Cold Case at Carlton’s Canyon

2017-11-09T13:58:37+00:00

Cold Case at Carlton’s Canyon

Book 4 of the Cold Case Series

Cold Case at Carlton's Canyon

Two officers’ badges—and hearts—are on the line in Rita Herron’s Cold Case at Carlton’s Canyon

Sergeant Justin Thorpe has dedicated his life to justice and won’t stop until he finds the vicious serial killer who has already claimed ten innocent lives. He works solo—until he joins forces with Sheriff Amanda Blair. The Texas Ranger can’t let his desire for his coworker keep him from his mission, especially when Amanda’s life is threatened.

Ten girls have vanished—one for every year since Amanda graduated from Canyon High. And as she tries to fight her attraction to a man as independent as she is, a trap is being laid to make Amanda the final victim in a killer’s terrifying endgame….

Say You Love Me

2017-11-09T13:58:39+00:00

Say You Love Me

Say You Love Me

A columnist for the Big Easy’s hottest erotic magazine, Britta Berger has heard her share of wild, hidden desires. But beneath her sophisticated facade, Britta is running from much darker secrets—including the terrifying night she barely survived. Now someone from her past has returned to play a merciless game. And only one man can help her…

Detective Jean-Paul Dubois knows instinctively that Britta is the key to ending the string of vicious ritualistic murders that plague his city. But still haunted by his past, he must resist the dangerous attraction between them. For lurking deep in the shadows of the bayou, a killer waits to end her life—and their future—with one devastating final strike.

Prologue

The bayou killed.

But it also gave life. And it was home.

As was the covens.

They thrived in the swampland, creating their black magic just as they would tonight as he began his own private kingdom.

The magic circle had been formed. The mandrake root had been pulled, a task itself that had put him at risk for death. But he had withstood the maddening shriek as he’d confiscated the plant, knowing the importance of it for his ritual.

At sixteen, he was finally a man.

He studied the thirteen-year-old girls as they were brought before him, the flames from the open fire illuminating their pale, frightened faces. They stood shivering in thin white virginal dresses, their heads bowed in fear, yet sublimation. Symbolic, yes. But the translucent cotton fabric also offered a reprieve from the vicious heat of the bayou and teased him with a sneak peak at the supple bodies that lay beneath. Two blond girls studied him as if he had not earned the right to be a man.

But he had.

Just as the full moon glowed, hypnotic, beckoning the animals to prowl, the wild to hunt, the men to mate. Just as the drums of Mardi Gras pounded out the ancient voodoo priestess spells.

It was time for the passage.

And he could choose among the girls offered.

Automatically one stood out. He’d watched her for ages. Known he wanted her. Her eyes haunted him.

Adrianna Small.

Her hair flamed as red as the sunset on the deep murky Mississippi River. Her temper matched it fiercely.

She was a bad girl. Defiant. Adversarial. A fighter.

One who needed to be broken.

He met her gaze and held it, uncertainty gnawing at him like the mosquitoes clawing at his bare legs. He could never please his father. Wasn’t tough enough. Big enough. Enough of a fighter. The other boys laughed at his artwork. Called him a sissy and other vile names.

Would he be man enough for Adrianna?

Yes, he had spread the mandrake root oil on his body, inhaled the intoxicating aroma, grateful the aphrodisiac would entice Adrianna to succumb to his wishes. She just had to get near him…

A frog croaked from the depths of the backwoods. An alligator lay stone still, searching for his own prey, waiting, watching, ready to pounce. The mysteries of the wild surrounded him, the scent of jasmine, marshy land, danger. Spanish moss draped the cypress trees along the swampland with gnarled witch-like fingers, hiding its secrets, ready to snatch another lost soul to the tangled wild vines and brush of the backwoods. Yet honeysuckle and verbena sweetened the air.

“Now, son.” His father, tall and commanding, placed his hand on his shoulder. “You have chosen the first, the one to begin your kingdom?”

“Adrianna,” he said, his palms sweating. Drums pounded as the masked musicians and the clan danced around the fire. The witchdoctor screeched his secret chant. Sobek had to be pacified tonight.

“Ahh, the feisty one. The one with the witch’s eyes.” An odd expression replaced his smile. “She would be the perfect sacrifice to the Crocodilian gods.”

He trembled at the thought. “No, father. I want to keep her for myself.”

“No, son. She has the evil in her just like her mother.”

His father gestured toward Mrs. Small, a frail woman who’d been drugged since her arrival. His father had found her on Bourbon Street and brought her and her daughter to safety with the clan. The tenth woman his father had added to his own kingdom.

Now he knew his father’s true reason.

Adrianna’s mother brushed her daughter’s hair from her cheek in a motherly gesture, then suddenly pushed her forward. Did she know the extinct of her offering?

His father jerked her up beside him, and the voodoo priestess doused her with oil and whispered a spell of love and fertility.

Adrianna’s icy look chilled his blood as if she had silently cast a death spell upon him. Maybe she was a secret member of one of the covens, a witch who had enticed him for her own sick motives. Or maybe she was born of the swamp devil herself. After all, no one knew who her father’s identity.

The clan surrounded them, chanting and clapping to the beat of the drums, urging them to start the celebration into adulthood. Snakes hissed and spewed venom from the depths of the fiery pit. The crude carvings of the crocodile surrounded them. The battle between good and evil.

He reached for Adrianna, the special necklace he’d crafted for her dangling in his other hand. His gift — the serpent swallowing its tail — it symbolized the great work of alchemy, the transformation into a higher form already inherent within it. That was his gift for Adrianna. If evil possessed her, he would cure her of it. Then he could save her.

But she screamed in protest, then threw the necklace into the dirt and spit at him. His father slapped her, and she wrenched free, grabbed a rifle near the fire, raised it and a gunshot blasted the air. The bullet slammed into his father’s chest and sent his body flying backward. Shouts and cries erupted. He went numb at the sight of the blood spilling from his father’s crumpled body. Like a scarlet river, it ran down his white shirt and splattered onto the ground.

“I could never love you,” Adrianna screamed at him. “You can’t make me.”

Then she turned and ran into the bowels of the bayou. Like predators ready to swallow her, the weeping willows and gnarled branches of the oaks and cypress trees captured her into the black abyss.

Chaos erupted. The witch doctor knelt to tend to his father. His father’s wives surrounded him, as did the rest of the clan.

“He’s dying,” someone whispered frantically.

The still waters of the bayou that had lain eerily quiet mere seconds ago, churned to life. The gators’ yellow eyes pierced the blackness, searching for prey. One crocodile shot forward, his teeth gnashing. Adrianna had crossed into the unknown part of the swampland where danger awaited.

The bayou took lives. The animals, the plants, the heat, it was relentless. She didn’t even have water. And the snakes and alligators lay waiting for their next meal. Then there was the fabled swamp devil who met at Devil’s Corner. He would eat her alive.

There was no way she would survive the night.

He knotted his hands into fists. After what she’d done, she didn’t deserve to live. She deserved to be punished. To suffer the bayou.

One of the men shouted that they had to find the girl murderer. He ran for a pirogue to take on the river to search for her.

Although if the swamp devil or the gators got her first, there would be nothing left to bury, nothing but mutilated flesh, bones and tissue…

No, he’d find her first. Then he’d make her pay for killing his father.

Chapter One

New Orleans — thirteen years later. One week before Mardi Gras.

“I know your secrets. And you know mine.”

The hairs on the nape of Britta Berger’s neck stood on end as the note slipped from her hand to the wrought iron table. She’d already sifted through a half dozen letters for her Secret Confessions column at the magazine she worked for, Naked Desires. All erotic. Some titillating, others romantic as they described various private confessions and sexual fantasies. Some bordered on S & M. And others were plain vulgar and revealed the debauchery of the south’s sin city.

But this note felt personal.

An odd odor wafted from the envelope, a scent she vaguely recalled. One that made her skin crawl.

Powdery sugar from her morning beignet settled like snowflakes on the charcoal gray paper as she glanced around the crowded outdoor cafe to see if someone was watching her. A drop of sweat trickled into her bra, a side effect of the record high warm temperatures for January.

Or maybe it was nerves.

The French Quarter always seemed steeped in noise, but today excitement buzzed through the air like mosquitoes on a frenzy. The twelve days of partying and parades organized leading up to Mardi Gras had already brought hordes of masked creatures, artisans, musicians, voodoo priestesses, witchdoctors, tourists, and crime. Bourbon Street fed the night life and drew the tourists with its infamous souvenir shops, voodoo paraphernalia, palm readers, street musicians, strip clubs, jazz and blues clubs, seedy all-night bars. And then the hookers…

The massive crowd closed around her as the sidewalk seemed to move with them. Any one of them could be the enemy. Any one of them could have sent her the note. Battling panic, she reread the words. I know your secrets. And you know mine.

Yes, she’d done things she wasn’t proud of. Things no one else must ever know. They would say she was a bad girl. But she had done what she had to do in order to survive.

The very reason she was the perfect editor for the Secret Confessions column. She wanted her privacy. Understood that the written word could be evocative. But the fantasies deserved to be kept anonymous.

Just as she tried to do with her identity. Always changing her name. Running.

And what better place for her to hide than in the heart of New Orleans, so near where it had all happened? Working for this magazine was the perfect cover, the perfect way for her to blend with the masses.

But how could the person who’d written the note know about her past? The horror. The shame. The lies.

They couldn’t. It was impossible. She’d never told a soul.

Furious, she stuffed the note inside the envelope. It was probably just a prank from some sex-starved fan who wanted to win her attention like the pervert with the fetish for penis-rings who’d exposed himself to her in Jackson Square last week.

Just because she printed sexually explicit material, some people thought she understood their individual desires. Condoned their behavior. And that she wanted them personally.

Shivering at the thought, she tried to shake off her anxiety. No one knew the real Britta Berger.

And no one ever would.

She took a deep drink of water to swallow the remnants of the beignet which had lodged in her throat. In the background, the blues singer drifted into a slow tune, crooning out his heartache blues. A tall man around forty with a goatee and wire-rimmed glasses strode by and stared at her. She froze. Was he going to stop? Tell her he had sent the note. That he’d been following her. Waiting to watch her reaction?

Oddly though, he winked at her, and strode down the crowded sidewalk toward the Business District. She breathed out a sigh, but forced herself to take a mental snapshot of the man in case she saw him again.

Time to let old ghosts die. Move on.

Shaking off her paranoia, she started to close the envelope but a photo fell into her lap. A picture of a dead woman?

Was this some kind of voodoo spell?

Her heart pounding, she examined the picture more closely to see if it was real.

A naked woman had been tied to a four-poster bed. The bedding appeared rumpled, and stained with blood. The woman’s eyes were wide-open in terror, outlined in crudely painted-on black make-up, her slender young face contorted in agony. Ruby red lipstick covered her mouth, and was smeared as if she’d hastily applied it. The remainder of her make-up was grotesque, overdone to the point of making her look like a whore. And the blood red color of the lipstick matched the crimson red teddy that had been ripped and lay at her bare feet.

Where had the photo been taken? She scanned the room for details. An alligator’s head hung on the scarred wall in the dilapidated shanty. A snake was coiled by the bed. A lancet pierced her heart.

Inhaling sharply, Britta zeroed in on the necklace dangling around her bruised throat. The black stone was shaped like a serpent swallowing its tail.

Britta had seen that same necklace before. Years ago…

The man had tried to make her wear one, but she’d thrown it into the dirt and run.

The scene moved in slow motion in her mind. The scents of rotten vegetation, blood, mutilated animals, the marsh rose from the depths of her darkest hours to haunt her. Like quicksand, the muddy soil tried to suck her underground. Alligators and snakes nibbled at her heels, begging for dinner. Bones crunched where one had found his dinner.

She closed her eyes, banished the images and sounds. Visualized herself escaping. Slowly, her breathing steadied, and the panic eased in her chest. She was overreacting. The picture was probably fake.

But the yellowish/blue tint to the woman’s skin and the blood looked real. And her gut instincts told her that the woman had been murdered.

****
Dusk darkened the sky around the backwoods, blurring the lines between day and night as the murky Mississippi churned and slapped against the dilapidated shanty.

Detective Jean-Paul Dubois stared at the crime scene in disgust. The woman had been viciously murdered. Blood covered her bare chest and had dried onto the stained sheets of the bed. A scarlet teddy lay at her feet which were bound to the footboard with thick ropes, and her hands were tied to the headboard. Whoever had killed her had defiled her body, left her naked, bound, posed, her heart literally ripped apart with some kind of ancient spear.

His gaze fell to the serpent necklace, and he recognized the symbolic meaning. Good fighting evil.

Apparently the evil had won this time.

The CSI team arrived but he held up his hand for them to wait, then bowed his head for a moment, silently offering a prayer of reverence before he allowed them to move forward. With two sisters of his own, and the neverending guilt of his wife’s death on his conscience, seeing any female hurt and stripped of her dignity grated on his soul. At least Lucinda had not suffered rape or this humiliation. But still her death had cut him to the bone.

He had to put her out of his mind. Had to work, keep busy, pay penitence for his mistakes by saving others.

The Dubois’ men were cut from Cajun cloth. Had shady characters in their own ancestry. But today’s Dubois men spelled law. All three of them. Himself, Damon and Antwaun. He’d do his job and find out who had made this woman suffer.

He mentally cataloged the crime scene while his partner Detective Carson Graves searched the exterior. The room reeked of raunchy sex. Her face was painted with make-up in a grotesque style. Especially her eyes.

Then her heart had been brutally slashed. The killer had intentionally left her vulnerable and exposed as if to shame her. Worse, he’d left her deep in the bayou where the vermin might eat her before her body could be discovered.

It appeared ritualist. Had he murdered before?

Or had this sicko just come to New Orleans?

Bourbon Street, the Mardi Gras …as much as Jean-Paul loved his home in the bayou, something untamed in the land and climate drew the crazies like flies to sweet maple syrup. And with the pre-Mardi Gras celebrations, crime would only escalate.

Still, he did things by the book. No man was above the law. He had to make sure the investigators did everything right.

Flies and mosquitoes swarmed inside. The sounds of the woods croaked and buzzed around him while the muddy river carried vines, broken tree limbs and God knows what else upstream. Shadows hugged every corner, offering a hiding place for predators.

The stench of death and decay from the victim assaulted him, along with another strange odor that he didn’t quite recognize. The female CSI officer paused, stepped outside for air, then returned, looking pale but determined a few seconds later.

Judging from rigor and her body’s decay, she had been here at least a couple of days. In fact, they might never have found her had a local fisherman not noticed a faint light from an old bulb shining in the darkness and decided to check it out.

“At least he left her inside the cabin,” Skeeter Jones, the head CSI officer murmured.

Yeah or the gators would have fed on her already. Then no one would ever have found her.

The medical examiner, Dr. Leland Charles, leaned over to examine the body. “The chest wound looks bad. A wide blade, lots of bruising, looks as if he twisted it. He wanted her to suffer. Her coloring is pale with a yellowish tint.”

“We’ll check and see where he got the lancet.” Jean-Paul stooped to study the spear. “They sell them in the gift shops in town.”

“Hell, a man could have his pick of murder weapons from the street vendors,” Charles muttered.

“So, what was the cause of death?” Jean-Paul asked.

“There are no ligature marks on her neck so I’d rule out asphyxiation. She might have bled out from the chest wound, but I want to check tox screens. ” Charles noted more bruises on her body, her ribs, abdomen, thighs. “She did fight back — ” he murmured, “ — as much as she could in her position.”

Jean-Paul wondered if she had agreed to the bondage, then changed her mind later. Or she could have been unconscious when the perp tied her up. “I want the cause of death as soon as you finish with her. And make sure to send me the result of the full tox screen and rape kit. We need to determine if the sex was consensual.”

Charles nodded, then dabbed a q-tip across the woman’s abdomen and bagged it. “It looks like he rubbed some kind of oil on her body, maybe one of those love potions or sensual oils they sell in the market.”

Jean-Paul scanned the room for a bottle. “So, our guy uses massage oil as if he wants the woman to enjoy sex, then kills her? I don’t get it. Maybe he was conflicted?”

Charles muttered a curse. “Figure out what makes this one tick and you’ll catch him.”

“Maybe the night started out with romance, then things got rough.”

“And something she said or did triggered the man to snap and he killed her,” Charles added.

Jean-Paul shook his head, not buying it. The scene seemed too posed. Too planned. “No, the serpent necklace and lancet indicate he came prepared.” And what the hell did the mask of that crocodile head mean?

A tech motioned toward the medical examiner, and Jean narrowed his eyes. “Did you find something?”

She shrugged. “Boombox is still warm. Found a CD in it called Heartache Blues.”

“Symbolic or what?” Dr. Charles commented.

“She ripped out his heart, so he did the same to her.” Jean-Paul made a sound with his mouth. “Could be his motivation.”

“Check out the artist,” the tech said. “Some newbie named Randy Swain. I saw a write-up about him in the paper. He’s here for the music festival.”

Along with a thousand others. All strangers which made their investigation more difficult. “Of course.” Jean-Paul made a note to question the singer Randy Swain. And to question a couple of guys who made masks and sold them in the market.

The woman bagged the CD, dusted the boombox, then tagged both items for evidence.

“Anyone find the girl’s identification?” he asked.

One of the CSI techs shook his head. “Not so far.”

“Where are her clothes?”

“We didn’t find them either,” the CSI tech replied. “No clothes. No condom. Nothing personal. Not a toothbrush, comb, or even a pair of underwear.”

“This guy knows what he’s doing,” Jean-Paul said “He’s meticulous. He cleaned up. Didn’t leave any trace evidence.”

“There’s usually something, a hair fiber, an errant button, thread off a jacket,” the female crime scene investigator said. “If there is, we’ll find it.”

Jean-Paul nodded and studied the victim’s face again. Woman? Hell, she looked so damn young. Like someone’s daughter or little sister. Except for the grotesque make-up. Had she been a hooker or had the killer only painted her to resemble the girls in the red light district?

His cell phone trilled, and he checked the number. His superior, Lieutenant Phelps. He connected the call, his gaze catching sight of his partner combing the wooden dock. “Lieutenant, what is it?” Jean-Paul asked.

“We just got a call I need you to check out.”

Do we have a lead already?”

“Maybe. You know that erotica magazine, Naked Desires?”

He grimaced. His sisters had mentioned it at one of their family gatherings. Apparently they thought some of the letters were titillating. “I don’t exactly subscribe to it.” Phelps chuckled. “I wouldn’t expect my pride and joy officer to.”

Jean-Paul grimaced. He hated all the hype he’d received after the hurricane. Just because he’d stuck to his post, done his job and saved a few people, he’d received a damn commendation. Big deal.

He’d lost his wife…

“So what is it?” he asked.

“Britta Berger, the editor of the Secret Confessions column called and said she had something we needed to see.”

“Now?” Jean-Paul tapped his boot impatiently. “What is it, some letter that freaked her out?”

“Apparently it’s a photograph, not a letter,” Phelps said in a serious tone.

“But doesn’t this case take priority?” Jean-Paul asked.

“It is about the case,” Phelps said deadpan. “According to her description, she received a photograph of a crime.”

“What crime?”

“A murder,” Phelps said. “One that sounds suspiciously like the one you’re investigating.”

Jean-Paul gripped the phone with a sweaty hand. Had the killer photographed his handiwork and sent a copy to Britta Berger? And if so, why?

****
He stood outside the door to Naked Desires, the urge to go in making him shake with need. The moment he’d seen her photograph in that magazine, he’d recognized her. His Adrianna.

How ironic to finally have found her here in the city. So close to where he had first met her. So close to where everything had gone wrong.

What was she doing now? Studying the photograph he’d sent her? Staring in horror at the woman’s vile bloodless eyes? Wondering why he had sent her the message?

Adrenaline churned through his blood, heating his body.

He had to see her. Touch her. Watch the realization dawn in her eyes…

No. Not yet.

He’d waited years for this moment. Had searched in every face and town he’d visited. Had combed the edges off the bayou, hunting, hoping, yearning, praying she had survived. So he could kill her.

Laughter bubbled in his chest. And now the moment was so near, his vengeance almost within reach. Yet he had to draw it out. Earn his redemption. Save the other sinners. Make them pay.

And make Adrianna watch them suffer.

With each one, she would feel him breathing down her neck. Coming closer. Know the pain of having death upon her conscience.

Just as he lived with his father’s death upon his.

God made the world in seven days and nights. Seven days and nights he had been tortured after she took his father’s life.

Seven more days until Mardi Gras.

Each day until then, a celebration.

Each day until then, a time to torture.

And on the seventh day when Mardi Gras reached its grand finale, he would find salvation. He couldn’t wait to see the shock in her eyes when she realized that she had never escaped at all. That she had to pay for her sins.

And that she had to die because he loved her.

 

Anything for His Son

2017-11-09T13:58:39+00:00

Anything for His Son

Lights Out Series

Anything for His Son

The Boston blackout turned terrifying for Ethan and Rebecca Matalon when their five-year-old son was kidnapped. Rebecca suddenly forgot she’d been in town to finally get divorce papers signed. All she could focus on was little Jesse, her adorable boy who was afraid of the dark, taken by a vengeful madman.

Ethan had saved people all over the world on his secret missions, but could he save their son? His arms gave strength and comfort to Rebecca–the woman he’d never stopped loving–but their life together wouldn’t be worth saving if they lost Jesse. Frantic, trapped in a nightmare, Ethan had to focus. But time was running out, as darkness was descending….

Jesse hated the dark.

Rebecca Matalon had learned to hate it, too. Her five-year-old son’s cry in the night had woken her the evening before, and she’d spent hours trying to convince him that no monsters lurked in the shadows.

The insufferable sudden blackout that had hit Boston last night had continued into the day. So had Jesse’s crankiness.

She stared outside through the fifth-story window of the Ritz-Carlton, stunned that it was already 2:00 p.m. and the power still had not been restored. Never had she seen the city such a madhouse of chaos and ill tempers. Useless air conditioners, accidents due to nonfunctioning traffic lights and vandalism had turned normal decent people into irritable, aggressive, paranoid, violent citizens.

If she were in L.A., she’d be at work reporting the mess.

Instead, she was trying to keep her five-year-old son entertained and happy without the joys of television, electronic games-or his father.
Ethan hadn’t even been able to go to the Red Sox game with her and Jesse yesterday. And Ethan and Jesse’s common love of baseball had assured her they’d always remain close.

In spite of the fact that she’d moved thousands of miles away.

She dressed in the coolest linen skirt and cotton blouse she’d packed, swept her long blond hair into a chignon and clipped silver loops in her ears. A simple assessment in the mirror assured her that she looked fine. Not that she was primping for this dreaded rendezvous with Ethan, her soon-to-be-ex, but she hated to face him looking like a bedraggled sleep-deprived maniac. After all, she was the mother of his child and had been his lover.

And they had had a solid marriage once.Truth be known, they still remained friends. They just couldn’t live together.

Memories assaulted her, launching her back to a time when they’d first met. They’d shared an instant attraction, fallen in love overnight and married a year before he’d enlisted in the military. She’d survived the separation, but when he’d returned he’d been wrapped up in building his now-megamillion-dollar computer software company. On top of that was the covert work he did for Eclipse. Secret missions that he couldn’t talk about.

Dangerous jobs that sent him all over the world. She’d never quite known if he’d come home dead or alive.

Her heart raced at the realization that she had liked that dark, dangerous side of Ethan. The mystery, excitement, suspense had been a turn-on. But it was no way for a family to live.

Besides, she’d put her own career aspirations on hold for too long. After having Jesse and practically raising him alone, then working in menial jobs, she hadn’t been able to turn down the L.A. job. A TV journalist-her life’s dream.

In a bicoastal marriage, she and Ethan had drifted apart till she’d filed for divorce.

Now it was time to sign the damn papers and finalize the end of their marriage.

“Mommy?”

Rebecca’s heart squeezed at the sight of Jesse’s big brown eyes staring up at her. Ethan’s eyes.

Could she really do this today-sign those longawaited papers and put Ethan out of their lives for good?

No, Ethan would always be a part of Jesse’s life. Just not hers.

“I’m hot.” Jesse shoved his hand through his short blond hair, which was sticking out in a thousand directions. In his other hand, he held the glow-in-the-dark lighted wand that she’d bought him at the ballgame. Jesse had held on to it for dear life during the night, using it for light when he’d awakened in the dark.

“I know, sweetie. Maybe the electricity will be restored soon.”

“I don’t wanna stay in the hotel anymore. I wanna go play.”

Rebecca knelt in front of her son. She hadn’t explained about her meeting with Ethan yet, but eventually she’d have to. Jesse would be upset. Apparently half the kids at school came from divorced homes, and Jesse had already announced quite vehemently that he didn’t want to be one of them.

His declaration had broken her heart. “Tell you what.” She took his hand and guided him to the window, then lifted him so he could see outside. “See over there in Boston Common. That’s Frog Pond. There are a lot of kids out there. Would you like for Miss DeeDee to take you wading in the pond while I’m at my meeting?”

“Uh-huh.” He bobbed his head up and down, and she gave him a hug. Outdoor exercise would do him good. Maybe put him in a better mood and help him expend some of his restless energy.

She had to tell him the truth when she returned. She just prayed that one day he’d forgive her for tearing apart their family.

In a Heartbeat

2017-11-09T13:58:39+00:00

In a Heartbeat

In a Heartbeat

A HEARTBEAT IS ALL IT TAKES….

You’ve stolen my heart. I’m coming back for it.

With that brief, terrifying phone call, Lisa Langley’s nightmare began again. Four years ago she was the sole survivor of the Grave Digger, a madman who buried his victims alive. Now a copycat killer is on the loose and she’s the only chance Special Agent Brad Booker has of stopping this twisted psycho before more women – including Lisa – die.

Hard-edged and always in control, Booker has never forgiven himself for failing to save Lisa from falling victim to the first Grave Digger. Whatever it takes, this time he’s not going to let her down. Because almost losing Lisa is not something he can live through twice…

  • Ellijay is a real, southern mountain town in north Georgia where apple orchards and apple houses abound. Why do you think Rita chose to have Lisa move to this town? Do you live in, or have you visited a similar small town? Why do you think small towns are appealing as settings for stories? What images do the apple orchards and apple houses conjure for you?
  • Is there any significance in the fact that Lisa has chosen to teach young children instead of following in her father’s footsteps?
  • Brad Booker is a tortured hero in this story. What about his past makes him that way? Do you know people who’ve been affected by their childhood/upbringing? Why do you think he chose to be in law enforcement?
  • Lisa and her father have not been close since her attack. Often, in real life, tragedies and violence can bring families closer together – or it can tear them apart. Do you know families where this has happened?
  • Both Lisa and her father are dealing with her attack in their own way. What is it that each of them needs from the other? Why are they unable to give it at the beginning of the story? And what changes to make them learn to communicate?
  • The first Grave Digger chose his victims to fit a pattern – except for Lisa. Why did he choose her? And why did the copycat Grave Digger return for her?
  • The villain in this story, the first Grave Digger, was a true sociopath and had suffered an abusive childhood. What about the copycat killer? What motivated him to kill?
  • In some ways, the theme of this book reads as a “home is where the heart is” story? How so? Do you believe that’s true?
  • This story flirts with a paranormal element? Do you believe in the supernatural? Do you think that violence is caused by nature (genetic)/nurture (environmental factors and upbringing)?
“IN A HEARTBEAT is an awesome and edgy suspense thriller that will keep you on the rim of your seat guessing who the culprit is and how the thick plot will conclude. Ms. Herron weaves a lovely romance into a world of chaos, mystery and angst-ridden souls trying to find the power to live again. Both Lisa and Brad captured my heart with their distressed pasts and their willingness to overcome huge obstacles to achieve the ultimate goal of learning to love and trust again. Ms. Herron paints such a vivid picture that you can not help but feel the emotions and see the surrounding imagery. Just when I thought I had the culprit pegged, Ms. Herron negated my theory with yet another twist to the story and I never would have guessed who the madman really was. The ultimate part of this thrilling tale for me was the last thirty pages. It is so powerful that you will not be able to help but to grab a box of tissues and cry with these two magnetic characters. I applaud Ms. Herron for captivating this reader from the beginning and keeping me enthralled to the very end. IN A HEARTBEAT is going on my keeper shelf and I anxiously await more of Ms. Herron’s work.” Billie Jo, Romance Junkies

Prologue

Lisa Langley couldn’t breathe.

Heat engulfed her, and perspiration trickled down her brow and neck, the cloying air filled with the scent of decay, blood and foul body odors.

Her captor’s smell.

Her own.

She was suffocating. Being buried alive. Swallowed by the darkness.

Cold terror clutched her in its grip. The wooden box imprisoning her was so small her arms and legs touched the sides. An insect crawled along her chin, nipping at her skin, biting at the flesh. She tried to scream, but her throat was so dry and parched that the sound died.

Tears mingled with the sweat on her cheeks, streaming into her hair and down her neck. What kind of maniac buried a woman alive?

The same kind that robbed you of your life the last few days.

William White. The man she’d dated off and on for the past six months.

How could she not have known what kind of monster he was?

She trembled as the terrifying memories rushed back — the first day the suspicions had crept into her mind. The subtle nuances that William possessed a violent streak. His morbid fascination with the articles in the paper describing the murders.

The odd look in his eyes when the press named him the Grave Digger.

Above her, a shovel scraped the ground. Dirt splattered the top of the box. Rocks and debris pinged on top of her. The shovel again. More dirt. Over and over. The eerie drone of his voice humming an old hymnal faded in and out as he worked.

The past few days had been a living nightmare. He’d heard her call the police. Had known she’d figured out his identity, that the FBI was coming for him.

There was nothing else he could do, he’d told her — except treat her as he had his other victims.

She’d thought each day she would die. But each time, when he’d finally left her, bruised and hurting, she’d managed to will herself to survive. Because she’d thought she might be rescued. That Agent Brad Booker would make good on his promise to protect her.

Particles of dirt pinged off of the mound above her again, the sound growing faint as she imagined him finishing her grave.

And then the silence.

It frightened her the most.

He had gone. Was never coming back. Her body convulsed with fear. She was hidden beneath the ground, locked in the endless quiet.

No one would ever find her.

She tried to raise her hand, to roll sideways to so she could push at the lid. Her right hand was broken, throbbing with pain, but she dragged her left one to her side, twisted enough to turn slightly and clawed at the top. Her nails broke into jagged layers, and her fingers were bloody and raw, splinters jabbing her skin.

He had nailed the top shut. And laughed as she’d begged him to stop.

A few grains of sand sifted through the cracks, pelting her face. She blinked at the dust. Tasted dirt.

It was so dark. If only she had a light.

But night had fallen outside when he’d lain her in her casket.

She pushed and scraped until her fingers grew numb. In spite of the unbearable heat, chills cascaded through her as death closed in. Then slowly peace washed over her as she reconciled herself to the fact that she was going to die.

The life she’d dreamed about flashed into her mind — a beautiful white wedding dress. Getting married on a warm, sandy beach with the breeze fluttering the palm leaves, and the ocean lapping against the shore. Moonlight shimmered off the sand as they exchanged vows, while her father stood in the distance smiling proudly.

Then she and her husband were making love beneath the open trees. Promising to hold each other forever.

And later, a baby boy lay nestled in her arms. A little girl danced toward her.

A little girl she could buy a birthstone ring for her just like her mother had for her. As she’d outgrown it, she’d made it into a necklace. But William had stolen that, too. Had ripped it from her throat and thrown it to the ground. It was lost forever. Just like her dreams.

Too weak to scream, the sob that erupted from her throat died in the dusty abyss of her prison.

The hopes of that life, of a family, faded with it as she closed her eyes and floated into the darkness.

****
She had to be alive.

The tires of Special Agent Brad Booker’s sedan screeched on the wet asphalt as he veered onto the narrow dirt road leading around the old farmhouse. It was pitch dark, a cloudy moonless night. He’d reached Death Valley.

Now he knew why it had been dubbed the gruesome name.

The grass and trees all looked brittle and frail from the drought, the outbuildings run-down and dilapidated, the lack of life a sign that it was deserted. He’d heard rumors about the area. That the soil wasn’t fertile. That plants and animals couldn’t thrive here. That families didn’t either.

He threw the car into park, jumped out, grabbed a flashlight and shovel from the trunk and took off running. Behind him two other cars raced up and parked. One, his partner Ethan Manning. The other a squad car from the local Buford police.

His heart pounded as he tore through the dark, wooded area searching for fresh ground that had been turned. Limbs cracked and branches splintered beneath his boots. It had been over twenty minutes since Brad had received the call from the reporter.

The call describing the spot where Lisa Langley was buried.

Jesus.

Brad had promised to protect her.

But he’d failed.

Behind him, the men’s voices sounded, each deciding which direction to go. It was so damn dark they could barely see their own feet, the towering oaks and pines like a jungle that drowned out any light. They parted, the locals with the police dogs allowing the hounds to lead. Brad wove behind them to the right, shined his flashlight over the dry ground, ignoring the buzz of insects and threat of snakes as he raced through the briars and bramble. A voice inside his head whispered to him that it was too late.

Just as it had been for the other four victims.

Another voice ordered him to fight the panic.

But the air in the box wouldn’t last long. If the oppressive summer heat didn’t cause Lisa to have a heatstroke first. And then the bugs would feast on her body.

He banished the image and forged on.

It seemed like hours, but only a few minutes passed. Then one of the police tracking dogs suddenly howled.

“Over here!” the officer yelled. “I think we’ve got something.”

Brad spun around and raced toward him. Seconds later, he spotted the mound of dirt. The single white rose lying on top.

The Grave Digger’s signature.

“Damnit!” His heart clutched painfully as he imagined Lisa Langley down below. Terrified. Dying.

Or dead already.

He loosened the knot in his tie, then jammed the shovel into the ground, swiping at the perspiration on his face with the back of his shirtsleeve. Manning and the locals followed, digging with a frenzy. Dirt and rocks flew over their shoulders as they worked. Sweat poured down his face, the sound of the shovels and the men’s labored breathing filling the humid air.

Finally, the shovel hit something hard. A wooden box. Just like the others.

His heart pounding, he dug faster, raking away the layers of soil until they uncovered the top of the box.

“Give me a crowbar and some light!” Brad shouted.

Ethan knelt beside him, shoved the tool into his hand. Brad attacked the box while the locals shined flashlights on the dark hole.

The wood broke and splintered. Brad clawed it open. His throat jammed with emotions. Fury. Rage. Guilt.

Lisa Langley. Such a beautiful young girl. Left naked and dirty. Bruised and beaten. Her fingers were bloody from trying to dig her way out. Her eyes were closed.

Her body so still.

“Too late,” one of the locals said.

“Shit,” the other one muttered.

“No!” He couldn’t accept it.

Even though he never went to church, wasn’t sure he was even a believer, a prayer rolled through his head as he reached inside and lifted her out. She was so limp. Heavy. Cold. He spread her across his lap, then immediately began CPR.

Ethan ran to the car and brought back blankets, draped them across her body, then felt for a pulse.

The two men’s gazes locked. Paralyzed for just a second.

Brad continued CPR, muttering under his breath. “Come on, damnit, Lisa, breathe! Don’t you dare die on me.”

Time lapsed into an eternity as they waited. Finally her chest rose slightly.

Ethan made a choked sound. “Jesus Christ, she’s alive.” He jumped into motion, punching in his cell phone. “Where the hell’s that ambulance? Get it here asap — our vic is breathing!”

Brad sent a thank-you to heaven, then lowered his head and wrapped the blankets more securely around her, rocking her back and forth. “Come on, Lisa, stay with me, sweetheart,” he whispered. “Help is on the way.” He shook her face gently, trying to rouse her into consciousness, but she was in shock. He wrapped the blankets tighter, hugging her closer to warm her. Somehow, if she lived, he’d make it all up to her.

And when he found the bastard who’d done this to her, he’d make him pay with his life.

 

Chapter One

Four Years Later

“The Grave Digger is back.”

Special Agent Brad Booker stared at the crime scene in shock, the detective’s voice mimicking his own thoughts The Grave Digger case — this whole scenario reeked of it.

That first one had almost cost him his career, his entire life.

His mind ticked over the similarities. Four years ago, the final victim, Lisa Langley, had been found on another moonless night. It had been dark, and so damn hot the heat had literally robbed his breath. As if the thought of her missing hadn’t already done so.

Just like the other victims, he’d found her in a rural, deserted wooden area. Rotting vegetation and overgrown bushes marred the trail. Yet they had plowed their way through and found the grave tucked into the midst of Death Valley.

Except today, there was no white rose on the grave. This killer was making his own statement here. Adding his personal signature with the gold cross dangling around the woman’s neck. But what was the significance?

Hopefully Joann Worthy’s battered body would give them some answers. The stench of blood, decay and death permeated the air. Crime scene technicians combed the woods with flashlights searching for evidence in the inky night. Insects buzzed noisily by. Cameras flashed, capturing all angles of the woman’s lifeless body and her burial spot. The medical examiner was busy logging details of injuries and determining the cause of death. A rookie Buford cop named Surges turned green as he spotted the already decaying body, and ran toward the bushes.

Brad stood rooted to the spot, sweat coating his neck and trickling down his back. An image of Lisa’s grave four years ago flashed back. Digging furiously in the heat of the night. Praying she was alive. Knowing it was his fault if she didn’t survive.

Barely resuscitating her.

And then the trial. Watching Lisa face her attacker. Listening to the gruesome details describing what the man had done to her. Then seeing the man finally locked away.

Another local, Gunther, sidled up next to him. “You sure it’s not the same man? Maybe that first Grave Digger got out of jail.”

“Impossible.” Brad swiped at a gnat swarming around his face. “William White died in prison nine months ago of a massive head injury from a prison fight. I identified his body myself.” In fact, he had flown directly to the jail the minute he’d heard about White’s demise. Had wanted to make sure for himself the sadistic psycho was really gone. That he could never escape and hurt another woman again.

Especially Lisa.

Then he’d driven to the mountain cabin she’d rented near Ellijay to deliver the news himself. To see the relief on her face.

To see if the ghosts still haunted her.

He’d somehow known they would, that she’d never fully escape them. And when he’d seen her reaction to him, that he reminded her of the worst time of her life, he’d forced himself to leave. But he’d never forgotten her. Never stopped blaming himself.

Never stopped admiring her courage or …imagining that things could have been different if she’d never been a victim.

But a personal relationship with Lisa Langley was a pipe dream, especially a short term one which was all a jaded man like him had to offer. He knew nothing about love. Commitment. Families.

Dealing with a traumatized victim.

His own mother had thrown him out as a kid, discarded him like day-old meat. His bitter childhood had nearly turned him into the type of men he chased today. And there were times even now when he thought he might cross the line. Times when he’d come so close that he’d nearly tripped and fallen over to the dark side.

He had actually done so in the past.

The night he’d finally gotten his hands on William White, that killer instinct in him had emerged again.

Sweet blissful relief to have caught the man had filled him, just as the rage and injustice of what White had done to his victims had made Brad nearly take the man’s life. Because Brad Booker was a man without mercy.

And White had seen that wrath..

Brad had no regrets. He would have enjoyed watching the man die.

Forcing himself back to the present, he glanced at the victim’s body as the ME rolled her over. Bile rose in his throat. When they’d found her, Lisa’s lower back had been covered in welts in much the same way. Thank God she was safe now.

And keeping her safe continued to be part of the job. No one knew where she was. The new name she’d assumed.

And he intended to keep it that way.

But this poor woman…it was too late.

“Can you believe this?” His partner, Ethan Manning, strode up, notepad in hand, rubbing at the sweat on his neck. “We were in a drought back then, too, a real scorching heat wave.”

Brad nodded. “And the killer always left the body in an isolated place.” The proximity to his own cabin on the lake seemed eerie, too coincidental. He didn’t like coincidences.

“Wooden box was nailed shut with the same kind of nails,” Ethan said. “And he chops off the victims hair. Brutalizes them. Even calls a reporter to gloat.”

Brad grimaced. “But this time he left a cross instead of a rose.”

“What’s that all about?” Ethan asked.

“Maybe some sign that he’s a religious freak.” Brad scoffed at the idea. “Any sign of rape?”

The one thing Lisa had been spared. Thank God. Apparently White had been impotent.

“Can’t tell yet, but I’ll let you know,” the ME said. “He cuts the fingernails off to get rid of trace evidence.”

If the woman had been raped, then the copy cat was deviating slightly from the first killer’s MO. Still, there were so many similarities. “How could this copy cat know every last detail?”

“The papers carried the trial,” Ethan suggested. “And he could have read the transcript of Lisa’s testimony.”

Brad’s gut clenched. Every word of that agonizing testimony had been seared into his brain.

“Or hell, he probably bragged about it in prison,” Ethan said. “You know how these sickos are. White was a sociopath.”

Brad nodded. Right, the bastard had no conscience.

Brad almost understood. He’d been forced to get into the perps heads too many times. Had seen their handiwork. Had witnessed the unthinkable.

Had begun to think he might be tainted himself from the violence. Not knowing his daddy or what genetic pool he’d come from made him wonder all sorts of things in the dark hours of the night.

The M.E. lifted a maggot from inside the box and bagged it. July first, the dead of summer, and the Atlanta temperature was soaring near a hundred. The heat in the box must have been even more suffocating because of it.

The poor woman. How long had she been kept down there before he’d called? He turned toward Gunther, the local officer. “She the one you’ve been looking for?”

“Matches the sketch,” Gunther said tight-mouthed. “I’ll phone the family to meet us at the morgue and verify her identity.”

Brad grimaced. One of the worst parts of the job. Telling the victim’s family.

He still remembered Dr. Langley’s reaction when he phoned to relay the news that they’d found Lisa. Alive. Only the man hadn’t reacted as he’d expected.

“We’ll question the other inmates where White was imprisoned,” Ethan said.

Brad mumbled agreement. “And I want to talk to that reporter.”

“I’ll get someone on the lumber supply companies,” Ethan said. “He may be building these boxes himself like White did. Maybe we can get a jump on where he bought the wood.”

Surges staggered up, wiping at his mouth. “Sorry.”

“Don’t sweat it, kid. You’ll get used to it,” Brad said. “Just start canvassing those cabins around the lake.”

Surges nodded, and Brad contemplated different possibilities — what if White hadn’t been operating alone years ago?

Sometimes serial killers worked in pairs…

The hairs on his neck tingled. They’d explored that angle during the original trial, but had never found any evidence to support it. But they could have been wrong.

Ethan moved up to his side. “Are you going to tell Lisa?”

Brad jerked his head toward his partner and swallowed hard. He’d never confided his feelings for White’s final victim, but Ethan had sensed the attraction. That Brad had nearly lost perspective.

But Lisa hated him. Would barely even look him in the eye.

How could he blame her? He’d hounded her for information on her boyfriend for weeks, accused her of covering for the man, even suggested White had used her, that she was a fool if she didn’t know the truth.

Then when she’d finally phoned him to admit her suspicions, he’d promised to protect her. But White had gotten to Lisa first. The week that had followed had been hell for him.

But nothing compared to the ordeal Lisa had endured. Seven days and nights of pure torture.

Ethan cleared his throat. “Booker?”

“No, not yet. I don’t want to alarm her.”

“You think that’s wise? Maybe she remembered something during the last four years that might help us. Like the place where White kept her. Or a second man.”

Ethan nodded, looking resigned while they both tried to focus on the details regarding this other woman.

But as things wound down, and Brad strode back to his car, a sense of foreboding followed him. Could he ask Lisa to relive those nightmarish details again? To tap into her subconscious where she’d repressed some of the horror?

Of course, you can. You’re the man without mercy. You can do whatever it takes to get the job done.

His stomach knotted as another thought struck him — if this psycho was copying White’s crimes down to a tee, would he go after Lisa just as the last madman had?