“What happened?” His voice was soft and soothing as he stroked her hair.


She shook her head, trying to find the right words. There was no way she’d imagined this. She sure as hell hadn’t locked herself in the coffin and the rug burn on her chin was real. “A man in a mask knocked me out and locked me in. I don’t know how long I’ve been unconscious.”


Braden took a step back to assess her. He kept his hands protectively on her shoulders, as if he was afraid to let go of her. “Are you hurt?”


Instead of responding she glanced at the reverend, then back at Braden. Her legs shook so bad she could barely stand, but she needed to talk to Braden alone. “Can we talk somewhere private?”


Still frowning, Braden nodded, then turned to the other man. “Excuse us.” He gently took her by the hand, then strode down to the office they’d been in earlier. She collapsed on one of the chairs.


He hunkered down so they were face to face and he tightly grasped one of her hands. “Talk to me, Lilly. Walk me through what happened.”


Anchored by his touch and the concern in his eyes, she found the words. “I heard someone calling my name. I thought it was you so I went searching. A masked man attacked me in that room. I fought as hard as I could but he pinned me to the floor and…he was excited. I could feel it. He told me that he was going to enjoy every inch of me later.” Despite her efforts to stay calm, her voice cracked on the last word and a few unwanted tears spilled down her cheeks. She flinched when Braden made an attempt to comfort her.


If someone was truly after her, then she couldn’t afford to let Braden get too close to her. After watching one of her best friends die in Africa and now her aunt, she couldn’t lose someone else she cared about. She and Braden might not be close anymore, but he meant a lot more to her than she dared to admit aloud. Not to mention she couldn’t take his brand of kindness right now. If she let him console her, the dam would break and she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from blubbering all over him.


His hand dropped as he straightened in his chair. “How did he get you in the coffin?”


“He put something over my face. Maybe it was ether because I remember whatever it was, smelled sweet. Do you think it’s the guy you’re looking for?”


A muscle in his jaw ticked as he studied her face. “It’s possible…no, it’s probable. You’re going to need to make a statement down at the station and I’m going to send some of the guys down to dust for prints.”


“He was wearing gloves.” She hated telling him the next part because now she felt so stupid, but she had no choice. “Braden, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this guy.”


“What?”


She looked down at her clasped hands. God, this was so embarrassing. “For the past year I’ve been suffering from PTSD.” When he didn’t respond, she met his gaze. Thankfully she didn’t see pity or judgment. He just looked at her with those dark, soulful eyes and she knew he was listening. Really listening to her. “Last night, right before you showed up I saw a masked face in the kitchen window but I thought it was a waking nightmare. An effect of the PTSD. Then it happened again this morning while you were in the shower. The second time he had a knife.”


“Why didn’t you say something?” He didn’t seem to be judging her or shocked even. He didn’t seem to be anything. His expression was completely unreadable.


“I didn’t think it was real. I’ve been having vivid nightmares over the past year. My therapist told me things could get worse before I start healing and I…I just assumed this was a waking nightmare or some kind of manifestation. It’s not like the figure tried to attack me. He just grinned and stared at me. It was disturbing, but…” She pressed a hand to her stomach as reality assaulted her. This guy had been following her.


Watching her. And there was no way for her to find out how long it had been going on.


“I’ll get someone to your place to dust for prints too. What did the knife look like?”


This is where she worried he really would think she was crazy. “You know what…happened to me, right?” At his nod, she found her voice again. Saying the words aloud made her want to vomit, but she pushed herself. “I was forced to watch half my team being murdered. The curved knife he had looked exactly like the one they used to…” She let her voice trail off. Braden had seen the news. There were some things she simply couldn’t bring herself to say. Seeing her friends and teammates chopped up, beheaded and set on fire wasn’t something she was sure she’d ever get over no matter what her therapist said. Other than her boss and superiors at the NSA, her therapist was the only person who knew what that knife looked like. She’d described it in excruciating detail and somehow the exercise had been therapeutic. “Since I thought it wasn’t real, I didn’t think about it. I just assumed it was the manifestation of my memories. Now that I know it’s not my imagination, it’s too much of a coincidence, right?” She already knew the answer, but asked anyway.


“This is no coincidence. Do you have any idea who this could be? Any ex-boyfriends?”


She laughed at the thought. For the past year she’d been consumed with nothing but occupational therapy and regular therapy before returning to work. “No boyfriends, no enemies…well, that I know of. If this is the same person who’s been killing people in Hudson Bay, I’m not the only connection.”


“Damn it, I know,” he muttered.


As he paced next to her, she racked her brain for names, but the ones she came up with weren’t feasible. He had to have some enemies if he was the link between the victims. “If you had to think of one person who hates you, what’s the first name that pops into your mind? Don’t think, just answer.”


He stopped midpace and faced her. “I’ve put a few people in jail over the past year, Lilly. I’m sure quite a few people have a bone to pick with me.”


“No thinking. What name popped into your head first?”


“Greg Murphy.”


Just hearing the name made her cringe. “Ugh.”


“You remember him?”


She suppressed a shudder. Greg had been friends with Braden’s younger brother. Yeah, she remembered him. “Senior year he used to harass me after homeroom. He was always telling me I’d be better off with a ‘real man’ and he used to leave the weirdest letters in my locker telling me what a tease I was. He even asked me to prom despite the fact that I was dating you.”


“Why didn’t you ever tell me?” Braden asked through gritted teeth.


“Because I think that’s what he wanted. I don’t think he was ever actually interested in me. I think he wanted a reaction from you. More importantly, why is he the first name you thought of?”


“I’ve arrested him a few times for roughing up his wife, but she always drops the charges. Last time, things got heated and he took a swing at me. He also made some nasty threats. I was able to lock him up for a little while that time.”


“When was this?”


“Over a year ago. Since he’s gotten out, things have been quiet.”


“What about his wife?”


He shrugged, but she didn’t miss the pained expression in his eyes. “Saw her about six months ago at the grocery store sporting a shiner, but if she doesn’t call it in, I can’t do anything about it. What about you? I know you said you don’t have any enemies, but what’s the first name that you think of?”


“I honestly can’t think of anyone alive who’d hate me so much that they’d rape, kill and carve…” She trailed off since she didn’t need to finish.


Braden sighed and motioned for the door. “All right. We need to head to the station and report this.”


As soon as they stepped into the hall, they were greeted by Reverend Ingram and the owner of the funeral home, Albert Watson.


Deep lines etched around Albert’s pale eyes and he clasped his hands tightly in front of his stomach. He hadn’t been around when she’d been hoisted out of the coffin but no doubt the reverend had filled him in on what happened.


“Ms. Carmichael, I’m so sorry. If there’s anything I can do—”


“Uh, Albert, you can call me Lilly and I’m fine.” The man had known her since she was in diapers. She didn’t know why he was calling her Ms. Carmichael. Unless he was afraid she’d sue.


“Albert, Reverend, I’m going to need you both to stay out of this room.” Braden motioned to the left. “I’m going to send someone to check for evidence.”


They both nodded and Reverend Ingram stepped forward to take Lilly’s hand. “I’m so sorry about your aunt. I assume you wanted to talk to me about the wake?”


“Yes, I was hoping you could say a few words, but—”


“But keep it short and sweet, right?” A wry smile touched his lips.


Well, that wasn’t exactly how she would have put it, but she nodded. “I’d greatly appreciate it. My aunt thought a lot of you.”


“And I thought a great deal of her. Will you be in town long?” Reverend Ingram shot a not-so-subtle look in Braden’s direction before focusing on her.


“A couple weeks.”


“Maybe I’ll see you in church on Sunday?”


She inwardly smiled. Still the same man she remembered. “Maybe.”


“Good, maybe you can get the sheriff to come with you.”


Braden cleared his throat. “We’ve got to get down to the station.”


Once they were outside and alone she stole a glance at Braden. “You don’t go to church anymore?”


“I go when I can, but I work Sundays. Apparently being sheriff isn’t an excuse to miss anything.”


“Not in Reverend Ingram’s book.” She chuckled but stiffened when he held open the passenger door for her. It’s not that she didn’t appreciate it. The opposite in fact. For some reason when he held her doors open, long buried memories assaulted her. Even before they’d started dating, when they’d simply been friends, Braden had always opened doors for her. He’d always treated her with respect. It was one of the things that had originally attracted her to him.

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