After Lilly had been rescued in Africa she’d been harassed by reporters at the airport in Djibouti, when she’d touched down in D.C. and then for weeks afterward. Even talking to a reporter left a bitter taste in her mouth. Not to mention the woman still hadn’t identified herself and that just pissed Lilly off. “Get behind the tape and tell your crew they better not get any ideas either. You don’t have the authority to be here. That yellow tape means this is a crime scene.” She spoke slowly, enunciating each word as if the woman was a small child.


“What gives you the authority to tell me what to do?”


Lilly adjusted her arms so that her badge was visible. She didn’t respond because she didn’t want to actually establish that she was working with the Hudson Bay County Sheriff’s Office. The Department of Defense logo across the top of her badge spoke volumes all by itself.


“Well…” The woman’s voice trailed off as she glanced around. She turned back to Lilly and her face split into a wide grin. “We’ll just see about that.”


She followed the other woman’s gaze to see Braden barreling down on them and he did not look happy. Tall, blonde and bitchy obviously didn’t have as much clout as she thought.


“Braden, this woman is trying to tell me I need to leave.” The other woman’s saccharine sweet voice grated on Lilly’s nerves. Not to mention the way she said Braden’s name was far too intimate for Lilly’s taste. She’d never been the jealous type but she could practically feel herself growing claws.


“This woman is right. Why the hell would you think it would be okay to contaminate a crime scene? Get back behind the tape.”


Lilly’s eyes widened when the other woman shrugged and not-so-subtly adjusted her cleavage. “I didn’t think you’d mind.”


“You need to clear out of here now,” Braden said through gritted teeth.


The woman looked from Braden to her and then back. Lilly smothered a smile when she huffed away and started ordering her cameraman around.


“Friend of yours?” she asked, not bothering to keep the amusement out of her voice.


His brows furrowed. “I can’t believe you don’t remember her. That’s Rebecca King.”


“Rebecca who…oh. Wow, she looks different.” In high school she’d been about fifty pounds heavier and her hair had been curly, not stick straight. She’d always been nice as far as Lilly remembered. “What’s her problem?”


Braden shrugged and averted his gaze.


“Oh my God, don’t tell me you dated her too?”


“Hell no!” His response was so instantaneous and heated she believed him.


Not that Lilly cared one way or another. Or at least that’s what she tried to tell herself. “What were you talking to Officer…”


“Officer Jordan. He said he thought he saw a gray truck in the parking lot next door earlier this morning, but he didn’t pay attention to the license plate.”


“Does he remember the make or model?”


“Two door Chevy. He thinks. Maybe about a decade old.”


She bit back a sigh of disappointment. “So that narrows it down to about half the town.”


“Exactly.”


A tap on the door caused them both to turn. With a grim expression, Hailey motioned with her gloved hands. Once they were inside, Braden locked the door behind them.


“We’re done cataloguing everything. Before we cut her down I’d like Lilly to take another look at her body.” Hailey focused her attention on Lilly. “That is if you don’t mind. I know you’re an analyst or something, right?” When Lilly nodded, she continued. “It couldn’t hurt to get a fresh set of eyes.”


“Okay.” After putting on disposable booties and gloves, Lilly tried to mentally prepare herself for the carnage, but it was impossible.


Trying to avoid looking directly at the victim’s face, Lilly scanned the woman’s naked, ashen body. “Have any of the women come back positive for drugs?”


“No,” Hailey said.


The woman had bruising around her jaw, but it wasn’t overkill so Lilly guessed the killer had punched her, maybe in an effort to stun her into submission.


Lilly glanced at the pile of shredded clothes and shoes marked as evidence. Bending down, she picked up one of the tennis shoes. “This is just a guess, but since there are no scuff marks on her shoes, I’d say he knocked her unconscious while she was outside, then carried her in. He’s strong enough to carry a grown woman, which really isn’t a surprise. This guy is getting cockier though. I’m not a profiler or anything, but if he’s getting ballsy enough to take her in the middle of the day, he’s going to screw up. Did he carve the lily into her back too?”


Hailey nodded.


“This is just a guess, but I think he’s going to get more violent. You said the killings have been about three months apart, right?” She glanced between Braden and Hailey.


“Until now,” Braden said.


“This is two women, two days in a row. Technically three women if we include my therapist. Something’s happened to make this guy change his MO.”


Braden swore softly under his breath. “You’re in town.”


Lilly hated to admit it, but that might be the very thing that had triggered this guy.


“I think you’re right about him carrying her, and I might have some good news,” Hailey interrupted. “I found two strands of hair.”


Lilly’s chest tightened at the coroner’s words and by the stunned expression on Braden’s face, she guessed he was fighting back excitement.


“I won’t know more until I drive the samples to Raleigh.”


“Drive?” Lilly frowned.


“We don’t have an independent crime lab here and I’m not risking this getting lost in the mail. Besides, one of the guys at DNA Security owes me. I might be able to get a rush on it. Don’t get too excited though, it doesn’t look like it’s from the root.”


“So it might be useless?” Braden asked.


Hailey shook her head. “Not necessarily. Even if the hair doesn’t contain root material, they can still analyze it using mitochondrial DNA as opposed to the nucleic DNA. The results won’t be as foolproof, but if we ever actually get a suspect in custody, we can still eliminate or include someone depending on—”


Braden held up a hand. “Okay, I don’t need the specifics. When are you leaving?”


“As soon as I log the body back at the morgue.”


“Detective Issacs will go with you.”


“I’m fully capable of—”


“I realize you are, but it’s not up for discussion. This guy is targeting people in my life and Lilly’s life. We might not know the connection yet, but I’m not taking any chance he goes after you.”


“Fine.” Hailey rolled her eyes, but by the relieved expression that crossed her face, Lilly could tell she didn’t really feel as brave as she let on.


As Lilly and Braden were leaving, Detective Bolinger was entering the building.


“Sorry, boss. There was a disturbance down at the pier. Some kids were harassing the tourists. I got here as soon as I could,” he said.


“Detective Isaacs and Hailey are inside. Keep this scene locked down and make sure you keep the body covered when putting it in the ambulance. I haven’t notified Mallory’s family yet so watch out for the media.”


Once they were in Braden’s truck, he finally spoke again. “I’ll drop you off at the station, then pick you up once I’ve notified the next of kin.”


“I’ll go with you. When I lost some of my teammates, I went to see their families later. It was hard but if you don’t want to go alone…” She shook her head, unable to finish. Against her better judgment, she placed a light hand on his arm. She couldn’t seem to help herself. He looked so lost and tired. She wished there was something she could do to comfort him but knew that was unlikely at the moment. Maybe going with him to notify Mallory’s family would ease his burden a little.


Under her touch, his muscles tensed but he didn’t pull away.


When she’d originally left Hudson Bay she’d questioned her decision too many times to count but in the past few years she’d forced memories of him from her mind. Now that she was sitting in the same vehicle with him and would soon be sharing a roof with him, she was questioning herself again. Maybe if she was honest about why she left he’d finally understand that it hadn’t been about him or their relationship.


No! If she told him the real reason, he wouldn’t believe her and then she’d be stuck under his protection until she left town. She’d dealt with a lot of crap over the past year, but she couldn’t deal with rejection from Braden and the inevitable awkwardness that would follow. She had enough battles of her own to worry about.


Chapter 6


After walking up the short set of stairs, Braden knocked twice on Eileen Spinoza’s townhouse. Fortunately they hadn’t had to drive far since Mallory’s mother lived downtown. He didn’t exactly like bringing Lilly to a death notification but he hoped her presence would assist in soothing Mallory’s mother. He didn’t have any other female officers free at the moment and from experience he knew having a female with him would help.


Seconds later the door swung open and the dark-haired, older woman immediately frowned. She placed a hand to her chest as she eyed them. “What’s going on?”


“Is anyone else home, ma’am?” he asked.


She shook her head.


“Mrs. Spinoza, we’d like to talk to you about something, inside if possible.”


“Where’s my daughter? Has something happened?” She stood aside and let them enter, but her voice rose hysterically with each syllable.


As the door clicked shut behind them, she continued. “Has he done something to my baby? What has he done?”


Braden risked a quick glance at Lilly. “Who do you think has done something?”

***

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