“We found Barbara Allbright. She was passed out in the woods not far from the cabin.”


She nodded. “I saw it on the news. How is she?”


“Physically she’ll heal, but I have a feeling she’s going to need a lot of counseling.” Something told him she’d come through it though. The woman was obviously a fighter.


When it was apparent Lilly didn’t plan to respond, Braden continued. “How long are you staying in town?”


She paused as if she might not tell him, then she shrugged. “About a month. My boss is making me take some time off.”


A thick silence built between them. Finally he spoke. “So why’d you leave the hospital without waiting for me?”


“I don’t know. I wanted to get out of there and I didn’t want to deal with us or questions about anything really.”


Swallowing back fear of rejection, he reached across the table and touched his fingers to hers. When she didn’t pull away, he threaded them together. “Why are you pushing me out of your life?”


“Reality, Braden. What real chance do we have together? I don’t live here. You’re tied to Hudson Bay. I don’t plan to quit my job anytime soon and I know you don’t either. I’m going to be dealing with what happened for a while—we both are. I mean, good Lord, you killed your brother, Braden. If what we had was a fling while I was in town then we just need to cut the cord right now. I can’t be around you knowing there’s no future. It hurts too damn much. The first time I left almost killed me, Braden.” The words poured from her like machine gun fire.


He stared at her incredulously as he digested all she’d admitted to him. A harsh laugh escaped. “A fling? You really are out of your mind if you think that. I don’t want you to quit your job but that doesn’t mean we can’t make this work.”


“Well, there’s something else I didn’t tell you. I’m an agent, Braden, not an analyst. I travel the world in an undercover capacity. It’s not always dangerous but often it is. The past year I haven’t done anything big because of all my therapy but sometimes I have to leave at a moment’s notice and it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be able to tell you what I’m doing or where I’m going.”


“I know.”


“What do you mean, ‘I know’?”


He shrugged. “I didn’t know for sure, but considering the way you handle a weapon and some of the training you mentioned, I had a fairly good idea there was more to your job than you let on.”


“That doesn’t disregard the fact that you shot your own brother for me.”


“Is that your only argument?”


“Isn’t that enough? What’s wrong with you, why do you want to be with me?”


“I think that much should be obvious. I want forever from you, Lilly. But I’m willing to take things slow.” Not too slow, but he didn’t voice that.


“Really?” Her green eyes flared with something he couldn’t put his finger on, but it gave him hope.


“Hell yes. We’ve got a decade to make up for.”


At his words, her expression darkened. “Vanessa told me your brother was being cremated.”


He slightly straightened at the abrupt change of subject. “Yeah. I couldn’t bear to put him in the family plot. Not after…” He shook his head, unable to continue.


Braden didn’t know that he’d ever get over knowing he was related to such a monster. Part of him felt guilty for not being sorry James was dead. Maybe that meant something was wrong with him but he couldn’t dredge up even a little remorse. The man had raped and killed too many women. Some they might not ever know about. Not to mention he’d almost raped and killed the woman Braden loved. When he thought about the families James had destroyed, rage flowed through him.


In a surprising move, Lilly scooted her chair around the table so that their knees were touching. Electricity hummed through him at the brief contact. He’d been busier than he could ever remember being over the last two days but he’d missed her something fierce. Her absence had made his feelings for her absolutely clear. He loved her. No doubt about it. Now he needed to convince her of that.


“Did you ever figure out why…well, why?” Her question was strangled.


She didn’t have to explain because he understood. “Sort of. He kept a diary. Mainly ranting about how unfair the world was but he also kept detailed accounts of his killings.” There were more murdered women than Braden had originally thought and according to James he actually had killed Abby Murphy—he’d just been interrupted which was why she hadn’t been burned with the cattle prod—but he left that part out for now. “You were mentioned throughout it. So was I. We’ve got a profiler analyzing it, but from what we’ve gathered so far, he was delusional. They also think he might have been a sociopath. James hated me for being the ‘golden boy’ as he referred to me, and he somehow imagined you’d rejected him in favor of me. His delusions and anger got worse as he grew older, but the trigger for his rage seems to have been when he was raped in military school. You became the focus of a lot of his rage and over the years it built until you became this fantasy woman he needed to destroy. It sounds like he would have come after you sooner, but it was almost impossible to track you down. And not that we have any doubts it was him, but we also got the DNA results back from the sealed juvenile file we were waiting on and…it was definitely him.”


Lilly pressed a hand to her abdomen. “What about Greg Murphy? I heard he was still in custody.”


“He was more involved than he originally let on. He tried to play dumb, but it turns out he’d been in touch with James. My brother wanted Murphy’s help, but Murphy turned him down. James was trying to blackmail him for something they did over a decade ago, but from the sound of it, Murphy told him to shove it. As far as we know, he wasn’t involved in any of the killings, but we could uncover more so I’m not writing him off as a suspect.”


“What was James trying to blackmail him for?” She shivered as she said his name and Braden wondered if it was involuntary.


“Don’t know. Yet.” But he planned to find out.


She frowned. “What about those pictures of me at his house? James told me that he’d taken them. Was Murphy involved?”


“So far it looks like they were all planted by James. So were the plane tickets. He just wanted to keep us chasing our tails. I don’t think he really cared if Murphy was blamed. He was just a distraction.”


“What a mess,” she muttered.


“You said it.” Sifting through all the evidence was turning into a nightmare of paperwork. Not that he minded. Lilly was safe and that was all that mattered.


She grabbed one of his hands and squeezed. “I know I said it but thank you for saving my life.”


“You don’t ever have to thank me for something like that.”


She bit her bottom lip and he worried about what she was going to say next. “How are you doing with everything? I mean…I know James was a monster but he was still your brother.”


“The brother I thought I had is dead.” His throat squeezed as he looked into her worried eyes. He’d almost lost her and that’s all he cared about. Dwelling on his dead brother was pointless. He wished James had died in that plane crash. Even thinking about all the evil his brother had committed made him sick. “Come here.” Taking her off guard, he grabbed her by the waist and tugged her so that she was sitting in his lap.


“What are you doing?” she murmured, even as she wrapped an arm around his neck and laid her head against his shoulder.


“Touching you. Making sure you’re real.” He inhaled her sweet scent and clutched onto her, afraid if he let her go she’d disappear. After all that had happened, he couldn’t take her leaving.


“I’m real all right.” Her words tickled his neck.


He tightened his hold, wishing he could absorb her into his skin. “You can’t shut me out of your life anymore. I won’t let you.”


A light sigh escaped. “I know.”


“I was serious when I said I wanted to make a go of this. I’ll come see you when I can and maybe you can fly here some weekends. People make long distance relationships work every day.” He increased his grip around her, hoping he wasn’t setting himself up for a huge disappointment. The last couple days had been hard. For all he knew she wanted to put this behind her and leave every part of her old life in the dust, him included.


“I really am sorry I shut you out. I didn’t know another way to deal with all this,” she said quietly. Before he could respond she shifted so that she was facing him. “We’ll also have a whole month together before I leave.”


“Are you saying you want to…”


A soft, almost reserved smile touched her lips. “If you’re willing, I want to see where this thing between us will go.”


“I love you, Lilly. It might sound cheesy but when I thought I might lose you, my biggest regret was that I’d never get to tell you.”


Wordlessly, she touched her lips to his. They were soft, inviting and everything he fantasized about. As her tongue stroked against his in gentle, erotic strokes, a shudder of need rolled through him. He savored her taste and was ready to draw her into his arms when she pulled back. For a split second his heart squeezed at the sudden loss.


Then she said, “I love you too. Don’t think I ever stopped.”


Epilogue


Six months later


Lilly shut the front door of Braden’s house behind her with a bang. “Hello?” When no one responded, she let go of her suitcase and took a few steps into the foyer. “Braden? Where are you?”


“I’m in the kitchen!” His voice trailed down the hall to the foyer.


Slipping off her shoes and blazer, she dropped her purse next to her bag and went in search of him.


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