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Authors: Melinda Leigh

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BOOK: She Can Scream
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Wade opened the door. “I want to know everything.” Irritation clipped his tone.

Heat emanated from the open door, welcoming Brooke home. “Can I go inside first?” After the violence of the evening, she needed to see her children, safe and sound. Wade moved back. Chris was behind him in the hall. Pulling away from Luke’s supportive grasp, Brooke hobbled through the foyer. She hugged her son close. “Is Haley home?”

Chris patted her back. “Yeah, we got her.”

Her muscles sighed in relief, nervous energy sliding out of her bones and exhaustion taking its place. Brooke called up the stairs, “Haley?”

“What happened?” Chris pulled back. His entrance to high school this year had shortened his tolerance for hugs. Since the divorce, Chris had matured beyond his years. Guilt tugged at Brooke’s heart. Fourteen was too young to be the man of the house.

“If you get me a giant bag of ice, I’ll answer all your questions.” Brooke released her son, limped into the living room, and eased her butt onto her softest chair.

Luke faded back to lean against the wall, but Brooke could feel that intense green gaze still fixed on her. From across ten feet of hardwood, his attention heated her skin like the touch of his warm hand.

Chris slid the ottoman under her throbbing leg and fetched an ice pack. The cold barely made a dent in the heat radiating from her kneecap. Restless, Brooke shifted her position but couldn’t get comfortable.

Sunshine clattered over and rested her head in Brooke’s lap. She stroked the dog’s head. “I’m all right, sweetie.”

With an empathetic wag, the dog sank to the floor next to Brooke’s chair.

Footsteps pounded on the steps, and Haley rushed into the room. Her face was flushed with a jumble of emotions.

“Mom!” She threw her arms around Brooke’s neck. “Did you really save a girl from a rapist tonight?”

Brooke rested her temple against her daughter’s head, taking another moment to be grateful that her children were safe. “How did you hear about it?”

Haley released her grip and perched on the edge of the ottoman. “Shannon’s mother’s sister works at the hospital.”

“The police haven’t caught him yet. Until they do, we’re all going to be extra careful.” Brooke looked from one child to the other, fear for them wrapping around her heart. “Neither of you goes anywhere alone. Promise me.”

“OK,” they said in unison.

“But you’re all right?” Haley eyed Brooke’s chin. “He didn’t hurt you?”

Brooke adjusted her ice pack. “No. I tripped and face-planted on the ground. He was long gone.”

Chris leaned down and gave her a one-armed hug. “I’m glad you’re OK. Do you want anything before I go upstairs to finish my biology homework?”

“No, thanks.” She squeezed his hand.

“I have to go take a shower.” Haley followed her brother upstairs.

After the kids disappeared, Wade took a seat across from her. “Tell me everything.”

Recounting the details of the night’s events gave Brooke an icy ball in the pit of her stomach, as if she’d sucked down a giant Slurpee in one gulp.

“That guy could have killed you.” Wade jumped to his feet and paced the room. “You should have let the police handle it instead of rushing into the woods.”

“If I had hesitated, that girl wouldn’t be alive right now.” All the air whooshed out of Brooke’s lungs and latent panic flooded in. She could still feel the malice and murderous intent emanating from Maddie’s attacker. “I can’t believe he got away. He’ll do it again.”

Wade shook his head. “You don’t know that.”

“Sexual predators reoffend. That’s a fact.” Brooke had been studying violent sex offenders and their crimes for years in order to arm her self-defense students with the best possible information. When these girls left the protection of their rural community, they’d be prepared in a way that Brooke and Karen hadn’t been. “Do you really think I should have ignored her scream for help?”

“No, of course not.” Wade dropped his chin. “But you can’t save everyone. I know you’re stuck on what happened to Karen, but it wasn’t your fault.”

Wasn’t it?

Brooke wrapped her arms around her middle. All these years later, the scene was as real as if she stood there tonight. The sheet peeled down to reveal her friend’s battered face and body. The milky glaze of Karen’s eyes. The smell of blood and death overpowering the scent of dryer sheets and damp, vented air in the basement laundry. Pressure built behind her breastbone. She hugged herself tighter, holding it all inside, using the pain in her knee as an anchor to the present.

Wade walked up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder. “I worry about you.”

“I worry about you too. I wish you weren’t going back to Afghanistan.”

Wade scratched his head. “I’m being deployed, Brooke. It’s not a choice.”

Brooke lowered her voice. “You re-upped with the reserve last year. You didn’t have to.” Worry, anger, and fear compounded in her chest until the force restricted her lungs.

“I’m sorry, Wade. I’m proud of you.” A hefty dose of guilt added to the mix. She shouldn’t make Wade feel bad about serving his country.

“Thanks.” Wade sighed. “Please be careful while I’m gone. Keep the heroics to a minimum.”

“I will if you will.” Seeking comfort, she reached down to rest a hand on Sunshine’s head. The dog’s tail thumped twice on the hardwood.

“Deal.”

The phone rang, startling them both.

“I’ll get it.” Wade turned away from her. “No. She isn’t available for a comment. I’ll give her the message.” He returned to the living room. Worry tightened his jaw to nutcracker. “That was a reporter for
Action-Packed News.
They want an interview.”

“That was fast.” Brooke rested her head back in the chair and stroked the old dog’s head.

“If the media got your name and number that fast, anyone could.” Wade paced. “I wish I wasn’t leaving in the morning.”

“Me too.” As independent as she wanted to be, she was grateful to have her brother in the house tonight.

“Luke and I will get your car.”

Brooke glanced at Luke, leaning on the wall, watching her. “The policeman said he’d have someone drop off my car.”

“Are you sure?” Wade’s forehead furrowed. “It might sit in the lot all night.”

“I can live without it,” Brooke protested. It felt stupid and weak, but she didn’t want to be alone right now. “I can’t drive with this knee anyway.”

“OK,” Wade said.

“If you don’t need anything else, I’m going to get going.” Luke pushed off the wall.

“Thanks for helping.” Wade moved toward the front door. “I’ll walk you out.” He glanced back at Brooke.

Luke followed him out onto the porch. Through the living room window, Brooke watched them confer.

Despite the fever in her knee, a shiver sprinted through her body. Putting aside the ice, she limped to the kitchen for a couple of ibuprofen. Pain or no pain, though, she was going to be up all night.

In fact, she might never close her eyes again.

CHAPTER FIVE

He drove his car into his two-car garage and closed the overhead door, just as he would have done had his trip been a success. Luckily for him, his plan had included a quick getaway. Shedding his outer garments was all that was necessary to blend in. With the plastic bag containing his cover clothes tucked under his arm and a fast food sack in hand, he went inside. The basement door, the darkness, and the deeds he’d been anticipating beckoned.

His wrist stung. He set the bags down and pushed up his sleeve. Blood welled from three scratches just below where his glove had ended. Tree limb or Maddie’s nails? There was a big difference between the consequences. He went to the sink and lathered up. As the soap burned the cuts, anger raged through his body. Never in all the years he’d indulged his
needs
had his plans been interrupted. Never had he left DNA behind. Never had he left a scene without the proper staging.

Tonight marked the end of his winning streak.

All because of
her
.

He applied antibacterial ointment and a flesh-toned Band-Aid, then rolled his sleeve back down over it. He grabbed his plastic bag and went into the basement. To the left was his carefully prepared workspace, empty and unused. Plastic sheeting crinkled underfoot as he crossed the space to the right. The cinder block wall was lined with storage containers. He knelt on the dirt floor in front of one and spun the numbers on the lock to the
correct combination. Inside, he stashed his equipment bag, checking to make sure he hadn’t dropped anything. Pants, jacket, ski mask. His lucky gloves were damp with blood, but they’d been stained with the blood of victims long before tonight. Guess they weren’t quite so lucky anymore.

Not that it mattered. She hadn’t seen his face. DNA was only a problem if he became a suspect.

He paused before closing the lid. Reaching into the bag, he rooted though the pockets for Maddie’s earrings. He held one up by the post. A delicate silver music note dangled from his fingertips. His fist curled around it until the sharp points dug into his palm.

His gaze lingered on the other containers. If all had gone according to plan, he would have had new memories to catalog and store tonight. While he was at it, he would have taken some time to relive the evening—and to relish the hunts of past victims and sort through all the things that reminded him of their last, terror-drenched moments at his hands.

But his evening was spoiled. He’d failed.

He turned away from the bins. He couldn’t look at his other keepsakes. How had this happened? He debated folding up the plastic sheets and returning them to their shelf. Hunger roiled in his belly. It was an appetite that would never be satisfied with food.

No. He wouldn’t give up yet. He had needs he wouldn’t be able to ignore for long. Unsatisfied, they might run unchecked. He was disciplined, but even his stringent self-control had limits. No matter how long a tiger is kept in a zoo, its predatory instincts cannot be contained. Given the opportunity, even a well-fed cat will kill. The need to hunt is ingrained in the beast’s genetic code, imprinted into its brain stem.

Some creatures are programmed to kill.

Averting his eyes from his sturdy worktable, he returned to the main level and turned on the small TV in the kitchen. Tonight’s event would be a big deal in the tiny, no-news town. Standing in front of the screen, he flipped to a major network. A female reporter stood in the parking lot of the Coopersfield Community Center. The words
BREAKING NEWS
scrolled across the screen.

The center was supposed to be closed before his hunt. He’d checked. The reporter summarized the incident. No accurate description. No clues. No leads.

Small favors, he supposed. He’d survived to try again, and try again he would. He was nothing if not determined.

Patience was one of the only virtues he possessed. Maddie would be his eventually. She bore some of the blame for his ruined night. If she hadn’t struggled so hard, if she’d obeyed when he told her to shut up and be still, they would have been off the trail by the time the cavalry arrived.

The bag of greasy food called to him. He ripped it open on the counter. Next to it he opened his laptop. After it booted up, he signed in to the app that controlled all the social media pages under his secret identity, the profile of a nineteen-year-old man he’d established with careful attention to detail. Photos, hobbies, and a few expectedly inane updates provided his alter ego with a believable background. So far, very few young women had refused his virtual friendship.

He bit into the hamburger, his consolation prize. The tastes of meat and cheese, pickles and ketchup, exploded on his tongue. Tonight he’d indulge in some comfort food to make up for the evening’s disappointment. But the meal was no more satisfying than a toaster to a game show contestant who pined for a Hawaiian vacation.

Tomorrow he’d return to his normal routine. He’d adhere to the diet and exercise plan that had helped keep him stalking fit. Considering the sprint speed he’d needed this evening, it was obviously an important part of his lifestyle, and yet more evidence that proper preparation would address any surprises. No plan was perfect. The actions of others could not be predicted in every circumstance.

Maddie wasn’t the only one who was going to pay. Someone else owed him an exciting evening, a slightly older brunette who’d ruined his fun.

He thought back to another woman who’d stripped away his control. Even all these years later, those memories stained any reminiscence of his childhood. Never again would he be that powerless.

“What are you doing?”

He paused. His older sister, Ellie, stood in the doorway.

“Put that down.”

But he brought the hammer down one more time on the worn vinyl. The tiny bathroom in their rented trailer smelled funny. It wasn’t as nice as the house he’d shared with his parents before they’d died. They’d had a whole house, with a yard and trees and a creek out back. He’d had to change kindergarten classes too. Not that he’d had many friends in his old school, but the classroom had been nicer.

Ellie snatched the hammer from his grip. She stared down at the damage. “Oh my God, you smashed it.”

She grabbed him by the back of the collar and hauled him onto his feet. He dangled. The toes of his sneakers skimmed the floor.

“Look, I’m sorry that Mom and Dad died and that you’re stuck with me. Trust me, waitressing and supporting you wasn’t m
y plan either. But I’d better not ever see you doing anything like this again.” Ellie have him a quick shake, like a terrier shakes a rat, then dropped him. His teeth snapped together and rattled his head. She pinched the back of his neck. Anger tightened her grip. “Get out of here while I clean this up. Supper’s in an hour.”

She was a grown-up and he was just a kid. The shove sent him out the door into the cramped aisle that ran between the kitchen and the bedroom. He knocked into the wall. His elbow hit the paneling and a jolt of pain zinged through his arm.

He opened the squeaky screen door and went outside. It closed behind him with a
thwack
. A few dead leaves gathered on the steps. Rubbing his elbow, he sat down. The yard was a patch of dirt between their trailer and the next. No creek full of frogs here. Just weeds and rusted metal.

BOOK: She Can Scream
12.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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