Artist Aurora Harper is convinced she’s witnessed a crime—a murder so brutal she’s repressed the memories, only to paint the scene by the light of the moon. Now she needs her new neighbor, Detective Levi Reid, to help her track down the victim—and the killer. Levi’s dealing with his own memory issues, but one thing he knows for sure: Harper is meant to be his, and nothing can take her away from him—not in this life…and not in death.
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THE WOMAN LAY naked atop a cold slab of metal, her wrists cuffed above her head, her legs shackled apart. Frigid air that smelled of blood and disinfectant had turned her skin into a layer of ice over muscle too weak to even tremble. Determination to escape had drained out of her after the thousandth attempt, though the tears she’d shed forever ago were still crystallized on her cheeks.
This was it for her, she thought. The last day of her life. Sadly, there would be no changing course. The ship had already sailed and the storm had already begun.
She hadn’t asked for this, certainly hadn’t wanted it, but she’d gotten it. Now all she could do was fight. And she would. With every ounce of her strength, she would.
A muffled mewling sound echoed somewhere beyond her.
Though she was bound too tightly to twist and look, she knew her replacement had just woken up and realized she was locked inside a dog cage, only a metal slab and another female’s shame visible. She knew—because she had once been locked inside that cage herself.
She had been forced to watch as the psycho who’d stunned her and stuffed her inside of his car had finished off the other woman who’d been on this slab. The one before her, now dead, killed in the most horrendous way.
“Do yourself a favor and shut up,” she told the girl. Now wasn’t a time for gentleness. “It’s better to remain silent than to give him what he wants—and he wants you to cry. He wants you to scream and beg and tell him how badly it hurts.”
The mewls increased in volume.
“Or continue doing that and make him the happiest murderer in the world,” she added with a grumble.
The thump of booted footsteps suddenly filled the room. Her heartbeat spiked into a too hard, too fast beat. One second passed, two, before the hinges on the room’s only door groaned. Sickness churned in her stomach.
He was here.
Was she really going to do this?
“Good morning, my lovelies.” Such a smug tone, layered with threads of glee and malicious intent. “How are we feeling today?”
Yeah. She was.
Cries emerged from the cage as she said, “I’m feeling like it’d be fun to do a role reversal with you. What do you think? You on this bed, me with a low IQ, a tiny penis and—stop me if I’m wrong—big-time mommy issues.”
A hiss of breath slithered in her direction. “You will never mention my mother again, do you hear me?” Anger had replaced the smugness, knives and other toys clanging together as he searched for the instrument he desired.
“If by ‘never mention again’ you mean ‘never stop talking about it,’ then, yeah, I heard. So, why don’t you pretend I’m your therapist and this is a free-of-charge session?”
Hardly. “Tell me. Did Mommy Dearest not breast-feed you? Or did she breast-feed you far too long?”
A heavy silence crawled through the small enclosure.
Dig the knife deeper—he soon will. “Come on, you can trust me. I’ll keep everything on the down low, and only bring up your deep, dark secrets on my blog. Well, and maybe my Twitter feed. Oh, and Facebook. Possibly a video diary on YouTube. Other than that, my lips are sealed.”
The metal crashed together with more force. At last he found what he wanted—an eight-inch serrated blade. Holding it up so that the silver gleamed in the too bright overhead light, he turned to face her, a half grin, half scowl lifting the corners of his lips.
“Darling,” he said to the other captive, pretending to ignore her. He couldn’t hide the clenching of his teeth. “You’ll want to pay special attention to what happens next because if you displease me, you’ll experience it yourself.”
The cries became muffled whimpers, the cage rattling as the female tried to slink through the bars.
Never again will I give him that kind of satisfaction. “Oh, goodness, oh, no,” she said, mocking him. “The psycho killer has a knife. Someone cue the spooky music and my terrified screaming.”
His narrowed gaze landed on her, and he waved the blade back and forth, back and forth. “Have you not yet realized the beast you provoke?”
“Uh, hello. Obviously I have. He’s as tiny as the rest of you, which is why I’m grinning.”
He popped his jaw. He wasn’t an ugly man, was actually quite beautiful, with golden curls, eyes of the sweetest honey and features as innocent and guileless as a child’s.
Such a cruel, cruel mask.
When she’d first woken up in that cage she’d thought he was here to save her. A notion quickly disabused as he hauled her out, cut away her clothing and laughed with chilling delight.
“I can make this painless…or excruciatingly painful. Watch yourself,” he snapped.
“Did I hurt your feelings?” she said. “Bad prisoner. Bad, bad, bad prisoner.”
Steps slow and measured, he approached her. “Think you’re so brave? Well, let’s see what I can do to change your mind, shall we? I know you can’t see her, but the girl in the cage is—drumroll, please—your only real friend. You remember her, don’t you? Of course you do. She’s the pretty one.”
The first spark of heat ignited in her chest as she craned her neck to try to peer into the cage, but again, as tightly bound as she was, she was unable to contort herself as needed. She saw only the wall of pictures. Photos he’d taken of the other females he’d violated.
Tomorrow, her image would join them.
“You’re lying, trying to hurt me because you’re a miserable little runt whose heart has rotted and you can’t find any other way to get to me.”
Hatred flared in his eyes, creating deep, dark pits of evil. “You think so? Well, why don’t you ask the girl and find out whether or not I spoke true.”
Her fingers curled into fists. He wasn’t lying. Was he? A liar would not appear so satisfied. Would he? “Say something,” she commanded the girl.
His smug chuckle resounded between them. “My deepest apologies, but she’ll not be saying anything. She’s mouthy, your friend. You know she is. I’m afraid I was forced to cut out her tongue.”
Another spark of heat, this one containing fiery strands of rage. Growing…growing… Her friend was mouthy, and this man was vile enough to take her—and just cruel enough to stop her from ever speaking again. Anything to add to the torment he’d already unleashed.
How dare he abduct her friend! How dare he force such a precious girl to endure the horrors he’d visited upon her! Growing…growing…
“You sick, disgusting…argh!” she rasped, jerking at her cuffs. No description was foul enough. “I’ll end you. You’ll never be able to hurt her again. Just wait… I’ll…end…you.” Don’t cry. Don’t you dare cry. But she was having trouble catching her breath, forming words.
With his free hand, he stroked along her brow, his touch gentle, almost tender. “You’ve always thought yourself stronger than you really are. It’s your biggest flaw. One I’ll enjoy culling from you.”
She tried to bite him.
He laughed. “I can’t wait to show my newest plaything pictures of our time together. Think she’ll be jealous?”
The rage spread through the rest of her, burning, blistering, causing any hint of tears to evaporate. “You can kill me, but I’m staying here, I promise you.” There was her voice, stronger than before, dripping with determination.
He quirked an eyebrow in mock fear. “Oh, scary. And just how will you manage that, hmm?”
“I’ll find a way. There’s always a way, and good always overcomes evil.”
“So certain,” he said, and tsked under his tongue. “I’ve heard a strong spirit can prove victorious against anything, even death, but, darling, as I’ve tried and tried and tried to tell you, you aren’t very strong.”
“We’ll find out.” An accepted fact in their world: there was indeed an afterlife. Some people moved on to a better place. Some, to a worse place. But she wasn’t going anywhere until her friend was safe.
“Well, I hope you’re right. Just think, if you remain here on earth, we can be together again.” He raised the blade, grinned—and plunged the metal deep.
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