“This is my town. People I know are dying. I’m lucky I’ve got the team I do, but I’m not too big to admit this might be out of our league. This is different than anything the town has ever seen.”


“Since I’ve been back you’ve already made big leaps in the case. My tattoo, both our connections and Greg Murphy’s involvement. You’re going to catch him.” Lilly crossed the kitchen in a few steps and leaned against the counter next to him.


“Don’t do that,” he muttered.


“Do what?”


“Give me one of your pep talks.”


“Why not?” She inched closer and playfully nudged him with her hip.


“Because we’re not eighteen anymore!” He hadn’t meant to shout.


She was just trying to be helpful. Hell, considering the circumstances, he should be the one giving her a pep talk, not the other way around. She flinched and took a step back and he wanted to kick himself.


“Damn it, Lilly, I’m sorry. I know you’re under a lot of stress, too.”


She shrugged. “Are you hungry?”


“Don’t change the subject. I’m—” His phone buzzed again and he groaned. When he saw the number however, he frowned. Private. He stared at it for a moment before flipping it open. “Sheriff Donnelly here.”


“Put the phone on speaker so your girlfriend can hear this too,” a mechanical voice ordered him.


Instantly his shoulders tensed. It’s him, he mouthed to Lilly.


Her eyes widened as he held the phone in front of him and pressed the green speaker button. “Who is this?”


“The man you’ve been chasing for over a year.” The mechanical voice was creepy all by itself.


“What do you want?” he asked.


Lilly clutched onto the counter next to him.


“To play a game,” the voice said.


“Who are you?”


“I already answered that. Don’t change the subject. Is my precious Lilly there?”


Her hand flew to her throat when he said her name. Lilly’s green eyes stood out against her stark face.


“She’s here,” he answered for her.


“I want to hear her voice.”


“I’m here. What do you want?” Lilly whispered.


“I discovered some very interesting things from your therapist. Lingering feelings for an old lover, inability to commit, escalating nightmares. What do you dream about, I wonder?” His menacing words combined with the mechanical laugh cut through the kitchen with violent intensity.


Braden wished he could do something to wipe the panic off Lilly’s face.


“You said you wanted to play a game.” Braden took over the conversation, trying to divert the man away from taunting Lilly.


“I left you a present at the pier.”


Ropes of tension knotted at the back of Braden’s neck. He was positive they had two different definitions of the word present. “What is it?”


“If I tell you, it won’t be a surprise.” The mechanical laugh reverberated off the walls, sending a chill slithering down his spine.


“Where is it?” he asked through gritted teeth.


“That would take all the fun out of the game.”


Braden wanted to shout in frustration, but if this guy wanted to play, then Braden had to figure out what buttons to push. “What kind of game are we playing?”


“Much better, Sheriff. You have approximately one hour to find my present or another girl dies.”


His heart pounded wildly against his ribcage. “What girl?” Ever since Whitney had told him she’d felt like she was being followed, he’d worried she’d be taken next. Even though he had someone watching her place, he knew mistakes happened.


“Not important. Lilly, are you still there?”


“I’m here.” Her voice came out hoarse and strangled.


“You’re not the only flower I like. I also have a penchant for Violet. She has style.”


The line went dead.


“Hello…damn it.” Braden glanced at the clock. Almost seven thirty.


“What are we going to do?” Lilly asked with a shaky voice.


“We are not doing anything.” He pocketed his phone.


“Are you crazy? I’m not staying here. What if he wants to get me alone?”


He hated that she was right and there was no time to argue. “Get dressed. We leave in twenty seconds.”


Without responding, she hurried out of the room. Her feet sounded throughout the house as she raced up the stairs. Braden checked his gun before tucking it into his holster.


As he shrugged into his coat, Lilly ran down the stairs wearing jeans, tennis shoes and her pajama top. She grabbed her pea coat and started buttoning it up as they headed out the front door.


“What does ‘she has style’ mean? This has got to be some sort of riddle,” she muttered as she hurriedly locked the front door.


Lilly was right. Every word this guy said was valuable to the case. When they were on the road, he called the deputy watching Whitney’s place. She’d voluntarily left with a young man her age and his guy hadn’t seen any unusual activity since. Then he called both his detectives to have them meet at the pier.


“Even though he mentioned flowers, he said Violet, like maybe it was a name. I don’t know anyone named Violet, do you?” Lilly asked the second he ended the call with Vanessa.


“No, but there’s a flower shop at the pier. Maybe he left a clue or his present there.” Braden could only imagine what kind of gift the guy had left. One hour and a woman would die. Why one hour? The question rattled through his brain, but nothing he came up with made any sense.


“Why one hour?” Lilly murmured the same thought as he zoomed into the parking lot near the pier.


The only thing they had going for them was that the place was empty. As soon as he kicked his truck into park, they both jumped out.


“Are you armed?” he asked as they jogged toward the ramp.


She patted the back of her jeans. “Yeah.”


“We’re starting with the flower shop and we stay close together. This could be a trap.”


With wide eyes, she nodded.


Their feet slammed against the wooden planks. Even during the winter, the pier was normally bustling with activity, but it was still too early for anyone to be around. They ran past a bathing suit shop and a bait and tackle shop before they stopped in front of Mabel’s Florist.


Through the glass pane, he could see a small lamp on next to the cash register, but it was otherwise dark. He jiggled the handle once, not expecting it to actually open. When it stayed firm, he used his jacket covered elbow to break through the glass. After knocking off the jagged edges, he reached in and unlocked the door before opening it.


Weapon drawn, Braden looked back at Lilly who had also drawn her gun. He pointed that he was going in and she nodded. His boots crunched over the glass as he stepped inside. Even though he’d been in the store on a few occasions, he wasn’t familiar with the layout.


“Stay close,” he whispered.


Their shoes made squeaking sounds across the wood floor. He found the light switch behind the counter by the cash register. The small establishment lit up instantly. The three glass coolers were filled with flowers and all the stands looked in order.


“I’ll start over there.” Lilly pointed toward a display of cards and walked the few feet across the store without waiting for his response.


He started with the coolers, visually scanning the glass vases and lifting anything else. His gut told him there wasn’t a bomb waiting for them. This guy wanted to play games and killing them would ruin that.


As he opened up the first cooler door, Detective Isaacs buzzed his radio. “We’re here.”


“I’m at the florist with Lilly. Start with the Sunset Beach Gift Shop and tell Perry to start below the pier. Maybe our guy left it in the sand.”


“On it.”


Lilly had been on the ground, looking under one of the displays when she popped up. “Underneath the pier. Violet…”


“What?” He slid the radio back in its holder.


“Oh my God! I think he has someone tied up under the pier! One hour, it makes sense,” she muttered as she raced out the door.


“Shit.” He holstered his gun and ran after her. “Lilly!”


She didn’t answer. When she reached the end of the boardwalk, she rounded the wooden railing and headed straight for the ocean. He caught up to her as she ran across the sand. “What the hell are you doing?”


“You’ve got to trust me,” she said as she began to unbutton her jacket.


As she took off her tennis shoes, he realized what she was doing. He grabbed her arm as she made a move toward the salty water. It was about fifty degrees out, but the water would be a hell of a lot colder. “Are you insane? It’s freezing.”


“There’s a woman tied up to one of the pillars and we have to figure out which one. She’s submerged underwater. If he’s giving her an hour, she’s probably got some sort of breathing apparatus.”


His shoulders and back tensed as he digested what she was saying. Was this one of the effects of her PTSD? She didn’t seem like she was delusional. “What are you talking about?”


“There’s no time to explain but you have to trust me.” She jerked her arm away and before he could react, she jumped into the icy waves.


“You better be right,” he muttered. He tugged off his jacket and sweater and threw his phone and wallet into the damp sand.


“What are you doing?” Perry shouted as he ran toward him.


“Lilly thinks a woman is tied up underneath one of the pillars,” he said as he slipped his shoes off. Since Perry was there, he left his gun in the sand instead of diving in with it.


“Are you going in?”


Braden nodded. Without waiting for a response, he dove into the water. The cool water immediately jolted him. Chills snaked over his bare skin as he started the breaststroke. There were three rows of support beams lining the underbelly of the pier and each row had eight pillars. He didn’t like those odds. If a woman was actually tied up underneath the water, it was highly probable she’d die before they got to her.

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