you," said the blond-haired man as she handed him a cup. Rick Scott, he'd said his name was. He looked pleasant enough, his smile genuine, but it was the other man who captured Sam's attention.
Tall, dark and handsomea cliché, but one that suited him oh so well. Hair the color of rich chocolate, probably in need of a haircut, since it fell onto his forehead whenever he moved his head. But the scruffy look fit him, made his black trousers, white button-down shirt and sports coat seem less conservativeit gave him an edge. His eyes were a deep whiskey color, but when she looked closer, she could see the flecks of amber around his pupils.
Sinking into the armchair farthest from the sofa, she watched as Blake Corwin reached for his coffee. Even in his sports coat, she could tell that his arms were powerful, muscled. His wide chest and broad shoulders exuded the same power. Even though he was a complete stranger, his big strong body and intense brown eyes made her feelfor the momentprotected.
Leaning back in the chair, she would've liked to analyze her odd reaction further, that little flicker of heat that sparked in her belly at the sight of him, but Rick Scott spoke before she could do that.
"We apologize for showing up like this," he said, his voice gentle and soothing, giving Sam the sense that he had a lot of practice talking to victims.
Victim. The word loitered in her brain like a stray dog looking for scraps. Was that what she was? A victim? Swallowing back the acid creeping up her throat, she resisted the urge to shake her head. No, not a victim. A survivor.
"But we're running out of time," Blake Corwin finished.
She liked his voice. Not as gentle as his partner's, it had a husky, almost raspy quality to it. Sexy, most women would probably say.
Blake set down his mug on the small cedar coffee table and directed that intense gaze at her. "He grabbed a woman named Elaine Woodman from her office in downtown Chicago. It was one-thirty in the afternoon, and no one saw a thing."
Sam fingered the long white scar on the inside of her wrist, disturbed by what he'd said. "That's unusual, isn't it? For him, anyway."
He nodded. "The others were attacked in their homes, always at night. We're not sure why he just changed his MO like that."
"And she survived the attack?" She rubbed the scar, its texture jagged and bumpy under the pad of her thumb.