“Yeah, it was a long time ago.” I cringe when she chooses the blue eye shadow and begins brushing it on. She doesn’t talk about her mom anymore, and I decide not to press her, but I do need to talk to Asher. How horrible for both of them.
When Casey is finishing up with me, the doorbell rings.
“That must be your uncle.”
“Oh man,” she whines and hops down from the counter. “Can’t I just stay with you?”
“Your dad wants you to go hang out with your uncle.”
I open the door to find a man that looks almost exactly like Asher in my doorway, with a beautiful woman at his side.
“Hi. I’m Mike.”
“Lila.” I shake his hand and invite them in.
“This is my wife, Fran.”
“Why can’t I stay with Lila?” Casey whines. “We are having a girls’ day.”
“Your daddy doesn’t know how long he’s going to be at work today,” Fran says with a smile. “You look beautiful.” She glances up at me. “I think Casey got the better end of this deal.”
“She did good,” I reply with a laugh. “Here, let’s send a selfie to your dad.”
I pull my phone out of my pocket, snap a photo of the two of us, and text it to Asher.
“We’re going to go pack your bag, munchkin. You’re gonna stay with us tonight,” Fran says.
“Sleepover!” Casey exclaims. “You should come too, Lila!”
“I have work,” I reply. “But maybe I’ll see you again soon.”
“Thanks for keeping her,” Mike says with a grin. “Asher said he’ll come over here when he’s done. Lock your door.” His face sobers and he pins me in a I’m an authority figure and you’ll do what I say look.
“Let me guess, you’re a cop too?”
“I will lock the door. I will not let anyone in unless they have the password and know the secret handshake.”
“You’re a smart ass,” Fran says with a smile. “I like you.”
* * * *
I can’t run. Why can’t I run? I can hear someone coming for me, and it’s dark, and I have to run, but my feet won’t move. Heavy breathing is getting closer. I’m sweating, and trying to scream, but no sound comes out. Suddenly, it occurs to me that it’s a dream. Wake up!
Banging on my front door finally rips me from the nightmare. I sit up, my heart racing, eyes searching the room, and realize I must have fallen asleep on the couch.
“Lila!” More banging. I check my phone to find three missed texts and a missed call, all from Asher.
I pull the door open and am immediately tugged against him, his arms wrapped tightly around me and his face buried in my neck. He walks us inside and kicks the door closed, all without loosening his grip.
“Hey,” I croon and hold on just as tight. He needs this. I can feel it. “Asher, are you okay?”
“I just need a minute.” He takes a deep breath, and suddenly I’m in his arms and he’s carrying me to the couch. He sits, with me in his lap, and continues to hold on tight.
“You’re kind of scaring me,” I whisper. My fingers brush through the soft, thick hair at the back of his head soothingly.
“I just want to hold you for a minute,” he whispers. God, he’s strong, and solid and…safe. His big hands rub up and down my back, as if he’s reassuring himself that I’m here. His breathing is choppy. “We need to talk.”
“Yes, we do.” We so do.
“Are you okay?” He pushes me away, just far enough to look in my eyes. He brushes my hair away from my cheeks, his eyes worried.
“You didn’t answer me. My texts or call.”
“I fell asleep.” I cup his face in my hands. “I just fell asleep.”
He closes his eyes and takes a long, deep breath, and when he opens his eyes again, he’s more in control now. “Was Casey okay? Did she give you any problems?”
“Casey is amazing,” I reply truthfully and see his eyes soften with love and affection for his daughter. “I loved having her here.”
He nods and holds on tight when I try to shift away, off of his lap.
“Stay here, please.”
“Okay.” I frown and watch him. His eyes are tired.
“Lila, there was another murder.” He swallows hard.
“Who?” I whisper, not really wanting to hear the answer.
“Oh.” The tears come, falling down my cheeks unnoticed. “Oh, she was such a good kid.”
“I know.” He frowns and looks down, and I know he’s not telling me everything.
“What else happened, Asher?”
“He’s getting more violent, Lila. I’m not going to give you details because I can’t, and because you don’t need that living in your head.”
Jesus, what did he do to her?
He grows quiet again.
He won’t meet my gaze. Finally, he closes his eyes and swears under his breath, then looks up at me with eyes that are tormented and scared as hell.
“And what, Asher?”
“And you’re a target.”
“What?” I shake my head. “That doesn’t make any sense. I’m not a student.”
“What I’m about to tell you is confidential. This hasn’t been released to the media.” He brushes my hair over my shoulder tenderly. “With each victim, the killer has left a note. Threats. He talks about wanting revenge. But he’s never specified a name before.”
“But he did this time.”
Asher nods and pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolds it, and shows it to me.
“This is a photocopy.”
I read the note and feel my blood run cold.
“Oh my God.”
I begin to shake and find myself caught up in Asher’s arms again. He’s rocking me now, holding me close. I can’t get close enough.
“Why?” I whisper. “Asher, I don’t understand. Oh my God! Those poor girls! They were all tortured and killed because of me?”
I pull out of his hold and stand, pacing the floor. I’m shaking. I can’t breathe.
“This is my fault.”
“Stop it, Lila. It’s not your fault.”
I whirl on him.
“He’s after me.” I shake my head wildly. “Who would do this?”
“Is there an ex out there somewhere that would want to hurt you?” He stands and takes my shoulders in his hands, rubs my arms firmly, trying to soothe me.
“I haven’t dated since I’ve been here,” I reply truthfully. “And I don’t have any skeletons in my closet. I’ve had boyfriends, but those relationships ended on decent terms. There are no weirdos in my background, just guys that it didn’t work out with.”
“We are going to catch this guy,” he promises me. He cups my face in his hands and looks deeply into my eyes. “I promise. Nothing is going to happen to you. I’m not going to lose you to this.”
I hug him tightly and his words hit home. I’m not going to lose you.
“Speaking of losing someone.” My voice is soft as I pull away. “Casey told me about her mom. I’m so sorry for your loss, Asher.”
His lips firm, but he doesn’t look sad or upset. He looks simply resigned.
“It’s been four years,” he says. “What did Casey tell you?”
“Just that she hadn’t had that much fun since her mom died.”
He nods. “I was investigating another serial murderer in Seattle at the time. He was an evil bastard.”
“Aren’t they all?” I ask dryly.
“Yes.” He brushes his fingertips down my cheek. He can’t stop touching me. “He decided to play with the police, specifically the men who were trying to find him.”
“No,” I whisper.
“He killed her. It was staged to look like a car accident, but he confessed later to making that accident happen. Missy died instantly.”
“Oh, Asher. I’m so sorry.”
“How do you tell a six-year-old that her mama isn’t coming home?” His voice is rough.
“How do you bury your young wife and raise your daughter alone?” The enormity of it hits me, and all I can think about is comforting him. Loving him.
I offer him my hand. “Come with me.”
He follows me silently into my bedroom. I lead him onto the bed, over the covers, our clothes still on, and snuggle up to him, holding him close.
“Is this your way of comforting me?” he asks. His lips tip up into a half-smile.
“It’s all I have,” I reply with a shrug. It’s more than I’ve ever offered to anyone else in my life.
I’m letting my walls down with this man, and as much as it scares me, I can’t stop.
“I’m okay, baby. It’s been a while. We’ve healed.”
“Yes, but I just found out, and I’m hurting for you, Asher.”
“God, you’re sweet.” He rolls me onto my back and kisses me softly, his hand resting on my jaw and neck. His lips are soft, sure. He teases me with his tongue as he eases his big body over mine and settles in to kiss the hell out of me.