Authors: Melinda Leigh
ALSO BY MELINDA LEIGH
She Can Run
She Can Tell
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Copyright © 2013 Melinda Leigh
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance
PO Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
Library of Congress Catalog Number: 2013908423
To Annie, for making sure I came up for air now and then.
Monday, October 21st, 6:10 p.m.
Stalking used to be harder.
He read the display on his phone: O
FF 4 MY RUN!
Thank you, social media, for a generation of young women compelled to report their every movement to the world. Though it felt vaguely like cheating, a player who maintained a demanding career and hobby appreciated the amount of information willingly floated in cyberspace. There was only so much time in a day.
He set his phone on his thigh, picked up his binoculars, and adjusted the focus. A dead leaf drifted from the red maple branches above his car and landed on his windshield. At the other end of the street, Madison Thorpe exited her parents’ bi-level house. She stepped out onto the stoop in between a pair of carved pumpkins.
Right on schedule.
Would she change her routine as winter approached and darkness fell earlier each day? He wouldn’t take the chance. It had to be tonight. He was ready. For the last two months, he’d been watching and planning. Thanks to Maddie’s online accounting of her every movement, he knew where she would be at any hour of the day. On Monday nights, Maddie ran in the woods. She lived with her parents, but they had theater tickets for this evening.
No one would miss Maddie until midnight.
A thrill heated his blood and throbbed in his temples. Their moment had arrived.
She turned and locked the door before trotting down the walk. Skintight pants and a formfitting pullover highlighted her firm eighteen-year-old body. All that exercise certainly paid off. Yellow neon running shoes would be easy to spot in the deepening twilight. The sun had dropped behind the trees. Maddie had thirty minutes of half-light left in the day. But no matter how fast she ran tonight, she would not be home before darkness fell.
This was almost too easy.
The faint buzz stirred in his blood. She was perfect. He’d made the right selection from his virtual catalog. He’d observed and researched a number of young women. Maddie had outshone all the others, and she was going to be his next star. The buzz grew louder, increasing from the faint drone of bees over a meadow to the deafening roar of a jet engine. He turned the key in the ignition halfway and cracked his window a few inches. Fresh air flooded the car. But the chill did little to cool his excitement.
His diligent observation and planning was coming to fruition. He wanted to freeze this moment in time, this revelation that in just twenty short minutes, her life would, literally, be in his hands.
His fingers clenched, imagining the slender column of her throat under his thumbs, each beat of her heart occurring only because he allowed it, every breath drawn into her lungs at his discretion, her life his for the taking. Her terror, her humiliation, her pain would fill him with power, and before he was finished, he would take everything from her body and soul. One hand drifted toward his zipper, but he stopped himself.
He wiped his sweaty palms and cleared his head. He was getting ahead of tonight’s program. He needed to focus on the moment. Each step must be executed exactly as planned, every second of the night experienced to its full potential.
There wouldn’t be another for some time. At least a year. His primary rule: one annual kill, like a deer hunter procures a seasonal doe permit. He was already breaking another important rule this evening by hunting so close to the northeastern Pennsylvania mountain town that he called home. But what fun it was going to be to watch the fallout around him instead of from a discrete distance.
Maddie stood on the uneven sidewalk for a few seconds, inserting her earbuds, selecting music on her iPod, and stretching her calves. Then she jogged off toward the footpath that led to her favorite trail. Her brown ponytail swished in rhythm with her toned thighs. Those bright sneakers arcing like beacons in the darkness.
His Maddie was routine oriented. He loved that about her.
There was no need to follow her. He knew exactly where she was going. The development of twenty-year-old homes backed up against township green acres that had been a working farm many years ago. For the next thirty minutes, she would jog on the rough trail that looped its perimeter. He glanced at his watch. Soon she would run through the wooded portion of her route, the location he’d chosen as their rendezvous point.
All he needed was the next quarter of an hour to proceed as usual.
He pulled away from the curb and drove out of the complex. A half mile down the road, he turned into an unmarked vehicle entrance. At the rear of the empty gravel parking lot, his tires crunched on the narrow dirt lane that continued past a retention
pond. In the winter, the community used its frozen surface for ice-skating and hockey games, but the rest of the year, the area didn’t get much use. He parked behind a clump of trees, where no one would see his car. The trail was just ahead. Maddie was slender, but dead weight was difficult to carry. He didn’t want to work harder than necessary.
No point expending his energy when he had a whole night of fun planned.
He got out of the car. A chilly, wood smoke–tinged breeze crossed his face. Though the month had been unseasonably warm, the temperature was dropping with the light. He donned black nylon athletic pants and zipped a similar jacket over his clothes. The baggy outer garments disguised both his clothing and his shape. The trees thickened. Evergreens mixed with the red and gold of turned leaves, as many underfoot as overhead. He patted his pockets to check his supplies, though he knew he had everything he needed. Plastic ties, gloves, ski mask, check. He pulled the knit ski mask out and tugged it over his head. The gloves went on next. He rolled his neck until it cracked, then loosened up his shoulders. The hunt was on.
He glanced at his phone. Maddie would be passing in just a few minutes. This was true open space, just woods and trees and grass. No soccer fields, no baseball diamonds, no dog park.
And like tonight, typically, no other people. He only needed a few minutes to subdue her and secure her in his vehicle.
He heard the crunch of dead leaves and the soft thuds of her shoes on the trail before he saw her. As she approached, he tucked his head down and moved into the shadows at the edge of the path. Coming from the lighter open area into the darker woods, Maddie wouldn’t see him. He knew because he’d checked
during the dry run he executed the previous night at precisely the same time. He was invisible.
There was no hesitation in her stride as she ran past. Overconfident. That was Maddie.
The buzz in his veins heated and rushed into his head. It had been a long time since his last kill, but if Christmas happened every day, it would lose its holiday luster.
A burst of adrenaline fueled his steps as he charged her. She turned. Her eyes went wide. He launched his body at her, but she stumbled backward just before contact. He fell short, landing on his knees in front of her. Her mouth opened, and she turned to run again. Her shrill scream pierced the cool air and echoed in the woods.
He caught her around the legs, tackling her to the ground. The impact with the earth cut off her scream. Her breath hissed from her lips.
He flipped her to her back, crawled on top of her, and pinned her body flat with his hips, then covered her mouth with a gloved hand. No more screaming. If people had heard, they would listen for another sound. When the noise wasn’t repeated, they’d go back to their business, perhaps attributing the wail to a feral cat. Such was human nature. Given the option, most people would choose to believe they’d heard nothing.
Fresh terror widened her eyes as she registered his excitement, now pressed hard against her belly. He whispered in her ear, “That’s right. Feel it, Maddie. There isn’t anything I can’t do to you.”
Her trembling body was soft under his—weak, feminine, helpless. He inhaled. The pungent scent of her fear overwhelmed the musty leaf smell of the forest floor. Flailing, she struggled,
the whites of her eyes shiny in the dim. He reveled in every useless slap of her hands. He’d waited a year for this moment. Every second was precious. But enough was enough. They needed to get moving in case someone had heard her cry.
But Maddie continued to fight with unexpected ferocity. She definitely wasn’t going to be too easy.
He sat up and straddled her. “Fighting will only make it worse.”
She bucked under him. His fingers found her throat and squeezed. Not too hard. He didn’t want to kill her. Not yet. Not until he was finished. She would not be permitted to die until he commanded it. He applied just enough pressure to choke the fight out of her.
Practice makes perfect.
He leaned close to her ear.
“If you’re quiet, I won’t kill you,” he lied. No matter what she did, he was going to kill her.