Letting her go, he idly twisted the knife in his hand. “Greg deserves anything that happens to him. I figured if I threw the cops a bone it would throw them off my trail even if you somehow convinced Braden I was alive. And it was fun to fuck with my brother. Watching you guys chase after Greg was priceless.”
Her breast hurt but at least he wasn’t touching her. She kept her focus on that. “You knew Braden wouldn’t believe me.” And who would have? She wanted to be angry at Braden for that but couldn’t. He might not have believed her but he’d still been willing to hunt down leads after they’d caught Murphy. He’d known there had to be someone else involved.
James didn’t respond as he laid the tip of the blade against her outstretched wrist. Bypassing her vein, he ran it along her skin until settling against the side of her arm. Digging into her skin again, he made a deeper cut than before and ran it all the way up to her inner arm.
This time she did scream. She couldn’t hold it back. It felt like red hot fire blistered down her arm.
As more unbidden tears leaked out of her eyes, he leaned down until he was close to her ear. His hot breath on her skin made her dry heave. “I came pretty close to catching you before. Once. Now I’m glad I had to wait.”
Blinking, she shook her head. She needed him to talk. When he was talking, he wasn’t cutting her. “You’ve never come close.”
He made a low growling sound deep in his throat and punched her across the face. She grunted as her head jerked to the side. Her jaw stung but this pain was better than the blade. She’d had her leg broken with a pipe before. She could take a punch. Spots danced in front of her eyes as he spoke. “How do you think I got all those pictures of you at the beach? You were never alone though and then you were gone again. Always fucking traveling,” he muttered.
“But why’d you kill all those women if this is about me?” she gasped out. Her jaw throbbed and talking hurt.
“They deserved what they got! I might want you dead but I’m not going to stop with you. It took a few years but I’ve finally perfected the art of killing. I knew it was time to come home. Killing the whores connected to Braden was a bonus. Just because he was the oldest our parents gave him everything,” he spat.
They’d given James everything too but Lilly didn’t voice that. “That’s not your brother’s fault.”
He slapped her face this time. Pain fractured her skull and she grunted from the forceful impact. Wrong choice of words. “Nothing’s his fault right? My mom even blamed me for what happened between me and you. You were always around flaunting yourself in front of me. I wanted a taste of what Braden had but you ruined everything. If you hadn’t screamed they’d have never sent me to that shithole of a school.”
The man was completely delusional. She’d talked to sociopaths before but nobody on this level.
Foreign sounds from outside gave her hope. Before she had time to register what she was hearing, the back door flew open and slammed against the interior wall with a sickening bang.
“Drop the knife!” Her heart nearly leapt out of her chest at the sound of Braden’s voice.
Moving with a surprising quickness, James dove behind the coffee table near where her head lay. He pressed the knife to her neck. The blade pushed against her flesh but he didn’t draw blood.
She knew he wouldn’t hesitate to, though.
From her flat position Lilly could partially see Braden, but James was blocking most of her view. Even when she’d been rescued in Africa, nothing compared to the hope and relief coursing through her now. She choked back a sob, not wanting to distract Braden.
“I’m not going to jail, Sheriff.” James’s words were monotone.
“Put down the knife.” Braden’s voice was icy calm.
“Why couldn’t you leave well enough alone? She’s a dirty whore. Never did understand why you wanted her,” James ground out.
“Drop it or I’ll shoot. Don’t think because we’re blood that I won’t.”
“Oh, I know that you will. Did precious Lilly ever tell you how she came on to me in high school?” His voice was taunting and high-pitched. As he spoke, he cut one of her hands free.
At first she wondered what he was doing then realized he was probably going to take her as a hostage. She’d rather die than go anywhere with him. Silently she prayed Braden kept him talking.
“Are you talking about when you tried to rape her?” Braden’s voice dripped with disgust as he took a few steps closer.
“Is that what she told you?”
“Damn it, James! What the hell happened to you? How’d you even survive that crash?” Even though Lilly could hear a twinge of anguish in Braden’s voice, she hoped he was only trying to stall him.
“I have more survival skills than you give me credit for, big brother.” He cut the other binding free. “Sit up slowly or I cut your throat and Braden gets to watch you bleed out,” he whispered in her ear.
Her arms tingled as blood started circulating again. Blood dripped down her stomach and arm as she sat up. His breath was hot on her neck as she did. With one hand he grabbed her around the waist and with the other he kept the knife pressed against her throat.
“Why’d you fake your own death?” Braden asked as James snarled in her ear.
“Why not?” James bit out. “I didn’t want any ties to my old life. No one to answer to and no one suspected me of anything this past year. I like being a ghost. After this, I’ll disappear again.” When James dug his hand into the wound on her stomach she groaned at the fresh shot of pain.
“Put down the knife, now!” Braden shouted.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, big brother.” For a moment he moved his hand from around her waist and she heard him rustling behind her.
She risked a glance at Braden. She hated that she was naked and bloody and still half tied up for him to see. But Braden wasn’t looking at her. All his attention was on the spot directly behind her shoulder.
Braden had a laserlike focus as he stared at his brother. “There’s no way out of here, James. Put the knife down and we’ll get you the help you need.”
Help? She’d known Braden long enough that she knew he was full of shit. This guy was either leaving in a body bag or going to jail. There would be no “help” for him. Not after what he’d done.
James heard the lie in his voice too. “I don’t need any help. I’m going to walk right out of here with Lilly and you’re going to let me.”
“Why would you think that?” he asked calmly.
“If you don’t let me, I’ll slit her throat right now. You can watch your precious Lilly die.” He dug his fingers into her stomach again making her want to double over in pain but with the tight grip he had on her throat she couldn’t move. She sucked in a ragged breath. For a brief moment he released her then placed something small in her hand. A pocket knife. “Slowly lean forward and cut the bindings on your ankles. Try anything and you’re dead.”
He couldn’t move around her without exposing himself to Braden’s line of fire. But if she leaned forward to cut herself free, he’d still be blocked.
But he’d still given her a knife, however small it was. With shaking hands she leaned forward and snipped the first wire. Then the second. With slow movements, she drew her legs together. It felt like pins and needles pricked the bottom of her feet as blood rushed to them again. At least she had mobility.
“You’re going to stay right where you are while I leave with Lilly here,” he said to Braden.
“There’s nowhere you can run that I won’t find you.”
James laughed quietly. “I’ve been off the radar for a long time. Either I kill Lilly now or you see if you can hunt us down.”
Lilly wasn’t going anywhere with him. His grip across her stomach tightened. “Drop the knife and slowly get off the table.”
She swung her legs off the side but instead of getting up she took the only chance she might have. With what little strength she had left she jabbed his hand.
She didn’t know if he was startled or hurt but he jerked back. The pressure on her neck loosened and she took her one opportunity.
Too weak to dive away from him, she fell forward and rolled off the coffee table. She hit the floor with a thud and didn’t bother biting back a moan of pain.
Lilly shut her eyes and tensed for the coming impact. The muscles in her arms and legs corded tightly as she readied for him to stab her in the back. Either Braden made the shot or she was dead. Earsplitting cracks reverberated around her, then a loud thud sounded right next to her.
Her eyes flew open and she risked looking where she’d heard the sound.
She had a clear view of James’s motionless body on the floor only a few feet away from her. His dark eyes were wide open, staring lifelessly at the ceiling. Immediately she wrapped her arms around her bare breasts. The man was dead, but she still felt exposed. Before she could blink, Braden had draped his jacket around her shoulders.
“Braden?” she whispered his name without turning around.
“I’m right here.” He kneeled next to her and wrapped his arm around her shoulder. “Come on. Let’s get you away from this.” Braden gently steered her in the direction of the kitchen.
Numbly, she clutched the flimsy material of her underwear strap and tried to hold it together as she allowed him to lead her to the other room. Her rubbery legs were barely holding her up. Something registered in her brain that her weakness was from shock but probably from blood loss too. She kept her back turned to the attached living room as she sank onto one of the chairs at the kitchen table.
He pulled one of the other chairs up and sat next to her. His dark eyes were haunted. “Did he rape you?”
She shook her head at the question, then found her voice. “No, but he was going to.”
His jaw twitched almost imperceptibly. “I’ll find you some more clothes and we’ll patch up your arm and stomach. He’s never going to hurt you or anyone again—”