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What would have happened if she’d escaped? She would have been able to identify him. That couldn’t happen again.

But this one would be easier. He would keep it simple. A paralytic would keep her immobile long enough for him to transport her to his facility. He moved to the door and inserted his lock-picking tools. The mechanism gave after less than a minute. His practice was paying off.

He opened the door and slipped inside, then tugged the mask over his face. The small kitchen and living room were empty. He could hear someone in the bedroom, opening and closing drawers. He pulled the syringe from his pocket.

His blood hummed as he approached the bedroom door. Her footsteps sounded on the carpet. With two fingers, he eased the door open a few more inches and peered through the crack at the hinges.

She was searching through a dresser drawer, totally focused on her task. Rather than rush her, he waited.

Patience was important when hunting. A crocodile would lay submerged in the reeds for hours waiting for a gazelle to lower its head to the water for a drink.

She closed the drawer and turned away from the door. He held his breath, his thumb on the plunger. Pushing the door open, he pounced, sliding a hand around her face to cover her mouth and jabbing the needle into her thigh. Flailing, she reached for the lamp on the dresser. He depressed the plunger, then wrapped his other arm around her body to control her limbs. She froze, her body slowly going limp and collapsing to the floor. The lamp shattered on the thin carpet. A framed picture slid from the wall to the floor. Her fingers curled in the cord.

Success sent adrenaline coursing hot through his veins. He bound her hands and ankles with zip ties in case the drug wore off while she was in the trunk.

That had been almost too easy. The lack of challenge was almost disappointing. But he had to keep his eye on the prize. This was all just a means to an end.

He smoothed a piece of duct tape across her mouth. Rushing back to his car, he hefted the steamer trunk and hand truck from his trunk. The street was still empty. Returning to the apartment, he shoved her into the box, tucking her arms and legs in fetal-style. He turned off the lights and locked the door behind him. Everything must appear normal. Then he used the hand truck to cart her out to the car and hoisted the heavy chest into the trunk.

His baggy hoodie hid his face, and he’d obscured his license plate with mud in case anyone saw him. But no one would pay attention to a man loading a box into his car. The apartment buildings were surrounded by commercial properties, which were closed at this late hour, and the people who lived in her complex were the sort who minded their own business.

He slammed the trunk. Getting behind the wheel, he started the engine and drove toward home. Excitement buzzed though his whole body, almost like a mild version of the shock he’d given her.

She was going to be The One. He could feel the anticipation humming through his bones.

He could hardly wait to get started.

Chapter Twenty-Four

After dropping the envelope of cash at the forensics lab, Stella drove toward home but didn’t make the turn onto her street. Restlessness made her drive past. Despite her lack of sleep and skipped meals, frustrated energy buzzed under her skin. There was only one person she wanted to see.

Mac’s cabin’s lights blazed as she parked in front of his porch.

This was a terrible idea. He’d acted strangely at the crime scene. They’d found Dena Miller. Maybe he had no more interest in Stella. She should go home. Exhaustion and lack of food were impairing her judgment.

She reached for the gearshift, but he walked out onto his porch. His hair had reverted to its untamed state, making her want to run her hands through it, and the way his snug T-shirt hugged his lean torso stirred a hunger deep in her belly. She was not going home tonight. She wanted those strong arms around her. He could make her forget one of the worst days of her life.

Stella got out of the car.

Mac met her at the bottom of the steps. He didn’t say a word, just drew her to his chest and held her close. She leaned on him.

He rubbed her back.

Stella lifted her head and met his eyes. Her hands shook as she raised them to splay on his chest. He covered her fingers with his, his hands warming hers. The night was hot and humid. A storm lingered in the air but refused to break the heat wave. Atmospheric tension buzzed as loudly as the symphony of insects in the surrounding forest. It had to be eighty-five degrees. How could she be cold?

“Come inside.” He tucked her under one arm and guided her into his kitchen. “Have you eaten?”

Turmoil churned in her stomach. She shook her head. “I’m not hungry.”

“No wonder you look sick.” He filled a mug with water and put it in the microwave. Opening a cabinet, he took down a can, opened it, and poured the contents into a saucepan.

“He put her on display.” She wandered into his living room. The night air blowing through the screens chilled her skin. She didn’t see the cozy cabin in front of her. Her mind was replaying every detail of the horrifying scene she’d analyzed that afternoon.

He lit the burner under the pan. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”

“It’s my job.” She walked back into the kitchen. Her hands gripped the back of a chair, as if the weight of it would ground her.

“I know. But it’s still awful, and you’re human.”

Anger and frustration burned in her chest, and tears threatened. She blinked them back. “I have to find him.”

“I couldn’t see much from the parking area, but today’s scene sounds more elaborate than the first.”

“Yes. His ritual is getting more complicated.” She shivered.

“Why?” Mac pulled out a chair and guided her into it.

She rested her chin in her hand. “I don’t know yet. Spivak has a record of sexual assault. A perv doesn’t need a reason that you and I would understand. He just wants who he wants, whether she’s someone who looks like his mom or the first girl who spurned him. But the fact that Missy wasn’t raped nags at me. From the way he acted in the interview, my gut says Spivak would have sexually assaulted her.”

“You already said motivation is hard to predict. Maybe the torture is what drives him.” He set a bowl of soup in front of her. “Sorry. This is all I have on hand. I haven’t been grocery shopping.”

She ate without tasting, her mind occupied with the case.

She told him about Adam’s reaction, the press conference, and the cash she’d found in Missy’s apartment. “Everyone said Missy was broke. Where did she get over two thousand dollars? And why was it stashed under her floorboard? She had a bank account.”

“Are you sure the money is hers?

“I’ll have our fingerprint examiner see if she can pull any prints tomorrow.” Stella’s first stop of the morning would be the county forensics lab.

Mac set a cup of tea on the table. Leaning over her shoulder, he reached for her bowl. He smelled like the forest. She turned her face to his body and inhaled. “Were you outside?”

“For a while.”

“You smell like pine trees.”

His breath quickened, and he froze. “Is that good?”

Standing, she placed both hands on Mac’s arms. His biceps were hard under her touch. The wind blew across his kitchen, bringing the scent of trees and earth into the room.

“Very.” She rested her forehead on his chest and closed her eyes. “I don’t want to think about the case anymore tonight.”

“I don’t blame you.” His hand settled between her shoulder blades. “You’ve had a hell of a day. You need to take a break, even if it’s just a short one.”

Images of Dena’s body flashed in her head. She raised her eyelids. Mac’s bright-blue eyes studied her. Much better.

Something unfurled inside her. Want. Like a young moth testing new wings, desire opened and closed, indecisive. What did she want? She hadn’t had so much as a date since the shooting the previous November. Her focus had been on her career, and she hadn’t met a man who warranted her attention.

Or once she’d met Mac, she hadn’t met anyone as interesting. He was more than he appeared. Mac was layers of kindness and humor, intelligence and determination, vulnerability and courage. And he sparked a need inside her that could only be described as primitive. With him, she didn’t have to be perfect. She didn’t have to contain anything. She could let go.

Her fingers tightened on the solid flesh under them. “Will I scare you off if I say that I really want you right now?”

Mac coughed. “Sorry. You surprised me.”

She’d surprised herself. She took his hand in hers, turned, and tugged him toward his bedroom. He followed, then paused at the threshold. Her fingers found the top button of her blouse while her eyes roamed over him.

He crossed his arms and leaned on the doorjamb. Worn and soft, his T-shirt and cargos molded to his body. He was lean and hard without an ounce of bulk. She had no doubt he’d earned his body through hiking, climbing, and basic survival in the jungle, not pumping iron at a gym on his lunch hour. Underneath the subtle woodsy cologne, his scent was all male.

“You know I like talking to you. I’m in no rush to sleep with you.” He flushed. “Not that I don’t want you. I do.” His eyes brightened as her fingers lingered on the button. “I really do.” He licked his lips. “But you’ve had a horrific day. If you just need to talk, I can do that.”

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