According to Debra, her niece had called her multiple times a week no matter how busy she was. Debra Carmichael’s travels were analyzed and gossiped about by all the older women of the town. He’d checked in on her a couple times a week. Partly because she was related to Lilly, but mainly because he’d loved her too.

Everyone had.

Lilly crinkled her nose as they stepped inside. He was used to it, but the place had a unique, sterile smell, even in the lobby. Formaldehyde and ammonia seemed to seep into every crack in the building.

“Good morning, Sheriff.” Ann Scott, the dark haired receptionist, smiled when she saw him. “What can I do for you?”

“We’re here to sign off on Debra Carmichael.” He hated the crassness of the words, but there was no other way around it.

Ann’s eyes softened as she looked at Lilly. “You’re Debra’s niece?”

“Yes.” Lilly nodded.

“I’m really sorry about what happened. Everyone around here is going to miss her.”

Again, Lilly nodded, but didn’t speak so Braden cut Ann off before she could smother Lilly with more sympathy. Ann meant well, but she’d talk the ear off a horse if he let her. “We’re going to head back. I’ve got my card.” He held up his keycard and motioned for Lilly to follow him around the desk.

The door buzzed and opened as he scanned the card to let them in. The building was old, and most of it was unused, but thanks to a wealthy benefactor, the security system was better than usual for most small towns.

“You don’t have to see her, Lilly,” he murmured as they stopped in front of the morgue door.

Her eyes were bright with unshed tears. “I know. It’s just…I think it’s finally hitting me that she’s gone. Gone. I don’t have anyone…” Her voice broke, and he had to force himself not to comfort her.

The annoying desire to hold her against his body again nearly overwhelmed him. He internally cursed at himself. He was the sheriff, not some randy teenager with his first crush.

“Let’s go in. I want to get this over with,” she murmured after a moment.

He knocked once, then entered without waiting for Hailey to respond. Half the time the coroner couldn’t hear him because she worked while listening to her MP3 player.

Hailey was bent over a body when they walked in.

“Hailey?” he shouted.

The coroner glanced up and though he couldn’t be sure because of her surgical mask, it looked like she smiled when she spotted Lilly.

After putting down her scalpel and taking out her earphones, she tugged off the mask and walked toward them with a bright smile. “Lilly. It’s so good—oh my God! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it was good that you’re here. It’s horrible that—I only meant—”

“It’s okay. I know what you meant.” Lilly cut her off with a wry smile.

Braden cringed at Hailey’s brash manner. He was used to her, but he’d forgotten how she acted around the living. The woman could dissect a body and eat spaghetti at the same time.

Hailey took a step closer. “I’m really sorry about your aunt.”

“Thank you. I guess I need to sign some paperwork so she can be cremated?” Lilly shoved her hands deep into her pockets.

“Well…” Hailey glanced back and forth between Lilly and Braden.

Lead settled inside him. He’d seen that look before and knew he wasn’t going to like whatever she had to say next.

“What?” he asked.

“With everything going on lately, I want to be sure about cause of death before I sign off on anything. I’ve got a couple of med students coming down from Campbell University and Duke tomorrow as part of a fellowship program and I’m going to let them take a look at…a few of the bodies.”

Braden frowned. “I thought they only came down in the summer.”

“They’re getting extra credit and extra practice by coming now. It’s a win-win for both of us. God knows I need the help.” She turned her gaze to Lilly. “If you’re uncomfortable with anyone else looking at your aunt, I understand.”

Her lips pulled into a thin line as her eyebrows furrowed together. “I’m a little confused. I thought my aunt fell down her stairs.”

Hailey shrugged. “As far as I know she did, but something about her head wound is bothering me. I want a second opinion.”

Lilly bit her bottom lip but nodded. “Do what you need to do.”

Hailey quickly refocused her attention back on Braden. “I need to show you something before you leave.”

Braden looked at Lilly, hating to keep her there any longer than necessary. “I’ll only be a sec, then we’ll get out of here.”

“Actually, I wouldn’t mind Lilly’s opinion on this too. Don’t move.” Without waiting for a response, Hailey strode past two tarp-covered bodies toward a desk in the far corner of the expansive room. Her shoes squeaked across the linoleum floor as she hurried back. She held a piece of paper to her chest, but didn’t turn it around. “Braden, I want Lilly’s opinion on this as an outsider. I want to see what she thinks this is so don’t say anything.”

“Fine,” he said.

Wordlessly, Lilly nodded.

Hailey flipped the paper over and held it out. It was a print out of a colored flower. A lily to be exact. And it looked eerily similar to the abstract carvings on their four victims. Not exactly the same, but the lines and shapes, minus the purple and green coloring, followed the exact pattern. He hadn’t realized what the carving was until this instant. Seeing it filled in with color made a complete difference.

His palms dampened as he stared at the picture. The possible significance hit him like lightning. A lily. “Where did you find this?” Braden asked.

“Online. Now shush.” Hailey didn’t even glance his way.

He opened his mouth to respond but Lilly frowned, then looked back and forth between them. “Is this some sort of joke? If it is, I don’t get it.”

“Joke? Does this look like anything to you?” Now it was Hailey’s turn to frown.

“Yeah, why do you have a drawing of my tattoo?”

Everything around Braden funneled out as her words registered. “Tattoo?” Somehow he managed to squeeze the word out.

Still frowning, she lifted up the bottom of her jacket and shirt and tugged the side of her jeans down to reveal a delicate, abstract tattoo on her hip. “Yeah, I got it in Japan a couple years ago. Why?”

Instead of responding, he looked at Hailey who had paled considerably. Obviously this wasn’t the reaction she’d been looking for. She’d just wanted Lilly’s opinion on the drawing.

Pieces of the puzzle came together so quickly he felt as if his brain would overload. He wasn’t the only link to the killer. Somehow Lilly was neck deep in this. She just didn’t know it. And Braden didn’t know how the hell to react. If anything happened to Lilly—he fought the painful jolt that erupted inside him as the image of Lilly stretched out on the coroner’s slab assaulted his mind. All those women had been raped and tortured and to think of Lilly suffering like that…He shuddered. Whatever had happened between them in the past, he didn’t care. He’d make it his mission in life to protect her.

Chapter 3

As a squad car drove past him, he scooted down a couple more inches in the seat of the truck he’d stolen. From his position in the parking lot next door, he had a perfect view of Mallory Spinoza’s yoga studio. It was early. Too early for her clients to have arrived yet.

Bad for her, but perfect for him. He glanced at his watch as her sporty red two-door car zoomed into the parking lot. Right on time. She always showed up two hours earlier than her first class of the day. Normally he preferred more time with his women, but he needed to find some sort of release before he took Lilly.

When he saw Mallory’s car door open, he got out of his truck. The neighboring parking lots were all linked behind the stores lining the main street, giving him the perfect cover.

“Mallory! Hey, you got a second?” He waved and jogged across the pavement. He kept his voice friendly.

She shut her door and hoisted a black duffel bag over her shoulder. Her dark ponytail swung slightly as her head tilted to the side. He knew she was wondering where she knew him from. Was racking her brain right now, trying to figure out if he was in one of her classes.

“Hi.” Placing a hand on his waist, he pretended to be out of breath when he reached her.

“Uh, hi…” She smiled, her toothpaste commercial teeth flashing brightly.

“You don’t remember me do you?”

She let out a self-deprecating chuckle. “No, I’m sorry. Are you in one of my classes?”

They were barely a foot apart. He grinned and in that moment before he struck, raw fear flared in her dark eyes. She might not even be aware of it, but the animal inside her recognized what he was.

He punched her once, on the side of the face. He’d tried drugging women before but he preferred this method. It ensured they experienced maximum pain when they finally gained consciousness. She fell against the side of her car and before she could think about struggling, he struck again. This time harder.

The flat part of his curled fist connected with her jaw. An almost inaudible cracking sound cut through the crisp air. Her slim body slid down the car and crumpled onto the pavement.

Blood rushed in his ears as it always did before he killed. He glanced around to find everything as it should be. He could hear cars zooming down the main road of town, but there were no signs of life behind her studio. This was almost too easy.

Hoisting her over his shoulder, he carried her toward the back of her building. Using the keys he found in her purse, he quickly locked them inside. No alarm sounded. But then, he already knew that it wouldn’t.

At thirty years old, Mallory was about a decade older than the women he normally preferred, but she still had a tight ass and perky tits. She was more than acceptable.