Why did he have to be so damn nice? It made it harder to keep her distance from him. She could feel her defenses weaken and she wanted to tell him the real reason she’d left him. But that was just asking for trouble.

As she stepped into the truck, her right leg spasmed and she lurched off-balance and straight into Braden.

His strong arms encircled her waist before she could fall. “Are you okay?”

Her brain short-circuited for a second. She inhaled the familiar, spicy scent as she clutched his chest. “Fine,” she mumbled. Out of pure instinct, she started to slide her hands up to his shoulders. At the last second she caught herself. After all these years the action was so instinctual. That scared her.

“You sure?” The concern in his deep voice washed over her like a warm summer breeze.

“Leg cramped up, that’s all.” Her right leg had been broken, then re-broken so many times it was inevitable that she’d have problems. Despite months of working with the best occupational therapist in the United States, the cold sometimes restricted her movements. She wiggled her leg and a burst of internal relief bloomed inside her chest once she knew that she could move. “I’m fine now.”

Instead of releasing her, Braden helped her into the front seat. Even though he didn’t need to, he leaned over and strapped her seatbelt in. As he pulled away, he paused so that their faces were mere inches apart. She could see his pupils dilate and his nostrils flare. The movement was slight, but combined with his uneven breathing, she knew what he was thinking. She knew, because she was thinking the same thing.

Just once, she’d like to taste him again. To feel those strong lips against hers. It would be a mistake, but it was hard to care when he was staring at her with undeniable need. Slightly parting her lips, she leaned forward a fraction. The desire to kiss him was pure instinct.

He quickly jerked away from her. She sighed as he shut the door and rounded to the driver’s side. It was for the best anyway. Getting tangled up with him again would leave her heart bare to be ripped up. Instinctively she knew he didn’t believe her about why she’d left and if she let him press her, she’d be more likely to do something stupid and tell him the truth. No, keeping her distance was the smart thing to do.

Leftover slivers of pain splintered down her leg, but the sensation was similar to the pins and needles she experienced when her foot fell asleep.

A buzzing greeted her ears as Braden opened his door. She frowned and looked around the truck. “You hear that?”

“I think it’s coming from your purse.” He slipped the key into the ignition.

She grabbed her purse from the floorboard and fished her cell out. She frowned when she saw her boss’s number. “Hey Charles, is everything okay?”

“Are you sitting down?”

She frowned. “Yeah, why?”

“Hannah Jenkins was found murdered in her home this morning.”

A flash of cold slithered across Lilly’s skin. She never should have gotten out of bed this morning. “Murdered?”

“The medical examiner estimates time of death sometime Friday evening.”

It was now Tuesday. Disbelief burned the back of her throat. Hannah had not only been her therapist, she’d been a dear friend. Whenever Lilly had needed someone to talk to, day or night, it hadn’t mattered, the older woman had always been available. For the past year she’d been Lilly’s rock. She’d been the one who’d finally okayed her to return to field duty. Lilly blinked back hot tears. “How?” She choked on the word.

“The official cause is asphyxiation, but she was tortured for hours before she died.”

Lilly put a hand to her throat. “Tortured?” She could barely get the word out. Braden glanced at her sharply but she didn’t acknowledge him.

“Yes, and her office was ransacked. According to her client list, only one file seems to be missing, though.”

She knew the answer before she asked, but she had to nonetheless. “Whose?”

“Yours. And there was a message left behind for you.”

“Message?” She stared blindly out the window at the passing trees and cars as she tried to digest his words.

“Whoever did this is sick. There was a photograph of you tacked to the middle of her desk. Written in her blood was the message ‘This is just the beginning, Lilly.’”

She closed her eyes. “Damn,” she muttered.

“My sentiments exactly. Listen, as soon as the funeral is over, I want you on the next plane back to D.C.,” her boss said.

She rubbed her temple. “That’s not going to happen.”

Charles was quiet as she relayed the serial type murders and the bizarre turn of events since she’d arrived, including her recent attack. After she wrapped up, she asked, “Was Hannah tortured like the other women?”

“No. It wasn’t pretty but it was nothing like that. Whoever killed her wanted information, but they also weren’t professional. This was more sadistic in nature.”

Lilly couldn’t fight off a shudder. The thought of Hannah suffering at the hands of some monster made her sick. And angry.

Charles spoke again before she could respond. “You’re under protective custody then?”

“Yes.” She glanced at Braden. His hands were clasped tightly on the steering wheel. She wondered if he was annoyed that she’d told her boss so much, but the man had the highest clearance in the country.

“I’m going to send someone else to Hudson Bay,” her boss said.

“No!” It came out louder than she’d intended.

“Well, what do you expect me to do?”

“Please don’t send anyone else. I’m handling this.” Charles had practically coddled her since she’d returned from Africa and it was embarrassing. She couldn’t let him give her any more preferential treatment. They were stretched thin just like every other government agency. She wasn’t going to waste NSA resources on this especially since anyone he sent wouldn’t be equipped to deal with a serial killer any better than she. They weren’t the FBI and of the few people he might send, she knew they wouldn’t get along with the locals and would just piss off everyone at the station. Not exactly productive to the case.

“How much do you trust this Braden Donnelly?” He smoothly switched topics.

“Why?” She couldn’t imagine why he was asking. Her boss knew exactly who Braden was and what his role in her life had been. Before she’d been hired by the NSA, her entire life had been dissected, including an extensive background check.

“You don’t think he could be responsible for any of this?” His voice was calm.

She snorted loudly, earning her a strange look from Braden. “No way. Why would you ask that?”

“No reason. I just wanted to get your gut reaction on him.”

“Why? You wouldn’t ask that without a reason.”

Charles sighed, but at least he answered. “He came to see you a year ago…when you were in the hospital.”

“What?” She was thankful Braden couldn’t hear the other half of the conversation.

“He flew in with your aunt, but he wasn’t family and I knew he was your ex so I wouldn’t let him see you.”

Braden had come to visit her? After nearly a decade of silence, he’d come to see her in D.C.? Lilly wondered why her aunt had never mentioned anything.

“Are you there?” Charles asked.

“Yeah. Listen, I’ll call you back later, okay?”

“Lilly, I’m sorry. You were in and out of consciousness and I didn’t want anything to upset you. Your aunt was angry at me, but I made an executive decision and the hospital listened.”

“How long…” She didn’t want to finish the question in front of Braden.

Thankfully her boss understood. “He was there about a week.”

Her throat seized for a second but she found her voice. “I’ll call you later.”

As they disconnected, Braden pulled into the parking lot of the police station. “Everything okay?”

She stared at him for a long moment, debating if she should say something. Lilly couldn’t believe he’d come to see her but she shoved those thoughts from her mind. “I think things are a lot worse than we imagined.”

In as few words as possible she told him about her therapist’s murder, the vile message left for her, and that her boss wanted her to come home. While the murders in town weren’t similar to Hannah’s, she had no doubt the same person had committed all of the killings. Why else would someone take her file? Or leave her a message? After she finished, Braden nodded his agreement about the connection.

Then he slammed his fist against the center console. “Damn it! None of this makes sense.”

Instinctively she reached out and squeezed his arm. “We’re going to find this guy. No matter what, he’s only human. He will make a mistake. If he hasn’t already.”

Unexpected heat flashed in his dark eyes as his gaze trailed to where they were connected. Immediately she let go of his arm, inwardly cursing herself. She wasn’t a touchy-feely person. Or at least she wasn’t anymore. Not by a long shot. And touching him was playing with fire. Hot, burning, sensual fire she needed to stay away from.

Chapter 5

Braden held out his hand as Lilly passed the signed statement to him. “Let me file this and we’ll get out of here.”

“I still can’t believe this is happening here of all places.” She leaned back in the leather seat and crossed her legs.

He grabbed a pen from the mesh holder on his desk and signed off on the statement. “We’ve managed to keep things quiet, but after what happened to you today, I think people might talk.”

A small smile played on her pretty lips and his entire body heated up. “They’re going to be talking anyway. I got a few double takes when we were driving through town today.”

“Can you blame them? You’ve been gone a long time.” Too damn long. Sometimes he wondered if he’d let her go too easily. He cleared his throat and veered his thoughts in another direction. She’d made a choice and that’s just the way it was. He couldn’t start second guessing himself now. “Tell me about the tattoo on your hip.”