When she saw the number, she contemplated not answering for a split second, then internally scolded herself. “Hey, boss.”
“I take it you’ve landed.” Lieutenant General Charles Atherton, her supervisor at the NSA, had a distinctive gravelly voice she could pick out anywhere. And from the sound of it, he was very much annoyed with her.
She cringed. “Yeah, sorry for not calling. I’m already at the house and getting settled in.”
“How are you holding up?”
“I’m fine.” Her answer was automatic and probably expected.
“If you need more time, just say the word.”
She’d taken two weeks off and only because he’d insisted. Over the past year, her boss had been pushing her to take a leave of absence. If he wasn’t going to make it mandatory, she wasn’t taking it. Without work, she’d have too much time alone with her memories and she feared her sanity would crumble. And the thought terrified her. “I’ll let you know if I change my mind.”
“All right, call me if you need anything.”
She wanted to tell him about her flashback but her throat clenched and she changed her mind at the last second. “Thanks for calling.”
“Of course,” he grunted.
As soon as they disconnected she rechecked her gun and laid it on the dresser so it would be close. The weapon wouldn’t help her fight nightmares, but it would protect her against a real killer.
Braden wiped sweaty palms on his work pants as he cruised down the highway. A decade had passed. He shouldn’t be reacting like a randy teenager, but there it was. Lilly’s long jet black hair had been pulled back into a ponytail and she hadn’t been wearing a scrap of makeup. Not that she needed it. Her ivory skin was soft, touchable and damn near perfect. And those big green eyes of hers were just as intoxicating as he remembered. Seeing her brought back too many memories. Memories that should stay dead and buried.
He pounded his fist against the steering wheel. Why the hell had he comforted her like that? It had taken years to dull the memory of feeling her body against his. She was still on the slim side, but she’d filled out in all the right places. When her soft breasts had pressed against him, he’d thought his heart would explode from his chest. Even now his heartbeat hadn’t returned to normal.
“You’re a damn fool,” he muttered to himself.
Ten years ago she’d walked out on him with a half-assed goodbye and she’d never looked back. She’d discarded what they had without shedding a tear. That had been his first real lesson in life and love. And he’d been dumb enough to touch her like she’d never left.
Hating the desire he still felt for her, he slammed a hand against the steering wheel. He flipped on his lights and increased his speed as he headed back to his place. Even if what they had was long over, someone was watching him and that someone wanted him to suffer.
Lilly might get pissed, but he was going to switch vehicles, then stake out her place for the rest of the night. Hurting her would be one of the most obvious things the killer could do. He’d lost too many people in the past few years and he refused to let something happen to the one woman who still haunted his dreams.
Lilly snapped her laptop shut and slid it into her carry-on bag. After glancing around the shabby room one last time, she rolled her carry-on and suitcase to the door. As she placed her hand on the door handle a thunderous explosion ripped through the air.
The ground shifted beneath her. Pain fractured through her skull. She rocked back on her feet to keep her balance but it was useless. Lilly tumbled over her carry-on and slammed into the dresser, stomach first. As the wind rushed from lungs, she shook her head. A low buzzing rang in her ears and she tripped again. This time she landed on the floor, face first. Trying to steady herself, she sat up, but weaved back and forth.
She pressed an unsteady hand to her head. A bomb must have gone off. Shit! Before she could contemplate getting out of there, shouting and staccato gunfire erupted outside her room.
Everything sounded as if it was in a tunnel. Since she couldn’t stand, she fell to her belly and crawled toward the bed. Find a weapon! Hide! The words echoed in her brain. Before she’d made it two feet, her door burst open.
Two men in black ski masks and guns stormed the room. They shouted at her, but she couldn’t understand what they were saying. With incredible force, one of the men slammed the butt of his gun onto her thigh.
A piercing sound reverberated through the room. She finally realized it was her own screams. He lifted the gun again. She covered her face, knowing what was coming—
Lilly jolted upright in bed, choking on a scream. Despite the cool temperature, sweat rolled down her face and back. She shoved the heavy cover off and forced herself upright. Would these nightmares never end? Sitting on the edge of the bed, she practiced the breathing techniques her counselor had taught her until her heart rate returned to normal.
A glance at the clock told her it was five. She still had time to sleep but knew no matter how much she wanted it, trying would be useless. Once she’d splashed water on her face and brushed her teeth, she’d stopped shaking enough to make a pot of coffee.
She looked through the peephole of the front door before tugging on a robe and slippers. If she remembered correctly, her aunt had a key hidden out front and there was no way on earth she was leaving it there. Her aunt might have been trusting, but after Braden’s—rather Sheriff Donnelly’s—warning, Lilly wasn’t going to take the chance. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought about it until now. Jet lag was her only excuse.
An icy blast of January air hit her as she stepped onto the front porch. It was physically impossible, but she swore her heart jumped into her throat when she saw an unfamiliar vehicle in the driveway. It took a second until she realized Braden was sleeping in the front seat of the truck. What the hell was he doing? Wrapping the robe tighter around herself, she hurried down the stone steps and tapped on the window.
He reached for his pistol, until his dark eyes locked on hers. For a man of the law, his brown hair was a little shaggy around the sides. It reminded her of the way he’d worn it when they were younger. Back then he’d been a football star, but he hadn’t been a typical jock. If anything, he’d been more bookish than her.
An unexpected but incredibly vivid memory of their first kiss flashed in her mind. It had been in the front seat of his wintergreen, 1979 Ford pickup. The heat hadn’t been working and he’d told her he knew the perfect way to warm her up. Not exactly original, but it had sure worked on her. Barely sixteen, she’d never kissed anyone before, but he’d known what he was doing. Even if he hadn’t, she wouldn’t have known any better.
Even with the cold, a slow building warmth filled her. Despite the way they’d parted, she held too many memories of Braden close to her heart not to still feel something for him. It was unavoidable, she supposed.
Lilly stood back as he stepped out of the vehicle. “Were you here all night?”
He stretched his arms above his head and yawned again. “Just about. You got any coffee?”
“Follow me.” She decided to wait until they got inside before she started firing questions at him.
As they walked up the front steps she bent down by an oversized stone frog and stuck her hand in its mouth. Sure enough, her fingers clasped around the same magnetic key holder that had been there for years.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
She held out her hand as she stood. “Getting this.”
“Your aunt had a key outside?” His mouth pulled into a thin line and Lilly had another flashback of how those lips had kissed every inch of her body once.
An involuntary shudder skittered down her spine, but she fought it off. “I know. I told her to at least hide it in a better place, but you know how she was.”
“Yes, I do,” he murmured.
Once inside, she took off her aunt’s old robe and hooked it on the coat rack. She regretted the decision immediately. Although she wore a long pajama set, the heat in the house was temperamental and she was suddenly very aware that she wasn’t wearing a bra.
Well, she couldn’t put the stupid thing back on without looking crazy so she led him to the kitchen. “Black, right?”
He nodded and sat at the kitchen table. After pouring them both a mug full, she slid onto the seat across from him. “Why were you sleeping outside?”
Braden’s jaw tightened in that familiar way and she knew whatever he had to say, she wasn’t going to like it. “I know I told you that this killer is targeting people close to me but I left out that we found another victim before I came to see you. She was a woman I went on a couple dates with.”
She frowned as he continued. “There have been three—four—killings with the same MO over the past year. I always suspected that the first three were personal, but I wasn’t sure until last night. The woman we found didn’t live here but as far as I can tell, I’m the only connection to all the victims.” He took a sip of his coffee as she digested the words.
“So that’s why you slept outside last night?”
“I didn’t plan to fall asleep, but I think whoever’s doing this is a local. If they are, they’ll know about our history. I don’t want to scare you, but you need to be careful.”
“It’s been a decade since we’ve seen each other. Do you really think someone would come after me?” She wrapped her hands around the steaming mug to keep them from shaking.
“I went on two dates with the woman we just found. She didn’t mean anything to me. You mean—meant a lot more.” His last words came out strangled, but she didn’t miss the blatant male interest in his eyes when his gaze strayed to her chest.
Heat spread up her neck as her nipples involuntarily pebbled under his intense stare. The man looked…hungry. It was written in every line and groove of his face. She wished she could be offended or feel some sort of outrage that he was staring at her with such deliberate desire, but it had been a long time since a man had looked at her like he wanted to strip her naked and take her right on a kitchen table.