“Dugan is out.”
Miles’s fingers tightened around his cell phone as he wheeled his SUV around and headed toward the station. “What?”
His superior, Lieutenant Hammond, didn’t sound happy. “Based on the Kelly woman’s murder and some technicality with the chain of evidence when they’d searched the man’s place, Dugan’s lawyer got his conviction overturned.”
The past few weeks of tracking down clues and false leads day and night taunted him. He released a string of expletives.
Hammond cleared his throat. “If we’d found evidence connecting Dugan to a partner, maybe things would have gone differently, but?”
Hammond let the sentence trail off, but Miles silently finished for him. If he and Mason had found such evidence, Dugan would still be in a cell. And the world would be a safer place.
But they’d failed.
The day Dugan’s verdict was read flashed back. Dugan’s threat resounded in his head—you’ll pay. “Now that he’s back on the streets—”
“I know. He’s going to kill again,” Miles said. And he’s probably coming after me.
His cell phone chirped, and he glanced at the caller ID. Marie’s number.
Damn, she was probably on his case for working again last night and missing dinner with Timmy. He’d thought he might have found a lead on the copycat, but instead he’d only chased his own tail.
The phone chirped again.
You ‘ll pay.
Panic suddenly seized him, cutting off his breath. Dammit?what if payback meant coming after his family?
“I have to go, Hammond.” Sweat beaded on his neck as he connected the call. “Hello?”
Husky breathing filled the line, then a scream pierced the receiver.
He clenched the steering wheel with a white-knuckled grip. He had to clear his throat to speak. “Marie?” God, tell me you’re there?.
But the sudden silence sent a chill up his spine.
More breathing, this time followed by a husky laugh that sounded sinister, threatening?evil. Dear God, no? Dugan was at Marie’s house.
He pressed the accelerator, his heart hammering as he sped around traffic and called for backup. The dispatch officer agreed to send a patrol car right away.
A convertible nearly cut him off, and Miles slammed on his horn, nearly skimming a truck as he roared around it. Brush and shrubs sailed past, the wheels grinding on gravel as he hugged the side of the country road.
Images of the dead women from Dugan’s crime scenes flashed in his head, and his stomach churned. No, please, no?Dugan could not be at Marie’s house. He couldn’t kill Marie?not like the other women.
And Timmy?his son was home today with her.
The bright Texas sun nearly blinded him as he swerved into the small neighborhood where Marie had bought a house. Christmas decorations glittered, lights twinkled from the neighboring houses, the entryways screaming with festive holiday spirit.
Somehow they seemed macabre in the early-morning light.
He shifted gears, brakes squealing as he rounded a curve and sped down the street. He scanned the neighboring yards, the road, the trees beyond the house, searching for Dugan.
But everything seemed still. Quiet. A homey little neighborhood to raise a family in.
Except he had heard that scream.
His chest squeezed for air, and he slammed on the brakes and skidded up the drive. He threw the Jeep into Park, and held his weapon at the ready as he raced up to the front door.
Cop instincts kicked in, and he scanned the outside of the house and yard again, but nothing looked amiss. He glanced through the front window, but the den looked normal?toys on the floor, magazines on the table, TV running with cartoons.
Only the Christmas tree had been tipped over, ornaments scattered across the floor.
He reached for the doorknob, and the door swung open. His breath lodged in his throat, panic knotting his insides. No sounds of holiday music or Timmy chattering.
Gripping his weapon tighter, he inched inside, senses honed for signs of an intruder.
Slowly, he made his way through the den to the kitchen. The Advent calendar glared at him, mocking him with a reminder that Christmas was only a few days away.
There was a half-empty coffee cup on the counter and an overturned cereal bowl on the table. Milk dripped onto the floor.
Terror seized him.
A creaking sound suddenly splintered the air, and he swung around, braced to shoot but he saw nothing. Then another sound came from above, water running?the shower? No, the tub?overflowing.
He clenched his jaw, then inched toward the staircase, slowly climbing it and listening for an intruder, for Marie, for his son.
Any sign of life.
A quick glance into Timmy’s room and it appeared empty. Bed unmade. Toy airplane on the floor. Legos scattered. Stuffed dinosaur on his pillow.
Where was his son?
His hand trembled as he bypassed the room and edged toward the bedroom where Marie slept. One look inside, and his heart stopped.
The lamp was broken on the floor. Pillows tossed on the carpet. The corner chair overturned. Glass shards from the mirror were scattered on the vanity.
A sea of red flashed in front of him. Blood?it soaked the sheets and led a trail into the bathroom.
His stomach revolted, but he forced himself to scan the corners of the room before slowly entering the bathroom. Blood streaked the floor and led toward the claw-foot tub.
A groan settled deep in his gut.
Marie. Her eyes stood wide-open in death. Blood dripped down her neck and bare chest. Her arms dangled lifelessly over the tub edge, one leg askew.
For a moment, he choked. Couldn’t make himself move. He’d seen dozens of dead bodies before but none so personal?none that he cared about.
Emotions crowded his throat and chest, and he gripped the wall to steady himself. He had to. Had to get control. Slide that wall back into place so he could do his job.
Every second counted.
Fighting nausea, he slowly walked toward her and felt for a pulse. Although he knew before he touched her that it was too late.
Dugan had done this. Had gotten his payback by killing his son’s mother.
That creaking sound suddenly echoed again. He froze, hand clenching his gun, then spun around.
Nothing. Except the evidence of Dugan’s brutal crime.
Where was Timmy?
For a fraction of a second he closed his eyes on a prayer. The sound echoed again. The attic.
Heart hammering double-time, he headed toward Timmy’s room. The door to the space had been built inside his closet. Timmy had called it his secret room.
Had Dugan found it?
Hope warred with terror as he inched inside the closet and pushed at the door. It was closed, but he had insisted the lock be removed for fear Timmy might lock himself inside and be trapped.
Now he wished he’d left that damn lock on so his son could have locked Dugan out.
Darkness shrouded the cavernous space as he climbed the steps. He tried to move soundlessly, but the wood floor squeaked. As he reached the top step, a sliver of sunlight wormed its way through the small attic window, allowing him to sweep the interior.
It appeared empty, but he had heard something.
“Timmy,” he whispered. “Son, are you here?”
Praying he was safe, Miles examined the room. Timmy’s toy airplanes and horses, his train set.
Another squeak, and he jerked his head around. An antique wardrobe sat in the corner, one Marie had used to store old quilts. He held his breath as he approached it, then eased open the door.
Relief mingled with pain when he saw his little boy hunched inside, his knees drawn to his chest, his arms wrapped around them. He had buried his head against his legs, silent sobs racking his body.
“Timmy, it’s okay, it’s Dad.” Anguish clogged his throat as he gently lifted his son’s face. Blood dotted Timmy’s T-shirt and hands, and tears streaked his splotched skin, a streak of blood on his left cheek.
But it was the blank look in his eyes that sent a wave of cold terror through Miles.
Timmy might be alive, but he was in shock.
He stooped down to Timmy’s level and dragged him into his arms, but his son felt limp, as if the life had drained from him just as it had his mother.
Three weeks later
Jordan Keys watched the busload of new campers arrive at the Bucking Bronc Lodge, her heart in her throat. The troubled kids ranged from ages five to sixteen.
Her brother had fit in that category. But he was gone now.
Because she hadn’t been able to help him.
She fisted her hands, silently vowing to do better here. She’d read about the BBL and how hard the cowboys and staff worked to turn these kids’ lives around, and she wanted to be a part of it.
If she saved just one kid, it might assuage some of her guilt over her brother’s death.
A chilly January wind swirled dried scrub brush across the dirt and echoed through the trees. She waved to Kim Woodstock, another one of the counselors and Brandon Woodstock’s wife, as she greeted the bus, then Jordan bypassed them and headed straight into the main lodge to meet with Miles McGregor and his five-year-old son, Timmy.
Apparently Miles also volunteered at the BBL, but this time he’d come because he needed solace and time to heal from a recent loss.
So did his little boy, who they believed had witnessed his mother’s murder.
A thread of anxiety knotted her shoulders as she let herself in the lodge. The empty spot where the Christmas tree had stood made the entryway seem dismal, but truth be told, she was glad it was gone. The holidays always resurrected memories of Christmases past, both good and bad memories that tormented her with what-ifs.
Shoving the thoughts to the back of her mind, she grabbed a cup of coffee and made her way back to the wing Brody Bloodworth had recently added to serve as a counseling and teen center.
The moment she stepped into the room, she sensed pain emanating through it. Like a living, breathing entity smothering the air.
Little Timmy, a dark-haired boy who looked scrawny and way too pale, sat in the corner against the wall, his knees drawn up, his arms locked tightly around them as if he might crumble if he released his grip. The poor child didn’t even look up as she entered, simply sat staring through glazed eyes at some spot on the floor as if he was lost.
For a moment, she couldn’t breathe. What if she failed this little guy, too? What if he needed more than she could give?
Inhaling to stifle her nerves, she pasted on a smile, then glanced at the cowboy standing by the window watching the horses gallop across the pasture. His back was to her, his wide shoulders rigid, his hands clenching the window edge so tightly she could see the veins bulging in his broad, tanned hands.
She cleared her throat. “Mr. McGregor?”
The subtle lift of his shoulders indicated he’d heard her, then he hissed something low and indiscernible between his teeth and slowly turned to face her. Dark brown hair like his son’s, except his was shaggy and unkempt, framed a face chiseled in stone. His jawbones were high, his face square, his eyes the color of a sunset, brown and orange and gold, rich with color, but?dead.
That was the only word to describe the emptiness she saw there.
He removed his Stetson, then walked toward her and held out a work-roughened hand that looked strong enough to break rocks. Everything about the man, from his muscular build, his towering height, his broad shoulders and those muscular thighs, screamed of masculinity.
And a raw sexuality that made her heart begin to flutter.
But anger also simmered beneath the surface of his calm, anger and something lethal, like a bloodthirsty need for revenge.
She didn’t know all the details about his relationship to Timmy’s mother, but she understood that anger. She also knew where it led?to nothing good.
“I’m Jordan Keys,” she said, finally finding her voice. “Nice to meet you.”
“There’s nothing nice right now,” he said in a gruff voice.
Jordan stiffened slightly. Obviously he was in pain, but did that mean he didn’t want her help? A lot of men thought counseling was bogus, for sissies?beneath them.
“Maybe not, but you’re here now, and I see you brought your little boy.” She gestured toward Timmy, who still remained oblivious to her appearance. “So let’s talk.”
He worked his mouth from side to side as if he wanted to say something, but he finally gave a nod. “Brody filled you in?”
“Briefly. But I’d like to hear the details from you.”
“Of course. We’ve seen doctors—”
“Not in front of Timmy,” Jordan said, cutting him off. “Let me talk to him for a minute, then we can step outside and discuss the situation.”
His mouth tightened into a grim line, but he nodded again. This man didn’t like to be ordered around, didn’t like to be out of control.
And he had no control right now.
Which was obviously killing him.
She understood that feeling as well.
She slowly walked over and knelt beside the child. “Timmy, my name is Miss Jordan. I’m glad you came to the BBL. We have horses here and other kids to play with and lots of fun things planned.”
His eye twitched, but he didn’t reply or look at her.
“Why don’t you sit at the table? There are markers and paper. Maybe you can draw about Christmas.”
Again, he didn’t move.
Miles touched his son’s shoulder. “Why don’t you draw the bike Santa brought you?” Again, no response.
“Come on, sport.” Miles took his arm and led the boy to the table. Timmy slumped down in the chair, but he didn’t pick up the markers. He simply stared at the blank paper as if he was too weighted down to move.
“I need to talk to your daddy for a minute,” Jordan said, giving his arm a soft pat. “We’ll be outside that door if you need us, all right?”
His eyes twitched sideways toward her this time. Frightened.
She rubbed his shoulder gently. “I promise. We’re not going anywhere but right outside the room.” She gestured toward a glass partition. “See that glass? We’ll be in there so if you need us, just call or tap on the glass and we’ll come back.”
He didn’t respond, just tucked his knees up and began to rock back and forth. His bony little body was wound so tight that Jordan felt the tension thrumming through him.
“If you want to draw, that’s fine,” she said again, using a quiet voice. “If not, you can look out that window and watch the pretty horses running around.”
The fact that he didn’t turn to look at them worried her. But she simply smiled, then ushered his father into the hallway and into the other room.
When she closed the door, Miles immediately angled his head to watch his son through the partition. Jordan’s chest squeezed.
Miles McGregor was one of the biggest, toughest-looking men she’d ever met. He was not only a cowboy, but Brody had told her he was a cop who chased down the dregs of society.
Miles was also hurting inside and felt powerless to help his son. That made them kindred spirits.
“Tell me what happened,” Jordan said gently.
He slanted her a condescending look. “I thought you said Brody filled you in.”
Jordan simply folded her arms. “Yes, but I want to hear it from you. Everything from the day Timmy’s mother died to how and where you found Timmy to what the doctors said.”
A muscle jumped in his chiseled jaw. “You can read the police report.” He yanked an envelope from inside his denim jacket pocket. The movement revealed the weapon he had hol-stered to his side. “Here’s the doctor’s report, too.”
Jordan forced a calm into her voice. “I will read it, but it’s important I hear what you have to say.”