A lava-like heat moved down her belly and settled between her legs. Apart from being highly inappropriate, this was the dumbest thing she could have done. Her body didn’t care though.

Lilly wanted to straddle him and—

“I see some things never change.” A familiar female voice tore them apart.

It took a second for the blonde woman’s face to register in Lilly’s brain. Rebecca King, the annoying reporter from earlier, stood at the end of their booth.

“What are you doing here?” Braden’s voice sounded surprisingly calm.

Lilly’s insides were jumbled and twisted and he didn’t look—or sound—remotely affected by that kiss. For how she felt, she couldn’t string a coherent sentence together if she tried.

“I want to know what happened to Mallory Spinoza.”

“And you thought interrupting my dinner was the way to get your information?” Braden asked, his tone wry.

Rebecca’s eyes narrowed as she looked back and forth between them. “A source in the coroner’s office tells me that this isn’t the first murder.”

“Who said she was murdered?”

“Oh come on! You had crime scene tape all around her studio. Why won’t you tell me what’s going on?”

“At this time, the Hudson Bay Sheriff’s Office has no official comment.”

“Fine, I’ll just call the mayor and see what he says,” she huffed.

“Why don’t you do that, darlin’? He’ll tell you the same thing. When we’re able to release information to the public, you’ll be the first to know. But right now, the circumstances of an ongoing investigation are none of your damn business.”

Lilly stifled a laugh at his sarcastic tone. She’d never seen him so pissed before. At least not at a woman.

At that moment, their server stopped by the table carrying two steaming plates. After she placed the plates in front of them, she looked at Rachel. “Will you be joining them?”

“She was just leaving,” Braden practically bared his teeth at her.

Lilly picked up her chopsticks as the other woman stomped away from them.

Once she was actually out of the restaurant, Braden spoke, but he wouldn’t meet her gaze. “Listen, what just happened can’t happen again. It was a mistake.”

The food in her mouth turned to cardboard at his words, but she simply nodded and murmured an agreeable sound. She didn’t trust her own voice and she didn’t want to say something stupid.

Here she was ready for a replay and he thought it was a mistake. It annoyed her since he’d made the first move. But at the same time she figured she deserved it after the way she’d left him. It didn’t matter that she’d had no choice, she’d still hurt him more than she ever wanted to hurt anyone. And if he’d suffered the way she had after they’d broke up then it surprised her how nice he was being to her. Sighing, she picked up a piece of food with her chopsticks. Her day had started crappy as hell, and it looked like it was ending the same way.

Braden laid his gun on the nightstand in Lilly’s guest room before collapsing onto the bed. It had been days since he’d gotten any sleep other than a few stolen minutes in his car or office. He should have been asleep before his head hit the pillow.

Instead he was staring at the ceiling with an embarrassing hard-on. All he could think about was that kiss and how much he wanted to finish what he’d started.

He couldn’t though. Not only were they in the middle of a case, he simply couldn’t get tangled up with Lilly again. He’d spent a decade forgetting her. Staying away from her should be easy. Maybe he really was a masochist.

As memories tore through him, his erection quickly subsided. Hell, the memory of the day she’d left was forever seared in his mind. He just hadn’t allowed himself to think about it in a long time. She’d ended things with him two weeks after school had finished. But, he still hadn’t believed her when she’d told him they were through. So he’d gone over to her house. Shame burned through him as he remembered the desperateness he’d felt that day. The confusion.

She slammed the trunk of her car shut and turned to face him. This wasn’t the Lilly he knew. She crossed her arms over her chest and took a step back. “I’m really sorry, Braden. I got into summer school. What am I supposed to do, not go?”

“I don’t care about summer school and you know it. What the hell is going on with you?”

She shrugged, but unshed tears glistened in her pretty green eyes. “I just think we should take some time apart. You’re leaving next month anyway. You’ll probably forget all about me once you’re in boot camp.”

“Forget you? Are you crazy? I love you, Lilly.”

“I love you too, but this is for the best.”

“Best for who? You?” A few tears streamed down her cheeks, but he hardened his heart against feeling anything for her. Or at least he tried to. It was hard when all he wanted to do was kiss her.

“I have to go now if I want to make it to Durham by nightfall.”

“Then let me go with you. I’ll help you unpack everything.” He’d never felt more pathetic in his life, but he didn’t care. He just couldn’t let her walk out on him.

She paused and for a second, he thought she’d agree. Instead, she shook her head. “No. Aunt Debra’s going to be following me in her car anyway.” She glanced back up at the house. “You need to go. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

He could hear the hollow promise of her words, but he nodded and walked back to his truck. Maybe his brother had been right after all. She’d been using him until school was over.

Braden shook his head, as if that could somehow erase his thoughts. Dwelling on the past wouldn’t get him anywhere, especially now. He punched his pillow once then turned on his side and shut his eyes. Sleep was what he needed now. He could wallow in his memories once this case was over.

Chapter 8

“Tell us who you work for!” Instead of the barrel of a gun, this time he raised a pipe and slammed it down onto her already broken leg.

Lilly couldn’t answer. She could barely scream. Her body hurt so badly and her tormenter didn’t want an answer anyway. He only lived to torture her.

“Who are you?” he shouted again.

“I’m just an analyst.” She thought she spoke out loud, but it was impossible to tell. She couldn’t hear her own voice. Maybe she’d only thought it. Her left eye was swollen shut and she could barely make him out anyway.

A mask. The mask, she could see. His big, deadly eyes glared at her through the slits of the mask.

Something clattered near her head. The pipe? Then she saw the knife. Long, wicked, rusty. She felt sick, but she hadn’t eaten in days. There was nothing to vomit.

The time had finally come. He was going to kill her. At least she wouldn’t be in any more pain. She prayed he ended her life swiftly but knew he wouldn’t. He didn’t know what mercy was.

Only one regret haunted her. His face swam in front of her vision. Dark hair, dark eyes and an easy-going smile. Braden. Her only regret. She should have told him the truth. Why hadn’t she again?

The vision of Braden’s handsome face disappeared as the ugly masked face bent down to her broken body. He leaned close enough so that he was whispering in her ear now. “Maybe you’ll talk after I kill your pretty friend.”

No. She tried to say the word, but her throat seized. Her body refused to listen. She couldn’t even roll over, but she could hear the clunk of his boots as he stomped to the other side of their cell.

Emily was quiet. Too quiet.

A loud scream pierced the room and Lilly’s entire body jolted. Her broken bones scraped against each other as she tried to move.

Leave her alone!

Lilly jolted upright in bed and reached for her gun. Instead of grabbing it, she jerked her hand back to her chest and flopped against the pillows. Her heart beat erratically but she reminded herself it had all been a dream. She was in North Carolina, not Africa. Repeating the words in her head had a calming effect.

Light streamed in through the blinds and a glance at the clock told her it was almost eight.

Somehow she’d managed to sleep the entire night through. Of course she’d had horrific nightmares, but at least she’d stayed asleep. Probably had something to do with the couple glasses of sake she’d had the night before.

Stretching her arms above her head, she paused when she heard a clang downstairs. Her throat seized until she realized it was probably just Braden. To be on the safe side, she plucked her weapon from the nightstand and made her way downstairs.

When she entered the kitchen, Braden lifted his hands in mock surrender. “Don’t shoot.”

Rolling her eyes, she laid her SIG on the table.

“Coffee?” he asked as he lifted his mug.

Nodding, she poured a cup, but she snuck a couple glances at him. Something had changed in him since last night. And she’d wager it had nothing to do with that stupid kiss. He’d closed himself off to her again. Not that she could really blame him. Still, she wondered what had changed in a few hours. It was like a black cloud hung over his head.

She inhaled the coffee’s rich aroma and tried to block out his dark mood as she took her first sip.

“I’ve got good and bad news.” His tired, scratchy voice cut through the silence. “The good news is Hailey confirmed your theory about the burn marks being from a cattle prod.”

That was a mix of good and bad and she almost hated that she’d known what the markings were from. The violence people inflicted on one another was scary as hell. “What’s the bad news?”

He sighed. “We made the news.”

“Excuse me?”

“Come on.” He tilted his head and walked from the room without waiting for her.

She trailed after him until they sat in her aunt’s living room. The television was muted and a dancing bear advertising toilet paper was playing on the screen. When Rebecca King appeared on the screen wearing a fitted black pantsuit, Lilly cringed.